American Antislavery: Antebellum Political Thought and Strategies of Upheaval (Spring 2017)
This course investigates dilemmas faced by oppositional social movements in the United States through an exploration of the political thought occasioned by the abolitionist movement. In the decades preceding the Civil War, antislavery political actors and thinkers confronted and wrote about a range of urgent problems, such as: How do the social struggle for new rights relate to a democratic society’s original commitments and existing values? What means can an emancipa- tory movement justifiably employ, and which are most likely to bring about meaningful change? Under what conditions is violence justifiable? What attitude should one adopt vis-à-vis state in- stitutions and human laws that one believes unjust and oppressive? What is the intersection be- tween the struggle for legal freedom and other classes of rights? In this course, we examine ante- bellum American political thought to understand and assess these questions’ theoretical stakes. We do so by engaging in close readings of books, essays, speeches, and short stories, written in particular by Frederick Douglass, George Fitzhugh, Harriet Jacobs, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Wendell Phillips, Lysander Spooner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Maria Stewart, Henry David Thoreau, and David Walker.
Antipolitics (Winter 2015)
Is there still a role for politics in an era of technical knowledge and administrative complexity? Fearful that politics is disappearing, that high-stakes decisions are being divested from ordinary citizens and that conflicts over values are being unduly discredited, contemporary philosophers have sought to defend the importance of politics and to rethink its meaning. In this course, we will read and evaluate some of the strongest critics of depoliticization and discuss how they theorize the role and value of politics. We will also consider counter-arguments from thinkers who argue that politics is often harmful to democratic commitments and good government. Plato, Weber, Schmitt, Arendt, Habermas, Mouffe, Rancière, and Pettit, among others, will help us cover themes like the role of experts, the relationship between the economy and politics, the effects of juridical language, and the desirability of conflict and partisanship.
Classics of Social and Political Thought, I (Fall 2016, Fall 2017)
This course is a collaborative exploration of four philosophers’ reflections on how humans live together as social beings and organize political institutions, and on how they should be doing so. We will read, discuss, and analyze Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Niccolò Machiavelli’s influential responses to questions such as what justice entails, who should rule and what measure of equality or inequality is desirable, what good citizens are obligated to do, and how one should pursue the common good. This will be an opportunity to understand their thought on their own terms, while familiarizing ourselves with works and concepts that have greatly influenced later thinkers and political actors, and also reflecting on and deepening our own ideas on such matters.
Classics of Social and Political Thought, II (Winter 2014, Winter 2017, Winter 2018)
By the time of the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 18th century, a new set of ideas had come to organize the way people thought about political life. Notions like consent, individual rights, toleration, sovereignty became essential in articulating the role and obligations of the modern state and of its citizens. This course focuses on four 17th and 18th century thinkers (Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft) to explore how the social contract tradition and the Enlightenment tradition put a new political vocabulary and imaginary in circulation.
Classics of Social and Political Thought, III (Spring 2017, Spring 2018)
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, political thinkers confronted a wide range of transformations, starting with the construction of liberal democratic institutions, the emergence of capitalism, the struggles for equality of hitherto excluded groups, and the rise of bureaucracy. In this course, we read six authors (Tocqueville, Marx, Nietzsche, Du Bois, Weber, and Arendt) who developed trenchant and critical outlooks toward these transformations and their effects on social and political life. The course also aims to build on your ability to interpret complex texts, to engage in rigorous argumentation, and to marshal evidence for your views.
Truth, Lies, and Opinion (Spring 2018)
The recent tumult over “fake news” and the erosion of facts in public discourse picks up a long-standing debate in political thought over the role of truth, lies, and opinion. Is politics a domain where rulers should be truthful and the people should be sincere, or is it a domain where lies and cunning (realpolitik) are bound to reign supreme? Can we even clearly identify what is a truth and what is a lie when it comes to politics given the varying ideologies and perspectives through which people apprehend the world? What room can there be for truth and knowledge in democracy, which is organized around giving voice to people’s conflicting opinions? We will examine such questions by reading authors including Hannah Arendt, John Dewey, Michel Foucault, Gandhi, Sandra Harding, Vaclav Havel, Niccolò Machiavelli, Charles Mills, Friedrich Nietzsche, Plato, and Bernard Williams.