By Vicki James Yiannias
The search for truth is obviously a basic, if not the basic, job of philosophy.
Is there such a thing, in any context, as absolute truth, or not? Lately it’s been fashionable in many circles, especially secular, to say there isn’t, but the Onassis Cultural Center’s Conversation Series, “ON TRUTH (AND LIES)”, hosted by Simon Critchley, can help you come to your own conclusions on the topic and encourage you to express your questions…free of charge.
While the Onassis Cultural Center’s acclaimed exhibition, Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd –7th Century AD, is on view only through May 14, 2012, the Conversations will continue to captivate anyone who wishes to settle in and think deep thoughts—or perch on the edge of the seat, depending your reactions to what is being said—all year.
So far, Critchley, a noted author (most recent book, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology) and Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research whose main affinity is with Continental philosophy, has hosted four Conversations to perfection: Can You Believe What You Read and Is It Ever Ethical To Lie? with Peter Catapano and Jean-Michel Rabate; The Truth in Tragedy, with Daniel Mendelsohn; The Historian’s Truth, with Mark Mazower; and The Faith of the Faithless, with Cornel West.
The topic of the next Conversation, a major event in the series, has not yet been revealed.
Explaining to the GN that the choice of the topic of truth was “the product of a dialectic process” between Critchley, Amalia Cosmetatou, Director of Cultural Events, and himself, Executive Director Ambassador Loukas Tsilas said that the idea for the Conversations was inspired by the 2010 Athens Dialogues International Conference On Culture And Civilization at the Onassis Cultural Centre-Athens, Greece, at which Critchley was a Keynote Speaker [“Does the Past have a Future?”].
“We approached Professor Critchley, who is a very good debater, speaks well, is articulate and knowledgeable, and at ease in front of people, and asked if he would be interested in hosting the Conversation Series and were pleased that he said he would,” said Tsilas. Simon Critchley’s
Asked whether he feels that the Conversation Series has revealed some profound answers, Ambassador Tsilas said, “We know that truth is a relative thing that depends on the circumstances, the person, and many things. It is our effort to understand the relative aspect of truth depending on the person, the circumstance and the goals one has,” said Tsilas, recalling his discussion with an attorney friend when the idea for the Conversation Series first came about as an example of this thought, “He said, ‘You speak about “truth” and “lies”, but for me, as a litigator, truth is only something that can be proven in court. If it’s not proven in court, it doesn’t exist legally, so the thing is, where do you stand?’ So that’s how we started.”
Tsilas pointed out that the word “lie”, as it used in the title of the Conversation Series, “ON TRUTH (AND LIES)”, “does not mean a deliberate distortion of the truth; it reflects exactly what one can perceive. We wanted to make this counter-distinction. ‘Lies’ is not used to mean a black lie, but a rendering of the truth as most people will understand it.” He added, “And of course,” the ON TRUTH (AND LIES) title draws people’s attention and interest, and inspires them to come and listen.”
The GN asked Professor Critchley (who is also moderator of The Stone, an opinion series in The New York Times that features the writings of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless), whether the themes of the Conversations are a philosopher’s obvious choices or the result of refining a list of possible themes.
It is, he said, a matter of “taking a broad, capacious theme and then finding in individuals who can address an aspect of that. We thought of various people and how we would link them to themes…it’s not systematic. It’s who we’re able to get that’s good, and then how we might wrap the theme around them; the general discussion of truth and lies in relation to the media, in relationship to memoir, and in relationship to Greek tragedy, in relationship to religion, then we’ll continue with truth in relationship to art in collaboration with BAM.
Elaborating on Ambassador Tsilas’ point that the most recent Conversation, The Faith of the Faithless, at BAM not having been exclusively organized by the Onassis Cultural Center, but in partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), was not in the same framework as the previous Conversations, Critchley explained that the collaboration arose as a result of conversations exploring that possibility with the individual in charge of BAM’s Humanities events.
Critchley, who lives in Brooklyn Heights, brought up one of the positives to holding Conversations at BAM, “There is “an amazingly sophisticated audience in Brooklyn, but there isn’t much on the way of talks to interest them; most take place in Manhattan, so I thought it would attract a different demographic.”
Describing another positive aspect of the collaboration with BAM, Tsilas said, “What we’re trying to do here is reach out and make our presence and the profile of our activities better known to the American public”.
Indeed, during the last two years in New York, the Onassis Cultural Center is gradually–almost imperceptibly, but substantially–changing the profile of its cultural activities by presenting some of its high-level cultural events–lectures, panel discussions, and musical activities–in venues other than its own, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Allen Room at Lincoln Center, and most recently at the New York Public Library and BAM.
By holding its events at “well-frequented spaces well-known to New Yorkers” the Onassis Cultural Center is reaching out to make its presence and the profile of its activities better known to the American public,” says Ambassador Tsilas, “We have our exhibitions, which are well-received and well-commended by everybody…and which really serve other purposes in addition to the aesthetic, such as scientific research…but we are introducing activities that will have a longer range, both metaphorically and figuratively, as well.”
In response to the compliment that the Conversations he hosts are absorbing thought explorations of the type that might take place in someone’s living room until all hours of the night, Critchley said, “It’s about good people and good conversations. So much discussion today is scripted or is time-constrained, or usually linked to promotion of something…like a book tour. We’re not trying to sell things, which is very nice, and we have the time to really range around the topic in a very serious way. I always feel with talk shows on TV or elsewhere that there’s a kind of unnecessary rush; people want to hit their points…we don’t have to do that and we’re not going to do that. We’re just going to do something that’s intellectually interesting.”
Those who attend the Conversations will be pleased to hear Critchley express his thought that “the audience that comes along are great. Every event we’ve had has been sold out, which is amazing, and we’ve got a constituency which is extremely lively; there’s never any shortage of questions from the audience. They’re very responsive. Particularly, obviously, there’s a good core of the audience from the Greek community and with Greek connections, so when we’re touching on themes like we were last week with Mazower, in relationship to the Balkans, and Greek identity, and the Ottoman Empire, these are subjects that inspire an enormous amount of action.”
Asked how he feels about the corrections Greek-born members of the audience inevitably make regarding the accepted pronunciation of Greek words by scholars or scholars’ statements about Greek history with which they disagree, Critchley was more than tolerant, saying “I like them. I like talking to the audience and getting to know them…I enjoyed the chance to talk to a lot of people during the wine receptions following the Conversation sessions at the Onassis Center. There’s also the Greek connection, and views are very passionately held. This sort of reaction is not unfamiliar to me, I recognize the passion,” he said, recalling his contact with the parents of his many Greek students when he was teaching in England.
Remembering a “very interesting moment” during the question/answer period of “The Historian’s Truth” session with Mark Mazower on February 2, in which the question of truth in relation to history was raised [in a fairly ugly debate that ensued when the discussion was taken back to the context of Kosovo and the war in the Former Yugoslavia], Critchley said, “Sometimes it’s interesting”.
“We could have a debate right now about what’s going on now in Europe…I think it raises a very deep issue about democracy.”