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How Cities Inspire Deep Thoughts

As abstract as the study of philosophy may seem, it has to take place somewhere. Philosophy professor David Kishik posits that cities have influenced the development of philosophical ideas, from Socrates' Athens to William James' New York.
July 21, 2015, 10am PDT | Josh Stephens | @jrstephens310
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A great deal of philosophical thought, especially in moral philosophy, centers on the ways that people ought to relate to each other. It only stands to reason, then, that cities—the places where people come into contact with each other most intimately—have inspired some of the world's most important philosophers and philosophical ideas. 

Writes David Kishik, "It might be enough to mention the critical importance of Athens to the birth of ancient philosophy with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; or the way that modern philosophy got its start in Bacon’s London, Descartes’s Paris and Spinoza’s Amsterdam; or the deep roots of American pragmatism in New York, where William James spent the first years of his life as a curious child, and John Dewey spent the last years of his life as a revered professor."

Kishik notes, though, that philosophy has not always embraced the city as such. He writes, "With (Jean-Jacques) Rousseau’s fame also came his deep aversion to the city: 'The manner of living in Paris amidst people of pretensions was so little to my liking. The cabals of men of letters, their little candor in their writings, and the air of importance they gave themselves in the world, were so odious to me. I found so little mildness, openness of heart, and frankness in the intercourse even of my friends. Disgusted with this life of tumult, I began ardently to wish to reside in the country.'" Philosophers have championed pastoralism and nationalism, in opposition to urbanism. 

And yet, "the city tends to work as a zone that facilitates associations and interactions between many elements (ideas, commodities, skills, persons, interests, fortunes, desires, sensibilities, ideologies, stupidities). At least in theory, the city is not a container for lives but their meeting point, which is not to be confused with a melting pot. (A meeting point permits the differences of the parties involved. A melting pot turns them all into a single stew.)"

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Published on Monday, July 6, 2015 in New York Times
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