Michael Davis

BA, Cornell University. MA, PhD, Pennsylvania State University. Interests in Greek philosophy, moral and political philosophy, and philosophy and literature; author of many books, most recently The Autobiography of Philosophy, a translation of Aristotle’s On Poetics, and Wonderlust: Ruminations on Liberal Education; member, editorial board, Ancient Philosophy; lecturer, essayist, and reviewer. SLC, 1977–

Undergraduate Courses 2018-2019

Philosophy

Ancient Philosophy (Plato)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of one text. The goal of the course is twofold. It is first designed to acquaint students with perhaps the seminal figure in the philosophical tradition in more than a superficial way. (The 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that the “safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”) This will force us to slow our usual pace of reading, to read almost painfully carefully, with a view toward understanding Plato as he wrote and as he understood himself and not as a stage in a historical development. The second part of the goal of the course is to introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for spring 2019 will be Plato’s Protagoras.

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The Philosophy of Tragedy

Open , Lecture—Fall

Greek tragedy has been performed, read, imitated, and interpreted for 2,500 years. From the very beginning, it was thought to be philosophically significant—somehow pointing to the truth of human life as a whole. (The phrase "tragedy of life" first appears in Plato.) As a literary form, Greek tragedy is thought to be especially revealing, philosophically, by Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, to name only a few. Among others, Seneca, Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, Goethe, Shelley, O’Neill, and Sartre wrote versions of Greek tragedies. And, of course, there is Freud. Greek tragedy examines fundamental things in a fundamental way. Justice, family, guilt, law, autonomy, sexuality, political life, the divine—these are its issues. For class, we will read three plays by each of the great Athenian tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—with a view toward understanding how they deal with these issues and with the question of the importance and nature of tragedy itself. For conference, we will read perhaps the greatest philosophical treatment of tragedy: Aristotle’s On Poetics.

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Previous Courses

Rousseau’s Émile: Philosophy and Education

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Rousseau had an enormous, if ambiguous, influence on modern life. Political movements of both the left and the right can trace their origins to his writings. If Rousseau is famous for his advocacy of human freedom, he is equally famous for his praise of harsh moral conformism. He presents himself as profoundly religious, yet his Émile was burned in Protestant Geneva and Catholic France. Although Rousseau wrote a novel and an opera, he was a merciless critic of the arts as corruptive of morality. He appears as moralist and immoralist, patriot and solitary dreamer, educator and attacker of education, democrat and authoritarian, modern and ancient. To understand him requires thinking through these apparent paradoxes. We will spend the semester carefully reading Émile—with the possible exception of the Republic, perhaps the most comprehensive philosophical treatment of education ever written. Rousseau writes a fictional account in which he educates a child from birth to adulthood. Once called Phenomenology of Mind, masquerading as Dr. Spock, Émile uses the problems that arise in the course of rearing a child as a way to explore the most fundamental questions of human nature.

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Heidegger’s Being and Time

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

A careful reading of Heidegger’s Being and Time, perhaps the most important work of the most influential philosopher of the 20th century, will reveal Heidegger's attempts to recover the oldest of philosophical questions: What is being? This involves asking what it means that the question has been lost sight of—which, in turn, leads to a question about what sort of being it is that raises the question of being. Being and Time is, at once, a comprehensive interpretation of the human situation (of our “being in the world”), a powerful analysis and criticism of the whole philosophical tradition prior to Heidegger, and the ground from which later philosophical movements in the 20th century (e.g., historicism, hermeneutics, existentialism, and deconstruction) develop.

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Ancient Philosophy (Aristotle)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of a small number of texts from a major figure in ancient philosophy. The goal of the course is twofold. It is first designed to acquaint students, in more than a superficial way, with one of the seminal figures of our tradition. In doing that, it will force us to slow our usual pace of reading, to read almost painfully carefully, with a view to understanding the thinker as he wrote and as he understood himself and not as a stage in a historical development. The second part of the goal of the course is to introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for Spring 2016 will be Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

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