Request More Information
2012-2013 Philosophy Courses
First-Year Studies: Philosophy and Literature
Literature isn’t very interesting, unless it is thoughtful. Shakespeare’s greatness as a poet is inseparable from his greatness as a thinker. Insofar as philosophy is written down, philosophy is always literature. Accordingly, the greatest philosophers are always aware that how they write is inseparable from what they mean to say. This course will have two concerns: first, to study the thought of some great thinkers who are either philosopher-poets or poet-philosophers; second, to understand through them the complicated relation between philosophy and literature. What is at stake is not simply two alternative ways of expressing thought but two competing views of the nature of thought and of things. We will study philosophic and literary works concerned with the nature and importance of such things as art, science, politics, morality, and, of course, poetry and philosophy. Authors will include Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Descartes, Swift, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Twain.
The Origins of Aesthetics
The roots of aesthetics lie in ancient thought, particularly in Plato. We are used to thinking of aesthetics as a field distinct from morals, politics, and psychology; but that is not how it began. In fact, aesthetics emerges as a separate discipline only in the 18th century; and even then; it does not fully detach itself from these other areas of inquiry. We shall begin by reading some dialogues of Plato’s, including his Republic. We shall read some selections from Augustine’s Confessions, followed by Averroes’ brief Decisive Treatise on the Relation Between Philosophy and Law. We shall then move on to Shaftesbury’s Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) in which aesthetics begins to emerge as a separate field, though it involves a reflection on morals. We shall follow our study of Shaftesbury with selections from Rousseau, Hume, and Burke. We shall then move on to Kant’s Critique of Judgment and Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Humanity. Our work in class should give students terms of comparison for conference work on aesthetics in any period up to and including the present.
Realism and Anti-Realism in the Philosophy of Science
Throughout the 20th century, philosophers of science disagreed about whether science is a depiction of reality or simply an instrument for predicting the data of experience and obtaining power over nature. The first position may be called realism; the second, anti-realism. It turns out that this debate is not new but goes back to the beginnings of modern science and of modern philosophy of science. Newton and his followers were realists; the followers of Descartes were anti-realists. We shall study this difference by reading Newton, the Search After Truth of the Cartesian Nicolas Malebranche, and Hume’s melding of Cartesian with Newtonian positions in his Treatise on Human Nature. We shall then turn to 20th-century philosophy of science, particularly logical positivism, Karl Popper, and Thomas Kuhn. Popper can be seen as a realist, while the positivists were anti-realists. Both Popper and the positivists appeal to Hume’s arguments about induction to support their positions. We shall examine these opposing uses of Hume and try to arrive at a conclusion about the merits of each. Kuhn does not appeal to Hume, but his conception of “normal science” as a tradition resistant to novelties, which can be seen as lying between the realism of Popper and the anti-realism of the positivists, is strongly evocative of Hume’s understanding of causal belief as custom. Further, Kuhn’s description of science’s response to anomalies bears an interesting relation to Hume’s discussions of how we respond to violations of “the usual course of nature.” We shall see how his account of causal knowledge illuminates and is illuminated by Hume’s.
Wittgenstein on Mind and Language
Would it be possible to know anything if we grew up isolated from one another on desert islands? Would we be able to think? Would we have emotions? Would we be able to invent our own language? Would we have minds? The answers to these questions would be “yes” if a basic assumption of much of Western philosophy were true, viz. that human consciousness has its origins in the individual and only later becomes social and communicable with the learning of language. Some philosophers, such as Descartes, have gone so far as to claim that even the learning of language cannot make consciousness communicable; for we could never know, for example, whether we each see the same when we describe what we see as “red” or “blue,” or whether we feel the same when we describe ourselves as “happy” or “sad,” or even whether other people have minds at all. A major thinker of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, has seriously undermined these assumptions concerning the nature of mind and language. His work has profound implications not only for philosophy but also for psychology and anthropology. In dealing with these issues, we will closely read Philosophical Investigations, a text unique in the history of philosophy for being “therapy” instead of “theory.” Mastering Wittgenstein’s technique of philosophizing will reveal to us our own conceptual confusions, as well as those of the Western philosophical tradition, and will give us the experience of dismantling or deconstructing what he calls the “pictures that hold us captive.” Readings will be from Descartes, Wittgenstein, and other 20th-century philosophers.
Semantic Destruction and Philosophical Thought
In this course we will focus on the plurality of philosophical positions as itself a problem for philosophical reflection. We will set the stage by considering several approaches to this problem, among them those of Nietzsche, Bakhtin, Foucault, Kuhn. We will then focus on the approach proposed by Zilberman, first by learning to explicate the paradoxes of pluralistic understanding by studying his “Cultural Relativism and Radical Doubt” and then by moving on to selections from The Birth of Meaning in Hindu Thought. In the second semester we will concentrate on “Revelation in Advaita Vedanta as an Experiment in the Semantic Destruction of Language” (chapter 5 of the book) and its relation to Hegel’s philosophical project in the Phenomenology of Spirit (we will study the Introduction and several key chapters of the Phenomenology). In conference students will be able to explore in greater depth any of the thinkers we examine in class. A prior background in philosophy is required.
Issues in 19th-Century German Philosophy
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.
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. Doing that 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. The second part of the goal of the course is to introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for Fall 2012 will be Plato’s Phaedrus.
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.”