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Regular version of the site

Living and Working in Multicultural Moscow

In 2017, Sean Winkler joined the School of Philosophy as a research fellow. Originally from Chino Hills, California, he holds an undergraduate and Master’s degree in philosophy from Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles, California), as well as a Master’s degree and PhD from KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium), where his dissertation focused on the work of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. In his role as a postdoctoral research fellow for the School of Philosophy at HSE, Winkler specializes in the study of early modern philosophy. Besides early modern thought, his interests span from 20th-century French continental philosophy, to critical theory, to Daoism and to philosophy of science.

Last fall, we profiled Sean Winkler shortly after he joined the School of Philosophy, and he recently spoke to the HSE News Service in a follow-up interview about some of his latest research and other activities, as well as about his life in Moscow since joining HSE.

— What was your main motivation in moving to Moscow?

— Russia has been a part of my life, so it seems, from the beginning. My maternal grandfather’s family were Jews from Russia, who emigrated to the United States in the 1920s. Because of the stories passed down from him, I have had some familiarity with and interest in Russian culture and history since my youth. My girlfriend is also from Russia, from St. Petersburg specifically, which has familiarized me with the country a great deal more since the time we have been together. I was drawn to Moscow, because in my current research, I consult several 20th century Russian experts on early modern philosophy. The opportunity to work in Moscow has allowed me to work among scholars who were more familiar with their work, as well as a chance to better familiarize myself with the Russian language and perhaps, one day read their original, untranslated works.

— What are you currently researching?

— My current research addresses the topic of, what I call, ‘affective machines’ in 17th century philosophy. Affective machines refer to the conceptual model by which actual machines came to be used as a way of studying and understanding human emotions. The practice of studying human emotions in this way is rather prevalent today. For instance, various aspects of philosophy of mind, psychology, software design, marketing, etc., now involve modelling human emotions with the aid of and by way of comparison to computers. What I find strange, however, is that human beings have developed and co-existed with machines, even in somewhat sophisticated forms, since as far back as ancient times. But, the practice of comparing human beings, and more specifically human emotions, to machines did not begin until the 17th century.  Something dramatic took place then, and it is the goal of my research to understand what it was and how it was responsible for drawing these two very unlike things, human emotions and machines, into comparison.

— What has it been like to live and work in a multicultural environment? What differs from what you expected before coming to Moscow?

— It’s been a very exciting experience for me. I have had the opportunity to work side-by-side with students, fellow postdoctoral researchers and professors from Russia and from all over the world. Most Fridays, the International Faculty of Philosophy hosts The English Philosophy Colloquium, which offers the opportunity to meet and socialize with Russian and international faculty, as well as to be introduced to research of professors from other universities. One thing that was unexpected was how much leeway I would have to pursue my own research interests. I am allowed a great deal of space to write papers and research, which I’m very appreciative of.

— Can you share any useful tips for living in Moscow?

— If you have the opportunity to live in Moscow, I would encourage you to really immerse yourself in Russia’s rich culture and history. Moscow is home to some of the world’s finest theatres, and although some are quite expensive, there are many opportunities to attend showings of both classical and contemporary operas, plays, etc., that are quite affordable. I would also recommend watching some of the great classics of Russian cinema, reading the works of classical literature, philosophy and politics, etc. Plan outings or excursions with your colleagues and also look outside of academics for other groups with whom you might share an interest. Just recently, I joined a Facebook group called ‘365 Things to Do in Moscow’, which, on an almost daily basis, hosts events like language exchanges, dances, pub quizzes, tours, etc. Last but not least, I would encourage anyone planning on coming to Moscow to take a course in Russian.

— What are some of the things you like to do in your free time?

— During my free time, I like exploring the city’s museums and taking walks through different neighbourhoods.  I have a particular affinity to the Izmailovsky Market, not because I’m all that interested in buying anything, but because you get to see a lot of day-to-day items that one wouldn’t ordinarily find in a museum. Since moving to Moscow, I’ve also taken up an old hobby of mine – short-story writing. One thing that I’m still looking forward to doing is to taking day or weekend trips to some of the cities surrounding Moscow.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service

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