Issues in 19th-Century German Philosophy

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One of philosophy’s abiding preoccupations is the nature and limits of human knowledge. This will be our focus in the course, as we study one fascinating period in the history of Western philosophy. Our story begins with Kant, who responds to Hume’s skepticism regarding human capacity for knowledge by embarking, in his Critique of Pure Reason, upon a revolutionary defense of thought’s power. Reading the key sections of the Critique will show us why Kant nevertheless concludes that our highest aspirations for knowledge are doomed to frustration. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which claims to culminate in the standpoint of “Absolute Knowing,” is in large part a defense of thought’s power against the Kantian brand of skepticism. The Phenomenology is an extraordinary, difficult, immensely exciting, deeply influential text, and we will spend most of the year working through it in its entirety. Near the end of the course, we will briefly turn to anti-Hegelian philosophies, those of Kierkegaard and Marx in particular, in order to appreciate both the authority and the problems that Hegel’s construction posed for later thinkers. In our reading of the Phenomenology and the texts surrounding it, we will aim not only to grasp the significance and the rich legacy of Hegel’s philosophical enterprise but also to attend closely to the structural and rhetorical features of philosophical writing.