David Peritz

BA, Occidental College. DPhil, Oxford University. Special interests in democracy in conditions of cultural diversity, social complexity and political dispersal, critical social theory, social contract theory, radical democratic thought, and the idea of dispersed but integrated public spheres that create the social and institutional space for broad-based, direct participation in democratic deliberation and decision-making. Recipient of a Marshall scholarship. Taught at Harvard University, Deep Springs College, and Dartmouth College; visiting scholar at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and the London School of Economics. SLC, 2000–

Undergraduate Courses 2022-2023

Politics

Deranged Democracy: How Can We Govern Ourselves if Everyone Has Lost Their Minds?

Open, Lecture—Fall

Many of us are struck by what seems to be the growing irrationality of contemporary democratic politics to the point where we despair of our capacity to address problems like global climate change or pandemics that could pose existential threats to our species, not to mention a whole range of urgent but more mundane policy issues. In this class, we will seek to understand disturbing trends like populism, polarization, and disinformation in part on their own terms but also by asking whether they are deeply rooted in human nature—at least on our current best understandings of ourselves. More specifically, democracy seems to rely on at least a minimum degree of rationality and self-control on the part of the citizens whose votes and opinions guide government policy. But is this reliance foolhardy in light of what recent history, psychology, evolutionary theory, philosophy, and cognitive science teach? Do aspects of our current social and technological circumstances make us less rational and self-controlled today than our Enlightenment progenitors hoped we were becoming 200-odd years ago in the era of democratic revolutions—the era from which ideas and institutions that continue to inform our politics today emerged? In this course, we will survey aspects of the political history of recent centuries, as well as our own historical moment, to ask if they should temper confidence in the power of reason in politics? We will also examine recent research in cognitive science and philosophy that conclude that it is hard to sustain a model of human behavior that places reason and rationality in the driver’s seat. What alternative accounts of human nature are emerging from recent research? And what are their political implications, especially for democratic societies? This course will survey these issues by examining the intersection of cognitive science, philosophy and political science, history and theory to ask whether the Enlightenment’s faith in democracy was misplaced. Or, instead, are there reasons to believe that democracy can maintain its claim to legitimacy even after reason has been demoted in our understandings of human nature?

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Introduction to Modern Political Philosophy

Open, Seminar—Fall

Political philosophy consists of: a discourse of thinking about the nature of political power; the conditions for its just and unjust use; the rights of individuals, minorities and majorities; and the nature and bounds of political community. Rather than tackling pressing political problems one at a time, political theorists seek systematic solutions in overall visions of just societies or comprehensive diagnoses of the roots of oppression and domination in political orders. In this course, we focus on modern writers who shaped the terms and concepts that increasingly populate political imaginations the world over; that is, the conscious and unconscious ideas about rights, power, class, democracy, community, and the like that we use to make sense of our political lives. In this semester-long introduction to this field, we will concentrate on the long social-contract tradition that stretches from Hobbes and Locke to Rousseau and Kant and its critics, especially Hume and Hegel. By studying these thinkers, we will be better positioned to answer something like the following range of questions. What is the nature of political power? What is the content of social justice? Does democracy threaten basic individual rights? Is it more important to respect the individual or the community when the interests of the two conflict? What aspects of human potential and social worlds do different grand theories of political life illuminate and occlude? In answering these questions, we will be forced to test both the internal coherence and the continuing relevance of the political visions that shape modern politics.

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Justice, Care, and the Lifespan Revolution: A Community-Based Seminar

Open, Seminar—Spring

What does it mean to age with dignity? What is required, both individually and socially, to fairly and with dignity provide the special care that the elderly often require? Special urgency attends these questions today, as we are in the midst of a lifespan revolution with many people living more than twice as long as the average person did just a few generations earlier. This urgency is compounded by the fact that the organization and distribution of care labor does not yet adequately reflect this lifespan revolution or the transition to highly mobile and less traditional societies characterized by rapid social and technological changes—changes that can make aging harder and care more difficult to provide. Societies in which an ever-larger portion of their populations have entered elderhood face issues to do with justice in the distribution of care, the nature and forms of ageism, or the isolation of those deemed elderly from the rest of society. Meanwhile, the organization and distribution of care labor remains deeply structured by traditional assumptions, as well as inequalities and prejudices that occupy the intersections of age, gender, and race. Viewed simultaneously from these angles, the lifespan revolution presents new and pressing ethical issues about how best to lead a complete and extended human life. The lifespan revolution also presents issues of justice about how society can productively incorporate—while also respecting and caring for those living far longer than humans have in the past—and fairly distribute “Love’s Labor” of caring. These will be among the most urgent issues of ethics and justice in the middle of the 21st century. This course will examine these issues, in part, by drawing on a variety of academic fields, including philosophy, political theory, psychology, cognitive science, labor studies, and literature. This is also a community-based course; we will partner with Wartburg, a diverse adult care community in Mount Vernon, NY, close to the College. In the first half of the course, students will study the range of issues described above and begin to develop a more specific focus on how lifelong learning contributes to well-being in elderhood. This focus serves as preparation to offer “cognitive care” to the elderly members of the Wartburg community and will be accompanied by visits to Wartburg so that students can get a sense of its members and their interests and have an opportunity to observe lifelong learning in practice. Students will also develop short classes or workshops to offer at Wartburg as the main focus of their conference work. In the second half of the course, the study of specific issues of justice and care presented by the lifespan revolution will continue but also be supplemented by engagement at Wartburg, as students offer the courses or workshops that they have developed to the residents there.

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Previous Courses

Politics

Big, Deep, and New: Recent Works in Moral and Political Philosophy

Advanced, Seminar—Year

While important trends in contemporary culture and politics seem to promise not only “the death of philosophy” but also the arrival of a “post-truth epoch,” the oldest discipline itself seems not to have gotten the memo. Instead, the last 50 years witnessed a blossoming of original, important, exciting, and genuinely new work in systematic philosophy. Spanning different traditions (analytic and continental) and locations (Anglo-American, German, French, Italian, postcolonial, etc.), the reemergence of systematic philosophy revisits many of the most important questions that occupied the grand tradition for much of the last 2,500 years. What matters in life? What do we owe to each other? What do we mean by the truth? In what does human agency consist? Does human morality stem primarily from reason or emotion —or their combined operation? What is the nature of justice? Is it always wrong to lie? Can all aspects of human experience be accounted for in terms of biological processes, or do some escape reductive scientific explanation? At the same time, new issues of race, gender, identity, and, ultimately, the claim to universal knowledge and authority made on behalf of philosophy itself have been added to the range of traditional issues addressed by contemporary philosophers. This course is for anyone interested in coming up to speed with important developments in recent philosophy and will focus on the big ideas from some of the most important recent thinkers. In it, we will not only survey some of the most important and challenging works in contemporary philosophy but also put these thinkers in dialogue with each other, testing the insights that they generate and also the blind spots that they produce by comparing them with one another. The first half of this yearlong course considers several of the most important critical philosophers of the last third of the 20th century, while the second half concentrates on thinkers whose works and ideas gained prominence primarily in the first decades of 21st-century philosophy.

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Damaged Democracy: Structural Roots of Democratic Dysfunction

Intermediate/Advanced, Seminar—Year

Contemporary democratic and American politics are deeply unsettled. Throughout the democratic world, popular disaffection and anger with “politics as usual” propels candidates from outside the establishment into front-runner status. The “new normal” of our politics includes partisan polarization, an escalation of rhetorical salvos, persons with little to no political experience being elevated to leadership positions, an increasing impatience with the rule of law and similar institutional niceties, and media saturated with highly negative and distortive reportage and advertising. This political climate belies the gravity of issues faced: the erosion of wages and standards of living; increasing inequality and stalled social mobility; unsustainable spending on core state goods, including social security and medical care; ongoing security challenges; global climate change; education and healthcare systems that deliver mediocre results at extraordinarily high costs; etc. What are we to make of our democratic ambivalence, as we live with the triumphs and troubles of a political system that is the worst—except for all the others? To gain insight into these issues, we will look at democracy from a more philosophical, historical, and comparative perspective. We will examine transformations in American political institutions, economics, and civil culture that have, perhaps, made our politics at once more inclusive but also more fractious, unequal, and dysfunctional. The first semester will concentrate on the history of modern democracy, looking both to develop a strong, critical account of democracy as a normative ideal by studying its theoretic roots in seminal texts of modern political thought from Locke to Tocqueville and to gain a critical historical overview of its cultural and institutional genesis, evolution, and decay (Fukuyama and Habermas). We will then turn, mainly in the second semester, to examine some main aspects of the forces troubling democracy in the United States and elsewhere, surveying, in turn: the decline of the legislative process; the decline of political parties and voluntary associations and the consequent “hollowing out” of civil society; important changes in the political economy that have rendered democratic capitalism more prone to crisis, oligarchic capture, and cultural distortion; the role of (new and old) mass media in late-modern democratic politics; the question of whether constitutional democracy is intrinsically valuable or inherently contradictory, in general, and whether the American Constitution is (anti) democratic; the way in which different aspects of an electoral system, from districting to how winners and losers are determined, structure different forms of democracy; and whether the politics of identity is, at once, redressing historical injustice while also fracturing democratic solidarity. Finally, the course will conclude by considering some proposals to strengthen democracy as we move into the heart of the 21st century.

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Deformed Democracy: Structural Roots of Democratic Dysfunction

Open, Lecture—Year

Modern democracy, as defended by its most progressive advocates and pursued by a succession of social movements, promised to resurrect an ancient form of popular self-rule on a newly inclusive and egalitarian foundation. At certain points in recent history, it seemed credible to believe that the “moral arc of the universe bends toward justice”; i.e., that there was a long-term trend in modern democracy that more fully institutionalized meaningful self-government, increasingly treated all members with equal concern and respect, and better realized fair equality of opportunity for all while limiting social inequality and facing up to the daunting task of repairing historical injustices. Over the course of your lifetimes, however, this claim has appeared far less credible; instead, modern democratic politics seem increasingly less equal, inclusive, just, responsive, functional, and democratic. Is 21st-century democracy, increasingly an instrument of unjust politics, impotent in the face of the social and environmental changes that globalization and galloping technological innovation produce—or perhaps simply doomed? Or might it be possible to reform democracy to render it compatible with conditions of global interconnection and deeper diversity while also making it capable of securing the requisite degrees of political and social equality? To address these questions, this course surveys the development and defense of modern conceptions of democracy through the history of political thought; examines mature democracy by looking at its practice, successes, and failures from the mid-20th century to the present; and contemplates proposals for reform that seek to eliminate deformations while realizing the normative potential of modern democracy. The first semester concentrates on the history of modern democracy, looking both to develop a strong, critical account of democracy as a normative ideal—by studying its theoretic roots in seminal texts of modern political thought from Locke to Tocqueville—and to gain a critical historical overview of its cultural and institutional genesis, evolution, and decay (Fukuyama and Habermas). We will then turn, mainly in the second semester, to examine some main aspects of the forces troubling democracy in the United States and elsewhere, surveying, in turn: the decline of the legislative process; the decline of political parties and voluntary associations and the consequent “hollowing out” of civil society; important changes in the political economy that have rendered democratic capitalism more prone to economic inequality and crisis, oligarchic capture, and cultural distortion; the role of (new and old) mass media in successively structuring and disrupting the public sphere of democratic politics; the question of whether constitutional democracy is intrinsically valuable or inherently contradictory, in general, and whether the American Constitution is [anti]democratic; the way in which different aspects of an electoral system, from districting to how winners and losers are determined, structure different forms of democracy; and whether the politics of identity is, at once, redressing historical injustice while also fracturing democratic solidarity. The course will conclude by considering proposals to strengthen, reform, or refound modern democracy as we move into the middle of the 21st century. The course will draw on a wide range of disciplines and texts, drawing on political science and economy, history, sociology, and philosophy; but the central focus will be on historical and contemporary political theory.

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Democracy, Diversity, and (In)equality

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year

Modern democracy, as defended by its most progressive advocates, promised to resurrect an ancient form of popular self-rule on a newly inclusive and egalitarian foundation. At certain points in recent history, it has seemed credible to believe that the “moral arc of the universe bends toward justice”—i.e., that the long-term trend of modern political life moved in the direction of democratic polities that treated all members with equal concern and respect; realized genuine fair equality of opportunity for all; limited social inequality so as to render it compatible with political equality; and repaired historical injustices like those rooted in race, gender, sexuality, and class. Since the beginning of the current century, however, this claim has appeared far less credible. Instead, modern politics appears increasingly less equal, inclusive, just, and democratic. On the one hand, democratic societies have become increasingly unequal as a result of globalization, changes in the nature and remuneration of work, new policies and technology, and new political conditions. On the other, the hitherto dominant (understood variously in racial, ethnic, national, gender, and/or religious terms) appear increasingly unwilling to surrender their privileges in the name of social justice, diversity, or inclusion—even while democratic societies are increasingly diverse as a result of immigration and demographic shifts and their citizens less willing to “forget” their many differences to melt into a dominant national culture. These two trends are far from unrelated: The failure to preserve fair distributions of income, wealth and opportunity contribute to the rise of nationalism and reactionary populism, while the fracturing of common civic identities undermines the resources of commonality and solidarity needed to resist the concentration of wealth and power in ever-smaller elite circles. These developments raise some basic questions: Is 21st-century democracy increasingly an instrument of unjust politics, impotent in the face of the social changes that globalization and galloping technological change produce, and perhaps simply doomed? Or might it be possible to reform democracy to render it compatible with conditions of deep diversity while also making it capable of securing the requisite degrees of political and social equality? This course will explore these questions in a number of ways. We will study exemplary historical statements of the ideal of democracy, drawing on traditional works in political philosophy. We will also draw on contemporary work in sociology, anthropology, cultural and legal studies, and political science to examine the nature of social and cultural diversity—including religion, class, gender, sexuality, and race. We will draw on a similar range of disciplines to seek to comprehend the causes and consequence of the widening inequality characteristic of almost all economically advanced democratic societies. Finally, we will explore works that bring these themes together by examining current scholars efforts to (re-)articulate the ideal and practice of democracy in light of increased diversity and inequality.

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First-Year Studies: Democracy, Diversity, and (In)Equality

Open, FYS—Year

From ancient times through the major modern democratic revolutions, democracy’s advocates—as well as its critics—believed that democracy requires, and tends to bring about, political equality. Often democratic equality has also been understood to entail important limits on social inequality. And it has also been long presupposed—and sometimes argued—that democracy only works in fairly homogeneous societies, since only in such societies can a people be sufficiently similar and equal to form shared political understandings and projects. Absent considerable commonality—religious, linguistic, ethnic, racial, and/or cultural—as well as political and perhaps social equality, it is feared that democracy deteriorates into the tyranny of the majority or a war of all against all or a shallow contest of competing interests. At the outset of the 21st century, however, we are witness to two dramatic shifts in the character of society that increasingly seem to challenge the viability of democracy, at least if these long-held views about its necessary social presuppositions are correct. On the one hand, democratic societies have become increasingly unequal as a result of globalization, changes in the nature and remuneration of work, new policies, and new political conditions. On the other, democratic societies are increasingly diverse and their citizens less willing to “forget” their many differences to melt into a dominant national culture. These developments raise some basic questions. Can the character of democracy be reconceived so that it is either better suited to—and/or better able to modify—these new social conditions? If not, is democracy doomed? Or might it be possible to reform democracy to render it compatible with conditions of deep diversity while also making it capable of securing the requisite degrees of political and social equality? This course will explore these questions in a number of ways. We will study exemplary historical statements of the ideal of democracy, drawing on traditional works in political philosophy. We will also draw on contemporary work in sociology, anthropology, cultural and legal studies, and political science to examine the nature of social and cultural diversity, including religion, class, gender, sexuality, and race. We will draw on a similar range of disciplines to seek to comprehend the causes and consequence of the widening inequality characteristic of almost all economically advanced democratic societies. Finally, we will explore works that bring these themes together by examining current scholars‘ efforts to (re)articulate the ideal and practice of democracy in light of increased diversity and inequality. By the end of the course, students will have been introduced to a variety of different disciplines in the social sciences, with a special focus on contemporary political philosophy, and will have surveyed a number of different proposals for deepening democracy in 21st-century social conditions. Educational objectives include acquiring, developing, and perfecting the skills necessary to: read demanding texts with care and rigor; participate in focused analytic discussion of these texts; write, edit and revise interpretive and argumentative academic essays; and conduct original, independent research projects. Students will meet for individual conferences to discuss their independent research projects on a biweekly basis and will also participate in small-group, biweekly meetings to discuss, among other things, the applicability of various concepts discussed in seminar to everyday social and political contexts; to engage in peer-writing workshops; and to take trips to New York City as a “laboratory” of democracy, diversity, and inequality.

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Introduction to Social Theory: Philosophical Tools for Critical Social Analysis

Open, Lecture—Year

How can social order be explained in modern societies that are too large, fluid, and complex to rely on tradition or self-conscious political regulation alone? Social theory is a distinctly modern tradition of discourse centered on answering this question and focused on a series of theorists and texts whose works gave rise to the modern social sciences, overlap with some of the most influential modern philosophy, and provide powerful tools for critical understanding of contemporary social life. The theorists whose works form the backbone of this course explore the sources of social order in structures, many of which work “behind the backs” of the awareness and intentions of those whose interaction they integrate and regulate. The market economy, the legal and administrative state, the firm and the professions, highly differentiated political and civil cultures, racial and gender order, a variety of disciplinary techniques inscribed in diverse mundane practices—one by one, these theorists labored to unmask the often-hidden sources of social order in the modern world. Moreover, this understanding of social order has evolved side-by-side with evaluations that run the gamut, from those that view Western modernity as achieving the apex of human freedom and individuality to those that see it as insinuating a uniquely thorough and invidious system of domination. This class will introduce many of the foundational texts and authors in social theory, the social sciences, and social philosophy—including Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, and Jürgen Habermas. In this way, we will also cover various schools of social explanation, including: Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism, and (in group conferences) critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and feminism. The thread connecting these disparate authors and approaches will be the issue of the worth or legitimacy of Western modernity, the historical process that produced capitalism, representative democracy, religious pluralism, the modern sciences, ethical individualism, secularism, fascism, communism, new forms of racism and sexism, and many “new social movements.” Which of the institutions and practices that structured the process of modernization are worth defending or reforming? Which should be rejected outright? Or should we reject them all and embrace a new, postmodern social epoch? In addressing these, we will grapple both with classical texts and with the contemporary implications of different approaches to social analysis.

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Modern Political Philosophy

Open, Seminar—Year

Political philosophy consists of: a discourse of thinking about the nature of political power; the conditions for its just and unjust use; the rights of individuals, minorities and majorities; the nature and bounds of political community; the relations between politics and the truth or the good; etc. Rather than tackling pressing political problems one at a time, political theorists seek systematic solutions in overall visions of just societies or comprehensive diagnoses of the roots of oppression and domination in political orders. While this discourse stretches back over 2,500 years of history, in this course we focus on modern writers who shaped the terms and concepts that increasingly populate political imaginations the world over; that is, the conscious and unconscious ideas about rights, power, class, democracy, community, and the like that we use to make sense of our political lives. Thinkers to be considered include: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, and Nietzsche. By studying their work, we will be better positioned to answer the following range of questions. What is the nature of political power? What is the content of social justice? Does democracy threaten basic individual rights? Is it more important to respect the individual or the community when the interests of the two conflict? Is a market economy required by, or incompatible with, democracy? What aspects of human potential and social worlds do different grand theories of political life illuminate and occlude? Finally, this course will also pose the issue of the worth and legitimacy of European modernity; that is, the historical process that produced capitalism, representative democracy, religious pluralism, the modern sciences, ethical individualism, secularism, fascism, communism, new forms of racism and sexism, and many “new social movements.” Which of the ideas that jostle for prominence within this tradition are worth defending? Which should be rejected? Or should we reject them all and, instead, embrace a new, postmodern political epoch? In answering these questions, we will be forced to test both the internal coherence and the continuing relevance of the political visions that shape modern politics. The approach we take in class will focus on close textual analysis as we seek to unpack the details of the many strands of arguments that cross-cut these texts, passage by passage.

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