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Meet the Fellows: 2018 Newcombe Fellow Alexander Englert

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship fosters the original and significant study of ethical or religious values in all fields of the humanities and social sciences. The 2018 class, announced by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, includes Alexander Englert, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. Alexander’s dissertation, titled Evolving the Highest Good: A Study of a Kantian Idea, investigates the connection between ideals and moral action in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Alexander presents the questions that have shaped his focus:

A Quaker meetinghouse near campus often catches my eye because it has something to say… literally.  Written in large letters on the facade is the phrase: “Seek Together a World at Peace.”  When reading this message, it speaks to me.  Indeed, it moves me.  The ideal of a world at peace offers a collective goal—a standard that we should approximate.  And while I want to become a better human being and pursue such an ideal, I wonder whether ideals—such as world peace, the greater good, utopia, or perfect virtue—play any necessary role in our everyday doings at all?  That is, I often feel like I act on autopilot.  Yes, I try to be decent.  I try to do the right thing.  And still, on reflection, I often feel (as it were) asleep at the wheel.  That is, I often feel like I act without a goal in mind, let alone an ideal.

As a philosopher, I find this state of affairs puzzling.  Ideals seem to move me one moment and be forgotten in the next.  To work through this puzzle, I have been investigating the philosophy of Immanuel Kant who argues that moral ideals (in particular, the highest good) perform a necessary function in our moral lives.  Of course, in philosophy we usually find more questions rather than answers, which brings me back to the Quaker meetinghouse.  Even if answers elude me, perhaps it is enough that such ideals move us and that certain communities remind us of them.

For more information about the 2018 Newcombe Fellows and a list of their dissertation titles, click here.


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