Syracuse University Magazine

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With Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange building as a backdrop, Gregg Lambert, Dean's Professor of Humanities, discusses the practice of peace in a documentary video for the Perpetual Peace Project.

Video image courtesy of Gregg Lambert



Pursuing Peace

With a seemingly endless spiral of sectarian insurgencies, revolutions, wars, and other armed conflicts filling the 24-hour news cycle, the search for peace may be withering into little more than an exasperated yearning for the absence of war. But the ideal of universal peace should not be allowed to become a casualty of the violence, according to Gregg Lambert, Dean’s Professor of Humanities. “Peace is a positive human construction, not the absence of something else,” says Lambert, founding director of the SU Humanities Center. In 2008, working with Slought Foundation director Aaron Levy and Austrian cultural attaché Martin Rauchbauer, Lambert initiated the Perpetual Peace Project, an effort to rescue one of humanity’s distinguishing visions from losing its mojo. They named the project in pointed reference to Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay, “Toward Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” which is offered as a focal point for an ongoing international conversation aimed at reinvigorating the concept of universal peace and adapting it to current circumstances. “We are attempting to attract the energies of thinkers and practitioners—diplomats, attorneys, academics, artists, and others—to the task of reasserting peace as a dynamic force in contemporary public discourse,” Lambert says. 

To prevent the discussion from becoming a scholarly war of words or the property of a particular institution, the project has taken peace public in a variety of “curatorial settings”: a three-month exhibition in the art world at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Lower Manhattan; a symposium at the United Nations that drew the participation of working diplomats; and forums and workshops around the world, linked by available technologies. The project's web site offers a documentary video featuring more than a dozen participating speakers. “Kant’s notion of Öffentlichkeit—publicness, public space, publicity—is essential to our goal of widening the space where peace is discussed and multiplying the number and types of people confronting the issue,” Lambert says. “We staged workshops with students in Pakistan, China, and Korea, applying the question in terms of immediate local circumstances.” 

A new edition of Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” was published last year by the Slought Foundation and the SU Humanities Center, with an introductory essay by Lambert, Levy, and Rauchbauer. Although Kant wrote it more than two centuries ago, the essay is proving to be a remarkably useful sounding board for ideas. For example, Kant’s admonition that hospitality and other basic demonstrations of human decency are preconditions to a state of peace prompted Rosi Braidotti, an Italian-born philosopher teaching at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, to reconsider the political value of cosmopolitanism (“belonging to the world rather than to a part of it”). Originally associated with the bohemian left and pacifism, cosmopolitanism suffered during the 20th century as progressive constituencies shifted support to anti-colonial national liberation and cultural separatist movements. Braidotti recovers it as a political position applicable to such current realities as global citizenship, diversity, and transnational identity. “The spirit of cosmopolitanism lends itself to the idea that you can be both Moroccan and Dutch, both Muslim and European,” she says on camera. By contrast, commitments to cultural separatism can underlie violent confrontation by isolating immigrant populations and fostering support for populist parties advocating retaliation.

Lambert believes an increasing number of thinkers and practitioners are finding Kant a prescient and potent source of ideas for creating a peace to pursue. “I think the brilliance of the Kantian understanding is that the decimation of humanity is supra-natural and therefore we will have to formulate certain ideas that are not in our experience in order to avoid it,” Lambert says. “An increasing sense of self-interest may provide an incentive for humanity to move to a state of peace.” —David Marc