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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
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
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