We live in situations that generally make sense to us—here I am sitting in this coffee shop, with my best friend, taking advantage of the fact that it’s the weekend to take a break from the paperwork I have to complete before returning to the office on Monday—and in those situations we have a fairly clear sense of ourselves, a fairly clear sense of who we are.  The things that populate our world and the parameters that define our situation are familiar to us, and they provide the terms we use to make sense of our own identities.  We act as if these terms make sense to us and, indeed, we often act as if these terms are the “natural” ones for understanding ourselves.  In fact, though, these familiar terms and situations are generally frames of reference that have been handed down to us: for the most part, they are terms that have been culturally and historically shaped, and we have inherited them, typically without really understanding where they have come from or why they were invented, and, further, typically not noticing how culturally-specific and contingent they are.  Marriage, the identifying of the days of the week, the invention of coffee, the development of clothing styles, the very creating of our native language, are all cultural—and culturally specific—accomplishments that have their roots in specific human practices and human needs.  We grow up into situations in which these accomplishments are taken for granted, and we take them over as the natural terms within which to define our lives, when in fact these terms actually represent not the given order of nature, but the result of a history of human effort to figure out how to live.  This human accomplishment is of outstanding value and is of incomparable importance—we have every reason, that is, to take it seriously and to be grateful for it.  At the same time, this human accomplishment is only that—it is only the history of specific human efforts to make sense of how to live, and for that reason it is something open to challenge and criticism.  The history of human culture has bequeathed to us incredible resources for making our lives rich and rewarding; nonetheless, it is up to us—to each of us individually, and to ourselves as communities—to figure out for ourselves how to live our lives in worthwhile and fulfilling ways.My own philosophical work is focused on this juncture where the perspective of the one living a life intersects with the established terms that human culture has handed down to us for making sense of our lives.  At every moment each of us lives at this juncture: we all, all the time, are simultaneously making sense of our lives for ourselves and fitting into the established terms of our world.  Oftentimes, this juncture is experienced as a site of satisfaction, excitement, or comfort: we are excited to inhabit the structures of our world, and feel the thrill and the satisfaction of making progress along the established routes as we complete a university degree, win second place in a sporting competition, or get a promotion at work.  At other times, though, (and perhaps just as often), this juncture is experienced as a site of dissatisfaction, anxiety, or alienation: we can find the terms offered to us by the world to be a poor fit for our needs, our aspirations, our sense of what is right, as when we feel constricted by prevailing norms regarding sexuality and relationships, by cultural expectations for success, or by laws or institutions that seem unfairly oppressive.  We both do and do not “belong” within the established terms of our world: for some of us, most of life will be spent in the experience of belonging, while for others most of life will be spent in the experience of not-belonging; for all of us, different situations can bring out either side of this to a greater or lesser degree.  My philosophical work has focused on studying different facets of this situation, sometimes sorting out the basic principles for understanding this structure, at other times addressing the concrete forms these issues of “belonging” and “not belonging” take.

My book Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life is an attempt to sort out the basic structure of our experience of the world, focusing on this intersection of “perspective” with “world.”  I intend this book, (written for any educated adult reader, and not just for philosophy specialists), to be of interest to anyone who is trying to make sense of his or her life, but it focuses especially on understanding the way in which people often find themselves developing neurotic problems as they try to navigate through the world.  I focus on neurotic problems partially in an effort to contribute to the improvement of the mental health field, but more importantly because almost all of us will find ourselves grappling with some such problem at some point.  These problems—our hangups, obsessions, phobias—are also specially helpful for revealing the “juncture” of perspective and world: they reveal, that is, the way we experience things as not quite “fitting” with each other, and they provide a powerful lens for understanding what is happening in all our everyday experience.  In particular, I use the discussion of neurotic problems to tease out the importance of the formative role our family-experience plays in shaping our personalities.  My goal in Human Experience is to put the reader in a powerful position for thinking about the nature of her or his own personality, about the nature of her or his family, and especially about how to approach changing her or his life and becoming happier.

My book Bearing Witness to Epiphany: Persons, Things, and the Nature of Erotic Life is again written for all adult readers (and not just philosophy specialists), and it is a study of “meaning”—how things come to be meaningful for us, and, in general, what is involved in making sense of the world and of our lives—and about the personal, interpersonal, and political structures that are interwoven with our practices of “making sense” of things.  Bearing Witness to Epiphany has as its special focus a study of the nature of interpersonal relationships: in our sexual and romantic life, we grapple with the special challenges that come from the juncture of our perspective with the perspective of another, and the complex range of experiences, personal changes, and responsibilities that grow out of this is at the core of what makes our lives meaningful.  The focus on this most intimate domain of personal and interpersonal experience leads into a study of the nature of self-expression, and Bearing Witness to Epiphany also investigates the nature and the central importance of art and language in our lives.  Like Human Experience, Bearing Witness to Epiphany is intended not simply as a “scholarly study” of these matters, but as a book that contributes to personal growth and actually empowers the reader to engage in self-transformative change.

I am currently completing a third book that continues this general line of inquiry, tentatively called Sites of Exposure.  This book focuses especially on the place of art, politics, and religion in our efforts to develop meaningful lives.  I hope it will be available in 2012.

I have also published two books on the work of the 19th Century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, and a third book is forthcoming.  The second one, Reading Hegel’s Phenomenology is a step-by-step study of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.  This work of Hegel’s is, to my mind, one of the most important and insightful works of philosophy ever written, but it is written in a very difficult and obscure style, with the consequence that its lessons are not easily available to most readers.  I wrote Reading Hegel’s Philosophy in order to make Hegel’s ideas accessible to a broader reading audience, and to encourage scholars to recognize more so than they often do the power of Hegel’s insights.  My new book, Infinite Phenomenology: The Lessons of Hegel’s Science of Experience continues this same project.  Reading Hegel’s Phenomenology has been adopted by a number of teachers as a companion text for their course on Hegel’s philosophy, and I hope that Infinite Phenomenology will similarly provide a helpful route of entry into Hegel’s philosophy for students and that scholars will find it a provocative and insightful commentary on Hegel’s work.  My earlier book on Hegel, The Self and Its Body in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, is a more specialized study, drawing out the interpretation of the nature of human embodiment that is implied in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

I also publish articles on many topics in Ancient Philosophy and in Contemporary Continental Philosophy.  I am currently working on a new book in each of these areas, one a set of studies of the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, the other an investigation of the project of philosophical inquiry as that is developed in the works of the French philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Derrida.

Currently, I teach philosophy at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada.  I also direct the Toronto Summer Seminar in Philosophy, an annual workshop for philosophy professors and graduate students.

The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).