Program in Cultures, Civilizations, and Ideas
Humanities 331: Honors Seminar
HUM 331: Honors Seminar
Skepticism in Philosophy, Literature, and Film
Instructor: Dragan Ilic
Skepticism as a philosophical outlook has its origin in ancient Greek philosophy and has been most commonly characterized by two distinctive features. First of all, it is based on a thesis that nothing can be known. The thesis is usually followed by a sort of prescription: since nothing can be known one should suspend judgment on all matters. Historically, the thesis that nothing can be known prevailed over the prescription within the tradition of Cartesian skepticism. The prescription, on the other hand, dominated the Pyrrhonist school of skeptical thought leading to practical questions such as is skepticism livable at all and can the skeptic actually enact a total suspension of judgment?
In this seminar we will take a fundamentally different tack and will show that skepticism is neither understood as a philosophical doctrine characterized by a thesis that nothing can be known, nor is it primarily understood as a skeptical prescription that advises us to suspend judgment on all matters ceasing to claim knowledge, but is revealed rhetorically and understood as a rather peculiar form of writing. In a word, we will transform skepticism from a form of doubt to a form of narration. As a result, skepticism will not be considered as a purely formal, intellectual matter, and accordingly, a philosophical skeptic will not end up as being nothing more than the straw man of epistemology textbooks, which is his common doom in many analytic seminars on philosophical skepticism. Accordingly, we shall study how “our” authors and their texts perform a hard narrative labor against such a simplistic philosophical account of skepticism.
HUM 331: Honors Seminar
Work and the Meaning of Life
Instructor: Patrick Fessenbecker
Nearly a century ago, Josiah Royce wrote that a man only really begins to answer the question “Who are you?” when he “mentions his calling.” Today, we continue to regard our work as central to our identity: when we ask children what they want to “be” when they grow up, we expect them to answer by telling us what job they will have. And for many of us, what it means to have a meaningful life is to find work that we regard as valuable. Yet it’s worth pausing on why we see the world this way. How did we come to regard the self as coming to exist in work? Should the finding of one’s work be regarded as a form of self-creation—the re-orientation of oneself around a task—or as a form of self-discovery, as one learns a fundamental truth about one’s capacities? What is a meaningful life, and what relationship does work have to it? What, after all, is a “self?”
In this class, we’ll seek to explore these questions through a range of philosophical and literary texts. In the first movement of the course, we’ll read a series of essays from several contemporary philosophers, building a basic model of the self that sees work as central to a meaningful life because it embodies the distinctive capacity of humans: the ability to create ourselves. In the second movement, we’ll turn to the origins of this model in nineteenth-century thought, considering its development in the German Idealist philosophers. We’ll then consider the sophisticated and nuanced expression of this view in George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede, and an important objection to this model of the self in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. In the final movement of the course, we’ll look at twentieth-century developments in the model, considering Marxist critiques via George Orwell’s novel A Clergyman’s Daughter and post-modernist objections via David Foster Wallace’s Pale King (published posthumously).
Contagion, nuclear explosion, deluge… Why do we imagine the end of our world, of life as we know it? More so, what does it mean to live after this end? Novels, popular movies and TV series, video games, and even the omnipresent today skull print on the clothing of all age groups bespeak an interest that has persisted for centuries. Over the past decade, however, this interest in humanity’s annihilation and its endurance has gained global and monumental proportions. Writers and theorists from different cultures seem to be fascinated with catastrophe and with survival—what will life be like afterwards, how will we change, and who will we be then? As Sue Schopf notes, the postapocalyptic genre raises critical questions, among them: “What would it take for human beings to regroup and to reconstitute their society?” and “What do we learn [through postapocalyptic texts and films] about the human values we care about the most?”
This course will take up these questions and more, and, through them, examine the role of science, ethics, community, family, and the individual in postapocalyptic contexts imagined by different cultures. We will read some critics who argue that we already live in a postapocalyptic world, while others deny the possibility of experiencing an apocalypse altogether. The literary, philosophical, and visual texts that we will encounter will take us to dark and terrifying places within the imagination, all the while helping us to make sense of humanity’s fears and struggles, values and hopes.
Today, we tend to view magic as an object of derision. Often we see it as a relic of a past, pre-scientific, when people believed in fetish objects and thought the stars talked to us. When we think of magic in the modern world, we think of fantasy literature and film, deeply interesting in its own right, but something we can dismiss as not being “real” – as belonging solely to the realm of fiction. This course takes a different view, positing that magic is not simply part of our distant past, but continues to speak in the present day, even if in ways that we can’t always decipher.
As such, we will spend a lot of our time thinking about the history of magic, and particularly, its links with “science,” given that magic and science haven’t always been considered as separate realms. In doing this, we will spend a lot of time on the concept of harmony. Magic, as we will see in our various readings, presupposes a certain harmony: the magus assumes that there is an order in the world, even if it is hidden from us; and the magus reasons that the one who can find this order – whether through fetishes, signs and secret languages, chants and songs, or ceremonies – will be able to employ this secret order for his or her own means. To think about magic, therefore, is to think about harmony: what is this secret harmony that underlies the chaos we see all around us? And if indeed it is there, then how can we access it?
Machines have transformed the way we live, work and play. But our relations with machines have also profoundly influenced how we think about our bodies and minds, redefining what it means to be human. Machines have extended the reach of the senses, increased productivity, and introduced new modes of knowledge and social interaction. Scientific instruments, industrial production, and information technology are just a few of the epoch-making achievements of mechanization. Beginning with the Scientific Revolution and moving forward to the present, we will explore both the possibilities and problems of the machine age through literary and philosophical texts, works of art and films. In doing so, we will encounter innovators who have imagined future utopias where humans live in synergy with helpful machines, and critics who have considered mechanization a dehumanizing force. From experimental devices to assembly lines, computers and social networking, machines forge connections and produce new forms of life. Do they also alienate us from others and ourselves?
By reading a selection of philosophical, scientific, and literary texts, and discussing key works of art and film, we will evaluate some of the historical developments that have characterized the machine and information ages and defined modern mechanism and its discontents. These primary materials will be accompanied by theoretical reflections that will provide students with a sense of the methods and paradigms used by critics and artists in their exploration of the complex relations between humans and the machines they create. Drawing from philosophy, the history of science, literature and art history, this interdisciplinary course is open to interested students in the social sciences, humanities and natural and applied sciences.
The course readings are grouped into four thematic and historical sections. Each segment of the course will be accompanied by a film that reflects some of the themes and questions explored in class, to give rise to more discussion. For more details, see the syllabus.
The word “Utopia”, coined by Sir Thomas More, is a pun that refers both to “nowhere” (ou topos) and to a “happy place” (eutopos). It is in practice an imaginative projection, rooted in some time and place, of a possible future that not only carries forward the best parts of the present, but also frees us from pressing injustice, arbitrary constraint, and other sources of perceived suffering. Responding to diverse conditions, Utopian constructions vary in form, but all imagine a better way of life, and many struggle to find the means to somehow implement these visions in the here and now. “Progress”, as Oscar Wilde writes, “is the realization of Utopias”. In this seminar, we carefully examine the Utopian Impulse, its various manifestations, its historical successes and failures, and its realistic prospects for the future we will someday share. To fully appreciate and evaluate the influence of Utopian thought and practice, this seminar requires (a) close reading of literary, philosophical, and historical texts, (b) consideration of Utopian ideas in art and architecture, and (c) examination of potentially new resources for Utopian projects resulting from recent advances in the social sciences. During the seminar and in research projects, students will analytically engage these sources, provide their own deeply informed syntheses, and evaluate the relevance of the Utopian Impulse.
In the last decade alone, we have seen a boom in novels, stories, films, and theoretical works that explore visions of the post-apocalypse. The word “apocalypse” comes from the ancient Greek word meaning, “to veil,” or “to uncover.” To suffer apocalypse is to suffer the end of the world (or, sometimes, the end of a world), often “revealed” through dreams or visions. Does the recent popular interest in life after the apocalypse stem from a dawning sense that we are in danger of an actual apocalypse? What does it mean to have not only a, “before the end,” but also an, “after the end.” What is common to the different contemporary portrayals of the post-apocalypse we have seen recently? In an attempt to answer these and many other questions, we will, in this course, read theoretical and philosophical works in conjunction with recent post-apocalyptic movies and novels.
Since at least the seventeenth century, science has been western culture’s most potent trademark and guarantor of the west’s continuing intellectual influence on the rest of the world. The drive to be scientific has marked the history of western philosophy, from Descartes’ pursuit of “clear and distinct ideas” that could serve as a foundation for the sciences to Kant’s attempt to put philosophy itself on “the secure path of a science,” and on to Marx’s claim to have developed the only “scientific socialism.” Few ideas have ever been so persistent—or so susceptible to critique. This class will examine perspectives on science, reason and the rational subject from theorists, practitioners, critics and artists; it will draw on the history of science, philosophy, literature and film, and train students in recent theoretical trends, paradigms and methods in preparation for graduate study. Students from natural and applied science, social science and humanities fields are invited to participate. Readings include texts by Francis Bacon, Thomas Kuhn, William Blake, Lucretius, Richard Rorty, Paul Feyerabend and Michel Foucault.
What is madness? It has no simple definition, let alone one that is true at all times and in all places. Even today the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder admits the difficulty of precisely defining the idea of “mental disorder”. Is it an internal phenomenon, or is it external to the self, attacking it from outside as the ancients believed. Is it a disease, or biochemical imbalance? What is the role played by past emotional experience? What is its relationship to religion and mystical ecstasy? This honors seminar examines changing concepts of madness in literature from Homer to Greek tragedy, early medical theory, and philosophy. We go on to consider the place of anti-rationalism and erotic madness in the Middle Ages — East and West — and then reflect on the imagined connection between melancholy and creative genius which became popular in the Renaissance and reached its peak in the Romantic literature of the nineteenth century.
What does it mean to live in more than one language? Is “being multilingual” a personal talent, a burden of circumstances, a civic necessity, a source of pleasure and knowledge, or a curse of history? In this honors seminar, we will work with a range of philosophical, literary, historical, and filmic texts in order to gain a richer understanding of the human condition in multiple-language situations. Whereas academic research in the humanities since the 1960s has intensified its focus on cultural identity and difference, fewer efforts have been made to pose questions about the puzzling ecology of cross-lingustic landscapes that Abram de Swaan calls “the global language system.” Students in this seminar will therefore collaborate in shaping the cutting-edge of an emerging research domain.
Are powerful emotions the enemy of reason and of knowledge? Plato wanted to ban poets from his ideal city, and Boethius argued that philosophy could rescue the mind from the emotions stirred up by poetry. In our own century, however, some philosophers have argued that we can, and perhaps must, turn to literary works and the emotions expressed there in order to answer philosophical questions.
“Existentialism” names a line of thinkers in many fields: philosophy, literature, theology, psychology, women’s studies, and film. Existential thinkers shared two things: an “engaged” style of thought, and a sense of living in a time of spiritual crisis. They defined this crisis in different ways (Nietzsche spoke of “the death of God;” Heidegger spoke of “the end of philosophy”). But they all thought this crisis demanded a new way of thinking–not the impersonal and disengaged style of traditional philosophy, but a style of thought grounded in and guided by each thinker’s own personal concerns and experiences. So we will focus on a few basic questions: What were the experiences underlying each thinker’s work? What was original not only in their ideas but also in their way of thought?
This seminar traced the debate over the cognitive and cultural status of mimetic activity from Plato’s Republic through Kleist and Shelley to Brecht and Beckett.