Ryan Fagan, MA

Research Assistant and Administrative Coordinator

Education

  • Washburn University, B.A., History
  • University of Missouri-Kansas City, M.A., History
  • University of Kansas, Ph.D. Candidate, European History

Research

As an historian of culture I am concerned primarily with the question of values and how their meaning is expressed historically in a variety of cultural forms, which in turn denote a specific mode of human existence. My current research, though cast fundamentally as a cultural-historical problem, contains considerable relevance to more conventional approaches to the history of science and medicine. In the dissertation, I offer an historically-based critique of the foundations of modernity in view of the truth claims it struggled to articulate and which continue to dominate the West.

At the very core of this problem are the natural sciences, and it is from them that the dominant definition of truth in modernity emanates. Since the entrenchment of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, this definition has extended into an entire "worldview" occasioning and determining the modern mode of existence. I argue that to understand the modern foundation of science and truth (and by extension, medicine and all theoretically grounded bodies of knowledge), it is necessary to turn once again to Descartes' seminal role in the histories of philosophy and science. Recognizing Descartes' philosophy as a conceptual point of departure, I give a critical re-reading of his formulation of the Ego cogito-ego sum not only within the internal history of metaphysics (of which science is a part), but as a cultural-historical phenomenon. I further argue that the turn to the Cogito, from which the broader notion of subjectivity derives, can be understood only via the cultural horizon of the Baroque within which the Cogito's criterion for meaning, significance and truth found the conditions of possibility for full expression, which moreover, established the foundation for the natural sciences.

By raising the problem of subjectivity (via the Cogito), along with its specific criterion for truth, I am raising the related problem of self-conception. The Baroque is a fascinatingly rich and creative cultural epoch, and reveals a number of possibilities for self-conception, as one may find, for example, in the sonnets of Shakespeare, the essays of Montaigne, and the respective "autobiographies" of Loyola and Cardano. These examples attest to the confusion and richness of such terms as: "subiectum", "self", "anima", "spiritus", "consciousness", "persona", etc., which exist not only during the Baroque epoch, but endure into all subsequent historical periods, including our own. The powerful move facilitated by the Cogito formulation, namely the laying out of a foundation of mathematical order from which a universal science may be derived, had far-ranging and deeply penetrating implications for the modern conception of self.

On the one hand, the Cogito formulation effectively stabilized the variously and inwardly directed, but as yet, not strictly subjectivist conceptions of self in the early modern period, while on the other hand, it reduced selfhood to a mere abstraction. The attempt to define a self on the basis of strict theoretical terms brings forth a number of problems, not least of all the false division between subject and object (on which the sciences operate) and a perpetuation of the confusion of the terms self and subject, self and consciousness, etc. Yet, even more problematically, the Cogito's legitimating criterion for truth creates in its train an inauthentic orientation of self to world as well as poses serious challenges to the possibility of being fully human in the modern world.

Teaching

My teaching extends naturally from my research and vice versa. I have taught an array of lower-division courses including the introductory sequence in the history of Europe (within the broad chronological range of the late-Middle Ages through the Twentieth century) and Western Civilization from antiquity to the modern period. In these courses, I approach what I feel to be significant historical and cultural problems through the engagement with primary texts. Through an historical interpretation of texts we are attempting to discover and to illuminate structures of meaning vis-à-vis the cultures that produced them. This serves to reveal how interpretations of any culture are both open-ended and historically conditioned, while further revealing how we, as "moderns", exist within a common culture and a common history-the West.

Last modified: Jun 19, 2014
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