August 9, 1999
Volume 51, No. 37
Fulbright fellow comes to Emory, attracted to reputation, scholarship of Vico Institute
When he applied to come to the U.S. as a Fulbright Fellow, philosophy professor Alexander Gungov had only one destination in mind: Emory's Vico Institute. In the rarefied world of Vico scholars, Gungov explained, Emory's institute and director Donald Phillip Verene are known the world over for publications, research and teaching devoted to the 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico.
"I'm not sure how many people here on the campus realize it, but Emory has one of the best philosophy departments in the U.S. and in the world," Gungov said. "The team is very strong, especially in Continental philosophy."
In his home environment of Sofia, Bulgaria, Gungov's opinion carries considerable weight. Both he and his wife, Maria Dimitrova, are philosophy professors at the University of Bulgaria. In 1995 the two collaborated on the Bulgarian-language anthology, Late 20th Century American Philosophy (she translated; he edited). While Gungov visited Emory for the second time-his first stay was in 1992-Dimitrova took a short sabbatical, spending several weeks at the Woodruff Libraries on her own research.
Sitting in the Vico Institute's conference room in Bowden Hall one spring afternoon, the two conversed freely about their life in Bulgaria, their stay at Emory and the troubling shadow of Kosovo, about 150 miles from their hometown. Like other Bulgarians of their generation, Dimitrova and Gungov grew to adulthood under a communist government with close ties to the Soviet Union--only to have the U.S.S.R. dissolve abruptly, just as they were beginning their professional careers.
The transition from communism to capitalism has been relatively smooth--though the changes are not universally admirable. "Formerly, Bulgaria was governed by ideology and the police, and now it's governed by money," said Gungov, only partly in jest. Steeped in the work of Vico, one of the world's foremost thinkers on civil society and the role of intellectuals, Gungov tends to take the long view. Still, both he and Dimitrova are clearly very much involved in the future of their country, working with various nongovernmental organizations and the Bulgarian Parliament on political and social issues.
"Scholars play a very important role in a civil society," said Gungov. "The best commentators on politics are scholars, people in the social sciences and humanities. But in our country, intellectuals have little role in the selection of political leaders."
In Atlanta, the two professors boarded in a private home near the Emory campus, a comfortable arrangement except for the lack of a car. (They prefer walking and public transportation and were a bit dismayed at Atlantans' reliance on their automobiles.) According to the terms of the Fulbright, Gungov was in residence here from January to June; Dimitrova joined him in mid-April. Their children, an 18-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, remained home with relatives in Sofia.
Soon, however, with war in neighboring Yugoslavia and refugees scattering throughout the region, the couple flew home to bring their young daughter back with them to Atlanta. After a few more weeks of research at Emory, during which Gungov explored the prospect of a teaching position in the United States, they returned to Sofia in mid-June.
Presently, a more extended stay in the United States seems unlikely, and the two professors will return to their Sofia classrooms this fall. With ironic relevance, Gungov's book in progress on a long-dead philosopher, tentatively titled Civil Wisdom in Civil Society, must wait for civility's return.