2013-2014 Philosophy Courses
All political action aims at preservation or change—change for the better, preservation to avoid something worse. All political action, therefore, requires some thought of better or worse, and so good and bad. Political philosophy is the ongoing attempt to raise and answer questions about the collective good—and always some form of the quest for understanding the nature of the best possible political regime. We will examine various answers that have been given to the question of what is the best regime, taking some care not to assume that we have progressed beyond the thought of the past simply because it is past. Readings will include works of Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Swift, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche.
Philosophy and Literature: The Prince and the Poet
Why is it that asking what we are seems always to begin with recognizing what we are not? This course will explore the aesthetics of alienation to examine whether detachment is the necessary condition for an inquiry into human nature and to think through how philosophy and literature differ in their treatment of this detachment. From the worldly wanderings of Odysseus to the mental anguish of Raskolnikov, from Socrates questioning the Homeric tradition to Nietzsche questioning Socrates, we will explore the context of isolation as the appropriate background against which a human being’s outline may be drawn. And we will see how the aesthetics of this context evolve—from the ancient model of a prince apart from his people to the modern trope of a pariah apart from his peers. We will look at a number of evocative pairings, including: the Odyssey and Ion; Hamlet and The Prince; Goethe’s Faust Part One and Discourse on the Method; The Misanthrope and The Reveries of a Solitary Walker; Crime and Punishment and Beyond Good and Evil. And we will ask what it means about the nature of self-reflection that, before we can reflect, the self must first stand apart.
In this course, we will consider the development of 20th-century philosophy out of Nietzsche’s response to 19th-century philosophy and the history of philosophy as a whole in his final work, Twilight of the Idols. Topics to be discussed include the increasing focus on problems of language and metaphysics in Heidegger and Wittgenstein; the relationship of art, history, and politics in Heidegger and Benjamin; and the question of intentionality and the unconscious as taken up by Freud. The central aim will be for students to gain an appreciation of how the philosophic questioning of Nietzsche has fostered the rich variety of contemporary philosophic interests. Readings: Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (selections); Heidegger, Basic Writings (selections); Wittgenstein, The Blue Book; Freud, Civilization and its Discontents; and Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducability and Other Writings (selections).
Language and Religious Experience
In this course, we will consider what language tells us about the nature of religious experience, as well as what religious experience tells us about the nature of language. Particular attention will be paid to the idea that certain religious experiences are said to be “beyond the limits of language.” The word used to describe this in the case of Western mysticism is “apophatic.” Interestingly, many Western mystics wrote at great length about their experiences—but by using various literary devices to “unsay” what they had just said. The Zen koan tradition is also apophatic in some sense but uses what appears to be paradox to “unsay” what is being said. We will look at the uses of language in these two traditions, with attention to a distinction between what Wittgenstein called “describing” and “expressing”—a distinction also found in the work of the great Zen philosopher mystic, Eihei Dogen. We will also consider the nature of prayer and mantra, the Biblical notion that God “speaks,” the uses of metaphor and analogy in religious discourse, the connection between language and creation, and the Western notion of the “Logos” or “Word,” all of which can be topics for conference work. Readings will be from Herrigel, Buber, Panikkar, Plotinus, Sells, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, among others.
Kant’s Awakening From Dogmatic Slumber
In his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Kant says, “I freely confess that it was the objection of David Hume that first, many years ago, interrupted my dogmatic slumber.” Kant clearly intended this declaration as a clue to the meaning of his Critique of Pure Reason and his whole philosophy, but what did he mean by it? We shall investigate this question by reading selections from the early writings of Kant; from the Metaphysics of Alexander Baumgarten, a prime example of dogmatic metaphysics, which Kant used to teach his classes in metaphysics; from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding; from the Prolegomena; and, if time permits, from the Critique itself.
Ancient Philosophy (Plato)
This course will be devoted to a careful reading of a small number of texts from a major figure in ancient philosophy. The goal of the course is twofold. First, it is designed to acquaint students with one of the seminal figures of our tradition in more than a superficial way. In doing that, it will force us to slow our usual pace of reading, to read almost painfully carefully, with a view to understanding the thinker as he wrote and as he understood himself and not as a stage in an historical development. Second, the course will introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for Fall 2013 will be Plato’s Laches.
The Music of Philosophy: Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy
This course will be devoted to a careful reading of The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. Nietzsche claims that tragedy, formed as a unique combination of Apollinian and Dionysian drives, and in its connection to music represents a more fundamental mode of being in the world than the tradition of rationalism that originates with Socrates, grows into the tradition of Western philosophy, and culminates in the optimism of modern science so powerful in his (and our) century. Nietzsche means to offer an alternative to reason understood in this way—a Dionysian philosophy, the image of which is a “music-making Socrates.” We will read this text sometimes painfully slowly and carefully, with a view to understanding what it means for Nietzsche to seek the truth of tragedy in a book that, on the surface at least, seems to be an attack on truth seeking—what it means that he can speak the words, “This book should have sung and not spoken.”