Philosophy professor awarded NEH grant

Nicholas D. Smith stands in front of his extensive office library. Photo by: Lacey Jacoby

A first for Lewis & Clark, and the first of its kind in over two decades

by Joey Carmichael /// News Editor

James F. Miller Professor of Humanities Nicholas D. Smith was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to direct a five-week philosophy seminar at Lewis & Clark College this summer. It is extremely rare for an undergraduate-only institution to host these seminars, and LC has never before had the honor. The seminar will study “the historical person, and also the character in Plato’s dialogues, by the name of Socrates,” Smith said. “Those can be a little bit hard to sort out.”

Each year, NEH funds seminars for numerous disciplines, but only funds one or two annually in philosophy. There are NEH seminars for high school teachers as well as for college and university professors. Smith’s seminar is the latter type, and will host a “terrific group” comprised of fourteen admitted professors from around the country, as well as one graduate student from Stanford University and another from Pennsylvania State University.

Over twenty years ago, Smith attended the last NEH seminar on Socrates, directed by the renowned Gregory Vlastos. He explained the importance of that seminar to his career and development as a scholar: in addition to the obvious intellectual benefit, the seminar allowed him to meet scholars who would become frequent collaborators, colleagues and friends. “I know the value of these things,” he said. “So, I guess I feel that I’ve reached a certain point in my career where it would be nice to be able to do for others what I had done for me.”

Smith is excited for the opportunity, though he expressed one regret. Three LC faculty members were interested in applying to participate, including Associate Professor of Philosophy Joel Martinez. However, NEH strictly forbids any colleagues from the director’s institution from applying.

At first, Smith considered hosting the seminar at a “Research I” institution—colleges or universities with graduate programs and extensive libraries—where NEH seminars are typically held. He looked at UC Berkeley as well as University of Washington, but both would have been too expensive. Instead, he opted to apply for the grant with LC as host, despite its relatively limited libraries. He knew this could be a problem for his application, but took steps to alleviate the shortcomings. He made the entirety of syllabus materials available in electronic form. In addition, Smith organized a shuttle service to and from Reed College. Reed, he said, has “a good—actually, a very good—library for philosophy and classical studies for an undergraduate-only institution.” He felt that the two libraries would suffice to dispel any worries from the NEH committee.

Yet, also, Smith has an outstanding reputation. He has made some of the most significant contributions to the field in the last thirty years. His curriculum vitae is immense—including journal articles, encyclopedia and dictionary entries, as well as reviews and translations—and most of his work focuses on Platonic and Socratic studies. His respect in the field, then, contributed a great deal to the strength of his proposal.

In the end, NEH approved Smith’s application, providing him with $110,000 for the seminar. The vast bulk of this grant money will go to the admitted participants. “Each of the participants gets a stipend of almost $4,000,” Smith said. However, the participants’ stipends primarily cover their travel and housing expenses. “It’s not a money maker,” he said.

Instead, the sixteen participants are attending to further their research under Smith’s guidance—and thereby benefit their own careers and scholarship. The seminar will start June 22 and last until July 25. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays will be dedicated to formal meetings, and each session will have a unique topic within the field of Socratic studies. Tuesdays and Thursdays will give the attendees a chance to share their own work in “colloquium-style presentations,” Smith said. “Those sessions,” he continued, “are open to the community. I’m hoping that some of my colleagues and students who are around here this summer will attend at least some of those.” In addition to Smith and the attendees, a few other notable Socratic scholars will be passing through for portions of the seminar.

For more information on the seminar, visit

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