David Peritz

on leave yearlong

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–

Course Information

Previous courses

A Newly Re-Enchanted World: Religion, Secularism, and the Limits of Modern Society

Spring

For the last 300 years, many of the world’s most enlightened thinkers have predicted the beginning of humanity’s first “disenchanted” epoch in which God and organized religion withdraw from the world, leaving us alone to understand nature scientifically and to create morality and meaning for ourselves. At the dawn of the 21st century, we witness a rather different reality, a major religious resurgence in societies throughout the world. Internationally, religion has replaced ideology as the most important axis of conflict. At home, controversies between religion and science roil our politics. Meanwhile, fundamentalism—forms of faith that deny that sacred texts are always subject to human interpretation—is proving among the most popular and dynamic sources of religious faith. This course tackles issues emerging in the new, multidisciplinary field of postsecular studies, which starts by acknowledging that traditional forms of religiosity often play an important role in modern societies. The course will focus on Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and modern and contemporary issues, especially: (1) the persistence of religion as a main source of practical belief (particularly in “secular” societies); (2) religion’s re-emergence as a major axis of international and cross-cultural conflict (specifically the clash between Judeo-Christian and Islamic faiths); and (3) “secularism and its discontents” within modern, Western liberal societies.

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A Newly Re-Enchanted World: Secularism, Religion, and the Limits of Modern Society

Fall

For the last 300 years, many of the world’s most enlightened thinkers have predicted the beginning of humanity’s first ‘disenchanted’ epoch: a world from which God and organized religion withdrew, leaving us alone to understand nature scientifically and to create meaning for ourselves. At the dawn of the 21st century, we witness a rather different reality: a major religious resurgence in societies throughout the world. Internationally, religion has replaced ideology as the most important axis of conflict. At home, controversies between religion and science roil our politics, with even some secular critics claiming that “scienticism” is its own kind of fundamentalism. Meanwhile, fundamentalism proper—forms of faith that deny that sacred texts are always subject to human interpretation—is proving to be among the most popular and dynamic sources of religious faith. This course tackles issues emerging in the new field of postsecular studies, which starts by acknowledging that traditional forms of religiosity often play an important role in the civil life of advanced modern societies. The course will focus on the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and modern and contemporary issues, especially: (1) the persistence of religion as a main source of practical belief (especially in “secular” societies); (2) religion’s reemergence as a major axis of international and cross-cultural conflict (specifically the clash between Judeo-Christian and Islamic faiths); and (3) “secularism and its discontents” within modern, Western liberal societies. The course will focus on the following questions: On the one hand, are religious worldviews and rituals unrivalled in the ability to create a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging in the world? If so, where does religion’s unique power come from, and what are the obstacles to transferring it onto secular culture and philosophies? On the other hand, taking into account postsecular insights, can we still salvage the “secular” project of taming fundamentalist political theologies and the messianic zeal and disastrous certitudes that they can generate? Is it possible for persons who subscribe to different religions or hold widely varying attitudes (from the deeply religious to the aggressively secular) to nevertheless understand one another, engage in meaningful political and ethical discourse, reach some basic understanding about how to live together, and embrace tolerance and the idea of a nonsectarian state? To address these questions, we will read about religion, including theological and philosophical texts, and then turn to works that consider the persistence of religion and its social and political implications from the perspectives of the sociology of religion, political theory, and cultural studies.

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Democracy and Diversity

Fall

Does democracy work only in homogeneous societies that overcome by assimilating sources of difference and diversity? Only in this way, it has long been maintained, can a people be sufficiently similar to form shared political understandings and projects. Absent commonality, democracy deteriorates into the tyranny of the majority or a war of all against all. But we are at the far end of a dramatic shift in democratic politics: Democratic societies are increasingly multicultural and diverse, while citizens in democ­ratic societies are less willing to “forget” their ethnic, religious, gender, sexual, cultural, racial, and other differences in order to integrate into a dominant national culture. These develop­ments raise some basic questions. Is it possible to achieve sufficient agreement on fundamental political issues in a deeply diverse society? Can the character of political community or the nation be reconceived and reformed? If not, is democracy doomed? Or might it be possible to reform democracy to render it compatible with conditions of diversity? If so, does the democratic claim to legitimacy also need to be transformed? This course will explore these questions in a number of ways. We will study exemplary historical statements of the ideal of democracy to get our bearings from conceptions developed without attention to deep and abiding differences. We examine the nature of social and cultural diversity, looking at several dimensions that tend to cut across one another in contemporary politics: religion, value, class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and culture. In addressing these issues, we draw on methodologies and disciplines ranging from sociology and anthropology to ethnic studies and philosophy. We then bring these themes together by surveying a number of recent attempts to (re)articulate the relevance of specific identities to political engagement and the general ideal of democracy in light of experiences with increased diversity. Here the disciplinary focus is on reading sustained selections from recent works in political philosophy, while the substantive focus is on issues of race and culture.

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

From ancient times through the major modern democratic revolutions, democracy’s advocates—as well as its critics—believed that it requires and tends to bring about political equality. Often, democratic equality has been understood to entail important limits on social inequality. It has also been long presupposed and sometimes argued that democracy only works in fairly homogeneous societies. Only in such societies, it has long been maintained, can a people be sufficiently similar and equal to form shared political understandings and projects. Absent considerable commonality—religious, linguistic, ethnic, racial, and 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 over the last 30 years as a result of globalization, changes in the nature and remuneration of work, new policies, and new political conditions. On the other hand, 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 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 upon 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 upon 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.

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Modern Political Theory

Spring

Political theory presents a tradition 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 existent political orders. In this course, we focus on modern writers who shaped the Western political imagination; 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, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. In studying their work, we will seek answers to the following 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 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.

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The Legitimacy of Modernity? Basic Texts in Social Theory

Year

Social theory is a distinctly modern tradition of discourse, centered on explaining social order in societies that are too large, fluid, and complex to rely on tradition or self-conscious political regulation alone. Instead, a series of theorists whose works gave rise to the modern social sciences explore the sources of social order in structures, many of which work “behind the backs” or independently from the intention of those whose interaction they integrate. The market economy, the legal and administrative state, the firm and the professions, highly differentiated political and civil cultures, 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. Moreover, this understanding of social order has evolved side-by-side with evaluations ranging 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 the social sciences, including Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, and Frantz Fanon. In this way, it will also cover various schools of social explanation, including: Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism, postcolonial studies, and feminism. The thread connecting these disparate authors and approaches will be the issue of the worth or legitimacy of Western modernity. Which of the institutions 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 answering these questions in class and in group conferences, we will grapple both with classical texts and with the implications of different approaches for contemporary social analysis.

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The Philosophy and Politics of (In)Equality

Fall

This course is part of the Intensive Semester in Yonkers program and is no longer open for interviews and registration. Interviews for the program take place in the previous spring semester.

Visiting America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed a deep, historically unprecedented form of social equality, one in which every person assumed that they could occupy any station or position of privilege. Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed a movement in the opposite direction: a phenomenal reversal of the “great compression” of income inequality produced by the New Deal political economy and, in its place, a rapid and profound growth in social inequality in America and other “up or out” societies, accompanied by striking declines in social mobility. One aim of this course is to examine the social and political forces that have produced this remarkable and accelerating growth in disparities in social fate. The focus, however, will not be on proximate factors responsible for recent trends but, rather, on the social theory of inequality; i.e., attempts to understand how deeply stratified forms of social order work and what forces and practices stabilize and legitimate the transmission of deep inequalities over time. Topics to be covered include class, race, status, gender, and professional stratification, while methodological perspectives will vary from sociology, anthropology, and economics to history, psychology, and public health. A further striking feature of the political present is the near total absence of effective political or social movements dedicated to redressing extreme concentrations of wealth, shrinking opportunities for social mobility, and the increasing economic vulnerability of large portions of humanity in this society and elsewhere. In exploring this issue, we will shift attention to political philosophy—and, specifically, the subject of distributive justice. We will search for standards of critique of contemporary inequality, standards that might serve social movements or political parties that aim for a return to a less unequal social world.

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