COURSE MATERIALS

Below are course descriptions and sample handouts from my classes over the years. (Sample writing assignments, along with explanations of their purpose, have their own page here.) There is also a set of drafts for some courses I may teach in the future.

Descriptions

Philosophical Inquiry (Introductory core; Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2018)

As human beings, we want to know, even though there is something inherently precarious about the life of the mind. To that end, specific academic disciplines give us specific structured ways to investigate ourselves and the world, putting intentional checks on our imaginations and desires. What are we to do, however, with the most basic questions, the ones that intensely concern us at the most important moments of our lives, yet do not admit of satisfying answers from the particular disciplines? How might we investigate what it means to be at all, and whether or not being is the same for all things that are (perhaps including the divine)? If it is right that we all desire to know, what does knowing involve? Is real learning possible? What would be the role of reason and discussion in knowledge, especially over against physical or emotional force? What does it mean for something to be true? What kind of monsters are we, stretched between earth and heaven but rooted neither in the ground, nor simply in desire, nor purely in reason?

In this course, we trace the modifications of empiricism, rationalism, and Aristotelian attempts at mediation through the history of Western philosophy. We consider epistemology as the study of living things' openness to what is other than the self, metaphysics as working out the natures and sources of things.

Ethics (Upper-level core; Fall 2013 - Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017)

Some people live for the sake of the weekend, or work for the sake of retirement. Why do we do that? And, most importantly, what should we do with our leisure time? How shall we take advantage of our freedom? Does anything bind us in the midst of that freedom? Does anything give a measure to us, or do we only invent measures for ourselves? In other words, is being human the sort of thing at which one can be excellent or shoddy? Is it possible to be genuinely happy? What would that mean? It seems that we feel the pull of ethical obligation (in the phenomena of responsibility, duty, conscience, and desire), yet it is very hard to pin down the source of that obligation, not to mention its concrete implications in difficult situations.

 

In this course, we try to figure out together what the nature of our ethical obligation is and how it gets its grip on us – that is, how it relates to our own reason and desire. We focus on two conflicting meta-ethical orientations in the history of philosophy: the claim that happiness, or flourishing, is the ethical purpose of life, and the counter-claim that happiness is ethically not the point. After opening up the source of obligation as the central meta-ethical problem via Plato and various 20th-century discussions, we consider three competing frameworks for an ethics centered on happiness (from Aristotle, Stoicism, and Christianity). We then try to understand Kant's claim that happiness is ethically secondary, in part by examining various responses that are critical of his work but still in agreement with the thought that virtue ethics misplaces the ethical goal. These critiques always include care ethics and Nietzsche's Genealogy; we have also looked at objections from Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, and Hegel.

Philosophy of the Person (Year-long, introductory core; Fall 2007 - Spring 2012)

The way we think deeply affects what we do. This course investigates the nature of beginnings – both origins and renewals – with an eye to the relation between thinking and doing. I think that the sources of things tell us a great deal about those things, and I am very interested in the human possibilities for beginning again. Why? There are deep evils in the world (and perhaps also in ourselves). Can we do anything about them? How? It seems we must begin by identifying their sources, but that will not tell us whether or not we can change the given situation. We will have to know also what sort of beings we are – whether and how we as humans can make new beginnings in the world. Is revolution a solution? Of what kind? Can we forgive, or only forget? What are the possibilities for starting over after war, or natural disaster, or profound racial injustice? Can we start anew with gender relations? How are we to deal with death? With birth? What does it mean to start a new phase of life? These are the questions that remain with us as we explore the nature of the human person, seeking an understanding that could give us a  starting-point (perhaps new, perhaps not) for living.

In this course, we begin from Qoheleth's formulation in Ecclesiastes: "There is nothing new under the sun" and confront it with Hannah Arendt's emphasis on natality as central to being human. We attend to the sources of philosophy in myth and magic (ancient Egypt and Hesiod), then spend the bulk of the first semester on Plato and Aristotle, thinking about sources and causes. A practical attempt at renewal emerges in Christa Wolf's modern retelling of Euripides' tragedy Medea. In the spring term, we ask about the radicality of an array of proclaimed "new beginnings" in philosophy. This opens with medieval Christian ethical questions about how the ancient call to know should be inflected by the call to love even one's enemies. Descartes later seeks to start afresh from the very foundations of knowledge, though this has the strange effect of turning reason inward, a reflexive project adopted by modern philosophy more generally. We finish with various 19th- and 20th-century efforts to start yet again, in Nietzsche, Freud, phenomenology, and feminism.

Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Graduate; Fall 2016)

By shifting the focus from logos understood as rational (in an Enlightenment sense) to a logos of desire, Freud laid the groundwork for much of 20th-century European philosophy and literature. In this course, we ask both how Freudian psychoanalysis takes up the ancient project of inquiry into the soul and what contribution it might make to philosophical anthropology generally. We investigate his solutions to the mind-body problem (both theoretical and practical), his efforts to make sense of love in the face of necessity, and his account of oblique phenomena (dreams, mistakes, repeated patterns of interaction) as meaningful human signs addressed to someone. The focus is on his early and middle periods of work, prior to the id/ego/super-ego construction, though the latter is not completely ignored. Because Freud’s writing is relatively easy to read and his insights are cumulative (including a great deal of self-correction), the course aims for breadth rather than close textual analysis. For similar reasons, we initially pair readings of Freud’s theory with readings of case histories, supplemented by ancient tragedy and its more recent reinterpretations. Late in the semester, while dealing with his more difficult theoretical work, we shift to closer textual study.

 

By the end of this course, as a direct result of committed and competent engagement in it, students become familiar with the fundamentals of Freud’s philosophical anthropology. They are able to consider it critically, in the light of some of its philosophical and literary antecedents and in its phenomenological plausibility. Their wonder about the complexity of the human person grows, while their reflections on their own relationships come to involve a new attention to ambivalence, transference, and fantasy.

Trust, Betrayal, and the Pursuit of Truth: Contributions to Psychopathology (Postgraduate seminar for Fellows in psychiatry and psychology; Fall 2019)

Our culture oscillates between understanding affect as intrusive – incidental to knowledge and stable relationships (where “getting emotional” means nothing other than crying and derailing conversation) – and as central to human being (to be fully rational is to be a machine, while self-discovery is a matter of finding your passion). It is hardly surprising, then, that mental patients (and we) suffer from our various strategies of dealing with affect. Freud’s insight that affective charge can be displaced from one idea to another has given rise to a whole industry for attending to transference and counter-transference, but his otherwise helpful efforts to theorize starting from psychopathology threaten to let us forget that healthy affect is oriented toward truthful (if partial) disclosure of a shared reality. Thus, this two-session course begins with a philosophical investigation of the role of certain affective investments for normally embedding us within a shared, minimally coherent and flexible world. It subsequently turns to the possibility of a radical betrayal that isolates the terrorized subject and deeply complicates – without eliminating! – the human search for truth.

Future Courses

Ancient Greek Philosophy: Identity and Change (Undergraduate, history sequence)

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates claims to be unsure whether he is some sort of god or some sort of monster. Perhaps we are something in between. But does that make us potentially monsters? Potentially gods? Are we the sorts of beings that can change so radically? Are we constantly changing? (And if so, what is this “we” – or this “I”?) If we lose a friend, or regain one, in what sense do we lose or gain ourselves? In this introduction to the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, we focus on Plato and Aristotle as we think about how things (including ourselves, but not limited to ourselves) can change, how they stay the same, and how they do both at once. 

Intro to Continental Philosophy: Truth's Power, Philosophy's Heart (Undergraduate)

We live in an era of confusion about who is telling the truth, how we could decide, and whether it even matters. At the same time, we feel acutely the oppression of lies, with victims seeking to break their silence in very public ways. Does everyone have her own truth? Can we handle the truth? In what ways do we resist it, and in what ways does it have a grip on us? What sort of power does truth have – can it, for example, set us free? Can it be used as a weapon? Can other sorts of power simply put it entirely out of play? This introduction to several strands of the Continental tradition of philosophy (in the 19th and 20th centuries) takes up these and related questions as we try to figure out what makes us so complicatedly interested in the truth. The survey course's first half emphasizes theories of truth; the second half turns to power. Genealogy, existentialism, critical theory, hermeneutic phenomenology, feminism, psychoanalysis, and poststructuralism all come under our scrutiny. 

Phenomenological Exercises (Undergraduate)

Phenomenology is a philosophical movement beginning with Hegel and founded anew at the opening of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl. It is a way of approaching research that promises to place philosophical inquirers back in the world with real things, showing in the process that epistemological skepticism and modern questions about how an isolated subject could ever get (or know it has gotten) to the things themselves are false starts.

After a couple of weeks spent getting a minimum of background from Robert Sokolowski and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the rest of the term is dedicated to working out, as a class, our own phenomenological interpretations of increasingly complex phenomena. These include distinguishing between remembering, imagining, thinking about, and carrying out; distinguishing between representational picturing, abstract picturing, and perceiving non-representational graffiti; describing the real structure of an action that inherently includes emotion (like forgiving); and several other similar projects. Each such analysis is accompanied and stimulated by a relevant reading or film, but the point is never merely to report on or even to reflect on others' interpretations. Instead, we carry out the activity of phenomenology ourselves, thereby discovering how it works, its challenges, and its limitations.

Existentialism: Philosophy of Freedom (Undergraduate)

“What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself… I certainly do not deny that there is an imperative of understanding, but it must be taken up into my life, and that is what I now recognize as the most important thing. That is what I lack, and that is why I am left standing like a man who has rented a house and gathered all the furniture and household things together, but has not yet found the beloved with whom to share the joys and sorrows of life.”

— Soren Kierkegaard, emphasis added[1]

 

Existentialism summons us to philosophize explicitly from and for the sake of our own situation. One remarkable aspect of our present cultural and intellectual situation is that we are inclined both toward despair over the possibility of attaining any shared truth (‘my truth’ means what is true for me but may wall me off from you) and toward desperate hope that the truth can set us free (via public exposure of wrongs like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter). Our human love for the truth is thus very evidently an ambivalence.

 

This course responds to that situation by interrogating the literature and philosophy of the existentialist movement (from the middle of the 20th century, primarily in France and Germany) about the relations between love, truth, and freedom. But one of the questions central to the movement was how to take up our past, and the movement itself adopted several earlier writers as heroes, so the first several weeks are devoted to getting a grip on the philosophical background – both German Idealism’s will to a system and Kierkegaard’s rejection thereof.

[1] Dated August 1, 1835. In Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, vol. 5, eds. H.V. and E.V. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press), p. 5100.

Heidegger's Being and Time in Context (Graduate or Undergraduate elective; prereq: Kant's 1st Critique)

In 1927, Martin Heidegger published a failed fragment of a book that turned out to have dramatic effects on 20th-century philosophy. That book tried to ask something that had only ever been hinted at in Western philosophy: namely, what grants an experience of what it means to be at all? (Consider the good beyond being in Plato's Republic, the various genera in the Sophist, or divine thinking in Aristotle.) Why do we usually take being to mean just lying there, present? What other things might it mean? Is there a phenomenological unity encountered in its various meanings? He himself was later quite ambivalent about the book, seeing it as merely a precis, the likeliest path into thinking's real task, but he never really left behind the project.

This course works through the themes of the text, following its outline but supplementing its particular discussions with readings from his lecture courses during the same period. These often clarify or expand on brief and inadequate accounts in the book itself, or at least provide more accessible entry into the matter at issue. Supplementary readings deal with categorial intuition, truth, human sociality (being-with), affectivity, and the temporal structure of being itself (history).

Philosophy of Language (Undergraduate)

The human being has long been understood as fundamentally the logos-having animal, which we might currently gloss as the one who invented and uses Twitter. There seems to be something peculiar about human communicative abilities, something that grants our kind of animal language, not merely voice, and that leads us to bestow speaking roles in our stories even on other kinds of beings. But what is this peculiarity? In this course, we discuss language in terms of what it does, its origins, its basic structure, and its standards, but we also ask about how it works: how can a sound I make with my vocal cords, a mark on paper, or a series of keystrokes interact in the right way with objects on the other side of the solar system, with people who are dead, with fictions that never existed, with a future that is yet to come, and so on? Those who pursue magic have often thought that knowing a thing’s name gives us power over it; are they right?

This course unites Continental and Anglo-American, ancient and contemporary approaches to language. Ancient concerns about language as persuasive meet Freud's and Searle's rather different interests in what speech does. Modern philosophy's attempts to work out the origins of language get modified by phenomenological and linguistic readings. Topics that take center stage during the subsequent half of the course include naming, metaphor, and truth.

Philosophy of Mind

This course traces and interrogates Western accounts of subjectivity from their initial formulations in terms of soul (the principle of life in a living thing), through their turn to the mind, and finally to their split into roughly two directions: one focused on the brain, one focused on something surprisingly like the ancient concept of soul. Along the way, we consider questions of the uniqueness of mental experience, the structure of thought and thought’s relation to consciousness, the mind’s openness to what is not itself, the mind’s relation to the body, and the problem of recognizing other minds as minds.

Theories of Knowing

This course engages fundamental questions about how we belong (or fail to belong) to the world. The stakes are astonishingly broad, but they can be felt every time you do a Google search or ask a friend to trust you about something. How can I distinguish what I know from what I merely think or feel is right? Are we, all of us, simply deceived in our claims to know things? If not, what standards, authorities, and so on can justify our claims? Are there presuppositions that structure which kinds of things we allow ourselves to know? Are they the right presuppositions?

After starting with various claims (ancient Greek, medieval Christian, recent Anglo-American, and contemporary Continental) about what counts as knowing, we contrast skepticism as alienation from the world to trust as a kind of belonging. This provides the reference points permitting evaluation of whole strategies for approaching epistemology.

Philosophy of Religion

What kind of relation can philosophy take up toward the divine? This survey course turns to thinkers in the ancient Greek, medieval Christian, Jewish, and Arabic, modern skeptical and phenomenological traditions to consider that question. We focus on problems of philosophical piety, philosophy's relation to theology, questions of faith, certainty, and doubt, and the lived human experiences that religious language and practice try to make sense of.

Selected Handouts
 

© 2020 by Will Britt. Proudly created with Wix.com

 

Portraits by Mark Swirsky (markswirskyphoto.com)

Header image courtesy of Wix.

Except as otherwise labeled, all other photos are my own.