Anticipating Another Encounter With Books And Students

This coming fall semester promises to be a cracker: I have the usual heavy teaching load of three classes (including two four-credit classes whose lectures will be one hundred minutes long, thus making for a very exhausting Monday-Wednesday sequence of teaching running from 9:05 AM to 3:30 PM, with an hour break between the second and third class meetings); and I will be trying to make some headway on a pair of manuscripts, both due next year in May and August respectively (one project examines the Bollywood war movie and the Indian popular imagination, another conducts a philosophical examination of the Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s work.)

The three classes I will be teaching this semester are: Social Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Landmarks in the History of Philosophy. The following are their reading lists: the first two classes below feature my favored kind of reading assignments–pick a few select texts and read them from cover to cover; this is a slightly risky move, given that my students–and  I–might find out, together, that the text is ‘not working.’ For whatever reason; some works do not bear up well under closer inspection in a classroom, some material turns out to be tougher to teach and discuss than imagined, and so on. When it works though, a detailed and sustained examination of a philosophical work pregnant with meaning can work wonders, allowing my students and I to trace the various strands of complex arguments at leisure, drawing out their many interpretations and understandings as we do so.

Social Philosophy: 

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 1998,

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Routledge Classics,

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989,

Landmarks in the History of Philosophy:

William James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Dover, 1996,

Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Harper Perennial

Philosophy of Law: 

‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers’ by Lon Fuller (to introduce my students–briefly and vividly, hopefully–to theories of natural law, positivism, and some tenets of the interpretation of legal texts.)

HLA Hart, ‘On Primary and Secondary Rules’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Path of the Law’

David Caudill and Jay Gold, Radical Philosophy of Law

Besides these three classes, I will also be conducting an independent study with an undergraduate student on the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism; this promises to be especially fascinating. The following is the list of books my student and I will work through over the course of the semester:

Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities

Nietzsche and Zen: Self Overcoming Without a Self 

Nietzsche and BuddhismProlegomenon to a Comparative Study

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

Every semester, as always, brings on that same trembling anticipation: books and students and all the promises those encounters hold–the revelations, the surprises, the discoveries, the missteps. What a great way to spend one’s waking hours; I will have ample opportunities to count my blessings in the weeks that lie ahead.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Philosopher Of Education

In ‘Observations on the State of Degradation to which Woman is Reduced by Various Causes’ (Chapter IV of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), Mary Wollstonecraft writes:

Reason is…the simple power of improvement; or, more properly speaking, of discerning truth. Every individual is in this respect a world in itself. More or less may be conspicuous in one being than another; but the nature of reason must be the same in all…can that soul be stamped with the heavenly image, that is not perfected by the exercise of its own reason? Yet outwardly ornamented with elaborate care, and so adorned to delight man…the soul of woman is not allowed to have this distinction…But, dismissing these fanciful theories, and considering woman as a whole…the inquiry is whether she has reason or not. If she has, which, for a moment, I will take for granted, she was not created merely to be the solace of man…

Into this error men have, probably, been led by viewing education in a false light; not considering it as the first step to form a being advancing gradually towards perfection; but only as a preparation for life.

The power of generalizing ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations, is the only acquirement, for an immortal being, that really deserves the name of knowledge. Merely to observe, without endeavouring to account for any thing, may (in a very incomplete manner) serve as the common sense of life; but where is the store laid up that is to clothe the soul when it leaves the body?

In the second para quoted above, Wollstonecraft, after asserting the existence of reason in women–via a theological claim–goes on to establish a normative standard for education: its function is not purely vocational but also a spiritual and moral one. The task of education is the development of reason, the business of bringing to full fruition the divine gift granted all human beings by their Creator. The task of education is not mere ‘preparation’ for a narrowly circumscribed sphere of profane responsibility; it is, rather, to elevate and uplift each human being by making it possible for them to exercise their reason–as part of a process of gradually ‘perfecting’ their souls. Education is not prelude to the ‘real business’; it is the real business itself.

In the third para, Wollstonecraft asserts the importance of abstraction and generalization–implicit in these claims is the importance of pattern recognition. Humans cannot be content with particulars, with living from moment to moment; they must, through the mastery of these powerful intellectual tools, rise to a vantage point from which disparate phenomena can be tied together into explanatory wholes (and serve as the basis for future theory-building.) The ‘common sense of life’ is not the only standard that humans should aspire to; there are far loftier goals visible, the journey to which may only be made possible by the right kind of education.

Note: My Political Philosophy class and I read and discussed some excerpts from Vindication of the Rights of Woman yesterday; these two paragraphs led to a very interesting digression (ending up in computer science and binary numbers). Which is why I make note of them today.

Ursula Le Guin and Philosophy of Feminism Reading Lists

Ursula Le Guin‘s appearance in a recent conversation I had with some friends about favorite science fiction novels brought back memories of the time I used The Left Hand of Darkness in a class.

In the fall semester of 2007, I asked to teach Philosophy of Feminism. I had long wanted to do so, and thanks to a flexible department chair, got the assignment. (I haven’t taught it again since, but hold out hope that I can do so sometime in the near future.) My students were a mix of philosophy, women’s studies, and sociology majors. (There were a couple of male students in there, which should not have been surprising but was.) My assigned readings were not excessively ambitious; I selected Feminist Philosophy: An Introductory AnthologyAnn Cudd and Robin Andreasen eds., Blackwell, 2005–as the primary text; it featured–among others–Mary  Wollstonecraft, Simone Beauvoir, Kate Millett, bell hooks, Louise Antony, Martha Nussbaum, Sandra Harding  et al.

While discussing my plans for the semester with Scott Dexter–a keen sci-fi and fantasy buff– he wondered if it might work to assign some feminist science fiction to illustrate the class’ theoretical concerns and themes. That sounded like a pretty damn good idea so I looked around a bit and settled on Le Guin’s classic. More than anything else, it was the book’s radical reworking of gender and sexuality that convinced me it belonged on my reading list.

I assigned TLHOD in the 11th week of the semester. (Interestingly enough, none of my students had read Le Guin prior to the class. That’s how I remember it, but I might be mistaken.) When TLHOD rolled around, we had read and discussed ten weeks worth of wall-to-wall feminist theory covering basic definitions, sexism, gender, epistemology and ethics. I asked my students to bring in a one-page written response to Le Guin, which would serve as the basis for the class discussion that week. In particular, I asked them to note how they thought the novel resonated with the feminist theses that we had been grappling with all semester long.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the assignment turned out. Most of my students enjoyed TLHOD; I was gratified by the sophisticated and thoughtful responses they offered. I read these aloud in class, inviting the author to clarify and amplify their analysis, and asked other students to pitch in as well. The ensuing discussion was among the richest we had all semester. My students confirmed my intuition that theory would be dramatically and vividly brought to life by literature. (They also helped me enjoy an entirely new reading of TLHOD.)

While I immediately decided to put at least one week of fiction on my philosophy reading lists from then on, I have not followed up adequately. Since then, I’ve assigned fiction in a philosophy class on only one other occasion: Dostoyevsky‘s ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor‘ from The Brothers Karamazov in Philosophy of Religion. Sometimes this has been due to a lack of imagination on my part, and sometimes laziness. I’m hoping similar indolence won’t hold me back in the future; if my experience with Le Guin’s classic was any indicator, literature should almost always work well to illustrate philosophical musings.

Note: I welcome feedback from others that have successfully incorporated literature into philosophy reading lists. (Come to think of it, it doesn’t have to be just philosophy lists.  Any non-literature list would be interesting.)