2014-2015 Philosophy Courses
First-Year Studies: From Animal Farm to the Republic
In Animal Farm, George Orwell sought to show how the ideal of equality can lead to despotism. In 1984, he sought to show how the pursuit of a rational politics can have the same consequence. In this course, we will begin by reading Animal Farm and 1984 and seek to understand what Orwell is saying about modern politics. Then we will proceed to a reading of Plato’s Republic, a work by which Orwell was clearly inspired in writing 1984. We shall investigate what Plato had to say about the ideal of a rational politics, about the claims of equality, and about the political dangers posed by those two ideals. We shall then read a number of the comedies of Aristophanes, which are inspired by the ideals of democracy and their consequences. Some of those comedies are concerned with the question of the status of women; others, with other implications of democracy—including the political dangers posed by philosophy itself, which Aristophanes considers in The Clouds. Next, we shall return to Plato to see his response to Aristophanes’ questioning of philosophy in The Clouds and also to consider Aristophanes’ influence on Plato’s writing. We shall then read selections from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, Xenophon’s Hellenica, and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in order to better understand the historical events behind Aristophanes’ plays and Plato’s dialogues.
The Philosophy of Tragedy
Greek tragedy has been performed, read, imitated, and interpreted for 2,500 years. From the very beginning, it was thought to be philosophically significant—somehow pointing to the truth of human life as a whole. (The phrase “tragedy of life” first appears in Plato.) As a literary form, Greek tragedy is thought especially revealing philosophically by Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, to name but a few. Among others, Seneca, Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, Goethe, Shelley, O’Neill, and Sartre wrote versions of Greek tragedies. And, of course, there is Freud. Greek tragedy examines fundamental things in a fundamental way. Justice, family, guilt, law, autonomy, sexuality, political life, the divine—these are its issues. For class, we will read three plays by each of the great Athenian tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—with a view to understanding how they deal with these issues and to the question of the importance and nature of tragedy itself. For conference, we will read perhaps the greatest philosophical treatment of tragedy, Aristotle's Poetics.
Issues in 19th-Century German Philosophy
One of philosophy’s abiding preoccupations is the nature and power 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; we will spend most of the year working through it in its entirety. Near the end of the course, we will briefly turn to post-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.
Knowledge and Power
In this course, we will focus on the plurality of philosophical positions as, itself, a problem for philosophical reflection. Our study will be guided by the preoccupation with diversity, including diversity in thought, in many strands of contemporary Western philosophical reflection; yet, we will cast our net more widely for resources to address it. In considering how the nature of thought is to be understood if we are to take seriously both its power to construct incommensurable paradigms of knowledge and its power to navigate among them, we will set the stage by exploring several more familiar approaches to the problem, selecting from among those of Hegel, Nietzsche, Bakhtin, Foucault, Kuhn, et al. We will then focus on the approach proposed by Zilberman, first by explicating the paradoxes of pluralistic understanding as articulated in his essay, “On Cultural Relativism and Radical Doubt,” and then by moving on to several chapters of The Birth of Meaning in Hindu Thought and Analogy in Indian and Western Philosophical Thought. In conference, students will be able to explore, in greater depth, any of the thinkers whom we examine in class. A prior background in philosophy is desirable.
Critique of Pure Reason
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781, set the terms of philosophical thought ever since; however, there has always been considerable disagreement about what the Critique actually says, its purpose, and what we can learn from it. In this seminar, we will read the Critique of Pure Reason in its original form—the First Edition version. We shall take account of works to which the Critique was responding, particularly Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding, Descartes’ Meditations, and certain articles from Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary. In the second semester, we shall also consider Kant’s revisions of the Critique in the Second Edition version and attempt to understand why he made these changes. Our aim will be to understand not just particular arguments within the Critique but also its purposes and implications.
This course is devoted to a careful reading of a small number of texts from a major figure in ancient philosophy, usually Plato or Aristotle (fall 2014: Plato’s Alcibiades I). 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 and 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 a historical development. Second, the course will introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading.
Modern Philosophy (Machiavelli)
This course will be devoted to a careful reading of a small number of texts from a major figure in the modern philosophical tradition since Machiavelli; e.g., Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche. The goal of the course is twofold: First, it is designed to afford students the luxury of spending a great deal of time on one thinker, to examine the way in which our own thought bears the residue of previous thought, but especially to attempt to understand the philosopher as he understood himself. Second, we will learn how difficult it is to match an author’s care in writing with an equal care in reading. The text for spring 2015 will be Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, at first blush a book at odds with his most famous work, The Prince. The latter seems to advocate an amoral power politics; the former seems a celebration of republican rule. The one advocates founding “new modes and orders,” while the other takes its bearings by the old Roman republic. In this course, we will attempt to address these and other ambiguities in Machiavelli’s thought by way of a careful reading of the Discourses. We will be especially concerned with understanding the philosophical teaching underlying his practical political teaching.