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Spring 2016 Courses

HUM25068
Skepticism and Belief in Western Literature and Thought: From the Greeks to the X-Files 

Skepticism accepts no truth as finally valid but also refuses to construct a system to alleviate whatever corrosive action it has had on its targets. It forces us to ask whether it is possible to think well and be a truly autonomous individual without such permanent, contrarian vigilance and, on the contrary, whether it is possible to live a properly human life and achieve anything durable with it? For while the progress characterizing the modern era is inconceivable without skepticism, skepticism itself is indifferent to progress; its benefits seem to be primarily negative, at best prudential. We will be reading a wide variety of those classics of Western Thought and Literature that address these questions.

The class will begin with Sextus Empiricus (c. 200 AD) whose Outlines of Pyrrhonism are the only surviving exposition by a Greek who called himself a skeptic. He treats belief as a disease to be cured by showing that since no argument was ever without a counter argument nor eternally true, holding on to any belief makes people anxious, aggressive and inevitably bound for painful disappointment. For Sextus, instead, suspending judgment and thereby embracing ignorance, as long as it comes after a rigorous philosophical survey of the relevant material, would naturally bring us tranquility. We will then read Plato's Apology (399 BC) to see how he responds to Sextus' skeptical challenge, which amounts to philosophy’s self-destruction, by championing the ignorance about fundamentals Socrates’s brilliant questioning forces Athenians to acknowledge, as the necessary prelude to obtaining true knowledge.

By way of contrast, Greek literary depictions of skepticism are invariably disturbing not liberating: we will look briefly at book 9 of the Iliad, in which Achilles’s rage against the Greek leader Agamemnon brings him to question the value of heroism itself (skepticism as alienation from one's official self) and the Mytilene debate from Thucydides’ 431 BC History of the Peloponnesian War (skepticism as the latent impasse of democratic debate if it is not possible to decide which party argued more effectively) before focusing on Oedipus Rex (429 BC), the greatest of Greek tragedies, which brings into doubt both the value of rational mastery itself (because Oedipus would have been better off if he had not applied his considerable intelligence to digging up the truth) and that of the divine order (the revelation of which is terrifying not consoling).

Ancient Skepticism fell into obscurity for a millennium while Western Christianity remained unified until it was ‘rediscovered’ in the sixteenth century. During the Reformation Catholics and Protestants found that skeptical arguments were very effective in ridiculing their opponents’ pretensions to know the truth of religion. Used in this way, however, Skepticism turned out to be a doomsday weapon; it had raised the problem of the ‘criterion’: on what grounds could either form of religion be justified if human reason was utterly useless: by faith alone or by tradition alone? As we will be reading in a look at the contemporary philosopher Richard Popkin’s seminal account of the Enligthenment, this “skeptical crisis” forced many thinkers to seek more solid justifications for thought and action that could transcend what had been exposed as overly subjective. We will read Shakespeare’sHamlet (1603) and the essays of Montaigne, the greatest tragic and comic versions of Renaissance skepticism respectively, in the light of this acute historical moment of uncertainty just before the Scientific Revolution.
In the second half of the course we will look at three types of modern skepticism that represent powerful responses to this new crisis: the pragmatic, Machiavelli's The Prince (1532), a political primer in which theories of right human conduct take second place to practical needs and projects; the scientific, Descartes's Meditations (1641), which proves the power of science by demonstrating how to overcoming a hyperbolic form of skepticism; and the liberal, introduced here by John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1869), which challenges existing claims of orderliness in religion and philosophy and then suggests its own consciously provisional but therefore more humane and adaptable replacements for them:

Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1776) explores whether religious belief can be rational, a question that the empiricist Hume is answers by arguing that belief is rational only if it is sufficiently supported by experiential evidence, leaving us with the question of whether there enough evidence in the world to allow us to infer an infinitely good, wise, powerful, perfect God. Through a reading of Voltaire's eighteenth-century philosophical novel Candide (1759), we will consider how liberal skepticism is dramatized through the difficult challenges facing a naive young man who seeks enlightenment but who ultimately finds only disillusionment."Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907), meanwhile, offers an autobiographical account of how Darwin’s ideas threatened religious belief—and generated its own brand of skepticism from the theologically committed. Finally we will apply some of the historical insights we have gained from our reading of the skeptical tradition to contemporary debates in the US, in particular those concerning the New Atheists and conspiracy theories, most famously in popular culture in the American television series The X-Files, which spanned nearly a decade beginning in the 1990s, and which we will explore for its brooding, paranoid meditation on contemporary surveillance and the allure of supernatural explanations in a supposedly secular era.

HUM 25067
The Human, The Animal, The Nonhuman, The Posthuman

In this course, we will examine the relationship between humans, animals, and various other types of nonhumans. We will interrogate the interconnectedness of humans and other species; we will probe definitions of humanity and the human experience; we will explore literary and philosophical experiments with identities and subjectivities; and we will discuss how future humanities are imagined.

The figure of "the animal" has become a recent focus of critical and cultural theory, although depictions of nonhumans have a longer lineage in literature, art, and philosophy. From animal imagery in folk and fairy tales to allegorical uses of animals in political texts like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, animals have been substantial literary characters and tools. Perhaps more relevant, animal studies considers the ways in which conceptions of the animal speak directly to representations of humanity. This course will put literary, theoretical, and cultural texts in conversation in order to examine the dynamically evolving categories of human, animal, nonhuman, and, most recently, posthuman. In their introduction to Posthuman Bodies, editors Jack Halberstam and Ira Livingston consider the implications of the posthuman designation, as a hybrid of humanity and technology: “If the human is dead, the alien, the other, goes with it. Or does it? What is different about the alien? Does posthumanity prop itself up against a human body or does it cannibalize the human?” In order to get to that We will examine representations of specific animals, hybrid animalism (think the “wild child”), and posthumanism, especially as we consider the ways that these representations intersect with theories of gender, race, class, and technology.

Texts may include:

Virginia Woolf, Flush
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Selected stories by Edgar Allen Poe
Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels M.T. Anderson, Feed D.H. Lawrence, “The Fox,” “The Snake,” “The Wintry Peacock”
J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals / Disgrace Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (selections) Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature Linda Kalof and Amy Fitzgerald, eds. The Animals Reader: The Essential Classic and Contemporary Writings (selections) Tony Davies, Humanism (selections) Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”
Elaine Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture (selections) Jurgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature (selections) Jack Halberstam and Ira Livingston, eds. Posthuman Bodies (selections)

Fall 2015 Courses

Dreaming the Democratic City: From Ancient Greece to the New Times Square                       Hum 25071
Instructor: Antti Moelsae
Mondays/Thursdays, 9:45-11:00 a.m.  

The subject of cities and urban space has always excited serious philosophers, thinkers, and writers. Plato’s Republic represents the first attempt to develop a comprehensive conception and image of an ideal city, or polis, where notions of justice and human virtue prevailed   However, what we today would understand as urban policy and planning first developed during the nineteenth century with the Enlightenment ideas of the urban planner Baron Haussmann, whose remaking of Paris first problematized the city as a place of competing class interests, shared civic ideals, and dangerous crowds.  With the examples of London and New York, we see urban spaces as producing new political and social problems, from civic unrest and urban decay to unsanitary housing conditions and a criminal “underground.” A number of Enlightenment philosophers such as Rousseau questioned the city as a place where civilization ran amok.  Meanwhile, modern urban visionaries such as Frederick Law Olmstead (with his grandiose civic visions for New York’s Central Park), Ebenezer Howard (with his garden-city movement in Britain), and Le Corbusier (with his modernist dreams of a perfected architectural order) imagined utopian futures for twentieth-century metropolises. With a stress on interdisciplinary theoretical and philosophical questions, we will read and analyze seminal texts on cities from twentieth-century and contemporary thinkers such as Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, David Harvey, Robert Venturi, Henri Lefebvre, Friedrich Engels, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and Georg Simmel as we draw on their ideas to reflect on the city of today. Among the questions the class will consider: How did the layout of the Greek polis shape democratic aspirations? How did Enlightenment philosophical values determine urban physical realities? When did the metropolis become associated with such traits as impersonality, detachment, and anonymity (from the philosophical perspective of Simmel, aspects of urban life that are not necessarily negative)? How do contemporary efforts at “gentrification,” from New York City’s High Line to the New Time Square, change the urban fabric? This class combines historic, theoretical, and philosophical approaches to ideas of urbanity and built environments.  Students will be encouraged to consider New York-area sites and institutions when they are relevant to the class’s concerns. Course requirements: A mid-term paper and a final paper.

Intro to Ethics — James Muyskens

While few incoming freshmen have taken a philosophy course, virtually everyone has grappled with pressing moral and ethical choices. This course, an introduction to the philosophical discipline of ethics, is a deep analysis of these choices. We will read literature to see life in vivid relief and unnerving detail, revealing how the moral life is, could be, or should be lived. We will read philosophy to help us make sense of the complexities and conflicts of this moral experience, guiding us to moral principles, theories, or insights beneath the everyday muddle of emotion, prejudice, and custom.

Thinking Through Poetry — Danielle Blau

English 10N02
Tuesday/Friday, 2:10 p.m.-3:25 p.m.

Poetry and philosophy have a long history of being set at odds with one another. Plato wrote about “the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” in his book The Republic and banished the poet from his utopia: Poetry is dangerous to society, he claimed, because it has the power to persuade us by way of our emotions when we ought to be persuaded by force of reason alone. Some twenty-three centuries later, the poet Randall Jarrell questioned the aesthetic integrity of poetry with ​any ​ ulterior intellectual motives and spoke of the philosophical poet’s “elevated and methodical but forlorn and absurd air as he works away ​​ at his flying tank, his sewing-machine that also plays the piano.” In this course, though, we will explore the ways in which poets and analytic philosophers have far deeper affinities than either tend to admit and—in an effort to do away with a long-standing, unnecessary divide between the realm of feeling on the one hand, thought on the other—learn to revel in what the poet Wallace Stevens celebrated as “the passion of thinking.” Through close readings of a wide selection of poems paired with short philosophy excerpts, we will investigate the same big questions asked in college-level metaphysics classes, comparing a range of intuitions—about e.g., reality, consciousness, personal identity, death, time, free will, the problem of evil—as they have been passionately felt and thoughtfully probed in poetry and logical argumentation across the centuries.

Texts will include poetry by A. R. Ammons, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, William Blake, Louise Bogan, William Bronk, Suzanne Buffam, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Emily Fragos, Zbigniew Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Marianne Moore, Novalis, Sylvia Plath, William Shakespeare, Mark Strand, Susan Wheeler, as well as excerpts from "Ecclesiastes" and Plato's dialogue, "The Phaedrus." Critical readings will include T. S. Eliot’s “The Metaphysical Poets” as well as essays by Harold Bloom, Stephen Burt, Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, and excerpts from Randall Jarrell’s "A Sad Heart at the Supermarket" and Wallace Stevens’ "The Necessary Angel."


Fall 2014 Courses


Intro to Ethics — James Muyskens

While few incoming freshmen have taken a philosophy course, virtually everyone has grappled with pressing moral and ethical choices. This course, an introduction to the philosophical discipline of ethics, is a deep analysis of these choices. We will read literature to see life in vivid relief and unnerving detail, revealing how the moral life is, could be, or should be lived. We will read philosophy to help us make sense of the complexities and conflicts of this moral experience, guiding us to moral principles, theories, or insights beneath the everyday muddle of emotion, prejudice, and custom.


Thinking Through Poetry — Danielle Blau

We are probably all familiar with the conceit that poems are written "in a fine frenzy” (as Shakespeare put it), with poets serving as half-unwitting (and possibly half-crazy) vessels of pure emotion. But poets also have been known to live the examined life through their art, to scrutinize themselves and the world that they inhabit in the scientific fashion recommended by the philosopher Socrates. Maybe more to the point, do we even need to set these two approaches in opposition? This semester we will try to reconcile feeling and thought once and for all, and learn to revel in what the poet Wallace Stevens called “the passion of thinking.”

Through close readings of a wide selection of poetry and some criticism (focused on, though not limited to, the Western traditions), this course will investigate the same big questions asked in college-level metaphysics classes. We will compare a range of philosophical intuitions—about reality, time, reason, consciousness, identity, free will, suffering, death—as they have been passionately felt and thoughtfully probed in poems across the centuries.

Texts will include poetry by A. R. Ammons, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, William Blake, Louise Bogan, William Bronk, Suzanne Buffam, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Emily Fragos, Zbigniew Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Marianne Moore, Novalis, Sylvia Plath, William Shakespeare, Mark Strand, Susan Wheeler, as well as excerpts from "Ecclesiastes" and Plato's dialogue, The Phaedrus. Critical readings will include T. S. Eliot’s “The Metaphysical Poets,” essays by Harold Bloom, Stephen Burt, Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, and excerpts from Randall Jarrell’s A Sad Heart at the Supermarket and Wallace Stevens’ The Necessary Angel.

 


Spring 2015 Courses


HUM2506
Skepticism and Belief in Western Literature and Thought: From the Greeks to the X-Files
Instructor: Mark Cohen

Skepticism accepts no truth as finally valid but also refuses to construct a system to alleviate whatever corrosive action it has had on its targets. It forces us to ask whether it is possible to think well and be a truly autonomous individual without such permanent, contrarian vigilance and, on the contrary, whether it is possible to live a properly human life and achieve anything durable with it? For while the progress characterizing the modern era is inconceivable without skepticism, skepticism itself is indifferent to progress; its benefits seem to be primarily negative, at best prudential. We will be reading a wide variety of those classics of Western Thought and Literature that address these questions.

The class will begin with Sextus Empiricus (c. 200 AD) whose Outlines of Pyrrhonism are the only surviving exposition by a Greek who called himself a skeptic. He treats belief as a disease to be cured by showing that since no argument was ever without a counter argument nor eternally true, holding on to any belief makes people anxious, aggressive and inevitably bound for painful disappointment. For Sextus, instead, suspending judgment and thereby embracing ignorance, as long as it comes after a rigorous philosophical survey of the relevant material, would naturally bring us tranquility. We will then read Plato's Apology (399 BC) to see how he responds to Sextus' skeptical challenge, which amounts to philosophy’s self-destruction, by championing the ignorance about fundamentals Socrates’s brilliant questioning forces Athenians to acknowledge, as the necessary prelude to obtaining true knowledge.

By way of contrast, Greek literary depictions of skepticism are invariably disturbing not liberating: we will look briefly at book 9 of the Iliad, in which Achilles’s rage against the Greek leader Agamemnon brings him to question the value of heroism itself (skepticism as alienation from one's official self) and the Mytilene debate from Thucydides’ 431 BC History of the Peloponnesian War (skepticism as the latent impasse of democratic debate if it is not possible to decide which party argued more effectively) before focusing on Oedipus Rex (429 BC), the greatest of Greek tragedies, which brings into doubt both the value of rational mastery itself (because Oedipus would have been better off if he had not applied his considerable intelligence to digging up the truth) and that of the divine order (the revelation of which is terrifying not consoling).

Ancient Skepticism fell into obscurity for a millennium while Western Christianity remained unified until it was ‘rediscovered’ in the sixteenth century. During the Reformation Catholics and Protestants found that skeptical arguments were very effective in ridiculing their opponents’ pretensions to know the truth of religion. Used in this way, however, Skepticism turned out to be a doomsday weapon; it had raised the problem of the ‘criterion’: on what grounds could either form of religion be justified if human reason was utterly useless: by faith alone or by tradition alone? As we will be reading in a look at the contemporary philosopher Richard Popkin’s seminal account of the Enligthenment, this “skeptical crisis” forced many thinkers to seek more solid justifications for thought and action that could transcend what had been exposed as overly subjective. We will read Shakespeare’sHamlet (1603) and the essays of Montaigne, the greatest tragic and comic versions of Renaissance skepticism respectively, in the light of this acute historical moment of uncertainty just before the Scientific Revolution.
In the second half of the course we will look at three types of modern skepticism that represent powerful responses to this new crisis: the pragmatic, Machiavelli's The Prince (1532), a political primer in which theories of right human conduct take second place to practical needs and projects; the scientific, Descartes's Meditations (1641), which proves the power of science by demonstrating how to overcoming a hyperbolic form of skepticism; and the liberal, introduced here by John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1869), which challenges existing claims of orderliness in religion and philosophy and then suggests its own consciously provisional but therefore more humane and adaptable replacements for them:

Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1776) explores whether religious belief can be rational, a question that the empiricist Hume is answers by arguing that belief is rational only if it is sufficiently supported by experiential evidence, leaving us with the question of whether there enough evidence in the world to allow us to infer an infinitely good, wise, powerful, perfect God. Through a reading of Voltaire's eighteenth-century philosophical novel Candide (1759), we will consider how liberal skepticism is dramatized through the difficult challenges facing a naive young man who seeks enlightenment but who ultimately finds only disillusionment."Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907), meanwhile, offers an autobiographical account of how Darwin’s ideas threatened religious belief—and generated its own brand of skepticism from the theologically committed. Finally we will apply some of the historical insights we have gained from our reading of the skeptical tradition to contemporary debates in the US, in particular those concerning the New Atheists and conspiracy theories, most famously in popular culture in the American television series The X-Files, which spanned nearly a decade beginning in the 1990s, and which we will explore for its brooding, paranoid meditation on contemporary surveillance and the allure of supernatural explanations in a supposedly secular era.


HUM 25067
The Human, The Animal, The Nonhuman, The Posthuman
Instructor: Dr. Jennifer Mitchell

In this course, we will examine the relationship between humans, animals, and various other types of nonhumans. We will interrogate the interconnectedness of humans and other species; we will probe definitions of humanity and the human experience; we will explore literary and philosophical experiments with identities and subjectivities; and we will discuss how future humanities are imagined.

The figure of "the animal" has become a recent focus of critical and cultural theory, although depictions of nonhumans have a longer lineage in literature, art, and philosophy. From animal imagery in folk and fairy tales to allegorical uses of animals in political texts like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, animals have been substantial literary characters and tools. Perhaps more relevant, animal studies considers the ways in which conceptions of the animal speak directly to representations of humanity. This course will put literary, theoretical, and cultural texts in conversation in order to examine the dynamically evolving categories of human, animal, nonhuman, and, most recently, posthuman. In their introduction to Posthuman Bodies, editors Jack Halberstam and Ira Livingston consider the implications of the posthuman designation, as a hybrid of humanity and technology: “If the human is dead, the alien, the other, goes with it. Or does it? What is different about the alien? Does posthumanity prop itself up against a human body or does it cannibalize the human?” In order to get to that We will examine representations of specific animals, hybrid animalism (think the “wild child”), and posthumanism, especially as we consider the ways that these representations intersect with theories of gender, race, class, and technology.

Texts may include:

Virginia Woolf, Flush
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Selected stories by Edgar Allen Poe
Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels M.T. Anderson, Feed D.H. Lawrence, “The Fox,” “The Snake,” “The Wintry Peacock”
J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals / Disgrace Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (selections) Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature Linda Kalof and Amy Fitzgerald, eds. The Animals Reader: The Essential Classic and Contemporary Writings (selections) Tony Davies, Humanism (selections) Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”
Elaine Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture (selections) Jurgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature (selections) Jack Halberstam and Ira Livingston, eds. Posthuman Bodies (selections)

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