Symposium on "Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters"

Feb 15, 2019
Swift Hall, 3rd Floor Lecture
1025 E 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
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Fr. Peter FunkMonastery of the Holy Cross

Lisa RuddickUniversity of Chicago

Jennifer SummitSan Francisco State University

Blakey VermeuleStanford University

  • Action Versus Contemplation: Why An Ancient Debate Still Matters

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A symposium on the recent book Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters (University of Chicago Press, 2018) by Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule. Free and open to the public. Persons with disabilities who may need assistance should contact us at 773-955-5887 or by email.

Cosponsored by the English Department, the Seminary Coop Bookstore, the University of Chicago Press, the Our Sunday Visitor Institute, and the Theology Club at the Divinity School. Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the event.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Blaise Pascal wrote in 1654. But then there’s Walt Whitman, in 1856: “Whoever you are, come forth! Or man or woman come forth! / You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house.”
It is truly an ancient debate: Is it better to be active or contemplative? To do or to think? To make an impact, or to understand the world more deeply? With Action versus Contemplation, Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule address the question in a refreshingly unexpected way: by refusing to take sides. Rather, they argue for a rethinking of the very opposition. The active and the contemplative can—and should—be vibrantly alive in each of us, fused rather than sundered. Writing in a personable, accessible style, Summit and Vermeule guide readers through the long history of this debate from Plato to Pixar, drawing compelling connections to the questions and problems of today.

"Though the book will be valuable to a wide readership, the recurring theme of current trends in education makes it particularly important within the academy. This engaging and clever book will generate important conversations. Highly recommended."
"A fascinating and inspiring tour of big ideas--worth both contemplating and acting on."
Sarah Bakewell, author of At the Existentialist Cafe
"Action versus Contemplation brings a cooling sense of balance to a whole range of important and often highly polarized arguments about technology, work, education, and more. How liberating to discover that we don’t need to choose between nostalgia and philistinism, Captain Ludd and Dr. Pangloss. Even better, the authors give us not just historical elaborations of the theoretical complementarity of action and contemplation, but actual, already-existing examples of the middle position at work today. They show us that, no matter how 'soulless' society seems to become, meaning-seeking behavior does and always will continue."
William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep
"This is a very subtle and surprising book that nevertheless goes down easy because you expect it to take a side in a binary (i.e., to take your side), but instead it seeks to transcend that binary. There's great generosity of spirit in their writing and thinking, and that generosity will have a salutary effect on all those whose thinking this book will touch. Action versus Contemplation is itself a contemplative document meant to intervene in the world it addresses, to get us to rethink practical matters, and to act in ways that will promote thinking. It urges action as a way of thinking, and thinking as a way of acting, and is a model of what it advocates for."
William Flesch, Brandeis University

Fr. Peter Funk, OSB, is the Prior of the Monastery of the Holy Cross, a contemplative Benedictine monastery in the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport. Fr. Peter received his B.A. in music from the University of Chicago. After graduating, he was a choral conductor at St. Thomas the Apostle parish and the University of Chicago. He entered monastic life in 1997. Fr. Peter received a Master’s degree in Theology at St. John’s School of Theology in Collegeville, Minnesota, where he majored in Scripture. In 2012, he helped to found the choir Schola Laudis, whose mission is to reintroduce the Catholic tradition of polyphony at the monastery's celebration of Vespers. Fr. Peter has composed numerous motets and four a cappella settings of the Mass.

Lisa Ruddick is Associate Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD from Harvard University, and has taught at the University of Chicago since 1981. Her teaching and research focus on modern British fiction, literature and psychoanalysis, and poetry and poetics; and more specifically the question of the feeling of aliveness, especialy among scholars in the humanities. She is author of numerous scholarly works, including Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, Text, Gnosis.

Jennifer Summit is Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at San Francisco State University. She holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins University and was previously Professor of English at Stanford University. She is author of numerous scholarly articles and two books: Memory's Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England and Lost Property: The Woman Writer and Enlgihs Literary History, 1380-1589. Most recently, she has co-authored with Blakey Vermeule Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters.

Blakey Vermeule is Professor of English at Stanford University. She holds a PhD from UC Berkeley and a BA from Yale. Her research interests are neuroaesthetics, cognitive and evolutionary approaches to art, philosophy and literature, British literature from 1660-1820, post-Colonial fiction, satire, and the history of the novel. She is the author of The Party of Humanity: Writing Moral Psychology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2000)  and Why Do We Care About Literary Characters? (2009), both from The Johns Hopkins University Press. She is writing a book about what mind science has discovered about the unconscious.