Philosophy

At Sarah Lawrence College, the study of philosophy retains a centrality, helping students synthesize their educational experience with the discipline’s many connections to other humanities and to social science. Through conference work, students also find numerous ways to connect the study of philosophy with their interests in the arts and natural sciences. Stressing the great tradition of classical and contemporary philosophy, the College offers three types of philosophy courses: those organized around thematic topics, such as Philosophy of Science, Aesthetics, and Philosophy and Literature; those organized historically, such as Moral Philosophy, Political Philosophy, and 20th-Century Philosophy; and those that study the “systems” of philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein.

Philosophy faculty use the latest technology in their teaching, including Web boards for posting course material and promoting discussion. Yearlong courses make extensive textual work possible, enabling students to establish in-depth relationships with the thought of the great philosophers and to “do philosophy” to some degree—particularly valuable to students preparing for graduate work in philosophy. Conference work often consists of students thinking through and writing on single philosophic and literary works, ranging from Greek tragedy, comedy, or epic to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Descartes, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, or Heidegger.

2015-2016 Courses

Philosophy

First-Year Studies: Varieties of Intellectual Dissent

Open , FYS

In this course, we will explore the question of what it means “to think differently” as a powerful approach to understanding human thought as such. To set the stage, we will begin with Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a novel in which religious and political worldviews clash as The Devil pays a visit to the Moscow of the 1930s. We will be led to consider the processes of grafting a framework of religious and philosophical thought, Christianity in this case, onto a pre-existing cultural worldview and, in the aftermath that Bulgakov portrays, to tease out the logical issues of alternative modes of thinking from the political issues of standing up to power in the name of personal dignity or moral justice. Our next source will be a three-part play, Slings and Arrows, in which we will pay special attention to the challenges of bringing three of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies to life in a vastly altered historical context, that of contemporary North America. In addition to watching the performance, we will read Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, as well as Oedipus Rex and several texts of Freud. We will then turn to Plato’s Republic and, while aiming to grasp the text as a whole, focus especially on the portrayal of Socrates. As a philosopher, Socrates both exemplifies and reflects on the fundamental incommensurability of his thought with those of his fellow citizens, as illustrated in the dialogue by the Allegory of the Cave and dramatized by Socrates’s trial and death sentence. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, our next work, argues that periods of radical intellectual divergence are built into the very structure of science as a sociocultural institution. The book will equip us with further conceptual tools for thinking about thought and the complexities of its operation through social history. We will conclude the course with Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language, an autobiography that attends to the issues of thinking in incompatibly different ways from the perspective of someone brought up in one culture and then transplanted to another. When intellectual universes collide, when an earlier worldview comes alive across historical discontinuities, when individuals with powerful alternatives to our modes of thinking appear in our midst, when transitions to sweepingly novel conceptions constitute a normal part of an intellectual pursuit, when a subject of one cultural perspective translates herself into another...five works of different genres will provide us with rich and multifaceted material for a philosophical exploration of thinking in radically diverse ways.

Faculty

The Problem of Knowledge

Open , Lecture—Fall

Is knowledge possible? If so, what kind? And why do these questions matter? I shall argue that they matter because they have to do with the question of authority and freedom: Is there a God or gods that we must obey, must we follow custom or “culture,” or must we find our own way in life; and if so, is there some standard that we can follow? We will begin with Socrates and pass on to the three Hellenistic schools—the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the skeptics—in all of which the treatment of knowledge is inseparable from the question of how to live. In group conference, we shall discuss the transformation of these schools in Montaigne, Descartes, and Hume.

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Thinking of Death

Open , Seminar—Year

Being lost in thought can make one dead to the world—and yet, for Plato and Rousseau, this seems to be the life most worth living. The aim of this course will be to shed light on the strange way in which thinking makes one feel most alive when it is constituted by a loss of self. We will explore this puzzle with a careful reading of Sophocles’ Antigone, Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Plato’s Phaedo, and Plato’s Euthydemus. We will also read selections from the works of Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Parmenides—three authors for whom inscrutable nothingness is integral to our understanding of everything. With these thinkers as our guides, we will plumb the depths of each text to become fascinated by nothing.

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The Being of Seeming

Open , Seminar—Fall

Do appearances conceal or reveal who we are? Appearances have gained a reputation for being flighty, but this reputation is anything but meaningless. While it has never been more stylish to declare that the surface is shallow, it has never been more necessary to appear on the surface as if you are deep. It is not without motive that we have enthusiastically decided that we can’t judge a book by its cover (How else would we judge it?) or become enraptured by the phenomenon of Facebook. On the one hand, we are afraid that images will rule the world; on the other hand, we cannot help but seek such an end with the self-imaging that is required by our own self-control. This course will consider the reality, or lack thereof, behind the statements that we make through a variety of surfaces—particularly images, clothing, and laws. We will explore the depth of appearance through its connection to the world and our interest in it. Our study will include works of Aquinas, Machiavelli, Plato, Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, and Thomas Carlyle.

Faculty

The Being of Speech

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course will ask if there is a ground of language. That is, is there an overarching structure to all language, or is it simply a game of words? We will consider not only the variety in which languages arise but also grammatical perplexities such as the verb “to be,” the connection between adjectives and nouns, and the Indo-European middle voice. The reading will include Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, Aristotle's Poetics, and selections from the works of Parmenides, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Charles Kahn, Emile Benveniste, and Seth Benardete.

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Philosophical Diversity: Hegel’s Phenomenology and Zilberman’s Modal Methodology

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

In this course, we will focus on the plurality of philosophical positions as, itself, a problem for philosophical reflection. In the first semester, we will study Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The Phenomenology is an extraordinary, difficult, immensely exciting, deeply influential text, and we will spend most of the semester working through its multifaceted richness. But our guiding focus will be the text's continuing and pervasive influence on the horizon of contemporary debates about “diversity,” including intellectual diversity, insofar as these debates have been lastingly defined by Hegel's early critics. Near the end of the first semester, we will briefly turn to some of these—Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, in particular—in order to appreciate both the authority and the problems that Hegel’s construction posed for those later thinkers who accuse him of misconstruing the genuine diversity of others. We will explicate the paradoxes of pluralistic understanding in order to illuminate the ultimate inability of Hegel’s critics to construct a methodology for addressing the plurality of philosophical positions. In the second semester, we will turn to Zilberman's approach to this plurality, “modal methodology,” by reading key chapters of his The Birth of Meaning in Hindu Thought. As with our study of Hegel, we will attend to the multiple fascinating depths of Zilberman’s texts while focusing on the central question of how thought needs to be understood if we are to appreciate both its capacity to issue in incompatible constructions and its capacity to deliver understanding of such constructions.

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, 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 Fall 2015 will be Plato’s Menexenus.

Faculty

Scylla and Charybdis

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

In the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant proposes that we seek safe passage between two “cliffs,” skepticism and “enthusiasm,” by which he means a claim to knowledge of what lies beyond the world of experience and the fanaticism that is associated with such claims. In so doing, he indicates that The Critique is concerned not just with knowledge but with living a rational life—in particular, with avoiding fanaticism. The aim of avoiding “enthusiasm,” understood as delusive claims to knowledge and the fanaticism associated with these, we shall see, is also crucial to The Critique of Practical Reason, in which Kant investigates the possibility of morality. We shall investigate what this aim means and how Kant attempts to help us achieve it.

Faculty

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

The Keystone of the Arch

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

In the preface to The Critique of Practical Reason, Kant says, “The concept of freedom is the keystone of the whole building of reason, theoretical as well as practical, and alone prevents it from falling into the abyss which skepticism has prepared for it.” Why does Kant think that the awareness of freedom, which in his view can only be had through the consciousness of moral law, is the only means of sustaining reason against skepticism? Does skepticism about knowledge really arise from a concern with freedom? This question will lead us back to Descartes. The seminar continues the investigation begun in the fall semester, Scylla and Charybdis, but will be open to students who have not taken that course—though students who have taken it will be given preference in admission to the seminar.

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Related Asian Studies Courses

Readings in Daoism: Zhuangzi and His Followers

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

This seminar centers on the careful reading of The Zhuangzi, one of the foundational texts of the Daoist tradition. Arguably the greatest piece of Chinese literature and philosophy, The Zhuangzi defies all categorization and, instead, invites readers to probe through its layers of myth, fantasy, jokes, short stories, philosophy, epistemology, social critique, and political commentary. In the end, Zhuangzi plunges us into an examination of some of the core questions of philosophy: What is being? What is knowledge? What is the nature of human nature? The goal of this course is twofold: (1) to understand the Zhuangzi as it was written in the fourth century BCE, and (2) to examine the ways in which it has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and applied in practice in later history. To accomplish the first part of the goal, we thoroughly familiarize ourselves with the text and the philosophical questions it raises through close and detailed reading. To accomplish the second, we will look at the text in its broader historical context, as well as its influence on later philosophical, religious, and artistic (painting and poetry) traditions. Readings will include the Dao-de-jing, Confucius, later Daoist philosophers and religious leaders, poets, and painters.

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