Belief & Unbelief

Orlando Patterson, sociologist and intellectual, James Miller, writer, and Akeel Bilgrami, philosopher, at the Salmagundi conference "Jihad vs. McWorld: Clash of Civilizations," 2004. (Emma Dodge Hanson photo courtesy Salmagundi)

At this conference — convened to mark the 50th anniversary of the quarterly Salmagundi — an extraordinary cast of writers and thinkers will address themselves to questions that bear upon the most basic aspects of our lives, questions that involve our fate as “modern” men and women and the discontents we must learn to live with. Particular sessions will focus on the relation between belief and ideology, political conviction and religious commitment, fidelity and fanaticism, the traditional and the new, sincerity and authenticity. Inspiring, or informing, discussion will be Phillip Rieff’s suggestion, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, that there is, at the center of our culture, an “openness to possibility in which nothing remains true.” Also central to our discussions will be Alasdair MacIntyre’s powerful arguments, in After Virtue, that all beliefs, so called, now largely rest upon “a set of arbitrary prohibitions,” that each of us is condemned to be “his own moral authority,” and that the artworks we most admire are “individualist fictions” reflecting the “absence of shared standards or virtues or goods.”

Clearly, our theme is intended to be flexible and capacious and thus to allow participants at our conference table to move discussion in several different directions, as the spirit moves them.

Each session of the conference will begin with opening remarks (approximately fifteen minutes in length) delivered by one of our participants. But throughout, the emphasis will be on free and open conversation, all of it (once the transcripts have been edited) eventually slated for publication in a special issue of Salmagundi.

The participants — 24 in total — will be seated together at a three-sided table throughout the proceedings (see bottom of the page for speaker bios). There will be an audience, of course, and some modest opportunity for audience questions.

All sessions take place in the Payne Presentation Room in the Tang Teaching Museum and are free and open to the public.

Conference Sessions:

  • Friday September 25, 7:00 PM: “What Is Belief & What is the Fearful Unbelief?” (opening remarks by Marilynne Robinson followed by general discussion)

  • Saturday September 26, 10:15 AM: “Prejudice, Fidelity & ‘Fidelities’” (opening remarks by Anthony Appiah followed by general discussion)

  • Saturday September 26, 11:45 AM: “The Meaning of ‘Belief’ & ‘Sincerity’ in Literature” (opening remarks by James Wood followed by general discussion)

  • Saturday September 26, 2:45 PM: “Bien-Pensant Liberalism, Relativism & Truth-Telling” (opening remarks by Jim Miller followed by general discussion)

  • Saturday September 26, 4:45 PM: “Ideology As Belief: Dangers & Distortions” (opening remarks by Orlando Patterson followed by general discussion)

  • Sunday September 27, 10:15 AM: “Realism, The Virtues & Belief in Public Life” (opening remarks by Seyla Benhabib followed by general discussion & audience questions for the entire panel)

Speakers' Bios

Anthony Appiah is the author of many award-winning books, including My Father’s House (winner of the Herskovitz Prize for African Studies), Ethics of Identity, and Cosmopolitanism. A native of Ghana and, until last year, the Laurance Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy at Princeton, he is currently a Professor at NYU.

Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize, the Orange Prize and the National Book Award, among many other prizes, for the best-selling series of novels that include Gilead, Home and Lila. She is one of the most admired religious thinkers in the country, and her works of non-fiction include The Death of Adam and Absence of Mind. She teaches at the University of Iowa and was for many years a teacher at Skidmore’s New York State Summer Writers Institute.

Orlando Patterson won the National Book Award for his book Freedom and is the author of many other books including Slavery and Social Death and Rituals of Blood. For more than thirty years he has been the Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard and has long been a central figure in Salmagundi conferences on Race, Identity & other subjects.

Seyla Benhabib is the author of many books, including Democracy & Difference, Another Cosmopolitanism and Politics in Dark Times. A native of Turkey, she is the Eugene Mayer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale and a leading scholarly authority on the work of Hannah Arendt.

Akeel Bilgrami, a native of India, is the Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and the author of many books, including Belief and Meaning, Politics and the Moral Psychology of Identity and a new book on Islam.

James Carroll won the National Book Award for his memoir American Requiem and the John Kenneth Galbraith PEN Award for his book House of War. He is the author of many other books and the winner of the Morton Interfaith Award and The National Jewish Book Award.

Tom Lewis is Professor of English Emeritus at Skidmore and the author of many books, including Empire of the Air, Divided Highways, The Hudson and (published in October 2015) Washington: A History of our National City.

Mary Gordon is the Mcintosh Professor of Literature at Barnard College and the author of many books of fiction and non-fiction, from Final Payments and The Company of Women to The Shadow Man, Joan of Arc and The Stories of Mary Gordon. She is the winner of the Kafka Prize and of many other awards.

James Wood is Professor of the Practice of Criticism at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Previously a literary editor at The New Republic and at The Guardian, he is widely regarded as the leading literary critic in the country. He is the author of many books, including The Broken Estate, The Irresponsible Self and The Case Against God.

Jim Miller was for many years the Director of Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research and the editor of the journal Daedalus. He is the author of many books including The Passion of Michel Foucault, Democracy Is In The Streets, Flowers in the Dustbin, Rousseau and Examined Lives.

Phillip Lopate is the Director of the Non-Fiction Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and the author of many books, including Getting Personal, Waterfront, Against Joie du Vivre and Totally, Tenderly, Tragically.

Jackson Lears is the Editor of Raritan and the Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University. His many books include Fables of Abundance, Something For Nothing and No Place of Grace.

David Steiner was the New York State Commissioner of Education and, until recently, the Silverstein Professor and Dean at the Hunter College School of Education. The author of Rethinking Democratic Education and other works, he is now Director of a new Education Policy Institute and a Professor of Education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Honor Moore directs the non-fiction program at The New School’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing and is the author of three books of poems and two widely admired books of non-fiction, entitled The Bishop’s Daughter and The White Blackbird.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence and was for some years a regular columnist for The New Republic on-line edition. She writes frequently for Salmagundi and other magazines.

Jim Sleeper teaches Political Science at Yale and is a widely published journalist at The Huffington Post and other magazines. He is the author of two controversial books: Liberal Racism and The Closest of Strangers.

Lorrie Goldensohn was for many years Professor of Literature at Vassar College and is the author of several volumes of poetry and non-fiction, including Dismantling Glory and Elizabeth Bishop.

Charles Molesworth, who taught literature at Queens College (CUNY) for forty years, has been writing for Salmagundi since 1966 and has served as the regular “art and culture” columnist since 1987. He is the author of many books, including The Fierce Embrace, Marianne Moore: A Literary Life, Alain Locke and And Bid Him Sing.

Barry Goldensohn is Emeritus Professor of English at Skidmore and the author of many books of poems, including The Marrano, Dance Music and Uncarving The Block.

Terence Diggory is Emeritus Professor of English at Skidmore and author of William Carlos Williams & The Ethics of Painting, Yeats and American Poetry and other books.

Regina Janes is currently Chair of the English Department at Skidmore and author of Losing Our Heads, Edmund Burke on Irish Affairs, 100 Years of Solitude and other books.

Phillip Glotzbach is the President of Skidmore College.

Peg Boyers teaches Poetry at Skidmore and is the author of three books of poems published by the University of Chicago Press: Hard Bread, Honey With Tobacco and To Forget Venice. She is the Executive Editor of Salmagundi.

Robert Boyers founded Salmagundi in 1965 and brought it to Skidmore College in the fall of 1969. He was the first Tisch Professor of Arts and Letters at Skidmore and continues to teach in the English department, to edit Salmagundi and to direct The New York State Summer Writers Institute. He is the author of ten books, the most recent of which is The Fate of Ideas, published in September of this year.

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