Seminar Topics for 2014-2015

Here are some of the courses our MA students are taking this year.

Narrative Views of the Self, with Dr. Kathy Behrendt:

Are we the authors of our own lives? Is life a story or something like a story? What, if anything, might be wrong with such claims? These are some of the over-riding questions of this course. Appeals to narrativity are increasingly prevalent in philosophical and psychological accounts of the self. Yet there is no single, philosophical narrative view of the self. Instead we find a host of claims to the effect that our lives can or do have a certain shape, unity, direction, or completeness, comparable to literary narratives or stories in general. Accompanying these claims are various declarations or assumptions that a narrative outlook makes us persons and/or better persons, or in other ways contributes to our well-being. A small but growing group of critics cast doubt on the narrative approach to the self, both as a description of how we in fact think of ourselves, and as a normative view about how we ought to think of ourselves. The course begins with one of these critiques and then works through key narrativist texts, attempting to establish what, if any, version of the narrative view of the self might be viable, and what challenges are faced.

The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, with Dr. Christy Landry

Hailed by feminist philosophers as ‘The Mother of Us All,’ Simone de Beauvoir is undoubtedly the most famous female philosopher in Western history. Although her reputation as Jean-Paul Sartre’s partner often eclipses her own work, she is a brilliant existentialist, ethicist, phenomenologist, and feminist philosopher in her own right. This course will study Beauvoir’s two key philosophical works. We will begin the course with Beauvoir’s short ethical treatise, The Ethics of Ambiguity. This text turns the traditional ethical project on its head by focusing on nurturing and defending the freedom of others. After an investigation of Beauvoir’s ethics we will critically analyze The Second Sex, the so-called Bible of Second Wave Feminism. In The Second Sex Beauvoir rethinks her original ethical project by performing a systematic analysis of gender and sexual difference. Her phenomenological-existentialist standpoint problematizes nurturing and defending the freedom of others. In order to bring Beauvoir’s thinking on freedom, gender, and sexual difference into focus, we will consider some contemporary assessments of Beauvoir’s philosophy primarily from The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir. 

Nietzsche on Authority and the State, with Dr. Renato Cristi

Nietzsche is primordially a philosopher of culture (Bildung as Kultur) and education (Bildung as Erziehung) whose aim is the revitalization of German culture. For this he seeks to restore the ideal of an Olympian culture under the guardianship of an aristocratic state. The decadence of modern culture is due to the universalist aspirations of democracy. N employs political nominalism to dismantle the programme of the democratic state & embraces epistemic nominalism to support political nominalism philosophically. As someone who intends affirmatively to direct the youth towards a new cultural realm he seeks to keep them from “reeling back into a hopeless infinity of scepticism” (UDHL §9). While attacking modern culture as a “necessary lie,” Nietzsche defends his views as a “necessary truth” (ibid). Though a realist, he is not a political skeptic.

Race, Gender, and Identity Politics, with Dr. Rebekah Johnston

In this course we will focus on two related issues about the identity categories of gender/sex and race/ethnicity. The first issue concerns conceptualizations of these identities and focuses primarily on the question: what kind of claim are we making when we use identity categories to describe individuals and groups. Our second issue concerns what role such identities ought, or ought not, to play in contemporary democratic discourse, activism, and personal subjectivity.

These two main lines of inquiry are intricately related; the proposals about what these identities are will strongly inform the roles they should or should not play in the political sphere and in our self-conceptions. Questions of particular interest will be: are identities compatible with/necessary for rationality and freedom and should we endeavour to preserve and/or transform or to eradicate race and gender as meaningful identity categories?

Self Knowledge, with Dr. Rocky Jacobsen

In this course we will attempt to understand the curious features of the first-person perspective—the distinctive perspective that each of us has on the contents of his or her own mind. Those features are widely thought to include first-person authority (the idea that we each have a privileged and authoritative form of knowledge of our own minds), immediacy (we can know our own minds without relying on the evidence and inferences that others must rely on), and transparency (we cannot have conscious mental states without knowing that we have them). But there are other features of self-knowledge that contribute to the distinctive perspective we each have on our own minds, and we will explore those as well.

In the first part of the course we will survey several classic attempts to explain self-knowledge, and the challenges those attempts encountered in the late 20th century. We will then examine more recent accounts of self-knowledge, with special emphasis on the question whether greater skepticism about the idea of self-knowledge is called for.

The Metaphysics and Explanation of Action, with Dr. Neil Campbell

The nature of mind and its relation to physical events is central to understanding our place in the world and our relations with one another. One important aspect of this issue concerns questions about the relationship between, or compatibility of, physiological and psychological explanations of behaviour. If we grant that human beings are physical beings and that there is a physiological explanation for every bodily movement, what explanatory role, if any, remains for intentional or psychological explanations of action? Are the latter simply restatements of the former using different vocabulary? Are they in competition with and thereby excluded by physiological explanations, or do they represent a unique way of explaining? If so, what is it that they explain and how do their objects differ from what we explain physiologically? Using Jaegwon Kim’s highly influential principle of explanatory exclusion as our focal point, we will explore a number of alternative answers to these questions.


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