AB, Harvard College. PhD, Columbia University. Fellowships at École Normale Supérieure and the University of Munich. Interests in philosophy and history of science, history of modern philosophy, and the Enlightenment. Author of The Treatise of the Three Impostors and the Problem of Enlightenment, as well as of articles on Kant, Descartes, and other topics. Contributor to the new Kant-Lexikon. Has taught at the Collège International de Philosophie, St. John’s College, Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas, and elsewhere. SLC, 2007–
Current undergraduate courses
In the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant proposes that we seek safe passage between two “cliffs,” skepticism and “enthusiasm,” by which he means a claim to knowledge of what lies beyond the world of experience and the fanaticism that is associated with such claims. In so doing, he indicates that The Critique is concerned not just with knowledge but with living a rational life—in particular, with avoiding fanaticism. The aim of avoiding “enthusiasm,” understood as delusive claims to knowledge and the fanaticism associated with these, we shall see, is also crucial to The Critique of Practical Reason, in which Kant investigates the possibility of morality. We shall investigate what this aim means and how Kant attempts to help us achieve it.
In the preface to The Critique of Practical Reason, Kant says, “The concept of freedom is the keystone of the whole building of reason, theoretical as well as practical, and alone prevents it from falling into the abyss which skepticism has prepared for it.” Why does Kant think that the awareness of freedom, which in his view can only be had through the consciousness of moral law, is the only means of sustaining reason against skepticism? Does skepticism about knowledge really arise from a concern with freedom? This question will lead us back to Descartes. The seminar continues the investigation begun in the fall semester, Scylla and Charybdis, but will be open to students who have not taken that course—though students who have taken it will be given preference in admission to the seminar.
Is knowledge possible? If so, what kind? And why do these questions matter? I shall argue that they matter because they have to do with the question of authority and freedom: Is there a God or gods that we must obey, must we follow custom or “culture,” or must we find our own way in life; and if so, is there some standard that we can follow? We will begin with Socrates and pass on to the three Hellenistic schools—the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the skeptics—in all of which the treatment of knowledge is inseparable from the question of how to live. In group conference, we shall discuss the transformation of these schools in Montaigne, Descartes, and Hume.
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781, set the terms of philosophical thought ever since; however, there has always been considerable disagreement about what the Critique actually says, its purpose, and what we can learn from it. In this seminar, we will read the Critique of Pure Reason in its original form—the First Edition version. We shall take account of works to which the Critique was responding, particularly Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding, Descartes’ Meditations, and certain articles from Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary. In the second semester, we shall also consider Kant’s revisions of the Critique in the Second Edition version and attempt to understand why he made these changes. Our aim will be to understand not just particular arguments within the Critique but also its purposes and implications.
In Animal Farm, George Orwell sought to show how the ideal of equality can lead to despotism. In 1984, he sought to show how the pursuit of a rational politics can have the same consequence. In this course, we will begin by reading Animal Farm and 1984 and seek to understand what Orwell is saying about modern politics. Then we will proceed to a reading of Plato’s Republic, a work by which Orwell was clearly inspired in writing 1984. We shall investigate what Plato had to say about the ideal of a rational politics, about the claims of equality, and about the political dangers posed by those two ideals. We shall then read a number of the comedies of Aristophanes, which are inspired by the ideals of democracy and their consequences. Some of those comedies are concerned with the question of the status of women; others, with other implications of democracy—including the political dangers posed by philosophy itself, which Aristophanes considers in The Clouds. Next, we shall return to Plato to see his response to Aristophanes’ questioning of philosophy in The Clouds and also to consider Aristophanes’ influence on Plato’s writing. We shall then read selections from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, Xenophon’s Hellenica, and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in order to better understand the historical events behind Aristophanes’ plays and Plato’s dialogues.
In his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Kant says, “I freely confess that it was the objection of David Hume that first, many years ago, interrupted my dogmatic slumber.” Kant clearly intended this declaration as a clue to the meaning of his Critique of Pure Reason and his whole philosophy, but what did he mean by it? We shall investigate this question by reading selections from the early writings of Kant; from the Metaphysics of Alexander Baumgarten, a prime example of dogmatic metaphysics, which Kant used to teach his classes in metaphysics; from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding; from the Prolegomena; and, if time permits, from the Critique itself.