Philosophy Colloquium: Sandra Shapshay, Hunter College

Why Monuments?

The Fall 2020 Philosophy Colloquium Series presents Sandra Shapshay (Hunter College, CUNY).

This colloquium talk will be hosted on Zoom by Jonathan Weinberg. Please contact Dr. Weinberg if you would like to attend the talk.


For the past several years, controversies over monuments have been making the news daily. Confederate monuments such as equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee are coming down throughout the Southern U.S., while statues of British slave traders (e.g. Edward Colton) and of figures centrally involved in European Colonialism like Christopher Columbus and Cecil Rhodes have been defaced, and in some cases, thrown into nearby bodies of water. Even statues that commemorate milestones in the struggle for racial justice in the U.S., like the 1876 Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., have sparked controversy, for in this case, a standing, heroic Lincoln stretches out his arm as if blessing a rather passive, kneeling (though perhaps rising) newly freed slave. Some protestors have raised the removal question here not on the basis of whom the sculpture commemorates but on the basis of how it does so.

Yet controversies over monuments are not new. In the U.S., they date back to the founding of the nation itself. As art historian Kirk Savage has detailed, iconoclastic arguments were levelled at every stage of the plans to build the national monument to George Washington. Federalists and Republicans wondered whether monuments (especially of the Classical and European mold) were compatible with democracy. And in Europe, ever since WWII, there has been a widespread suspicion that, in the words of memorial artist Jochen Shalev-Gerz, there is a “fascist tendency in all monuments.”

In this talk, I take up this iconoclastic question afresh in light of recent struggles for racial justice and decolonization: Should democratic societies continue to create and/or maintain public monuments at all? Why should monuments in general continue to dot our public landscape, organizing public space and aiming to enshrine civic ideals? Building on my recent work on the aesthetics of monuments, as well as philosophical reflection on the ethics of public memory (by Jeffrey Blustein, Margaret Walker, and Thomas McCarthy among others), I’ll offer a moderate defense of monuments: Monuments in general should continue to dot our public landscape insofar as they propound shared civic ideals in a pluralistic society, though some particular monuments (Confederate ones especially) should be removed precisely because their meanings act to subvert such civic ideals.



3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 6, 2020

Event Contacts

Jonathan Weinberg