Shakespeare Comedies and Romances
Life in Shakespeare’s comedies is just as complicated as in his tragedies, yet things end well. Why? What kind of intelligence, humor, courage or imagination is required of his characters to face down the potential catastrophes of erotic, familial, civic and political relations? We will read five plays that illustrate the exercise of comic virtues: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale.
Peirce, The Major Works of C.S. Peirce
Charles S. Peirce studied the same chemistry that we study in freshman laboratory. From that he learned lessons about inquiry and thinking. He applied those lessons to philosophy. As a result, he became without a doubt the greatest American philosopher, one of a handful of America’s greatest scientists, and arguably the world’s greatest logician. What lessons did he learn? How did he apply what he learned to questions of what-is-true, what-is-real, and what-is-moral?
Virginia Woolf—A Room of One's Own, Orlando, To the Lighthouse, short essays from The Common Reader
In her 1929 essay A Room of One's Own, Woolf addresses questions “of women and fiction.” Do women approach and write fiction differently than men? Could there ever be a female Shakespeare? And what does it mean that Jane Austen wrote “entirely as a woman”? Woolf concludes that the great creative mind must be androgynous. In this precept, we'll tackle the thorny issue of gender in reading and writing by discussing several of Woolf's essays and novels, including the revolutionary transgender and transgenre Orlando.
Dostoevski begins this dark and often comic novel with two epigraphs: one from Pushkin (“We’ve lost our way, what shall we do? / It must be a demon’s leading us…”) and the other from Luke, a story of Christ’s healing a man possessed by demons. He explores evil and the possibility of grace in a milieu of idealism, nihilism, revolutionary zeal and religious seeking. Who are the demons, if they exist, and what do the intentions, aspirations, and passions we claim have to do with who we are and the outcomes of our actions?
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
We all know that Aristotle was a student of Plato, but the form of Aristotle’s treatise stands in sharp contrast to the form of Plato’s dialogue, in which the action of the argument is as essential as the argument itself. Perhaps this is a contrast to be found on the surface only. We will attempt to read the Nicomachean Ethics “Platonically”; that is, as a dialogue between Aristotle and Socrates on the nature of human happiness.
Hegel: Lectures on the Philosophy of History and Philosophy of Right
Has History come to an end? Can it? What would that mean? If it were absolutely true that “all human thought is relative to its time,” i.e. unable to see beyond the assumptions governing an epoch and its forms of human society, then the truth of that thought could only be seen at the “absolute moment,” at that point in history where and when human beings are capable of complete self-knowledge, of clarity about the relation of thought and society. For Hegel, that time is now, “modernity,” when man finally becomes capable of being actually what he was always potentially: free and rational, i.e. self-conscious and self-determining. It’s Kant in motion. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel lays out the structures of society and government that would embody human rationality. As a propaedeutic, we will read selections from his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, to see how modernity came to be.
Warning: Hegel’s prose is not exactly a model of lucidity. In order to assist our common struggle, a weekly question on the reading, sent by email before class, is required.
Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I.
We will read the first volume (excluding the appendix critiquing Kant’s philosophy) of Schopenhauer’s magnum opus. The first volume contains the argument for Schopenhauer’s system. This argument, which he says is “one thought,” comes in four parts: Book 1 on representation, 2 on the will, 3 on art, ideas & genius, and 4 on affirming and denying the will. Volume I formed the work in its first edition in 1818. Schopenhauer writes in a clear and engaging manner about almost everything: perception, emotions, art, nature, science, metaphysics, religion, laughter etc. His system is unique and yet it seems to be influenced by Plato, Kant, certain aspects of Christian thinking, as well as Eastern religions and philosophies. The key to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics is his claim that it is actually possible to have access to the thing in itself: the will is das Ding an sich.
We will read a significant portion of what is perhaps Aristotle’s most important work, his extended discussion of being qua being, now known as the Metaphysics. We will occasionally refer to the Greek, but translation will not be central to our work.
Carl Menger, Principles of Economics (Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre)
*Math/Science; Phil/Theo; Pol/Soc
Menger’s Principles of Economics is generally considered the founding document of the Austrian School of Economics. However, the book has also had a crucial influence on mainstream economic thought, especially through its insistence that economic value is subjective. As background for the general topic of value (and by way of contrast), we will do some readings from Smith, Marx and others.
Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed
Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, is a wide-ranging work in which the basic concepts of philosophy and science on the one hand and religion on the other are juxtaposed and explored. It carefully and subtly presents a number of paradoxes without declaring whether they are strategic or fatal for thought. There are many references to the books of Job, Proverbs, and Psalms, as well as to Aristotle, which we will consult while following Maimonides own arguments. From his comments on the details of grammar and vocabulary to those on providence, I would characterize this text as very surprising.
Plato, The Laws
People wonder why “late in life” Plato wrote another, longer book, on political life: The Laws. Wasn’t The Republic good enough? Many of the questions of the dialogue seem to be the same: the central role of education for civic virtue and human excellence, Platonic music, the equality of women, the centrality of courage in a good life, etc. Others, however, are quite different: ambidexterity, dishware, the tragic view of life,… and the proper place of drinking parties. But most importantly, the inquiry is more practical: the question of virtue has become the place of human virtue in the real world? Moreover, the conversation is directed by a mysterious “Athenian Stranger.” (Who is he?) We will immerse ourselves in the dialogue and become perhaps founders of a new city.
Lucretius, The Way Things Are
We will read, slowly and carefully, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, translated variously as On the Nature of the Universe, The Way Things Are, or The Nature of Things. We will likely begin by looking at some fragments of Democritus and Epicurus as the sources of Lucretius’ atomism and philosophy, and conclude with essays about the poem by philosophers George Santayana and Henri Bergson.
“A certain man has been abroad many years; Poseidon is ever on the watch for him, and he is all alone. Matters at home too have come to this, that his substance is being wasted and his son’s death plotted by suitors to his wife. Then he arrives there himself after his grievous sufferings; reveals himself, and falls on his enemies; and the end is his salvation and their death.”
We will read The Odyssey working to understand Odysseus, his journey, the episodes as they are revealed to the reader, and the episodes as they are experienced by Odysseus.
Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and The Anti-Christ
Friedrich Nietzsche’s two books, On the Genealogy of Morals, and The Anti-Christ, give historical, psychological, and critical accounts of the origins, in the first case, of conventional morality, and in the second, of Christianity.
Conrad, Under Western Eyes and Faulkner, A Fable
These two novels address the crisis, or the decline or the collapse of western civilization. Which word we use depends upon how we read the novels. The Conrad novel was published in 1911 before the First World War. It takes place in two cities, St. Petersburg, Russia and Geneva, Switzerland. Conrad considers the cross influences of the West upon Russia and Russia upon the West. Specifically he responds to the Russian novels of Dostoevsky, especially The Demons.
Faulkner’s novel was published in 1954 after the Second World War. The novel describes a mutiny during the First World War. The novel is a difficult read. Yet it imagines full face how World War One was a nihilistic war. The western powers continued the war merely to avoid facing the meaninglessness of western life. Faulkner imagines a Christ-like figure who forces the western powers to end the war. Some think in this novel Faulkner was out of his element, the American South. Instead I think here is Faulkner’s element: confronting nihilism. Is it defeated?
Spinoza thinks “we are all in this together” and thinks he can demonstrate this claim. However, his understanding of who or what “we” are and of what “this” is may be surprising if not disturbing.
The Films of Akira Kurosawa
In his 1998 New York Times obituary for the great film director, Rick Lyman quotes Akira Kurosawa as summing up his approach to art, “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” We will explore Kurosawa’s gaze through eight landmark films: “Drunken Angel” (1948), “Rashomon” (1950), “Ikuru” (1952), “Seven Samurai” (1954), “Throne of Blood” (1957), “The Hidden Fortress” (1958), “Yojimbo” (1961), and “Ran” (1985). Readings from Kurosawa’s short Something Like an Autobiography will also help give insight into his approach as a filmmaker. There will be showings of these films outside of class time to help prepare for the discussions.
Ibn al-‘Arabi, The Ringstones of Wisdom (aka The Bezels of Wisdom)
This is the best-known work by the 13th-century Sufi master who has been called the most influential Muslim of the latter half of Islamic history. In it, Ibn al-‘Arabi explores the ways in which the human being is a mirror to God and God is a mirror to the human being—or, to cite another metaphor he employs, he explores the ways in which “the water takes on the color of the cup” (sometimes taking God to be the water and the human to be the cup, and sometimes vice versa).
*For Graduate Institute students in Philosophy and Theology or Politics and Society or Mathematics/Science segments as indicated.