Dr. Michael L. Thomas

Fellow von Oktober 2014 bis Juli 2015

My first philosophical paper was a personal essay I wrote as a high school student in Shreveport, Louisiana. In it, I used my readings of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault to argue that our most basic beliefs are not purely a matter of truth or falsehood, but are held on account of their effects on our own character and relationships with others. This early position has informed my intellectual interests ever since, both inside and outside of university life.

My research in the University of Chicago’s John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought has spanned the fields of social and political theory, philosophy, and literature. This research, along with my teaching in Chicago and at Roosevelt University, has granted me the opportunity to explore how we may use philosophical concepts to examine contemporary life as it is reflected in intellectual movements, political organizations, and popular culture. In my doctoral dissertation “Speculation and Civilization in the Social Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead,” I claim that we can use Whitehead’s understanding of experience to capture how our theoretical understanding of societies shapes our everyday understanding of the necessities and possibilities of life. From this perspective, theory should play an active role in shaping our concern about the world, drawing us to incorporate more aspects of experience into consideration of our individual actions. Doing so affects our capacity to feel our relationships with others and exist as properly “social” creatures.  My present work involves the connection between philosophy, social theory, and aesthetics. I am primarily concerned with how our individual perspectives, social relationships, and possibilities for the future may be enhanced by thinking of the world in terms of aesthetic composition.

Outside of the academy, I am an avid sports fan (particularly American Football, Soccer, and Rugby), a lover of music, television, art, and film. Besides my intrinsic enjoyment of these activities, I believe that they give us yet another lens through which we can understand the present and can begin to communicate this understanding to others.  

Projekt am Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie Hannover

Aesthetic Experience and the Composition of the Social

The emergence of new philosophical movements such as Speculative Realism, Neo-Realism, and Constructivism indicates a shift in philosophical thought towards examining how our thought about the world ultimately plays a role in shaping it. Each of these movements grounds itself in a rejection of the Kantian position that categories of reason are external to the empirical world and can never grasp its content. In opposition to this distinction, these “new realisms” emphasize that experience involves both abstract and concrete elements in the construction of individual perspectives and their connection in a shared social reality. From this perspective, the key philosophical questions center on the formation of individual perspectives, their role in social organization, and what means we have for using them to generate social progress.

My project will explore these questions through an examination of key movements in social theory (The American Pragmatists, the College de Sociologie in France, and the Institute for Social Research  in Germany) to see how the sociological dimension of art may help us generate categories adequate to address these questions in the present. The discussion of the Pragmatists will center on the aesthetics of individual perception and the use of art for cultivating a sense of individual curiosity and the harmony of social composition. The College de Sociologie shifts the discussion to the production of a “feeling” of social reality which they associate with Durkheim’s sense of “the sacred”. The work of the Frankfurt School will be used to examine the creative possibilities that can be located through a critical examination of cultural production both in the academy and in the arts and to ask what conditions are necessary for the production of richer individual and collective experience. 

Based on this examination, I hope to demonstrate that an emphasis on the “aesthetics” of the social may aid us in generating forms of social theory that positively contribute to our experience of social life. Doing so should refocus our understanding of the ideal of social life away from individualist capitalist achievement, and towards the protection of our capacity to enrich our own personal experience and ability to actively participate in civilized activity with others for the production of a common world.