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CORE COURSES 2011/12

BA in Value Studies - First Year/Academy Year

AUTUMN TERM
The Republic and Its Interlocutors

The focus of this class is Plato's Republic. The Republic depicts and draws us into a conversation about the kinds of values (ethical, political, aesthetic, religious, epistemic, and literary) at the heart of ECLA's approach to education, and at the heart of human life simply. It engages with these values in the form of a single conversation, rather than separating them out into the subjects of several treatises. Written long before academic disciplines were established, the  Republic looks from a modern perspective to be radically multidisciplinary. It may be said to contain a "social contract" theory, a theory of psychology, a theology, a critique of mimetic art, a theory of education, and a classification of political regimes, but it is reducible to none of these, nor is that list exhaustive.

It is an unusual feature of this class that we read and discuss other texts in-between sections of the Republic. Just as Socrates appears in conversation with his interlocutors, the Republic itself seems to be in conversation with other authors, works, and kinds of thought in the Greek tradition. Reading Plato's work alongside Homer's Iliad, Hesiod's Works and Days, Sophocles' Antigone, Aristophanes' Clouds, Euripides' Hecuba, and Xenophon's Hiero, we strive to better appreciate and evaluate the arguments and drama of the Republic.

We will also be attempting to have our own conversation with the Republic in this course. We will be reading the text in its entirety, in the spirit of serious and open inquiry, resisting both the temptation to treat Plato's work with uncritical reverence and the opposite temptation to dismiss it as antiquated or of merely historical interest. We will be particularly attentive to the dialogic character of Plato's writing. In the Republic, Socrates narrates a conversation that takes place in a specific dramatic context. He talks to specific characters with their own concerns, hopes, and fears. They express, for example, the hope that justice is somehow its own reward, that it is good for the person who is just--and the corresponding fear that by being just, one may help others but oneself, thus missing out on the things that are truly good in life. Understanding how these issues arise and are dealt within the context of the Republic may help us to see how they resemble or differ from our own present-day concerns. In engaging with the Republic as it engages with its interlocutors, we shall aim to become informed interlocutors for Plato and for each other.

Syllabus

WINTER TERM
Forms of Love: Eros, Agape and Philia

Love has been a value throughout Western culture. Although Western culture's first monument-the Iliad-declares rage rather than love as its theme, the rage of Achilles runs its tragic course because of the death of the friend he loved. Another early monument of Western culture, Plato's Socrates, holds up the life of the lover of wisdom-the philosopher-as the life most worth living, in contradistinction to the wisdom of the sophist, whose own loves or commitments seem to be in doubt.

From these Greek beginnings, the force of the idea of love has continued throughout Western culture-if not unabated, yet enough so that most of us would probably agree that a life spent without ever loving or being loved would be an empty life. This is to say that love, for most of us, is a crucial value. Love may even be the foundation of value, or the means by which value itself is created or discovered (or somehow both). (The study of love, therefore, has a special place in a programme of value studies.) Yet to say this much only raises a difficulty: not only is the potential range of objects of love bewilderingly vast, what it even means "to love" is also a question. The course title lists three of the main candidates for what it means to love: eros, agape, and philia. Each of these has been held up as an ideal of love, as the form of loving which we ought to aspire to. But it is questionable whether these ideals are compatible. It seems to make a great deal of difference whether one takes love to essentially involve submission, possession, affection, attention, charity, chastity, sexuality, spirituality, mutuality, or reciprocity or its lack.

This core class examines the concept as it is found in major sources of Western culture: Greek, Jewish, Roman, and Christian. No one of these sources is thoroughly examined, and it is not an aim of this course to describe anything like the "development" of love in history. Although the organization of texts in the syllabus is roughly historical, whether one can in fact speak meaningfully of historical development in love is a question that would take many more texts and much more time to answer.

Most of the texts in this course come from the Christian tradition, since it is generally accepted that Christianity added something-if not totally new, then certainly with a new focus-to the Western conceptualization of love:

What distinguishes Christianity, what gives it a unique place in man's intellectual life, is the fact that it alone has made love the dominant principle in all areas of dogma. Whatever Christians may have done to others or themselves, theirs is the only faith in which God and love are the same (Irving Singer, The Nature of Love, vol. 1 (Cambridge Mass. and London: MIT Press, 2009) p. 159).

But if God is love, what does this mean for romantic, sexual, interpersonal love? Is that somehow divine? Or is it fundamentally at odds with the divine? It seems that the ruling class in the Middle Ages answered such questions by retaining or transferring the Christian emphasis on love into the secular (or sexual) domain, so that:

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the fact that the ruling class of an entire period obtained . . . its view of life and its erudition in the form of an ars amandi [art of love]. During no other age did the ideal of worldly erudition enter into such intimate union with the love of women than from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries (Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) p. 127).

The course engages with examples of this love-ideal in Troubadour poetry and Gottfried's version of the remarkably pan-European Tristan myth. Dante's early Vita Nuova appears to be an attempt to bridge the divide between the Christian love dogma and the secular (or heretical?) ars amandi of the medieval courtly world. Although the course emphasis lies on the Middle Ages, it touches upon the Renaissance (with Erasmus) and keeps in contact with modernity through a series of film screenings and discussions, a plenum session on modern music and love, and by reading part of Proust's 20th century masterpiece.

This class is intended as a beginning to reflection on the concept of love. One may ask: what can be gained from such reflection? Even if love is of paramount significance in life, even if it were true that how and what we love make us who we are-still, how and what we love may not be up to us. Like taste, there may be no accounting for it, and therefore it is unclear why anyone should study it. However, the same question can be asked about the relation of thought and action in every domain. What is the relation, for example, between the study of philosophical ethics and actually being an ethical person? It would be na´ve to think that the relation is a direct one; yet perhaps it is also true that only a cynic rules out a potential relation. Reflection on the concept of love, therefore, and the various forms which have been proposed for its meaning and fulfillment, may help us to expand, deepen, or improve our own capacities as individuals who love and are loved-and who therefore live lives full of value.

Syllabus

 

BA in Value Studies - Second Year

AUTUMN TERM
Character

In coming to know another person, we often believe that we are getting to know his or her "character." We seek the company of those with good or interesting characters, and try to avoid those who we think of as having bad character. In common speech, we might be told that something difficult or unpleasant is nevertheless good for us because it will be "character-building." Many of us are seriously concerned with our own characters-as things to be discovered, perhaps, or developed, or accepted, or maintained, or improved . . .  Some of us may even worry that changing circumstances or poor decisions may alter or corrupt our characters. In short, the idea of character seems to be crucial to how many of us think, judge, and act.

But what exactly is meant by "character"? Is it synonymous with other, related concepts such as a "self", "subjectivity", "personhood", "individuality", and "personality"? How is it related to the aspirations for "self-realization" or for "authenticity" that we might typically connect with some of these other concepts? What is the relation between character and virtue? "Character" used to mean good character; in modernity, however, the word is often used to refer to an interesting, unique, or idiosyncratic personality. Both senses of the word are still alive, though possibly in tension with one another. (We may say "He's a person of character" as well as "He's a real character", but could we say both of the same person?). No matter which sense of the word we use, we speak as if we are laying hold of something real and, at least to some extent, stable.

In this core class, we examine and explore the idea of character through both contemporary and classical texts. In the course of our investigation, we expect to take up (but not to be limited to) questions such as the following: How is character, and good character in particular, acquired? To what extent is it given by nature or the product of circumstances? Can we be responsible for our own character? If not at all, how can we be praised or blamed for our good or bad character? If the formation or endurance of character depends on certain conditions, what are these? What role, if any, does having character to have to play in our happiness? Would be pleased or displeased if you seemed to others to be "acting out of character"? If the idea of character suggests stability, how does one distinguish between a "healthy" kind of stability and an "unhealthy" rigidity or senseless repetition?

How does one assess, grasp, or understand one's own character or the character of another person? What would it mean for a human being to have "no character"? What might be the role of philosophical and literary traditions in the cultivation of character? What role, if any, could our own activity in reading and discussing these texts play in the formation or alteration of our character?

Syllabus

WINTER TERM
Reason, Faith, Skepticism

Modern history seems to owe much of its living force to the conflict between two authoritative principles between which there can be no harmony of coexistence. Should human life be directed by divine revelation or unaided human reason? Each strives to subject the other to its own criteria of validity: philosophy places religion within the limits of reason, while religion places reason within the limits of revelation. By answering in favor of human reason, modern philosophy would feel compelled to provide an ultimate foundation for human knowledge, a purpose justifying all modern systems of thought. However, and in contrast to what happened before, the modern conflict between reason and revelation has not been confined to the pages of metaphysical and moral speculation. Rather, its history has also been a social and political one, at times dividing whole nations in bitter and open struggle. Nor should it be assumed that the forms of the conflict have long ago been decided. As we shall see, the question has taken new and sometimes surprising shapes every time it has been addressed. And for some, it is the very notion of a conflict which appears devoid of sense, either because the two principles belong to entirely different spheres of life or because, unknown to both, they share a common essence.

Syllabus

 

BA IN VALUE STUDIES - FOURTH YEAR / PROJECT YEAR

ECLA's core course for 4th year BA and Project Year students is dedicated to the ideals that guide, or perhaps should guide, the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

AUTUMN TERM
Bildung

In term 1 the focus will be on Bildung, a concept that has played a key role in German thought from (at least) the 18th century until today. The word 'Bildung' is commonly considered untranslatable and in class we will discuss advantages and disadvantages of some of the possible translations: 'formation', 'self-cultivation', 'education', just to mention some of the most obvious candidates. Most of our shared readings will be from the period in which the concept of Bildung rose to prominence in German philosophy, literature and educational theory, i.e. the late 18th and early19th centuries. In this period it became possible to identify "the true end of man" (Humboldt, 1791-2) or "the highest good" (Schlegel, 1799) as Bildung, to institute a journal dedicated to its pursuit (The Athenäum, 1798-1800) and to write a novel that would later be considered the beginning of a new genre best defined as the Bildungsroman (Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship from1795). The aim of the class is to build up an understanding of the ideal (or ideals) of Bildung by studying some of the key texts that helped articulate and establish it. An appreciation of the classical ideal of Bildung should help us engage with some of the current discussions about knowledge and education. Cultural critics have long complained that we live in a period of Halbbildung (half-cultivation) or even Unbildung (non-cultivation). Is this true? And if true, is it really a problem? Is the ideal of Bildung obsolete in our so-called "knowledge society"? Or have we lost something of great value that we should attempt to bring back to life?

Syllabus

WINTER TERM
Bildung

In the twentieth century, the long tradition of German philosophical thought and literary experiment regarding the question of Bildung (education, or more broadly, formation) underwent surprising new and even disturbing developments. In addition to emerging concerns about Halbbildung, or incomplete and superficial cultivation, we find a deepening of investigation into the paradoxes of the concept (its tension between external standard and internal journey) in response to the problems of modernity.  Some contributions lament the disappearance of a heritage of cultural knowledge and identity-conferral through the destruction wrought by the First World War and urbanization, while others propose a disciplinary process that will inure and conform the individual to these phenomena. Following the Second World War, reflections on Bildung diversify into considerations of how bureaucratic mechanisms can erase the individual's capacity for moral judgment, and into a more intense focus on the decisive importance, for political and social life, of the earliest phase of formation, the child's adaptation to its environment. We end with recent accounts of the function of Bildung in society, including the claim that belief in its character-building power has disappeared.

Syllabus