Stefan Dolgert (PhD, Duke) just joined the POLS department as an assistant professor. We asked him a few questions about his research and other topics.
What are you researching?
Most of my work in political theory comes down to addressing two basic questions: 1) why do we think that humans are, in general, the only beings to whom moral obligations are owed? 2) how might we re-imagine our political institutions and ethical education to include nonhuman animals as well as other forms of life? A third question that emerges from these two, and which is rather more pointed, is: can nonhumans be citizens? I would say ‘yes’ to this last query; the bulk of political theorists from 500 BCE to the present would say that I must have misunderstood the question. I am fascinated by how obvious it is to the canonical theorists that humans can basically treat nonhumans however “we” like, and it’s my goal as a scholar and teacher to make the obviousness of this exclusively human “we” a little less obvious. To this end I’m currently working on two large projects: the first assesses the entwinement of animals, sacrifice, and politics in Greek political thought, in order to answer the first “basic question” I mentioned earlier. The second project asks the second, “re-imagining” question above by exploring lost alternatives in Greek political thought, specifically the very rich tradition of non-anthropocentric philosophy in Greeks like Pythagoras, Plato, Plutarch, and Porphyry.
What book do you think is especially under-rated in political theory?
There are probably a thousand good answers to this question, so first I have to say that the way I answer it is more a matter of taste than a definitive statement about what everyone else should be reading – and if you ask me again in six months I’ll probably have a different answer. That caveat noted, I would say that Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1947 book Humanism and Terror remains as relevant to me today as the first time I read it, and yet it is one of the least-read books in contemporary theory. I think this neglect is unfortunate because Merleau-Ponty does two things quite ably: he underscores the violence implicit (but hidden) in the existing world order, but he simultaneously takes the wind out of the revolutionary’s sails by revealing the tragic underside of all political agency. We must take up the cause of global justice, he says, but we cannot simply do as we please. Our intention to do good in the world is not enough to immunize us from the judgment of those whom our actions affect. In Merleau-Ponty we see not only how our choices are haunted by the unintended consequences of our actions, but also how a brilliant philosopher struggles with the paradoxes inherent in the nature of politics.
What do students like about reading political theory?
Theory frees students from what Nietzsche called “the idolatry of the actual.” We don’t simply look at the world and say: “Well, here’s how it is and this is what you’ve got to live with. This, what you see around you – this is all that life and politics can ever be.” We historicize the present so that the contingency of the past, the “it-could-have-been-otherwise,” can emerge into the open. And through historicizing the present, making the apparent solidity of the world around us begin to shimmer, waver, even dissolve, students can begin to imagine new ways of acting politically in the world. Students, in my experience, find this quite exciting – even inspiring. This might seem like a kind of utopian dreaming, like I’m teaching students how to be completely ineffective in the world, but it’s actually an education in realism. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Jefferson, Plato, Emma Goldman – even Steve Jobs and Bill Gates…none of them achieved anything without expanding their capacity to imagine a different world than the one in which they grew up. Students want to believe that they can have a real impact on the world, and political theory is one place (there are others, to be sure) where they can actually cultivate the dispositions and imaginative capacity to do so.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Since I’m a new father I spend a lot of time with my son Beren. Now that he’s making sounds, it’s really a lot of fun. When I’m not taking care of him I enjoy exploring new dog parks with my boxer mix Ollie, watching The Walking Dead, and hunting down exotic craft beers. Let’s hope that never gets switched to watching craft beers and hunting down the walking dead. Did I mention that I’m also (kind of) preparing for a zombie outbreak?