Roy Ben-Shai

Roy

Undergraduate Discipline

Philosophy

BA, Tel-Aviv University. MA, PhD, New School for Social Research. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship, Haverford College. Interests in 19th- and 20th-century Continental philosophy—in particular, Nietzsche, Heidegger, existentialism, and poststructuralism—and in the history of philosophy more broadly. Author of Critique of Critique (Stanford University Press, 2023); co-editor of Synontology: The Ontology of Relations, a special issue of Philosophy Today (2023); and co-editor of The Politics of Nihilism: From the Nineteenth Century to Contemporary Israel (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014). Published essays in Telos, The European Legacy, and The Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, among others. SLC, 2018–

Undergraduate Courses 2023-2024

Philosophy

Capitalism and Schizophrenia: A Thousand Plateaus

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

Prerequisite: prior course and/or conference in philosophy

This reading seminar will consist of a close study of one book, A Thousand Plateaus, which was coauthored in 1980 by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Felix Guattari.A Thousand Plateaus, the second volume of their magnum opus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia—the founding text of a movement of thought called “poststructuralism”—is among the most influential books of 20th-century philosophy. As its name suggests, the book presents a vision, or visions, of the world and of history as multilayered and multiplex rather than homogenous and linear. The book teaches us to look and to think of things and of ourselves from a variety of new and shifting angles, with the aim of providing means of resistance, empowerment, and sometimes escape against capitalism, fascism, and forces of normalization. To do this, Deleuze and Guattari draw on a broad range of philosophical, literary, and artistic texts and on modalities of experience that have traditionally been associated with madness. Their writing style is bold and dazzling, full to the brim with new terminologies (many of which have since become common tropes in the humanities and the social sciences); it is also challenging and dense. Engaging their work fruitfully requires a mind that is, like theirs, open and adventurous, willing to take risks and follow unpredictable turns. We will proceed in workshop fashion, reading 30-40 pages a week in advance of each class, writing short analyses throughout the semester, and coming to class prepared and eager to work together toward increased understanding. In addition to the prerequisite, students enrolling in this class should, more importantly, have a philosophical passion and commitment, a diligent work ethic, and a spirit of camaraderie, collaboration, and generosity.

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Human/Nature: Philosophical Perspectives

Open, Seminar—Spring

What is humanity? What, if anything, makes us different from other modes of being, and what kind of responsibility do we have with respect to what is considered nonhuman? To broach these questions, this seminar will offer a critical survey of the history of Western philosophy with a focus on the development of humanism and subsequent critiques of it. Specifically, we will look at different ways in which the philosophical tradition defined the human being in contradistinction from, or relation to, nature. Texts will range from ancient philosophy (the Pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle), to modern philosophy (Descartes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche), to recent developments (New Materialism, Eco-Feminism, philosophy of technology). This course will fully participate in the spring 2024 Sarah Lawrence Interdisciplinary Collaborative on the Environment (SLICE) Mellon course cluster. The semester will include two interludes during which students will engage in collaborative projects across disciplines and in partnership with students from Bronx Community College. Students will have the opportunity to develop field-based conference projects

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Previous Courses

Philosophy

Being and Time

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall

In this seminar, we will study closely one of the most influential books of 20th-century philosophy: Being and Time, by German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1776). Among the founding texts of existentialism and phenomenology, Being and Time (1927) offers an existential analysis of the human condition, including what it means to be in the world, to be with others, and to be toward death, as well as the difference between authentic and inauthentic modes of being. This work revolutionized some of the most deep-seated assumptions in philosophy, psychology, and science, inspiring new movements in psychoanalysis, feminism, linguistics, political theory, literary theory, and other fields.

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Discipline and Sexuality: Reading Michel Foucault

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall

In this reading seminar, we will focus on two of Michael Foucault’s books: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: The Will to Knowledge (1976). Foucault is one of the most influential philosophers and historians of the second half of the 20th century, famous for developing Nietzsche’s thesis that knowledge is not a progressive quest for objective truth but, rather, a historical construct produced in the service of sociopolitical power structures. The texts that we will read mark a transition in Foucault’s conception of power, from seeing it as a mechanism of control (incarceration and punishment but also disciplining, education, and surveillance) to seeing it as a mechanism of producing pleasure (through practices, regulation, and inhibitions of sexuality, as well as its transgressions). Foucault’s is an extremely original mind, which has the capacity to change our understanding of our history, our culture, our upbringing, and ourselves in the deepest and least-expected ways. When it works (and much of it depends on our own commitment to the reading process), his writing can liberate us from bonds and preconceptions that we never even knew we had. This will be a guided reading and discussion-centered seminar, with weekly reading responses. It is reserved for sophomores and above, with preference to those who’ve had experience reading philosophy in class, in conference, or independently. The reason for this is not that we need much background in philosophy to understand Foucault but, instead, that we need the capacity and enthusiasm for actively and independently participating in a rigorous process of reading and discussing a philosophical text. For the conference component of the class—unless you have a well-defined and executable alternative in mind, which we agree upon in advance—each student will conduct an independent study with me of one philosophical text of their choice from a list of options.

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Existentialism

Open, Lecture—Spring

Does life have a purpose, a meaning? What does it mean “to be”? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a woman (or to be a man)? What does it mean to be black (or to be white)? What makes us into who we are? What defines each of us? What distinguishes each of us? And what, if anything, is common to all of us? These and other questions are raised by existentialist philosophy and literature, mostly through interrogation of real-life experiences, situations, and “fundamental emotions” such as anxiety, boredom, loneliness, and shame. In the first half of this class, we will get acquainted with the thought and writing of two of the most influential figures on existentialist philosophy: Jean-Paul Sartre (France, 1905-1980) and Martin Heidegger (Germany, 1889-1976). In the second half, with what we have learned from Sartre and Heidegger as our background, we will analyze texts by other authors associated with existentialism, including Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Frantz Fanon, Franz Kafka, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Simone Weil.

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First-Year Studies: The Origins of Philosophy

Open, FYS—Year

What is being? What is time? What is knowledge? What is the best kind of government, and what is the happiest kind of life? Should we fear death? More than 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece, a tradition of asking this sort of questions developed under the name “philosophy” (Greek for “love of wisdom”). In this course, we will read the earliest surviving texts of the philosophical tradition—from the first philosopher, Thales, to the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle—as well as interpretations and critiques of them by thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Throughout the course, we will discuss the relations (and the tensions) between philosophy and science, religion, art, and politics. Students will have an individual conference every other week and group conference on alternating weeks. In the group conferences, we will discuss the nature of academic work in general and practice research, reading, writing, and editing skills.

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Heidegger and the Art of Thinking

Open, Seminar—Year

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), one of the most influential philosophers of the last century and a master of the essay form, argued that “to think is to confine yourself to a single thought.” To become familiar with Heidegger’s “single thought” and to follow its development, we will read key essays from his “middle period” (1930s-40s), in which he probes the meanings of death, truth, art, humanism, technology, and thinking. We will pay special attention to the pedagogical facet of these essays; namely, their endeavor to teach us how to discover and develop our own thought.

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How to Become Who You Are: Readings in Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Life

Open, Seminar—Fall

In this course, we will read selected works from different phases of Nietzsche’s career and become acquainted with some of the central themes of his philosophy, including his views of art, tragedy, history, and morality. While we will give each theme its own due, our guiding thread will be Nietzsche’s promotion of a morality grounded in an affirmation of life—“yes-saying,” as he called it—and his rejection of all ethical appeals to something beyond this life, this body, this world. To cast light on the profound impact and enduring life of this philosophy, we will accompany our primary readings in Nietzsche with critical appropriations of his thought by leading 20th-century philosophers, including Heidegger, Irigaray, Deleuze, and Foucault.

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Jewish Philosophers: From Spinoza to Arendt

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

Hannah Arendt famously wrote that 19th-century Jews stood “between pariah and parvenu,” a formulation that embodies the complex relationship between Jews and the modern world. With the rise of the new science in the 17th century, Enlightenment beliefs and practices in the 18th century, and the emancipation of Jewish communities in the 19th century, the role played by Jewish philosophers—in advancing these processes, as well as struggling to locate themselves within them—became increasingly prominent. Tracing the history of Jewish thinkers from the 17th to the 20th centuries, we will consider how they grappled with their cultural heritage in a climate of enlightenment and emancipation on the one hand and anti-Semitism, persecution, and pogroms on the other. Central themes include the role of the sacred in the modern world, alienation and exclusion, national consciousness and utopianism, memory, and cultural despair. While most of our sources are philosophical (Spinoza, Mendelssohn, Maimon, Marx, Freud, Benjamin, Arendt), we’ll read historical documents, theological treatises, novels, poems, and correspondences, as well.

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Nietzsche: The Philosophical Personality

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

What is my personality? What kind of personality is it? Do I have control over my personality? Is it something I am, or is it something I do? We will reflect on these questions with philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche as our guide. In one of his aphorisms, Nietzsche argued that the most important thing one can do is “give style” to his/her character. But what is “style” in this sense, and how does one “give” or develop it? In this course, Nietzsche will be our guide not only in terms of his ideas but also in terms of his example: his own “personality.” This does not simply mean his biography but, rather, his personality as it comes across and develops through his writing and his art. The course is, therefore, titled “philosophical personality”—the personality of a thinker and author. To this end, we will begin from Nietzsche’s earliest forays as a writer: his studies of Homer and Pre-Socratic philosophy and his groundbreaking theses on Greek tragedy. We will conclude by reading one of Nietzsche’s latest texts, his intellectual autobiography, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is. Conference work should engage the guiding question of the course—What is personality, and how does it develop?—through a prism of the student’s choice: work/s of literature, art, psychology, or philosophy.

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Philosophical Silence: Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

Intermediate/Advanced, Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: prior class and/or conference in philosophy

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein, first published in German in 1921, consists of seven main “propositions.” The first is “1. The world is all that is the case”; the last, “7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Between the two are some 90 pages of notoriously enigmatic statements—on topics ranging from religion and mysticism to science and logic, language, subjectivity, and thinking—that have fascinated readers for more than a century. While the Tractatus has become one of the canonical texts of analytical philosophy, it is also among the most influential texts of 20th-century philosophy more generally. Its laconic brevity and oracular style make it an excellent platform for practicing close, collective, philosophical reading and conversation in the seminar setting. We will read it together, line by line, in and out of class, alongside secondary texts that exemplify its range of influence and competing interpretations from analytic to continental philosophy. We will conclude the class by looking at and reflecting on Wittgenstein’s striking change of mind and style in Philosophical Investigations—his last (and only other) book. Students participating in this course must show a philosophical passion and commitment; a diligent work ethic; and a spirit of comradery, collaboration, and generosity.

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Spinoza’s Ethics: A Philosopher’s Guide to Life

Open, Lecture—Spring

In this lecture course, we will study the Ethics: the magnum opus of the great Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza (1633-1672). German philosopher Jacobi once wrote that “Spinoza is the only philosopher who had the courage to take philosophy seriously; if we want to be philosophers, we can only be Spinozists.” Even if Jacobi’s statement is exaggerated, it is certainly true that studying Spinoza will make us better philosophers. But Spinoza promises much more. He claims that those who follow the guide of the Ethics become freer, wiser and, above all, happier. The Ethics is a notoriously difficult and enigmatic text, which consists entirely of geometrical proofs—even concerning psychological, moral, and theological matters. Yet, it has become famous among philosophers and poets alike for its exceptional beauty. Among the questions the book tackles are: What determines our desires, and in what ways can or should we control them? In what ways can we be free, and in what ways are our behaviors and desires predetermined? In what ways can we be unique, and in what ways are we an inherent part of a greater whole? As we will learn, Spinoza argued that God and Nature are synonyms and that, to achieve an eternal and blissful life, we do not need to die and go to heaven. We do not even need to change the world or ourselves. All we need is to understand the way things are. There are two options for taking this course: for three or five credits. The three-credit option means attending the lectures and doing the relevant readings and assignments. The five-credit option includes, in addition to the lectures, a group conference component in which we will discuss films and literary works that help illustrate and apply Spinoza’s Ethics

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The First Philosophers

Open, Lecture—Fall

What is being? What is time? What is justice? What is truth? What is the best way to live, and should we fear death? More than 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece, a tradition of asking this sort of questions developed under the name “philosophy,” which is Greek for “love of wisdom.” Veering away from the mythological and religious traditions that were dominant at the time, the first of the writers whom we now recognize as “philosophers” broke radically new ground for self-understanding and set the stage for modern scientific, political, and theological ideas. We will read the earliest surviving texts of this tradition, written by a group of authors who are now known collectively as the “Pre-Socratics.” (These include Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the Ancient Atomists, to name a few.) The texts are fragmentary, as the full texts are lost. The ideas that we find in them are creative, inspiring, and often funny. Studying them is an opportunity to reflect about what “philosophy” means and an invitation for us to philosophize. This survey course is designed both for beginners in philosophy, for whom it would serve as an introduction, and for those more experienced in philosophy, who want to enrich their knowledge of its roots. We will accompany our readings of the first philosophers, with commentaries by later thinkers, including Friedrich Nietzsche, and occasionally by reference to non-Greek or non-philosophical sources. Group conferences will meet once every other week to engage later and contemporary commentaries on the Pre-Socratics and will involve a final paper project of the student’s choice.

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The Philosophy of Sex and Love

Open, Seminar—Year

One of the fundamental transformations to occur in society and culture over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries is the understanding of sex and love and the relation—or nonrelation—between them. Among the many catalysts for this change, we may count changing perceptions of sexual difference, gender, sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles; an increasing range of possibilities for reproduction or nonreproduction; and the problematization of the nuclear, monogamous, heterosexual family structure. This yearlong seminar will engage in the philosophical examination of these topics. While we will read some ancient philosophy, including Plato’s Symposium and some late-modern texts by the Marquis de Sade and the Baron von Sacher-Masoch (the authors who gave their names to Sadism and to Masochism, respectively), most of our readings will be from 20th- and 21st-century sources, including Sigmund Freud, Claude Levi-Strauss, Georges Bataille, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Audre Lorde, Lee Edelman, Paul Preciado, Maggie Nelson, and Luce Irigaray. Students will be required to not read Fifty Shades of Grey.

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Time in Film and Philosophy

Open, Seminar—Spring

The experience of time is so deeply engrained in our everyday lives that we tend to take it as a given; we rarely take the time to think about time. Our main objective in this course will be just that: to reflect about time. What is the meaning of time? How do we experience it? Is there a “right way” to experience time and to think about time? Our main register for addressing these questions will be philosophical, and we will get to know writings by some of the best philosophers of the last century and a half—including Bergson, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kristeva. Since the filmic medium—the “movie”—embodies time and movement in its very structure, we will accompany our philosophical readings with watching and interpreting films, including (Fellini), La Jetée (Marker), Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman), 2001: a Space Odyssey (Kubrick), and Memento (Nolan) that explore their own temporality philosophically.

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Time in Literature and Philosophy

Open, Joint seminar—Spring

Where do we turn to understand the human experience of time? Science and technology might tell us about the physical flow of time or how the units of seconds, minutes, hours, and days might help to order time. Philosophy and literature, however, broaden the question of what time really is, emphasizing its inscrutability and elusiveness. Works in these disciplines demonstrate not only the mystery of human temporality but also the ways in which language and art attempt to capture, represent, or escape time. This course will examine the abiding concern with time and the complexities of temporal experience by examining a range of philosophical and literary writings, from antiquity to the present, as well as several films. Readings will include works by Augustine, Nietzsche, Kant, Kristeva, and Heidegger, as well as literary texts by Boethius, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Woolf.

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Women Philosophers in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Open, Seminar—Year

Western philosophy originated in Ancient Greece more than 2,000 years ago, addressing fundamental questions about being and time, about the human condition, about ethics and politics, about science and religion. Despite the fundamental and universal nature of these questions, philosophy was practiced (at least publicly) mostly by men for the majority of those 2,000 years. It was not until the 20th century that this convention began to be significantly challenged, both practically (by the fact that more and more women entered the forefront of philosophical discussion) and theoretically (by questioning the validity and scope of this male-dominant tradition). This yearlong course is a survey of 20th-century continental philosophy that, countering the aforementioned tradition, focuses exclusively on the work of women in philosophy. Among the authors we may read are Sarah Ahmed, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Talia Bettcher, Judith Butler, bell hooks, Luce Irigaray, Melany Klein, Julia Kristeva, Audre Lorde, Maria Lugones, Simone Weil, Sylvia Winter, and Virginia Woolf. Some of these philosophers are feminists or consider the issue of sexual difference as central to their work or to philosophy in general; some are not. More importantly for our purposes, surveying their thought will be our means of acquiring a comprehensive view of the key developments in continental philosophy of the 20th and 21st centuries and the relations between them, including phenomenology, existentialism, psychoanalysis, critical theory, structuralism and poststructuralism, feminism, black feminism, and trans-feminism, decolonial and queer theories. During the fall semester, in addition to biweekly individual conferences, first-year students will have a biweekly group conference, in which we will discuss the nature of academic work in general and practice research, reading, writing, and editing skills.

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“I Think, Therefore I Am:” The Meditations of René Descartes

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

This course will consist of a close reading of René Descartes’ masterwork: Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). One of the founding texts of modern philosophy, this book introduces the core problems that continue to preoccupy all subsequent philosophy: the psychophysical problem (i.e., What is the relationship between consciousness and the body, and how does the one “act upon” the other?); the problem of knowledge (i.e., Is knowledge grounded in reason or in the senses? And is there any way to conclusively distinguish between dream, or fantasy, and reality?); the problem of other minds (How can I know that another consciousness exists, if I can only ever access it through my consciousness?). Conference work may focus on Descartes, on one of the above-mentioned problems, or on a closely related philosopher of the student’s choice.

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