By: J. Edward Hackett
On November 21st, a new philosophical institute will open its doors in Murphysboro, Illinois, and the inaugural event will be kicked off by Larry Hickman presenting a lecture on “Humanism, Humanities, and Technoscience.” Randall Auxier, professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University, has transformed part of his house to found the American Institute for Philosophical and Cultural Thought. I sat down with Randy to talk to him more about it.
EH: First, I’m glad to be talking with you again. We should make it clear that you know me and I know you very well (Randy was on my dissertation committee and I worked for him when he was Chief Editor of the Library of Living Philosophers book series)
RA: Yes, it's been a couple of years, though.
EH: It’s good to be talking to you, too again. Now onto the interview part, can you tell our readers what you envision the role of the American Institute for Philosophical and Cultural Thought to be?
RA: The humanities have been in decline. It doesn't appear that the new era of the university will have a large role for humanistic approaches to philosophy, and also the slow approach to humanistic learning is being sacrificed to expediency and other instrumental values in education. Our Institute is interested in making citizens, independent thinkers, people capable of appreciating and contributing to an elevated conversation, people who will grasp the intimate relations between beauty and goodness. We think that such citizens can't be grown in fore-ordained rows, but neither do they grow wild in the fields. Between too much repetition and the monoculture of mass society, and the uncultivated native forests, there is a meadow of experimentation and adaptation to the climate and conditions of creative citizenship. We set our Institute in this clearing, this time and place on the edge of the numbing sameness of mass society and the unpredictable destiny of life in its native setting.
RA: Not just Illinois, although what is happening here is a bellwether, or more precisely, a coal mine canary, for higher education anywhere and everywhere. Just because Illinois is the first to deliberately sabotage higher education doesn't mean it will be the last. We started work on this Institute well before the current governor was wrecking Illinois' higher education. But this situation, in which all public higher education is starved, has lent urgency to our project, and should help us serve as a model for what to do in other places.
EH: How might the AIPCT supplement the philosophy department at SIU and how might we envision their relationship going into the future?
RA: There is currently no relation between SIUC and the Institute. I see no reason there should be an official connection at this point. There is a complementarity between the holdings of the Morris Library and our mission in AIPCT, and researchers from all over the world are already accustomed to come here to do research in American thought, so I would expect our presence to enhance the motives researchers have. If the Dewey Center finally closes, as appears imminent, I think our presence will fill a great need left untended by the University. Even if the Dewey Center survives, it is already in such a diminished condition that it cannot do what it has done for the last fifty years, so our Institute is needed just to allow us to have a place to receive researchers and provide a humane space for their work. In the future perhaps there could be strong cooperation between SIUC and AIPCT, but at the moment we would be equally likely to develop programs with other universities.
EH: Have you filed to be recognized as a nonprofit?
RA: We have filed. The paperwork is in process.
EH: What are some of the more rare holdings of the AIPCT?
RA: We do have some very nice rare books and papers --John Dewey's copy of Bacon, William James's copy of Hegel's Encyclopedia, George Herbert Mead's German dictionaries, some manuscripts of Peirce, and that sort of thing. But we are specializing in materials that are not extremely rare right at the moment: American philosophy and cultural thought from 1923 to 2000. Libraries are discarding these books at an alarming rate. They are difficult to get in digital form due to copyright laws. We will do "good faith searches" for copyright holders and then digitize these books, placing them behind a nominal pay wall (a dollar or two). The pay wall is only to document use and to demonstrate what the government calls a "broad base of support" for our mission, which is required to maintain 501c3 status for institutions that move more than a small amount of money through their accounts in a year. The digitization is just one of our aims. We will also retain physical copies of these materials, so there is an archival mission as well. Naturally, in time, these materials will become rare.
EH: Have you had talks with others involved at the AIPCT about possible future events, and if so, what might we expect to see in the first year of operation?
RA: Oh certainly. We are planning all kinds of things. Our first on-site seminar will probably be in June. We already have our first resident fellow. We will probably be handling researchers as of the first of the year. There will be concerts, receptions, workshops, reading groups, on-line courses, and the like.
EH: Do you plan on archiving some of these events and maybe publishing proceedings of seminars, talks, and/or conferences ran by the institute?
RA: John Shook and I have a new book series, the SUNY Series in American Philosophy and Cultural Thought. There is no official connection with the Institute, but the mission of the book series is essentially the same as the Institute.
Shook still edits Contemporary Pragmatism, so we have an "affiliated journal" in that very loose sense… We will publicize our events on-line. If Larry gives us permission, we'll put his lecture up on the website.
EH: The AIPCT building. It's your house. Could you tell us more about the space and the role art plays in your house?
RA: Gaye and I began collecting art decades ago, long before we had any ideas about this house or the Institute. We have always wanted to live in the midst of interesting art. This was modeled for us by several professors and other friends early in our adult lives. The unfolding decades have only confirmed for us the importance of art for a fulfilling life. The same is true in creating an atmosphere for serious and fruitful research. Art humanizes and elevates us, and it places us in a space of expecting excellence and creativity from ourselves. Part of the problem with corporate culture is that it often (not always) fails to value this part of life. Our collection of art, and indeed the house itself, which has been restored and enhanced by local artists, not by contractors, is intended to present the art of this region at its best during the early 21st century. We think the collection is very interesting, and people who visit seem to agree.
EH: While you and I know the philosophical side of things, I also note the expression "cultural thought" in the title of the institute, could you tell some of our readers at Philpercs what might be an example of cultural thought?
RA: Philosophy has been defined far too narrowly for far too long as the work of professional academic philosophers. We do not agree with that way of understanding "philosophy." Not even close. A world in which it is not regarded as important that Paul Simon studied philosophy with John J. McDermott, or Jim Morrison read Heidegger, is too narrow. The ways that literature and art and religion and science intersect with philosophy are vital. Further, there is a huge problem with racism and sexism inherent in the norms of academic philosophy and its expectations about how philosophical ideas should be expressed. We don't intend to reject the norms of professional philosophy, but we also don't intend to enforce them. We look to broader ways of thinking about what philosophy is and we are interested in making it active in culture in ways it has not been.
EH: Is reality fixed with determinate mind-independent structures?
RA: Reality is process. Nothing is fixed. Process includes possibilities, and those are intelligible to us only within the limits of the kinds of minds we currently possess. To improve our minds is to expand our grasp of possibility.
EH: Had to throw that in. Been reading about Fechner lately in a collection edited by Reese and Hartshorne.