Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Professor shares philosophical concepts within political science

By Courtney Westlake

Dr. Richard Gilman-Opalsky was originally interested in philosophy as a career field and obtained both his bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy.

But it was as he was working to get his Ph.D. that he realized he "wanted to ask questions about politics that were being asked more in political science than in philosophy," he said.

"I wanted to look at actual social movements, look at examples of political action of various kinds, and, within philosophy, that's less common to do," Gilman-Opalsky said. "So I changed my discipline to political science, so I could do the research I wanted to do for my dissertation."

Gilman-Opalsky obtained his Ph.D. in political science from The New School for Social Research and came to UIS in fall 2006. He has found that the priorities of the university and political science program are directly in line with his personal priorities, which include a number one focus on educating students and teaching the topics he is passionate about.

Gilman-Opalsky teaches classes that focus on topics like globalization and the future of democracy, introduction to political philosophy, ideas and ideologies, and democratization and the public sphere. The public sphere is one of Gilman-Opalsky's most central interests, and the course he teaches is built from the research he did while writing a book that is coming out next month called "Unbounded Publics: Transgressive Public Spheres, Zapatismo, and Political Theory," he said.

"Democratization and the Public Sphere is a course that says democracy is not just elections and voting," he said. "It has to do with culture. There are a lot of problems with elections; voting and elections are just one small part of politics. So that course is a semester-long investigation of a more robust notion of democracy."

Gilman-Opalsky said he finds UIS a "remarkable and rare fit" for his specific interests in political philosophy. He defines political philosophy as, very generally, asking political questions to which there aren't clear answers. The field doesn't focus on explaining or analyzing how things are, but "deciding how things should be," he said.

"Within political philosophy, we are concerned with some of the big moral and ethical questions of how things aren't but could be and should be," Gilman-Opalsky said. "What would be the best government? What would be the best society? Why don't we have it? Could we?"

"When you can say this is how things ought to be and then this is how things are, you can observe the distance between the two, and then get to the bottom of what obstacles are in the way of moving from point A to point B," he continued.

Because UIS is located in the state's capital, Gilman-Opalsky said he finds that many students are attracted to what he calls "practical politics" - working for the state government, working for a particular political party, lobbying and the like. So while his students might originally be unsure about looking at the philosophical side of politics, he said he has seen very positive reactions as they study the concepts.

"I think there tends to be a polarizing reaction," Gilman-Opalsky said. "But because we discuss exciting questions, provocative questions and controversial questions, I think students respond very, very well to courses in political philosophy."