Visiting Speakers

Layman Lecture: April 16, 2019, 4:00 pm, Demaray 150 

"‘Pervading the Sable Veil’:  Phillis Wheatley as Early Modern Philosopher"

Jill Graper Hernandez, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Abstract: At a time in which philosophy is engaging in much-needed introspection about the content and contours of its canon, early modern philosophy is in many ways leading the charge to extend the mantle to previously-ignored voices. Apart from the well-worn worry over what counts as philosophy, early modern faces the challenge of uncovering voices that are difficult to identify because either they wrote in guises other than philosophy or they did not write at all but were part of an oral tradition. This paper claims the work of one such voice and contends that early modern, African-American poet Phillis Wheatley can be read as a philosopher, especially a philosopher of religion whose poetry provides interesting philosophical fodder for narrative theodicy. Ever since Thomas Jefferson disparaged Wheatley’s work in 1774 for proving that “the Negro lacked imagination and was dull, tasteless, and anomalous,” Wheatley’s poetry has fueled debate in literary circles across Europe and America.  On one hand, Wheatley is the foremother of the African-American literary tradition, yet on the other, her poetry has received critiques as varied as being written in a neoclassical “white” style, poorly imitating Alexander Pope, and not reflecting the black experience. Voltaire declared her 1773 Poems on Various Occasions, Religious and Moral, to be “genius on all parts of the earth,” and prominent sponsors such as John Hancock and the Reverend Charles Chauncey signed on to testify to the legitimacy of the poetry and its source. Although contemporary literary scholarship on Wheatley no longer perseverates on the legitimacy of her work, significant disagreement remains over the extent to which her poetry serves as a significant, unique contribution beyond the fact that it was written by a teenage female slave. In philosophy, there is no such debate, because no one to date has raised the question over whether the content of Wheatley’s work should be considered ‘philosophical’.  This paper will suggest that, akin to much of the reticence to expand the early modern canon to other figures, whether Wheatley can be considered a philosopher is more of an issue of whether philosophers can constructively engage with the poetry than whether it is philosophical.  After giving a brief biographical sketch, then, this paper will examine a number of Wheatley’s poems to uncover key philosophical concepts in the work, many of which center on the problem of moral evil. This will allow me to demonstrate that Wheatley’s poems are philosophical and should count as a philosophical source, and to argue that (as philosophy), Wheatley’s philosophy of religion contributes to the contemporary discourse over the problem of evil.  That Wheatley’s work could be included in the canon is striking itself as a historical note, but even more important philosophically is the addition of her testimony to the literature over the problem of concrete evil.

The Layman Lecture is an annual lecture hosted by the Department of Philosophy in honor of Professor Emeritus, Steve Layman. Professor Layman was member, and chief architect, of the department in its current formulation from 1986 to 1996, and chair from 1996 to 2016. 

The lecture is sponsored by the Center for Scholarship and Faculty Development and the generous donations of alumni. Contributions can be made here (kindly designate “Layman Lecture”).

In addition, the Department hosts occasional talks by visiting philosophers. Recent speakers include:

Spring 2018 (Layman Lecture), Meghan Sullivan, “Time Biases and Valuing Afterlives”

Fall 2017, Billy Dunaway, “Theological Predication: Duns Scotus, Univocity, and Knowledge”

Spring 2017, Robert Audi (Layman Lecture), “Faith, Belief, and the Problem of Evil” 

Fall 2016, Trent Dougherty, “Faith, Reason, and Religious Disagreement: Surprising Results”

Spring 2016, Steve Layman, Book Symposium: Philosophical Approaches to the Atonement, Incarnation, and the Trinity. With comments by Daniel Howard-Snyder and Terence Cuneo

 Fall 2014, Alfred Mele, “Free Will and Neuroscience,” and “On the Situationist Challenge to Free Will” 

Spring 2012, SPU Philosophy Alumni Panel: Jennifer Corns, Jonathan Jacobs, Nathan King, John Mouracade           

Fall 2009, Jaegwon Kim, “Metaphysical Considerations on Consciousness and the Science of Consciousness”

Fall 2009, Kevin Corcoran, “Persons, Bodies, and Relationality”

Fall 2008, Nicholas Wolterstorff , “Beauty, Love, Justice, and Worship”

Spring 2008, Daniel Dombrowski, “The Concept of God: A Process Point of View”

Fall 2007, James Van Cleve, “Direct Realism and Double Vision”






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