Some experiences in life are so significant, so profound, so intense, that after we go through them, there’s a very real sense in which “we’re not the same person we used to be.” That might involve a change in how we understand ourselves or the world, or in what we value or take to be important.
These experiences can feel pleasant or miserable. They can be planned or unplanned, freely chosen or forced upon us by fate, chance, or other people. Examples range from becoming a new parent, to becoming paralyzed or losing a limb, or even a medical intervention that allows someone born deaf to hear music for the first time. They may involve a life-threatening car accident or a near-death experience, a mystical vision on a mountaintop, or a chance encounter with a stranger on the sidewalk. The experience itself might be extended over time, like army boot camp or an apprenticeship in the skilled trades. Or it might be something else altogether. The elusive factor is that in some way or other, the experience, or how we respond to it, radically changes us—in ways that we cannot (fully) imagine beforehand. We are no longer who we used to be.
In this workshop, we’ll develop some basic concepts and categories, that might help us make sense of these transformative experiences:
How do these experiences work? Are there common elements, patterns, or stages?
When, and why, should we choose to undergo such an experience?
Is it even possible to make a reasonable, rational choice to have (or avoid) this kind of experience, when the results are often so far beyond anything we could imagine or plan for?
How might we effectively respond to such an experience, whether it was freely chosen or not?
Why do (apparently) very similar experiences affect different people very, very differently? Or, why do similar experiences affect one person deeply, and someone else not at all?
And we’ll point toward some of the bigger philosophical questions, that are lurking behind the problem of transformative experience, including:
Rational choice: Whose values, interests, duties, or knowledge are involved?
Personal identity: What does it mean to say that we are, or are not, the same person at different times?
Freedom and the Good: How do ancient and modern notions of goodness differ? Can appealing to “our good” help explain what it means to become “more ourselves”?
Among some contemporary philosophers, transformative experiences have become a bit of a hot topic, following L.A. Paul’s book, Transformative Experience (Oxford University Press, 2014). So we’ll start with some of the key ideas raised in Paul’s work, and by some of the philosophers who have responded to her. But we’ll also take a wider historical view of these questions, looking as far afield as the ancient Platonic commentators discussing the Orphic Mysteries, as well as some other classic thinkers between here and there.
Format & Structure
The main workshop (10am–11:45am MT) will focus on theory: getting a solid grasp of important concepts, categories, and arguments, which will allow us to examine transformative experiences in a general way. The main workshop will stand entirely on its own; participants will leave with a useful set of philosophical tools, which you can use for further reflection on your own.
Following the main workshop, we will also be offering an optional supplement (12pm–1pm MT), which will focus on applications of these theories to our own lives and personal experiences. Here, in small group discussions, we’ll invite participants to share a transformative experience from their own lives, and to discuss together how the theories from the main workshop might help us to describe, or make sense of, that experience.
As with all of our philosophy workshops, both the main workshop and the supplement will be interactive, with ample opportunities for questions, discussion, and friendly objections. By dividing the event into these two parts, we simply hope to highlight the difference between two distinct modes of inquiry, which are both valuable, but which are worth distinguishing from each other.
To help us plan appropriately, when you register, please indicate whether you’re interested in just the main workshop, or whether you plan to stay for the extra supplement, too. (You can always change your mind later, but having a rough number ahead of time is very helpful!)
When & Where
This workshop will be held via ZOOM on Sat. January 22nd from 10am-11:45am MT (for the main workshop) & 12pm-1pm MT (for the optional supplement to the workshop). No prior background in philosophy is required to participate.
Date:Saturday, January 22nd Time: 10am-11:45am MT (for the main workshop) & 12pm-1pm MT (for the optional supplement)
Zoom Registration: Scroll Down…
*When you register, please let us know if you want to join just the main workshop or if you plan to stay for the extra supplement, too.
Cost: Free (Donations Welcome)
David Nowakowski is as a philosopher and educator in the Helena area whose professional work is dedicated to helping people of all ages and backgrounds access, understand, and apply the traditions of ancient philosophy to their own lives. David began studying ancient philosophies and classical languages in 2001, and has continued ever since. A scholar of the philosophical traditions of the ancient Mediterranean (Greece, Rome, and North Africa) and of the Indian subcontinent, reading Sanskrit, Latin, and classical Greek, he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 2014. His work has appeared in a variety of scholarly journals, including Philosophy East & West, Asian Philosophy, and the Journal of Indian Philosophy; as well as in presentations to academic audiences at Harvard, Columbia University, the University of Toronto, Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and elsewhere.
After half a decade teaching at liberal arts colleges in the northeast, David chose to leave the academy in order to focus his energies on the transformative value of these ancient philosophical and spiritual traditions in his own life and practice, and on building new systems of education and community learning that will make this rich heritage alive and available to others.
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