What should we make of passion? Is it a necessary element of a good life, or an evil that leads us to make bad decisions, steering us away from the healthier and better teachings of reason? Both and neither. Much in contemporary life makes it difficult and perhaps even unwise to live a passionate life. And yet a wealth of advice from a number of popular organizations and industries tells us that finding our passion is the key to success, that love is all we need for happiness, and that passionate people make more effective leaders.
The popular concern with passion and the passions is in fact shared by academic experts in many university disciplines who are thinking anew about the matter. Whereas many traditionally assumed a conflict between passion and reason in which reason and rationalization triumphed, newer versions of our university disciplines try to listen more attentively to the passions and assign them a higher place in the life of an individual and society. Psychology and Sociology tell us that much of our intelligence is rooted in our emotional life-indeed that emotional self-understanding and control is a major predictor of social success. Their work benefits from grounding in the hard or natural sciences, which can tell us the chemical composition of our passions and, thanks to new imaging technologies that identify neural correlates of our passionate experiences, offer a picture of our brain on love. Even Economics, long based on the theory of man as rational actor, now counts on our passions in ways that challenge simple models of the economic agent as rational utility maximizer narrowly construed.
The Humanities, too, are staking a claim, as philosophers and theologians, art historians and literary critics, make affect and mood central to their analyses of cultural works. Indeed, these disciplines often insist that they have a special contribution to make insofar as their facility with discussion of meanings and experiences might add an indispensable dimension to the examination of a theme as human as love and passion.
For the life of a university, then, the question of passion offers rare and special opportunities. First of all, students and their parents take it into consideration as they think about their futures. Clearly universities can respond to the anxiety of students and parents as they prepare for a future in which their own sense of their passions (or lack thereof) confronts the passions demanded of them by the workplace. The theme thus makes for a fruitful intersection of academic expertise and popular concern. Additionally, it offers a field where the knowledges produced by disciplinary expertise in the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and even the professional schools can come together, shape one another, and respond to one another in a truly interdisciplinary fashion. The exploration of passion thus lets us see just what promise interdisciplinary practices hold for universities looking to bring together divisions that often seem to be growing distant and autonomous.
About the Series
The Questioning Passion seminar series is a year-long colloquium that seizes these opportunities. The seminar is organized around a series of six visiting speakers, chosen for the discipline they represent as well as for the perspective they will bring to our study of passion. Each of the speakers is a leader in his or her field and one whose popularity extends beyond the confine of their discipline. Speakers will deliver a public lecture and make themselves available for a luncheon attended by seminar participants. In conjunction with the speaker series, seminar participants will meet for four additional "sense-making meetings" during the course of the year to make sense of the issues and topics raised by each of the speakers and the interaction among them.