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 2017-2018

Philosophy

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.

Faculty

Ancient Philosophy (Plato)

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

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 with one of the seminal figures of our tradition in more than a superficial way. 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 an historical development. The second part of the goal of the course is to introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for fall 2017 will be Plato’s Theaetetus, the dialogue in which the question “What is knowledge?” is raised.

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Previous Courses

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.

Faculty

Modern Philosophy (Machiavelli)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of a small number of texts from a major figure in the modern philosophical tradition since Machiavelli; e.g., Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche. The goal of the course is twofold: First, it is designed to afford students the luxury of spending a great deal of time on one thinker, to examine the way in which our own thought bears the residue of previous thought, but especially to attempt to understand the philosopher as he understood himself. Second, we will learn how difficult it is to match an author’s care in writing with an equal care in reading. The text for spring 2015 will be Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, at first blush a book at odds with his most famous work, The Prince. The latter seems to advocate an amoral power politics; the former seems a celebration of republican rule. The one advocates founding “new modes and orders,” while the other takes its bearings by the old Roman republic. In this course, we will attempt to address these and other ambiguities in Machiavelli’s thought by way of a careful reading of the Discourses. We will be especially concerned with understanding the philosophical teaching underlying his practical political teaching.

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The Philosophy of Tragedy

Open , Lecture—Spring

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 especially revealing philosophically by Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, to name but 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 to understanding how they deal with these issues and to the question of the importance and nature of tragedy itself. For conference, we will read perhaps the greatest philosophical treatment of tragedy, Aristotle's Poetics.

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Ancient Philosophy

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

This course is devoted to a careful reading of a small number of texts from a major figure in ancient philosophy, usually Plato or Aristotle (fall 2014: Plato’s Alcibiades I). The goal of the course is twofold: First, it is designed to acquaint students with one of the seminal figures of our tradition in more than a superficial way; in doing that, it will force us to slow our usual pace of reading and 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. Second, the course will introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading.

Faculty
Related Disciplines