Abraham Anderson

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 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–

Undergraduate Courses 2018-2019

Philosophy

Economics and Moral Philosophy

Open , Seminar—Year

In the history of economic thought, one of the classic topics has been the “Adam Smith problem,” the problem of how Smith—whose The Wealth of Nations was thought to teach that selfishness is, and ought to be, the primary motive of human behavior—could also have written The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which makes sympathy and benevolence central to human moral psychology. In this course, we shall attempt to understand whether there really is an “Adam Smith problem.” We shall do so by beginning before Smith, with Shaftesbury‘s Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit, which teaches that human beings are fundamentally sociable, and Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, which argues for the political and economic value of selfishness. We shall then go on to read The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Our focus will not be on economic theory. Rather, we shall be interested in the question of human nature and its relevance to politics and political economy—and, for example, to disagreements among American “conservatives,” many of whom defend the virtue of selfishness, and American “liberals,” many of whom wish to regard human beings as fundamentally sociable and who wish to cultivate a universal benevolence. Reading these four books slowly and carefully may take us the whole year.

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Philosophy as Therapy

Open , Lecture—Year

Since Socrates, philosophy has understood itself as therapy—of “opinion” (Socrates, Plato), of anxiety and passion (the Stoa), of superstition (the Epicureans), and of dogmatism (the Pyrrhonian skeptics and the New Academy). This conception of philosophy receded in the Middle Ages—when philosophy in Christian Europe was conceived of as a “handmaiden to theology”—but returned in the Renaissance and continued to be important in the Enlightenment. Among the moderns, thinkers who understand philosophy as involving therapy include Montaigne, Descartes, Shaftesbury, and Kant, as well as some in the 20th century. In the fall semester, we shall focus on the ancients; in the spring, on the moderns.

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Previous Courses

Thinkers on the Right

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

The goal of the seminar is to investigate the development of the "Right" in European political thought after the French Revolution. We will read selections from Joseph de Maistre, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and other things yet to be determined.

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Aesthetics: the Romantics and Hegel

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

We will read German Romantic thought and Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics to understand the unfolding of modern aesthetics after Kant.

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First-Year Studies: From Homer to Plato

Open , FYS—Year

The habit of asking questions, which constitutes Western thought, has its primary origin in Greece. In this class, we will read Greek epics, tragedies, histories, comedies, and works of philosophy in order to think about how our thinking got started.

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Aesthetics

Open , Seminar—Year

What is “aesthetics”? It is often understood, nowadays, as a philosophical reflection on art. This is not, however, how it began. “Aesthetics” begins in Plato’s reflection on the beautiful, which is also a reflection on law, custom, and religion. It emerges as a separate field of enquiry in the 18th century, when it is bound up with the problem of the Enlightenment or the possibility of a public order founded on reason rather than religious authority. This problem poses the question of the relation between philosophical rationality and a shared sense of the fitting, one aspect of which is the sense of the beautiful. This topic may be of particular interest to today’s students because of the challenges to the Enlightenment put forward by Christian fundamentalism, radical Islamism, and multiculturalism. Can the 18th-century reflection on the beautiful offer a response to these challenges? Or do they show that the reflection was a means of evading reality? The focus of the seminar will be on Kant’s Critique of Judgment and Schiller’s Letters Concerning the Aesthetic Education of Man.

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Superstition, Enthusiasm, and Fanaticism

Open , Lecture—Year

Philosophy, since ancient times, has understood itself as an attempt to understand and to treat superstition, fanaticism, and “enthusiasm.” (The term “enthusiasm” was often used in the 17th and 18th centuries to mean the claim to possess direct inspiration from God.) In the 18th century, philosophy in the West, via natural science and political doctrines, largely replaced religion as a source of public authority. As a result, the understanding of philosophy as an opponent of superstition, fanaticism, and enthusiasm was largely forgotten. We shall seek to recover it. We shall begin by reading Euripides’ Bacchae and Plato’s Ion, which consider enthusiasm. (Some of the works listed in this paragraph will be read for class; others, for group conference.) We shall then go on to Cicero’s On Divination and Plutarch’s On Superstition. We shall then proceed to read selections from Irenaeus’ Against Celsus, an attack on the Gnostics, who claimed a quasi-philosophical kind of wisdom, and from Aquinas’ Summa Against the Gentiles, whose target, the Albigensians, were Manicheans, a Gnostic group. We shall then read the Preface to Hooker’s Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, which contains a reflection on the psychology of the Puritans. We shall go on to Samuel Butler’s comic epic Hudibras (also about the Puritans), Shaftesbury’s Letter Concerning Enthusiasm, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. We shall conclude with selections from Burke’s Reflections Concerning the Revolution in France, Maistre’s Treatise on Sacrifices, and Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. The last few authors on this list are concerned with a new kind of enthusiasm: a political enthusiasm emanating from philosophy itself.

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The Keystone of the Arch

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

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.

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Scylla and Charybdis

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

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.

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The Problem of Knowledge

Open , Lecture—Fall

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.

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