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Vol 40  No 2
August 30, 2007


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Student View
- Getting a fresh start
- Dollars and common sense




Next issue:
Sept. 20, 2007

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Philosopher transmutes interest in alchemy into major award
by Leslie Vryenhoek


Dr. Sean McGrath

Dr. Sean McGrath brings with him to Memorial a keen interest in German philosophy, alchemy and the malaise of the western world. The Philosophy Department’s newest addition, he also arrives toting a prestigious Humboldt Foundation Fellowship, which will allow him to spend eight months in Germany conducting research on the influence of alchemy on philosophy and psychotherapy.

Dr. McGrath did his undergraduate work at Memorial, graduating in 1989, and his graduate work at the University of Toronto. He taught at Mount Allison University for the past three years before being drawn back here.

“I was seduced by the makeover that Memorial has had in the last 20 years. It has grown a much more visible research profile in recent years.”

His specializations include phenomenology, a 20th century philosophical movement he says is better known for its hybrid offspring – existentialism, hermeneutics and deconstructionism.

“Phenomenology is an effort to give descriptive accounts of the basic and recurring features of the human experience,” he explained. “It brings a structured analysis with scientific rigour to the question of what it means to be human.”

But it’s another passion – one for alchemy – that garnered him the Humboldt Fellowship. He calls that project German Idealism, Alchemy and the Road Not Taken in Western Technology.

Alchemy, he said, has long been under-recognized.

“It’s been on the fringes. It’s been marginalized as spooky, or relating to the occult, so it went underground. And yet it has had a significant influence on mainstream philosophers, as well as movements such as psychotherapy and homeopathy.”

Why an interest in this esoteric concept, which has its roots in primitive chemists attempts to turn lead into gold?

“Alchemy is based in the notion of transmutation. The alchemists believed they could change the most base substance into the most sublime through a spiritual and physical engagement of the basic elements of nature, so it’s about the interplay of opposites,” he said.

His aim is to identify western resources that can address problems caused by science and technology, such as ecological degradation, cultural decline and spiritual despair – what he refers to as “a general western sense of feeling unwell.”

The fact that alchemy is a western tradition that stresses a holistic approach is important, as Dr. McGrath believes these problems require a western remedy because they are bound up with our way of thinking.

True to its origins, alchemy is about the emergence of opposites out of one another. The concept is exemplified in the basic principle of toxicology found in homeopathy, for example, which contends that wherever there is disease, the roots of health can also be found.

“Alchemy says that there can be no health without participating in disease. On a moral and spiritual level, you cannot cultivate goodness without having been exposed to evil,” Dr. McGrath explained.

He subscribes to 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s contention that technology and rationality may be the destiny of the west, but they eclipse the human being, and they are killing us and destroying the planet.

The Humboldt Fellowship will allow Dr. McGrath to spend several months conducting archival research and working closely with philosophers at Freiburg University, where Heidegger spent much of his life.

“Heidegger diagnosed the malaise of the west without prescribing a cure. I want to ask how we can rebalance things such that the western technological thinking that is killing us can instead enliven us.”

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