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Night of Philosophy in Paris: Interview with Gregg Caruso

A Night of Philosophy is an all-night marathon of philosophy presentations and performances, including theater, video art, singing, poetry, dancing, and music.  The seventh installment of the eventorganized by philosopher and stage director Mériam Korichi in collaboration with the French National Commission for UNESCO, took place in Paris last Friday, November 18th.  I spoke with APA member Gregg Caruso, who presented at midnight on free will and criminal punishment.

Can you tell me about a Night of Philosophy and how you became involved

It was a 12-hour event–from 7pm to 7am–held in eyeshot of the Eiffel Tower at UNESCO Headquarters in celebration of World Philosophy Day. It was pretty amazing. Previous ones have been held in London, Berlin, New York, and Helsinki, and they’re all open to the general public. It was the first time I participated in a Night of Philosophy event. I’m not exactly sure how they got my name but I think I was recommended to the organizer Mériam Korichi.

Can you describe the experience of being there?  

It was really fascinating. There were philosophy talks, art installations, and performances going on all night. When I arrived there were thousands of people lined up outside, and inside people waited in long lines to get into each talk and event. It was essentially a pajama party for intellectuals and curious people! All talks were given in French or English and since it was a UN facility most rooms were equipped with headphones and participants were able to listen to simultaneous translations of the talks. As you walked around there was also some nice art pieces, like a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti in the main lobby. Late in the night, philosopher Paul Boghossian even jumped on the piano and played an impromptu classical piece. I wish I would have captured it on video but I was too slow.

What was your presentation about?    

My talk was about free will and criminal punishment. I laid out the main problems with retributivism, discussed some recent work in moral and political psychology, and then presented my public health-quarantine model. It’s a non-retributive approach to criminal behavior that is able to justify the incapacitation of dangerous criminals but also advocates for a more holistic approach to criminal justice—one that prioritizes prevention and social justice. One of the things the French audience was blown away by was the fact that an estimated 6.1 million Americans were unable to vote in the presidential election because of felony convictions. Even more troubling is that around 3.1 million of those have been disenfranchised due to state laws that restrict voting rights even after completion of sentences. After my talk, several people came up to me and expressed surprise and outrage at that. I share that outrage.

Did you stay all night?  

I stayed until about 4am. I couldn’t go much longer than that. I hung in there long enough to hear Barry C. Smith talk about how we have many more senses than the five everyone talks about. I wish I could have stayed longer—I regret missing Ophelia Deroy’s talk—but I was exhausted.

What other events and presentations did you see?  

There were talks on all kinds of topics, including tolerance, moral relativism, law, inclusion and democracy. I also took in some performance art. I enjoyed the talks by Paul Boghossian, Ashwini Vasanthakumar, Rainer Forst, and many others.

Why do you think so many people are interested in it?  

I think people have a thirst for events like this. It’s a nice way to bring philosophy out of the shadows and into the public arena. Philosophy encourages critical thinking and dialogue, both of which are sorely needed at this moment in history. I think philosophers are beginning to realize that we have an important role to play in society—especially after the election of Trump. While I understand the importance of technical and scholarly work written for other academics, I also think we have a duty to apply our unique skill-set to important and pressing societal problems. Many great philosophers of the past wrote both scholarly works and popular philosophy, such as Bertrand Russell, David Hume, Richard Rorty, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and John Dewey. I think to the extent that professional philosophers have something to offer the general public they should reach out and communicate it. Now I understand that not all philosophers work in applied areas and this is a good thing since inquiry is needed in all areas of philosophy. But there are still ways, I think, to make the more technical and theoretical areas of philosophy interesting to the public.

What sort of people attended?  

There was a good mix of people but it definitely trended younger. Most of the attendees looked to be between 20 and 40.

What do you see as the most important benefit of such an event?  

I think events like this can help get more people interested in philosophy. After attending such an event, you might be more inclined to go out and pick up a philosophy book. That’s good for the discipline. It’s also good for society. Of course there is an entertainment component, but hey…there are better and worse forms of entertainment. Listening to philosophy all night surely must rank among the better ways to spend an evening.

What do you hope people will take away from a Night of Philosophy?

Hopefully participants left with more questions than answers. I know I left with a few new perspectives and things to think about.

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Gregg D. Caruso is Associate Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning and Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network (JWRN) housed at the University of Aberdeen School of Law. He is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including the SUNY Chancellors Award for Excellence in Scholarship (2015) and the Regional Board of Trustees Excellence in Teaching Award (2012). He is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Science, Religion and Culture and a regular contributor to Psychology Today.

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