Jennifer London, "Bringing the Gifts of the Ivory Tower to Bear on Existential Philosophical Challenges"

‘For the Record’ is a feature where our Fellows-in-Residence and Graduate Fellows have a chance to present their research ideas informally, reflect on their experience at the Center, or report on Center events.

This month's post is from Berggruen Fellow Jennifer London, a political theorist who focuses on the history of Western and Near Eastern political thought. London has taught political theory at Columbia University, Tufts University, and the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Chicago, and was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Tufts University. 

Bringing the Gifts of the Ivory Tower to Bear On Existential Political Challenges
Jennifer London

About a month ago, Nicholas Berggruen rescued me from feelings of existential dread in our current political environment, inspiring me to double down on my efforts to finish my book project on Near Eastern models of just rule. Nicholas is a renowned philanthropist, investor and founder of the Berggruen Prize, which grants one million dollars each year to an academic for his or her contributions to political philosophy, and founder of the Berggruen Institute, which selects three fellows to pursue projects on ethics and political thought at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University each year. They also choose around ten other fellows to pursue such projects at other universities around the globe. As one of the three Berggruen Fellows at Harvard this year, I recently attended a three-day event in New York in December, which included the Berggruen Prize Award Ceremony and a workshop to introduce the Institute’s fellows to one another.

This three-day event was more than an opportunity to show gratitude to fellows for taking the time to integrate their work into relevant conversations on world politics. It was a moment when Craig Calhoun, the Institute’s president and former President of the Social Science Research Council, introduced access points for bringing academic work to bear on existential issues in clear, productive ways. In my case, Calhoun underscored the value of identifying metaphors in the histories of global thought that governments and populations use to signal “great transformations”—the name of the Institute’s current initiative. This attention to relationships between metaphor and politics helps me amplify my own accounts of how governments, in Near Eastern writings on kingship and autocracy, deploy metaphors on social equilibrium and justice to advocate for political stasis; and of how people redeploy these same metaphors to advocate for social revolution and democracy. For me, the greatest academic take-away from these events was Calhoun’s articulation of clear frameworks for using diverse work on ethics, Artificial Intelligence, and the history of ideas to analyze real-world efforts to navigate our global future.

Like Craig, Nicholas also addressed idealists like me, explicitly, during the events, and urged us to keep doing what we do.

At a packed table at NYU, Nicholas listened closely to each fellow address how his or her project contributes to conversations on ethics, politics, technology, and the nature of humanity, and posed tough questions about them. He then turned to us and spoke twelve words in utter sincerity:

“Thank you all for devoting your lives to the study of ideas.”

He went on (I paraphrase here):

“There are many things you could have chosen to do with your lives. But, you chose to study ideas, and to explore how they can benefit the world. That is rare in this world, and I thank you for it.”

Nicholas’ words baffled and inspired me. 

I came out of a program in Political Theory at the University of Chicago, studying global histories of political thought, philosophy of language, and Middle Eastern history. At Chicago, I was surrounded by academic luminaries, who engaged with complex ideas and theories of politics and ethics, and considered how to instantiate them in the world. These academics treated these subjects and our conversations about them as real, powerful agents of change in our academic community, and ultimately in the world we were to go out and improve. I was surrounded by people who believed that the communities of friendship we built, and the students we welcomed into them, would make a real and healing mark on our world. During my time at Chicago, I believed this message with all my heart. But since I left, I have found “the life of the mind” a stranger to the real world, where conversations on power trump those of ideas, leaving the ivory tower as a mirage in the desert. 

The three days of events in New York were a celebration of academia as a resource for political renewal. Our first day involved listening to an intimate speech, in which Berggruen Prize honoree Onora O’Neill described her career trajectory. O’Neill spoke of her mentors and the conversations with them that drove her ongoing work and activism to end world hunger and to advocate for human rights. Hers was an old-fashioned talk that she read in her beautiful British accent without a microphone. It was less a story about the history of liberal political philosophy and her contribution to it, and more a story of the apprenticeship system in academia, which allowed her to stand upon giant academic shoulders to conceptualize and advocate for human rights. The Berggruen Institute then held an extraordinary black tie Gala at the NY Public Library the next night, honoring O’Neill. We each went home with parting gifts of delicious chocolates and O’Neil’s books on trust and global justice.

I was struck by the connection between the celebration of O’Neill’s work and the talks we gave at the fellows’ conference the next day; we all sought to use academic research to respond to real-world political concerns. The talks spanned subjects from how Buddhist philosophy can heal people of their troubling lack of attention to others, to work on how the algorithms used in artificial intelligence might one day undermine our moral universe.

There was also an emotional impact of attending these events that I found uplifting. As a scholar of the histories of Arabic and Persian thought, language and politics, I’m part of an academic group searching for jobs outside of the arenas of STEM or other fields that demand clearly policy-relevant research.  I’m a humanist in the social sciences. In fact, the only academic research and teaching job available for me to apply to for next year, in the city where my family and I will need to live, involves teaching four classes each semester with no path toward tenure. Berggruen’s support inspires me to put my head down with a smile and with confidence in my research, as I keep at work.

In the history of the world, I’d imagine that it is extremely rare for a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist to pause amid the hustle of daily life in grumpy, cynical Manhattan, to address a room of academics by thanking them for what they do. And I’d fathom it’s even rarer for that person to sit down and mull over diverse lectures on the history of philosophy across various traditions, the ethical bases of artificial intelligence, and various other hefty topics, to brainstorm about how to foster a loftier political future.  All the while, all the fellows listened and identified common normative or academic interests with people far outside of their general fields. For three days, the sort of academic community I seek to build in the world (in which we all stand in the shoes of others and brainstorm about how their respective projects can generate a more vibrant, insightful and inclusive community) flourished.