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.

2017-2018 Courses

Philosophy

First-Year Studies: From Homer to Plato

Open , FYS—Year

The habit of asking questions, which constitutes Western thought, has its primary origin in Greece. In this class, we will read Greek epics, tragedies, histories, comedies, and works of philosophy in order to think about how our thinking got started.

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Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

Open , Seminar—Fall

Lucretius was a first-century BC Roman philosopher and poet—the contemporary of Cicero, Catullus, Virgil, and Horace and a follower of the Greek atomist Epicurus. All that remains of Lucretius’ work is a long poem, entitled, “On the Nature of Things.” It is written in epic meter and explores everything from nature and the world to human beings and the soul. Lucretius explains supernatural entities on the basis of natural phenomena. The motivation for this materialism seems to have been to bring human morality back down to earth. We will read Lucretius’ original text with a view to why it was written in poetry and how it might have provoked St. Jerome to claim that Lucretius composed it while drunk on love potion. We will also read the only surviving letters of Epicurus in Diogenes Laertius’s "Lives of Eminent Philosophers," along with several essays by Martin Heidegger on the limits of human thinking and the failure of modern philosophy to comprehend antiquity.

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Philosophical Hubris: The Wish to Be God?

Open , Seminar—Fall

Is philosophy’s interest in first causes a sign of its arrogance? Is the wish to know “god” a wish to be god? To make pretensions to know beyond one’s human situation was, in times past, considered a sign of impiety. Anaxagoras was exiled for atheism, because he imagined that the planets were fiery rocks. Empedocles went around in a purple robe and bronze shoes, announcing that anyone who didn’t understand him was a “fool.” Socrates famously defended himself against impiety by proclaiming that he once heard a third party verify from the oracle at Delphi that Socrates was the wisest man alive. This did not help win the affection of the Athenian jurors, and Socrates was sentenced to death. Is there some justice to these accusations, even if one doesn’t believe in impiety but only in relativism? Relativism means to think it is impossible to know beyond one’s own perspective. One wonders, therefore, if it harbors a certain piety. This course will explore how to distinguish between true truths and self-righteous truths and whether the search for wisdom is motivated by vanity. We will consider not only Plato’s Apology but also St. Thomas Aquinas’s On Being and Essence. While Aquinas is usually considered a pious medieval theologian, a careful reading of his text may reveal a possible link between a humble ignorance of first causes and a megalomaniacal philosophical curiosity. Of course, no study of the vanity of humility would be complete without Nietzsche. We will read The Antichrist and Ecce Homo, which begins with a chapter, called “Why I Am So Wise,” in consideration of Nietzsche’s philosophical trial of himself and his repudiation of Christianity.

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Hobbes’s Leviathan

Open , Seminar—Spring

In this course, we will study a key text of the Western philosophical tradition: Hobbes’s Leviathan.We will aim to understand the text as a whole, paying as much attention to Hobbes’s conceptions of reality and of human knowledge (perception, cognition, science, method) as to his proposals for how life in society is best organized.In this way, fundamental branches of philosophical enquiry—metaphysics and epistemology, as well as political philosophy—will be illuminated by way of their history and point to the continuing influence of Hobbes’s ideas on the thought and politics of our present.There is no better way to learn how to read philosophical texts—that is, to acquire the skills needed to appreciate the power and subtlety with which great thinkers formulate philosophical problems and articulate solutions—than to engage closely with every dimension of a classic text like the Leviathan.

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Love, Friendship, and Philosophy

Open , Seminar—Spring

The word “philosophy” is usually glossed as “love of wisdom,” where “love” comes from the prefix philo-. But the Greek word philia really means “friendship.” Indeed, it would seem strange if the philosopher’s pursuit of truth were to be characterized by an erotic longing. Wouldn’t this lead him to fall in love with truth and so to be prejudiced toward it? Plato, more than any other author, uses the metaphor of erotic conquest to describe the search for knowledge. This course will ask if there is a difference between eros and philia—love and friendship—and whether philosophy’s attachment to truth-seeking is lusty or friendly. We will read Plato’s Symposium (on eros) and Plato’s Lysis (on friendship), as well as Cicero’s essay on friendship and excerpts from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

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Philosophy and Conflict: The Idea of War

Open , Seminar—Spring

Plato is the first philosopher to describe war in terms of an art (in the Republic). He does so in a context in which the strongest warriors turn out to be philosophers with special training in gymnastics, geometry, and dialectic. The suggestion seems to be that solving geometrical proofs, resolving philosophical contradictions, and fighting enemies are related pursuits. This appears to be especially true of Thucydides, for whom philosophy and history coincide in one exemplary event: the Peloponnesian War. Since that war was between Greeks and Greeks, Thucydides’ interest is in opposition arising from similarity. We will read his History of the Peloponnesian War, followed by Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli, too, contemplates potential war within sameness, especially conspiracies on the inside of cities (among which is Machiavelli’s book). The idea that the inside might contain the possibility of further insides suggests that the political problem—a certain tension between “us” and “them”—might be a philosophical problem and, conversely, that the philosophical tension exhibited by contradictions might be somehow political.

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Aesthetics: the Romantics and Hegel

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

We will read German Romantic thought and Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics to understand the unfolding of modern aesthetics after Kant.

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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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Philosophy and Religion: Hegel

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Prior background in philosophy is required.​

The religious dimension of Hegel’s thought will be the focus of our seminar. Hegel's philosophical achievement was of such magnitude as to have dominated his own time and profoundly affected the thought of his successors down to the present day. Because Hegel's claim to have completed the history of philosophy in a comprehensive presentation of truth is intimately linked to his claim to have comprehended the truth of religion by translating it into its highest, philosophical form, Hegel’s philosophy cannot be understood fully except in light of his philosophy of religion. In this course, we will begin with an overview of Hegel’s system in order to grasp the scope of his endeavor and then work closely with the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion and the relevant sections of the Phenomenology of Spirit. While our central aim in studying Hegel's conception of the place of religion in human thought will be to enrich our understanding of Hegel’s great philosophical synthesis, we will also aim more generally to articulate what the relationship between religion and philosophy in Hegel’s thought can contribute to our understanding of the nature of philosophical thought. For this purpose, we will draw upon the thought of other philosophers, both Hegel’s predecessors (Kant, Schelling) and his successors (Kierkegaard, Marx, Zilberman).

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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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Thinkers on the Right

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

The goal of the seminar is to investigate the development of the "Right" in European political thought after the French Revolution. We will read selections from Joseph de Maistre, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and other things yet to be determined.

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Taoist Philosophy and the Arts

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

This seminar centers on foundational texts in the classical Taoist tradition and their unfolding in later religious and artistic movements. The goal of this course is twofold: to understand the texts as they were written between the fifth and third centuries BCE and to examine the ways in which they were interpreted and reinterpreted in later religious traditions and applied in poetry and painting. The first semester will focus on a close and detailed reading of the Daodejing (Tao-te-ching), Zhuangzi, and Liezi as a way of examining their core philosophical concepts. Questions we will ask include: What is being? What is knowledge? What is the Tao, and how might individuals attain it? What is the ideal relationship of the individual to society, nature, and the cosmos? Second semester, we will explore the influence of these texts on later religious and artistic traditions. Topics we will explore include the relationship between religious practice and artistic expression, the creation of visual and literary art as an expression of the Tao, and the practice of being a reader/observer. Here we will examine medieval and Late Imperial texts on Taoist religious practice, poetry, painting, and aesthetics. In addition to these more theoretical works, we will study the lives and works of some notable Taoist-influenced poets and artists.

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Discrete Mathematics: A Bridge to Advanced Mathematics

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Some prior study of calculus is highly recommended.

Your voice will produce a mostly continuous sound signal when you read this sentence out loud. As it appears on the page, however, the previous sentence is composed of 79 distinct characters, including letters and a punctuation mark. Measuring patterns—whether continuous or discrete—is the raison d'être of mathematics, and different branches of mathematics have developed to address the two sorts of patterns. Thus, a course in calculus treats motion and other continuously changing functions. In contrast, discrete mathematics addresses problems of counting, order, computation, and logic. We will explore these topics and their implications for mathematical philosophy and computer science. The form of this seminar will be that of a (mathematical) writing workshop. We will work collaboratively to identify and reproduce the key formal elements of mathematical exposition and proof as they appear in both mathematical literature and each other's writing. This seminar is designed for students interested in advanced mathematical study and highly recommended for students with an interest in computer science, law, logic, or philosophy.

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The Legitimacy of Modernity

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. They 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, 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 gambit from those who view Western modernity as achieving the apex of human freedom and individuality to those who 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 and the social sciences, 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, it will also cover various schools of social explanation, including Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism, and (in group conferences) 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 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 group conferences, we will grapple with both the classical texts and the contemporary implications of different approaches to social analysis.

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Modern Political Theory

Open , Seminar—Year

Political theory 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. 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 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? 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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Individualism Reconsidered: Beyond Pride and Shame

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never harm you.” Can anything be further from the truth? This course will examine how reputation in all its guises shadows our lives. Do we not dispense praise and blame to control the lives of others? Can we deny that pride and shame represent the rewards and punishments that we employ to imprison ourselves? Can we inhabit a world that goes beyond pride and shame? For example, consider the following tale: Alexander the Great allegedly came across the philosopher Diogenes, clothed in rags and taking a sunbath while reclining on the street. According to one version of this tale, Alexander asked Diogenes if there were anything he desired. If there were, then certainly Alexander would grant his wish. Diogenes waved his hand and replied: “Stand out of my light.” Addressing his troops, Alexander exclaimed, “If I were not Alexander the Great, I would like to be Diogenes.” What of you, dear student?

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Personality Development

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

For graduate students and for juniors and seniors with permission of the instructor.

A century ago, Sigmund Freud postulated a complex theory of the development of the person. While some aspects of his theory have come into question, many of the basic principles of psychoanalytic theory have become part of our common culture and worldview. This course will explore developmental and clinical concepts about how personality comes to be through reading and discussion of the work of key contributors to psychoanalytic developmental theory since Freud. We will trace the evolution of what Pine has called the “four psychologies of psychoanalysis”—drive, ego, object, and self-psychologies—as well as the integrative “relational perspective”; and we will consider the issues they raise about children’s development into individuals with unique personalities within broad, shared developmental patterns in a given culture. Readings will include the work of Anna Freud, Erik Erikson, Margaret Mahler, Daniel Stern, Steven Mitchell, Nancy Chodorow, and George Vaillant. Throughout the semester, we will return to fundamental themes such as the complex interaction of nature and nurture, the unanswered questions about the development of personal style, and the cultural dimensions of personality development. Fieldwork at the Early Childhood Center or another appropriate setting is required, although conference projects may or may not center on aspects of that experience, depending on the individual student’s interest.

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The Empathic Attitude

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. —Joseph Conrad

We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary years of routine and of sin, with souls that made our soul’s wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we…were. —Emerson, Divinity School Address, 1838

After graphically describing her predicament to her cousin Molly, Sarah asked: “So, do you understand?” “Yes, I do, I certainly do,” her cousin replied. “You do?” Sarah asked again. “Most emphatically, I do.” “Then you agree with me?” “Oh no.” “You sympathize with me then?” “No, I don’t.” “Then you at least see it from my point of view.” “Hardly.” “Then what do you understand?” “You are simply a fool!” “How dare you judge me?” “If I see it from your point of view, I shall only be a different kind of judge. My dear Sarah, don’t you see that there is no escaping judgment?”

For Conrad, the other is so shrouded in mists that our empathic understanding must necessarily fall short. For Emerson, an empathic rapport is rare but possible. As for Sarah and Molly, what can we say? Do they completely fail to understand each other, or do they understand each other only too well? Indeed, what do we mean by understanding in this context? Too often, understanding is confused with agreement or the absence of judgment. This course will examine what an empathic understanding entails and the function of empathy in defining areas of conflict, as well as in the resolution of conflict. In brief, the empathic attitude requires us to enjoy and appreciate the differences between ourselves and others even as we attempt to bridge those differences.

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Readings in Christian Mysticism: Late Antiquity

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Year

Permission of the instructor is required.

This course will focus on the intersection of Jewish theology and Greco-Roman philosophy in the early Christian texts commonly seen to contain "mystical elements." We will define these elements as texts that have to do with the desire on the part of the reader to "know," experience, or "be with" God and with the author's attempt to properly demarcate the boundaries within which these desires can be fulfilled. Christian mysticism is perhaps best thought of as erotic theology—theology that involves the desire for God. Recognizing this, we must also acknowledge that inherent to this theology is a profound paradox. What is desired must be conceived. It must be held in the grasp of one's understanding in order to be attained. While this is fine for an orange, or even wealth and power, it is much more problematic when the object of desire is God, the creator of the universe. Theologians in the early church developed a language of desire and specific sets of practices involving one's lifestyle and prayer in order to resolve this paradox and fulfill their desire. They began to ponder this paradox with a synthesis of a biblical theology of divine revelation (i.e., the revelation of God as preserved in the biblical canon, symbolized in both the revelation of YHWH on Mt. Sinai and in the incarnation of the Divine Logos as Jesus of Nazareth) and Platonic expression of a desire for the ultimate good, truth, or beauty. In order to better grasp these ideas, we will read parts of the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, and contemplate the anthropology of desire set forth by Plato in the Symposium and the Phaedrus. Educated in the Hellenistic world, the early church fathers took these ideas for granted and attempted to find common ground with their Christian inheritance. We will study the phenomenon of Gnostic Christianity, an early attempt at synthesis of biblical material and Greek philosophy. We will then move on to encounter the great early Christian writers—such as Origen and Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Psuedo-Dionysius, and Ambrose of Milan—and conclude our study with a lengthy look at what, for Western culture, is the seminal work of Augustine of Hippo.

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