The Program in Cultures, Civilizations and Ideas cordially invites you to its next colloquium talk, on Tuesday, December 1, at 12:40 p.m. in the Orientation Room. CCI Assistant Professor Patrick Fessenbecker will be presenting his work on work, Walter Pater, and the meaning of life at the end of the nineteenth century. Refreshments and sandwiches will be available.
The CCI Colloquium Committee
“Work and the Meaning of Life at the End of the Nineteenth Century: Walter Pater’s Rejection of Vocation.”
ABSTRACT: A distinguished philosophical tradition holds that a person’s capacity for an autonomous and meaningful life depends upon her goals. It is when she pursues her projects, philosophers like John Rawls and Harry Frankfurt suggest, that she is most herself, and thus action on the basis of a project is autonomous in a way action on a mere desire might not be. This, I argue is a deeply Victorian idea: in their expressions of what historians call the “Gospel of Work,” writers like Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin argued that work was necessary because it structured the self around a project, created the possibility for a new kind of agency. But by the end of the nineteenth century, this model of the self came under attack from a variety of directions. Walter Pater in particular objected to the limitation of meaningful action to pre-existing goals, arguing that the capacities for openness and surprise were equally essential to meaningful action. He went on to dispute the model of autonomy Carlyle and others depended upon, disputing the notion that agents could identify so thoroughly with a project that it became essential to them.