Story by Mitchell Brown, for The Muleskinner—
Brandon Christen, graduate student studying speech communication, and his associates in the Vienna Circle are on a mission to move intellectual discourse to the foreground at UCM.
The group’s namesake is taken from a collection of philosophers called the Vienna Circle who met at the University of Vienna in the 1920s.
Christen’s group meets regularly, usually off campus, to discuss a wide array of topics, ranging from philosophy to politics to theology.
In December, days after the Newtown, Conn., shooting, the group met at Java Junction in downtown Warrensburg to discuss if suicide is ever a logical decision, and what role should the government play, if any, concerning mental health services.
The discussion went on for over three hours. Speaking on serious issues in public is something many of the members of the Vienna Circle have already done.
Many of the members of the circle were, or are currently, on the Talking Mules Speech and Debate team.
Micah Chrisman, senior communication studies major, is on the debate team and a member of the Vienna Circle. He explained how the format of the Vienna Circle differs from formal debate.
Members of the Vienna Circle are not allowed to interrupt each other during their discussions.
The chance for rebuttal is allowed after the opening round of discussion. Chrisman said the overlap between the Talking Mules and the Vienna Circle is related to pre-existing relationships on the debate team.
“People who start going to Vienna Circle who are part of the debate team are like, ‘hey you should come hang out;’ we drink coffee and talk informally,” Chrisman said. “My personal motivation (for being involved with the Vienna Circle) is just (it’s) an outside academic group that facilitates good discourse and conversation.”
“I think UCM’s debate team is the perfect, fertile feeding ground from which the types of minds that gravitate towards Vienna Circle emerge,” Christen said.
The creation of the Vienna Circle was born out of Christen’s disdain for unoriginal conversation. One of his hopes with the group is to provide a counterbalance to what Christen sees as a rising tide of anti-intellectualism on campus.
“There is definitely an attitude of that it’s not cool to be intelligent,” Christen said. He explained there is a popular notion that if someone wants to talk more about Descartes, Nietzsche or Sartre than sports or entertainment, then he or she is viewed as “weird.” Christen said he would like to change that.
He wants to take the group campus-wide and stage public events, encouraging anyone who is interested to attend.
No specifics on campus-wide Vienna Circle activities have been finalized, but Christen has suggested a list of possibilities, which includes a roundtable discussion, and upon its conclusion, the floor would be opened for questions from the audience, and the presentation of theses by members of the circle. Christen also brought up the idea of student versus faculty debates.
Although Christen has plans for public Vienna Circle events, membership in the group is on an invitation-only basis, but meetings are open to the public.
Christen said one of the prerequisites for possible members is that they should be opinionated. “Their opinions need to be about the sort of issues we are interested in,” Christen said. “I could care less about what you think about the Dallas Cowboys.”
Christen said members of the circle have to be willing to entertain and answer questions about their beliefs. He also said respect for other members is required during discussions, and personal attacks are not permitted.
Christen has a reputation on campus as an outspoken atheist, which is related to the position he formerly had with the Secular Student Alliance of UCM, and his debate with Brother Jed Smock last spring, but he said the Vienna Circle is not about the promotion of a singular ideology.
Christen is currently the only atheist in the circle. The ranks of the group are also filled with Christians, agnostics and deists.
Although Christen is enthusiastic about the expansion of the Vienna Circle, not all of the members share his enthusiasm.
Danny Province, 2011 UCM alumnus, said he doesn’t agree with Christen’s agenda. He said the only reason he is in the group is because he is friends with Christen.
Province said his approach would be to keep the events as invitation-only affairs. He said he would only invite people whom he felt could substantially contribute to the discussion.
“There needs to be opinion leaders that know enough about a topic to sort of set along what the baselines are of the topic,” Province said. He said doing so would set a higher standard.
Even though Province disagrees with the Vienna Circle’s mission, he remarked that the group is facilitating a need. “It seems like it’s doing what it was originally meant to do, sort of drawing the cream of the crop,” he said. “It won’t draw the average person.”