Agnes Callard Critiques Liberal Political Fictions at Lecture and Boasts Large Audience at Swarthmore’s Inaugural “Night Owls” Event

In an era of extreme polarization and politicization, how are we supposed to engage with our peers who share vastly different opinions from our own? Agnes Callard, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, answered this question by turning to Socrates. Callard spoke about Socratic politics on Friday, Sept. 15, in an event hosted by the political science and philosophy departments. 

The political science and philosophy departments and The Point, a magazine that explores life and culture from a philosophical lens, also hosted Callard at night on Saturday, Sept. 16, for Swarthmore’s inaugural “Night Owls” event called “Is Ambition Ugly?” “Night Owls” is a series originally started by Callard at the University of Chicago in which students and faculty engage in evening discussions of philosophy. 

Friday’s talk began with introductions from Assistant Professor of Political Science Jonny Thakkar, who noted that it is a privilege to have Callard speak at Swarthmore and joked that “the person that reminds [him] most of Socrates in the world is actually Agnes.”

Callard began her lecture by outlining the fundamental problem with politics, which is that “we sometimes have trouble living together because we have different ideas about how best to do so.” To mitigate this issue, we create political fictions. Three modern-day political fictions, Callard highlighted, are enshrined in the liberal ideals of free speech, fighting injustice, and egalitarianism. The goal of her talk was to highlight the ways that Socrates would view this “liberalism triad” as invalid. According to Callard, each ideal is an image, a “distorted, reflected, impartial version of another thing.”

Beginning with the political fiction of free speech, Callard drew upon the common metaphor of free speech as a marketplace of ideas, or a debate where each person tries to persuade the other of their views. Ideas are exchanged in the marketplace of ideas through persuasion, the act of creating the pretense of knowledge, or making the other person think that what you are saying is correct. In his discussions, Socrates emphasized that his goal was not persuasion but rather to persuade or be persuaded. 

“If we understand free speech as a debate between people who disagree with each other … then we bottom out in persuasion, and the whole idea of free speech is pretending to teach people things that we don’t actually know,” Callard explained.

Turning to the political fiction of fighting inequality, Callard focused on politicization, or “the displacement of a disagreement into a context where it can be fought over.” When people politicize issues, they frame them as if they are on a battlefield where one side wins while the other loses. Politicization usually manifests in touchy subjects such as climate change and abortion. 

A proponent of open inquiry, Socrates rejected politicization. He feared that disagreements with his interlocutors would devolve into a “battle of egos” where each side deploys combative and coercive tactics in order to win. Like his approach towards persuasion, Socrates felt that being refuted was the greatest favor that someone could do for another person, as he was no less pleased to refute than to be refuted. Nevertheless, he rejected the notion of winners and losers. 

Regarding egalitarianism, Callard highlighted that there are many realms of life in which humans are not equal, but in the space of ideas, everyone is equal. Without egalitarianism, there would be no inquiry into fundamental questions. 

Socrates echoed this idea in Plato’s Gorgias, as Socrates explained to his interlocutors that he wished to be treated with respect. It did not matter how many supporters either side of the argument could gain – he wished to be seen as an equal. Ultimately, looking at these three ideals can reveal truths about coercive tactics used in many discussions and debates of the modern day. 

“If you choose to [defeat, coerce, or persuade], you’re pretending to do something else. You’re in the thrall of an illusion and I’m confident that humanity will eventually learn to see past it,” Callard concluded.

Friday’s talk was followed by the “Night Owls” discussion on Saturday night, which ran from 9 p.m. until midnight and boasted a large audience of around 100 students and faculty. The event was moderated by Thakkar, who co-founded The Point. He began the night by asking Callard a series of questions, which were then followed by questions from the audience. 

Thakkar began the discussion by citing an article that Callard wrote in The Point called “Torturing Geniuses.” Callard wrote that, in her childhood, she was sure that she was a child prodigy. This anecdote prompted Thakkar to ask Callard about her personal experiences growing up and the degree to which she was ambitious as an undergraduate student. 

Callard reflected upon her early adult life, noting that Swarthmore was her dream school, despite her advisors pushing her to apply to the University of Chicago as a safety. Callard got accepted to both Swarthmore and the University of Chicago, but she ultimately chose the University of Chicago after receiving a full scholarship and a letter from a professor commenting on one of her scholarship essays. 

“I felt I had to live up to this image … and that animated my entire University of Chicago experience – living up to this idea of myself as the sort of person who deserved to go there for free,” Callard said of her undergraduate experience. She also noted that this was her first time visiting Swarthmore. 

To understand ambition, it is important to differentiate it from aspiration. Ambition, Callard explained, is when an individual has a lofty goal for the future and they already know the value that can be gained from that goal. On the contrary, aspiration is a process by which an individual comes to value something new.  

“The difference is that, in the case of aspiration, you don’t already know what the value is. You’re learning something new,” Callard elaborated. “You have this sense that there is more there than you are currently grasping, so you’re cultivating your own appreciation for something.”

As a teacher, Callard explained, she tries to turn ambition into aspiration. One way she does this is by jumping into class material at the start of class, rather than spend time going over the syllabus and overview of the course. 

“What we do in class is a mystery. You’ll find it out when we get there. I can’t tell it to you in advance – I can only pretend to tell it to you in advance,” she said.

At 10 p.m., Thakkar opened up the floor for students to ask questions. One student returned to the question at the center of the conversation: “Is ambition ugly?” Callard responded, stating that both aspiration and ambition are uncool, but unlike aspiration, which is beautiful, ambition is ugly. 

“Aspiration … connotes openness, an open possibility that appeals to us deep down,” she shared. “Ambition … comes across as desperate. There’s this really big thing that you’re saying your life needs in order for it to be meaningful and you don’t have it. You’re admitting that it’s possible for your life to be meaningless.”

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