Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, once maintained that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Many years later, Bertrand Russell claimed that “many people would rather die than think — in fact, they do!”
At its heart, philosophy is about examining life and thinking critically about ourselves and the complex world we live in. When we do this, according to many philosophers, we use the one quality that makes us unique as human beings — namely, reason. Of course, many philosophical questions cannot be answered with absolute certainty, and this could become an annoying theme for you as we proceed through the readings. Do not get frustrated. Just remember that philosophy is best understood as an unfinished journey, not necessarily as a destination. Consider the following passage — again, from Bertrand Russel:
“Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”
In the first part of this course, we will look at four of Plato's dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. These dialogues depict the last days of Socrates, who was sentenced to death for, among other things, corrupting the youth of Athens, and they will illustrate not only what philosophy is, but also how philosophy is done. Holiness, justice, duty, immortality — we will explore these topics and more.
In the second part of this course, we will read René Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, one of the founding texts of modern philosophy. You have probably heard the famous sentence, “I think, therefore I am.” This is from Descartes, and we will work to understand exactly what it means. Be prepared to doubt everything — from your body to your memory, from God to the external world.
In the third part of this course, we will consider one of the most important texts in the history of ethical theory: Immanuel Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. This challenging text is about nothing less than the Moral Law and our absolute duty to it. For Kant, what is morally right is morally right, regardless of circumstances, from which it follows that there are no exceptions to it. Ask yourself: Is it ever okay to lie?
In the fourth part of this course, we will consider another important text on ethical theory: John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism. Unlike Kant, who basically disregards consequences, Mill bases his approach to ethical theory entirely on consequences. You have heard people say that “the ends justify the means.” Well, that is a utilitarian argument, and it is an incredibly influential way to make decisions, both personal and political.
In the fifth part of this course, we will raise the complex question of human inequality, using Jean-Jacques Rousseau's A Discourse on Inequality as our guide. Is inequality among human beings natural? Or is it unnatural – a deviation from an original human existence? Rousseau takes on these questions, and we will critically discuss his fascinating response to them, a response that continues to inspire social and political analysis today.
In the seventh part of this course, we will explore the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, which he summarizes in Existentialism Is a Humanism. This text is about the human being as a fundamentally free being, a being for whom “existence precedes essence,” and in it we discuss several concepts: from anguish to abandonment, from despair to bad faith. Time permitting, we will also watch the film It's Such a Beautiful Day by Don Hertzfeldt.
In the seventh of this course, we will look at Charles W. Mills' The Racial Contract, in which institutionalized racism – or white supremacy – is explored as an especially oppressive form of unnatural human inequality. In this text, which is not even fifteen years old, political philosophy is criticized for its “normative whiteness.” We will work to understand this harsh criticism, and also to evaluate it.
In the eighth and final part of this course, we will read We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a short text that makes a compelling case for feminism today. What is feminism, and what does it mean to be a feminist? Also, what are the different types of feminism? What, for example, are the “waves” of feminism? These are just some of the questions that we will consider.