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Acclaimed scholar frames honor for a University audience in new Philolexian event

The lofty themes of Lit Hum were reiterated in a recent lecture on honor delivered by distinguished scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah Wednesday night.

Appiah framed the lecture with a theory of honor as a force that gives someone a right to respect. According to Appiah, one’s honor is always dependent on a social identity, and codes of honor determine how one should behave as a function of this identity.

“To be honorable is to be committed to doing what is worthy of respect according to the honor code,” Appiah said. He then developed an interdisciplinary discussion of honor that included ideas from thinkers such as Horace, Kang Yu Wei, and J. M. Coetzee.

As the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton, Appiah addressed the notion of honor as a force for ethical changes in social practices, such as Chinese foot-binding and dueling in England, in “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.” The recipient of a National Humanities Medal, Appiah has published on race, ethics, and African intellectual history.

“I was hoping that we might have clever things to say about interesting subjects—not just something to say, but something to talk about,” the program’s organizer Gavin McGown, CC ’13, said.

McGown proposed his idea for the event to the Philolexian Society—the “oldest collegiate literary society in America”—last spring, when he served as the group’s moderator.

“When my term started as moderator I went at it [organizing the lecture] with gusto,” McGown said. “I started moving a lot of our programming towards more hard-core literary society and less absurdist debate human-chess-style stuff, which we also did.”

The Office of the University Chaplain and the Philolexian Society hosted the lecture in the Held Auditorium.

The Philolexian Society holds weekly debates. Its previous resolutions have included “Mo’ money, mo’ problems,” “We would all be better off naked,” “Abortion is gay,” “Carmen San Diego would be a good role model for young girls.” The society also hosts annual events such as the Alfred Joyce Kilmer Bad Poetry Contest, Beat Night, an evening of extemporaneous poetry readings that culminates in a recitation of “Howl” on Low Steps.

“I think it’s really about making intellectualism accessible,” current moderator Jason Kruta, CC ’12, said.

McGown agreed. “We’re not stiff-necked. We have been described by some of our companions at other universities as the merriest literary society of all.”

But the Philolexian Society is not all farce, according to McGown. It publishes “Surgam” (which translates to “I shall rise” in Latin), a “mostly serious” literary magazine that features prose, poetry, and art by undergraduates at the University, three times a year. The Society also hosts colloquia with faculty members and several professor teas per semester. Past teas have featured Barnard First Year Class Dean Lisa Hollibaugh and James R. Barker Associate Professor of Contemporary Civilization Matthew Jones.

“With this [Appiah’s lecture], I thought it would be really interesting for us to approach some of the issues that we argue about on Thursday nights from the substantive perspective,” McGown said. “So it’s kind of finding other ways to make richer our special brand of wit and merriment.”


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