From Santiago to South Bend: Interviewing Matías Petersen, co-director of semiannual UANDES research visit to Notre Dame

Author: Christopher Enabnit

Seal/Logo of the Universidad de los Andes: an oval containing mountains, the sun, a seashell, and a book.

Each January a research group from the Universidad de los Andes (Santiago, Chile) travels to Notre Dame, sponsored by UANDES' Nueva Cultura project as well as Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture and Jacques Maritain Center. Comprising individuals at diverse stages in their academic careers, the group utilizes its time on campus to advance research projects using Notre Dame’s world-class collections and to support each other in academic and personal formation. Matías Petersen, Professor of Political Economy and Director of the SIGNOS Center at UANDES, directs visits together with Joaquín Garcia-Huidobro, Professor of Philosophy at UANDES. Christopher Enabnit was able to touch base with Matías and learn what makes this research opportunity distinctive for all of its participants.

Christopher Enabnit: Matías, thank you for taking the time to share about this research trip that you and Joaquin are leading. I understand that this trip is sponsored by the Nueva Cultura project at the Universidad de los Andes. Can you tell me about this project and its mission?

Man wearing blue oxford shirt and beige jacket, with shaved head and brown graying beard
Matías Petersen

Matías Petersen: Thanks to you, Chris, for this opportunity. Nueva Cultura supports this project by funding the research stays of the graduate students that come with us. We also invite faculty members from los Andes alongside graduate students. The Nueva Cultura project seeks to train political and social leaders, as well as prestigious academics, who can actively engage in public discussion. At the same time, it aims to support academics from various universities so that they can disseminate constructive ideas in their respective environments and prepare young people to do the same. In addition, we have an initiative to incorporate into academic life women who had an academic vocation but decided to devote several years of their lives to their family and children. This is a very interesting program: now, five women are participating in it and the results have been excellent.

CE: You are a professor of political economy at the Universidad de los Andes and Director of SIGNOS. Can you tell me about your research interests? How did you become involved in these research visits to Notre Dame?

MP: My academic work focuses on two lines of research. On the one hand, I have devoted myself to the study of the relationship between economic theory and moral philosophy. An example of this research is a book I will publish (with Routledge) in the coming months on Alasdair MacIntyre's critique of contemporary political-economic structures. On the other hand, I have an interest in the philosophy of science. Examples of this interest are my research on the epistemological status of rational choice theory in economics, and an analysis of the notion of causality implicit in randomized controlled trials.

I became involved in these trips in 2020, when Joaquín invited me. From 2021 onwards I’ve been helping Joaquín with the organization and the mentoring that’s involved in each trip.

CE: Now, the members of your research groups are at varied stages in their academic formation, and have diverse plans for how their research may impact their career. Who are the sorts of people that join for these research trips? What motivates you to bring them together for these two weeks of intensive research?

MP: There are three types of people in the group. First, we are joined by faculty members of the Universidad de los Andes, from different disciplines, who come over to carry out whatever research project they are working on. For example, Jose Luis Widow, who came with us this January, is working on how the reception of Aristotle’s corpus in the thirteenth century altered the canon of relevant texts in political theory; Joaquin Garcia-Huidobro is writing a book on the relationship between art, politics and law in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Latin America, and I myself am working on the nature of work and the political implications of acknowledging that work should be ‘meaningful’. Second, we usually invite academics from other universities (in Chile or elsewhere), so that they can experience first-hand our collaborative way of working and the way we form younger people. Finally, we are always joined by graduate students from our doctoral or master’s programs, so that they can access Notre Dame’s extraordinary library and spend a little more than two weeks working very intensively.

CE: What does a regular day of research look like for the group? What can your members expect to achieve by the end of their visit?

MP: Every day we start around 8:00 am with breakfast, and someone speaks on an interesting topic; during this trip topics have included: recent trends in the philosophy of transhumanism, the notion of hospitality in the Odyssey, the dignity of manual labor, etc.. Then we work in the Jacques Maritain Library, each one on his own research topic, until 1:00 pm. Between 1:00 and 2:00 pm we have lunch; during which we make suggestions to one of us who has submitted a paper the day before. At 2:00 pm we go back to the library, where we work until 8:00 pm. For us, every hour in Notre Dame is precious, so we try to make the most of our time. Our idea is to promote between colleagues and students a way of working where everyone concentrates on his or her own thing, but at the same time spends an hour and a half a day working for someone else.

CE: This is not the first time that your group is visiting Notre Dame. In fact, your relationship with the Maritain Center and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture goes back over a decade. I am curious to know how this connection was first established? Are there any people at Notre Dame that members of your group have gotten to know especially well?

MP: It all started 12 years ago, when we invited Professor John O'Callaghan to teach a doctoral seminar at the Universidad de los Andes. There he suggested there was a possibility for us to come to the Maritain Center for research stays. We thought it was a magnificent idea. The first groups were rather small, but now each group is between 10 and 12 people. We come twice a year, taking advantage of the fact that we do not have classes during January and July. Over the years we have brought more than 130 people to these research visits. We have only one problem: these stays are so wonderful that people don't want to leave.

Apart from the people working directly at the Maritain Center or at the dCEC, we have had a very close relationship with two professors of Political Science who worked here for many years: Catherine and Michael Zuckert. They are now retired and live in Chicago, but every year we pay them a visit. First, out of gratitude and, second, because it is a unique experience for our students to be able to talk calmly with two intellectuals as outstanding as them. We have also been blessed by the friendship of Patrick Deneen, who has been willing to spend time with our students several times. In addition, every year faculty and students take the opportunity to meet with Notre Dame scholars competent if their respective research areas and receive valuable advice.

CE: Joaquín recently shared with me some of the great research outcomes that these visits have afforded… award-winning dissertations, books of significant cultural influence, and the formation of a new generation of scholars. Can you share any examples of projects that have been advanced thanks to these research visits?

MP: I will give you just one example. Daniel Mansuy, a member of SIGNOS, was able to write here an important part of his book about Salvador Allende, President of Chile from 1970 to 1973, when he was overthrown by a military coup. This book has been a bestseller in Chile during 2023 in the non-fiction genre and has been praised for its quality and moderation by people from left and right. Even the President of the Republic, Gabriel Boric, a man who identifies with the New Left, recommended it on a television program.

CE: How do these research visits impact academic life when you return to Santiago? Do you find that you are energized in your research?

MP: Definitely, we go back exhausted because of the intensity of our schedule but thrilled for having made so much progress during our stay. We are already thinking about our next visit, in July. We are very grateful for this opportunity; I wish the donors of the Maritain Center and the dCEC knew how their generosity benefits people who live thousands of miles away.

CE: Matías, it has been a pleasure to get to know you and your colleagues. We look forward to many future visits!

MP: The pleasure has been mine. Thanks.

Christopher Enabnit is program coordinator at the Jacques Maritain Center.

Originally published February 1, 2024.