Studying the Social

This coming fall semester, I will teach, ostensibly for the second time, a class titled Social Philosophy. I say ‘ostensibly’ because, though I have taught the Class Formerly Known as Social Philosophy, this is most assuredly not your grandfather’s Social Philosophy.

Brooklyn College’s philosophy department offers a pair of related classes: one titled Political Philosophy, and the other, the above-named Social Philosophy. For as long as I’ve been a member of the department (and even before), these two classes for a variety of reasons have been informally understood as Classical Social and Political Philosophy and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy. That is, the former assigned students the material they would expect in a historically oriented version of the classic social and philosophy class, and the latter, more contemporary material. The historical origins–and motivations for the titling–of classes are always shrouded in mystery, thus it was no surprise to me that my querying into why we simply didn’t offer a pair of classes with these titles was met with–what I remember as–a blank stare. At the very least, it had seemed to me we would be absolved of the charge of Confusing and Possibly False Advertising.

When I did teach Social Philosophy for the first time, though, a few years ago, I faithfully followed the unofficial imprimatur to teach it as Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy, and so, did a mix of topics including feminism, Marxism, nationalism, anarchism, globalization, political disobedience etc. My reading list was a little too ambitious and a little too dense (some of the selections on it were clearly uninspired); the classes were too long (they met once a week for three hours).

Now, I have a chance to put things right. First, I intend to broaden the ambit of the class to include more of what might be termed social theory. Besides the usual suspects like Mill, Marx, Rousseau, Hobbes, there will be Weber, Durkheim, Horkheimer et all. Second, as these names indicate, I will straddle the Enlightenment and the modern period, updating our look at social theory to make it as current as possible.

This treatment will, I think, afford several advantages. The most straightforwardly selfish one is that with a new syllabus and a new stable of authors, my teaching will be invigorated.  The straddling of the classical and the contemporary within one semester will lead to a slightly skimpier treatment of some of the topics I intend to cover, but it does have the virtue of tracking the development of theoretical concerns over time. Most importantly, my students too, will be served better with a broader, eclectic take–offered by philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, novelists–on the often intractable problems of the social. They will come to see that the concerns of philosophers and sociologists, folks who are taken to inhabit two departments on campus, are often similar, even if approached with a different theoretical or applied focus; they will, hopefully, come to see that the problems of the ‘social’ are best understood when studied under a variety of lenses and perspectives.