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UB receives prestigious NEH grant to support 2017 educators’ summer seminar in Buffalo

By SUZANNE CHAMBERLAIN

Published May 23, 2017

The $70,000 award covers free tuition and stipends for the 16 NEH Summer Scholars taking part in the seminar.

The 2017 summer seminar “Emmanuel Levinas on Morality, Justice, and the Political” is the fifth in a series presented by Professor Richard A. Cohen of UB's  Department of Jewish Thought, but the first funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

“I’m honored and happy to receive this grant,” says Cohen, former director of the Institute of Jewish Thought and Heritage, and first chair of the Department of Jewish Thought in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Cohen believes the success of the first four Levinas Philosophy Summer Seminars and a change in the NEH funding process to include one-week programs helped UB win the prestigious grant. The $70,000 award covers free tuition and stipends for the 16 NEH Summer Scholars taking part in the seminar.

Seminar participants — college and university faculty from across the country — come from diverse disciplines, including philosophy, English, psychology, religion and legal studies. They will spend an intense week in Buffalo July 17–21 involved in learning and discussion, or as Cohen notes, “renewing the essence of learning and education.”

The Levinas summer seminars frame all conversations around the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-95), recognized as one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th century. But each year the location of the seminar is considered when choosing the particular topic.

The first seminar in Vilnius, Lithuania, looked at the origin of responsibility, which lies at the core of Levinas’s thought. The next, in Buffalo, focused on the primacy of ethics in philosophy. Since Levinas is a comprehensive philosopher, Cohen says, the 2015 seminar in Rome, Italy, examined Eros/love. Last year’s seminar in Berkeley, California, addressed the concept of free speech and the difficulty of real freedom.

Cohen, a leading expert on Levinas, is eager for this year’s seminar because the topic dovetails with his research into how politics can be ethical. He says he appreciates the opportunity to reframe the relationships between morality, justice and the political. Cohen notes that to think about ethics is not a fad, but rather draws from thousands of years, providing a profound, yet relevant way to consider “the most important questions in the deepest way.”

Why hold these seminars? “On ethics? So we can better be kind to one another and know better how to create a just world,” says Cohen, who admits to being an unabashed idealist. He adds that while Levinas is not easy, his thinking is humanist and applies to all who want to be broadly educated.

NEH officials say that by supporting the humanities and educators across the country in various activities, including original research and discourse leading to new intellectual insights, their grants “strengthen the nation’s cultural fabric and identity.”

Cohen serves as director of the Levinas Philosophy Summer Seminars. James McLachlan, professor of philosophy and religion at Western Carolina University, North Carolina, assists with the seminars, as does Jolanta Saldukaityte, who teaches philosophy at the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences and the Vilnius Gediminas Technical University.