Ryan Fagan, PhD
Research Assistant Professor
Department of History and Philosophy of Medicine
2025 Robinson, Mailstop 1025
3901 Rainbow Blvd., Kansas City, KS 66160
913-588-7040 -- office
913-588-7060 -- fax
As a 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. Specifically my research engages with Descartes and the question of the Cogito, and follows from my dissertation. Though most of the current scholarship continues to situate Descartes in terms of the history of philosophy or intellectual history, I move to redefine the problem of the Cogito in terms of a cultural history. This approach retains considerable relevance to more conventional approaches to intellectual history as well as to the histories of science and medicine. My research offers a 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. I proceed along three major axes of inquiry: 1) that the Cogito relates to the problem of self-definition in the seventeenth century, 2) that selfhood relates to the larger problem of the Baroque, and 3) that the Baroque relates to the problem of defining the modern cultural epoch.
At the very core of the Cogito 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's seminal role in the histories of philosophy and science. My interpretation moves within the currents of post-modern criticism, which I recognize as a necessary point of departure from which to raise not only broader and more pervasive questions, but also questions fundamental to a historical and moral existence. I attempt to move beyond more narrowly defined approaches in the history of philosophy or intellectual history; most especially the treatment of the Cogito as a fated moment within the internal history of metaphysics-of which science is a part. I suggest that the turn to the Cogito, from which the broader notion of subjectivity derives, can be understood only via the 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 placing the Cogito within a cultural-historical frame, I seek to examine the dynamics through which its meaning became expressed, stabilized and circulated-ultimately to become dominant within the horizon of modern culture. The problem of subjectivity forces us to raise 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: "subjectum", "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.
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 through the modern period. As my research involves to a great extent the history and philosophy of science, I have taught the introductory survey in those areas. Upper-division courses include the intellectual history of the seventeenth century. Also, I have developed courses relevant to a number of aspects in the cultural and intellectual history from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century as well as the history of self-conception. In my course design, I continue to approach what I feel to be significant historical and cultural problems, mainly through the engagement with primary texts. Through a historical interpretation of texts students are guided in illuminating-to varying degrees-structures of meaning vis-à-vis the cultures that produced them. Such an approach aims to reveal how interpretations of any culture are both open-ended and historically conditioned, while at the same time, they reveal how we as "moderns" exist within a common culture, and indeed, a common history-the West.