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2004-2005 Seminar: Chance

Though believers in providence and progress have denied its existence, and probabilistic thinkers have found ways to minimize its importance, chance remains a powerful force in modern thought – a specter to be exorcised, a problem to be solved, and a portal of possibility. Much of modern thought has involved efforts to bring chance under control. In pre-modern cultures, chance could be a source of knowledge, perhaps a key to understanding or even influencing the force that ruled the cosmos, but by the nineteenth century it was virtually denied by doctrines of providence and progress, despite the challenges posed by Darwinian and modernist thought. In the twentieth century, probabilistic thought acknowledged the existence of chance, but used statistical strategies to rob it of its power. The random occurrence became part of the standard deviation, the exception that proved the rule. Modernist and post-modernist intellectuals and artists have celebrated it as never before, and older cultures of chance flourish as well – in third-world cultures, including immigrant communities in Western societies, and among gamblers for whom the dice acquire the aura of the soothsayer’s bones.

This seminar aims to examine the manifold cultural significance of chance from historical as well as contemporary perspectives. We invite application from anyone whose current scholarly interest involves thinking and talking about chance across disciplinary boundaries. Topics (among many) that participants may explore include: attitudes toward chance in various times, places, and ethnic or cultural traditions; the development of an aleatory aesthetic in literature, music, and the visual arts; the unprecedented influence of statistics in recent public discourse; the evolution of liability doctrines in law; the efforts of philosophers and bioethicists to formulate a concept of “moral luck” in place of Kantian moral law; the role of risk as mythology and actuality in capitalist development; the notion of grace as a kind of spiritual luck in certain religious traditions; and the persistence of faith in Fortuna among idiosyncratic believers, philosophical gamblers, and skeptical devotees of divination. The aim of the seminar is to raise issues at the core of contemporary cultural debate.

Director: Jackson Lears (History)
Faculty Fellows: Lee Clarke (Sociology), Ann Fabian (History and American Studies), Michael Geselowitz (History), Jochen Hellbeck (History), Xun Liu (History), Barry Loewer (Philosophy), Paul McLean (Sociology), Barry Sopher (Economics)
Predoctoral Fellows: Steven Holochwost (Music Composition), Bernard Molyneux (Philosophy), Brian Page (English), Jennifer Pettit (History), Alexander Zarechnak (Mathematics)
External Faculty Fellows: Rochelle Gurstein, Steve Fraser

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15 Seminary Place
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