Kant’s “Critical philosophy,” which begins with the appearance of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, is an attempt to understand no less than the scope and limits of human reason, science, and morality. He wrote that the purpose of philosophy is to answer the following fundamental questions: “What can we know? What should we do? What can we hope for?” In other words: can we really know what reality is like, independent of our individual perspectives and ways of conceiving it? Is scientific inquiry a legitimate, or the only legitimate, way to know reality? Do we have genuine moral obligations to others and to ourselves, and what reasons do we have for fulfilling those obligations? What does it mean to say that a work of art or a landscape is beautiful, and what does it say about the type of creatures we are that these things can evoke such aesthetic experiences in us?
Kant says that answers to all these questions presuppose an answer to another, even more fundamental question: “what is a human being?” In this class, we will survey Kant’s theoretical, ethical, and aesthetic views with particular concern to understand how they fit together into a unified picture of human subjectivity and purpose. Kant’s account of human beings, or persons, grants them “a rank and dignity infinitely above all other things, including all other living beings, on earth.” This view seems profoundly at odds with a common modern conception in which, as Nietzsche describes it, “man has become an animal, literally and without reservation or qualification.” Accordingly, we can only understand human nature, behavior and potential through evolutionary theory and the neurophysiology of the brain. We will ask if Kant’s picture, in contrast, is still viable today, and whether it offers a compelling or attractive alternative account of human beings and their place in nature.
Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
Critique of Judgment
In this class we will examine the remarkable cultural ferment of fin-de-siècle Vienna through the lens of one of its principal protagonists, the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Among the questions we will address are: is there a morality of art? How do the apocalyptic yearnings of Viennese Expressionism reflect, and anticipate, the turbulent politics of the early twentieth century? What is “prophetic modernism?” In trying to answer these questions, we will examine Schoenberg’s relation to other leading Viennese figures, including Ludwig Wittgenstein and the satirist Karl Kraus, and read interpretations of his music by such writers as Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann. We will use Schoenberg’s own path – from a youthful immersion in German Idealism, through his reconversion to Judaism, culminating in the messianic visions of Moses und Aron and A Survivor from Warsaw – to explore the broader ways in which the Jewish experience in Vienna shaped the history of modernism in philosophy and the arts. And we will try to understand why, a century after their creation, the artistic monuments of turn-of-the-century Vienna still have a unique power to compel and disturb.
How can we think or write theory in the wake of poststructuralism? For a number of recent thinkers, one possible answer arrives in the often slippery category of affect, in the attempt to return theoretical attention not only to material conditions but specifically to the body and the intensities that traverse it. Such theorists are critical of the elevation of language over visceral, lived experience and interested in the ways that affects circulate publicly or are transmitted contagiously. “The skin,” writes Brian Massumi, “is faster than the word.” In different ways, they theorize affect—which they distinguish from emotion or feeling—as a per-personal and pre-linguistic entity about which they nonetheless attempt to speak. This class will constitute a joint experiment in how to think, write, and deploy the concept or concepts of affect. Readings will include selections from Baruch Spinoza, Sigmund Freud, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Brian Massumi, Kathleen Stewart, Teresa Brennan, Lauren Berlant, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and others. No prior reading will be assumed, but a willingness to struggle with and through nonlinear and experimental writing (both alone and with the group) will be an absolute necessity.
Image Credit: Peter D. Gerakaris, How High the Moon, 84 x 84 in., Oil on canvas, 2009. © Peter D. Gerakaris. http://www.
In this course we will consider political philosophy in ancient Greece by reading Plato’s Republic in its entirety and selections from Aristotle’s Politics. Among the questions we will address are these: What is the relation between the constitution of the city and the constitution of a person (the arrangement of the psyche)? What does it mean to lead a good life? Does an individual need a particular type of city in order to be good? Does a city need a particular type of individual in order to be good? In short, what is the relation between ethics and politics? It may be that in thinking about these questions in the context of ancient philosophy you will come to re-imagine your own relationship to the ethics and politics of New York City.
This course is capped at 20 and registration closes today.
At the start of the 20th century, art became inexorably, but anxiously, linked to politics. Artists renounced traditional criteria of aesthetic beauty and skill to establish a whole new set of ideas about what art should do. Art should transform! Art should critique! Art should inspire! This course will trace this process by asking: what does it mean to be avant-garde? We will examine three central strategies as they unfold from the 1910s to the beginning of World War II: negation, critique, and construction. Looking at Italian Futurism, German Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Russian Constructivism, and Productivism, we will pair close readings of foundational theoretical texts, artists’ writings, and manifestos with rigorous visual analyses of artworks. This will allow us to inquire into definitions of the avant-garde across history, prompting us to ask other questions, such as: what kinds of social relations do works of art produce? What is the relationship between form and content, intention and effect? Why do certain artistic goals and ambitions arise in a particular historical period? Are these models still relevant today? And whether yes or no, do these ideals persist today nonetheless?
This course is capped at 20 and registration closes January 14, 2013.
In 1930, Max Horkheimer became the director of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany. Along with his colleagues and a broader orbit of external scholars, he inaugurated the first wave of what came to be called “critical theory.” This course is an introduction to some of the key works and concepts of the Frankfurt School, including thinkers like Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin, in the context of a comparative analysis of the cultural and political landscape of the mid-twentieth century and that of today. What is historical materialism? What is the “dialectic of enlightenment”? How does the “culture industry” work? What, if any, are the connections and boundaries between philosophy, sociology, aesthetics, art, history, and religion? Drawing on readings from several Frankfurt School texts, particularly Adorno and Horkeimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, we will attempt to read, understand, and evaluate these questions and link them to the contemporary world.
This course is capped at 20 and registration closes February 10, 2013.THIS COURSE IS NOW FULL. SORRY!
(Presented in collaboration with the Barnard Center for Research on Women)
“But if I wish to define myself,” Simone de Beauvoir writes, “I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’; on this truth must be based all further discussion.” With this declaration—and the publication of The Second Sex in 1953—the question of “woman” becomes a proper topic of philosophical investigation, as Beauvoir demystifies the “eternal feminine” and lays bare the relationship of “masculine” and “feminine” and how they function to construct woman as Other. In the wake of Beauvoir, other feminist thinkers take up many of her questions, but abandon her existentialist presuppositions. In this course, we will examine a set of twentieth century texts that insist on taking woman, gender, and sexual difference seriously. The first half of the course will center around readings from the new unabridged English edition of The Second Sex, in conjunction with relevant primary and secondary literature, including the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and selections from Toril Moi’s Simone de Beauvoir: the Making of an Intellectual Woman. The second half of the course will consider so-called “French feminism” after Beauvoir, a designation that includes figures as diverse as Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, Monique Wittig, and Michèle le Doueff. These thinkers diverge in a variety of ways from Beauvoir’s approach. But they continue to insist on the necessity of confronting the question of sexual difference, as well as the theorization and performance of distinctly feminine writing that they term écriture feminine or parler-femme.
Enrollment is capped at 20 and closes on March 5, 2013.
[no previous experience required]
In 1931, a 25-year-old Kurt Gödel published a paper in mathematical logic titled “On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems.” This paper contained the proofs of two “incompleteness theorems”:
For any consistent axiomatic formal system that can express facts about basic arithmetic:
1. there are true statements that are unprovable within the system
2. the system’s consistency cannot be proven within the system
In this course, we will unpack the meanings of these statements and put them in context as follows.
First, we will examine the historical context of the theorems. Gödel’s theorems were immediately recognized as a pivotal achievement in logic and the foundations of mathematics (“metamathematics”). They struck a seemingly fatal blow to the logicist and formalist programs of Frege, Russell, and Hilbert–the effort, going back to Frege’s work in the late 1800s and carried forward by Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica and Hilbert’s formalist philosophy of mathematics, to provide a provably consistent axiomatic foundation for all of mathematics. Second, we will go through the proofs of the incompleteness theorems, with a focus on the first theorem. The level of mathematical detail will be calibrated according to the interests and abilities of the class. This will entail discussions of propositional and predicate logic; formal axiomatic systems (and the consistency and completeness of such); Peano arithmetic; the arithmetization of syntax via Gödel numbering; effective/computable enumerability (via computable functions and Turing machines); and the diagonalization argument that leads to a self-referential formula of arithmetic which says “I am not provable” (a syntactic version of the liar paradox). We will discuss the influence and impact of Gödel’s theorems: on mathematics and the philosophy of mathematics as well as the “uses and abuses” of Gödel incompleteness in fields such as cognitive science, philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and even political science and sociology.
In the 19th century, a small group of New England radicals seeking a break with spiritual conventions, an immediate encounter with the natural world, and a revitalization of daily life—what Emerson called “an original relation to the universe”—became known as transcendentalists. What kind of individual life, and what sorts of social communities, did the transcendentalists imagine? How did they understand notions like “self-reliance” and “experience”? Is Thoreau’s famous move to Walden Pond best interpreted as a proto-libertarian withdrawal from the community, or the first step towards a new community, differently oriented and committed? In this course we will read Emerson’s Nature and his major essays, and Thoreau’s Walden and selections from his journals. We will be attentive to how transcendentalist thought was influenced by German idealists, English romantics, the Bhavagad-Gita, and other sources, and how it in turn influenced abolitionist actions and communal utopian experiments. (Thoreau, on a visit to Brook Farm: “As for these communities, I think I had rather keep a bachelor’s room in Hell than go to board in Heaven.”) Critical reading will include Stanley Cavell, Barbara Packer, and Leo Marx.
Are artists saints?
Franz Kafka famously asked his friend Max Brod—a popular critic in his own day—to burn all of his papers after his death. This included the vast majority of Kafka’s work, as he had published only a handful of stories in his own lifetime. Brod did not oblige. Instead, he began the publication of Kafka’s writings and later composed a popular biography of Kafka in which he claimed that everything Kafka wrote, from completed novels to the most hastily-written invitation to lunch, was akin to a holy relic, each “especially characteristic of a boundlessly rich spirit which never succumbed to routine or convention.” German-Jewish philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin was appalled by Brod’s approach—placing Kafka “on the path to saintliness”—calling it “the most irreverent attitude imaginable,” combining a cloying “bonhomie” with meaningless “pietism.” Both seemed to agree on a kind of “theological” approach to Kafka, but the crucial question is, what kind of theology? An otherworldly and romantic notion of the artist as saint, transcending the commonplace? Or a worldly, materialist account in which the text can simultaneously be both about the Law (the halakhah) and the law in a modern state? How should we read Kafka? How should we understand art and the figure of the artist?
In this class, we will study short stories, diary entries, letters, and reflections by Kafka, as well as his novel The Trial. We will also read selections from Brod’s biography of Kafka and Benjamin’s writings on both Kafka and Brod, including a series of letters debating the theological issues with Gershom Scholem, as we attempt to understand the relationships—and conflicts—between these writers. Above all, we will investigate Kafka’s relationship to modernity, Jewishness, and the interplay of the two, as well as Benjamin’s valorization of Kafka alongside his rejection of Brod’s hermeneutic of “saintliness.”
The body has been a problem in dominant Western philosophical and religious narratives for millennia. Many feminist theorists agree that the devaluation of the body is intimately related to its frequent association with femininity. In this interdisciplinary course, we examine ways that the body has been read and written in philosophy, theology, history, literature, and feminist theory. We will consider the following questions. How can we account for the longstanding equation between women and the body? What is the relationship between the body and the mind, and what are the implications of how it is conceived? Why are bodies represented in certain ways in literary and philosophical texts? Whose bodies are represented, and how? By what means are bodies shaped and disciplined, internally and externally? How have conceptions of the body changed over time, and how did the body become an object that demands maintenance and work—or, in Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s memorable phrase, a “project”? Finally, how else can the body be read, written, and imagined, and what are the stakes of doing so? Readings will be drawn from Plato, the New Testament, St. Augustine, René Descartes, Susan Bordo, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Margaret Atwood, Michel Foucault, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray.
This course is capped at 20.
In the last five years zombies have risen from the dustbins of American popular culture. A new zombie theme park is taking up residence in an abandoned neighborhood in Detroit. Protestors in New York staged a “Night of the Living Debt” demonstration to draw attention to the ever-growing burden of student debt. Scores of movies and big-budget TV shows are feeding the zombie craze. Following a spate of particularly violent and senseless crimes, the Assistant Surgeon General of the United States has reassured the public that there is no sign of a real zombie apocalypse, while novelists high and low are trying their hand at seemingly endless font of narrative possibilities that avail themselves when ordinary people encounter their brainless, deathless counterparts. How do we make sense of this explosion in zombie stories? What is the history of this peculiar and perennially popular genre? This course will begin with an exploration of the history of zombi, a Haitian word of uncertain provenance—most likely from the Kikongo or Yoruba words for fetish or god—that describes existence on the very edges of life. Zombi, in the voodoo tradition, is both powerful and resistant: a means of troubling the line between life and death under the conditions of slavery and the evacuation of actionable will. Does this sense of resistance, power, and godliness linger in contemporary representations of zombies? Does contemporary zombie fiction engage in a meaningful way with the history of race in America and the Caribbean that gave rise to it? We will read novels, short stories, and a small selection of secondary literature. Four films will be screened in cooperation with Observatory.
[Enrollment includes admission to these screenings!]
This course is capped at 20.
Enrollment includes complimentary admission to the film series we are co-producing with the Observatory in Gowanus, BK.
We are proud to announce the first in a series of courses presented in a partnership between the Center for Jewish History and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, as part of a shared mission to promote open, rigorous, and critical academic study for the general public.
In this course, we will explore questions of political theology and “the secular” in two pivotal, controversial works in both Jewish thought and in the history of “Western” political philosophy: Baruch Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise and Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem. We will study these texts in terms of their historical relationship to and interaction with normative ideas in “Western” philosophy, as well as in light of the questions in political philosophy and metaphysics they raise. How should we understand—or, rather, not understand—God? What is the proper relationship between religion and the state? How can we understand the differences between revealed “religion” and revealed “legislation”? How did Spinoza articulate an alternative vision of modernity nearly a century before Kant? How did Mendelssohn rebut Kantian ideals of freedom and autonomy by drawing on Jewish traditions and concepts of heteronomy? What philosophical positions can emerge from examining the contrast between Christian notions of universalism and Jewish conceptions of particularity? In addition to Spinoza and Mendelssohn, we will read commentaries on both authors and secondary literature on the nature of “religion” and “secularism.” This will not be a class merely in philosophical reading. We will try to understand, apply, and reflect critically on these questions in our contemporary context.
What is realism? Why and how does a literary text aspire to the status of “the real”? In this class, we will examine realism as historically-specific mode, as subject matter, and as a set of transhistorical formal techniques. Through readings of French, British, and American novels, we will think through the problems of making “life” appear on the page. Secondary critical texts will frame the debate over the meaning and value of realism, both historically and for readers today. Although the course will focus on the 19th century novel, we will conclude with a contemporary work that revolves around these very questions. Novels: Emma, Madame Bovary, The House of Mirth, and Remainder. Critical texts: Lukács, Hegel, Barthes, Watt, Auerbach, Zola.
For nearly a century now, films have occupied a prominent place within society at large. In this class, we’re going to approach films from a philosophical perspective, one that has been inspired by recent work in the cognitive sciences. We will begin by asking, first of all, what is a film? Are there important differences between still photographs and films? What aesthetic features belong solely to film? Are films similar to other fictional media, like novels and plays? Must a film tell a story? How can a documentary accurately depict events and people in the real world? And why do we care about fictional characters and events depicted on screen, especially when we know they are not real? Although these questions may appear to be simple, we shall very quickly see that such appearances are misleading. Readings will be drawn from a variety of contemporary philosophers, including Noël Carroll, Gregory Currie, Arthur Danto, and George M. Wilson, and film-screenings will include “La Jetée” by Chris Marker, “F for Fake” by Orson Welles, “Eraserhead” by David Lynch, “Night of the Living Dead” by George Romero, and others.
From the telegraph to Twitter, man’s inventions have aspired with increasing ingenuity to contract space and time, bringing people closer together over ever greater distances. Since the invention of early telecommunication in the nineteenth century, writers and artists have pondered the ways that communication technologies have reshaped the social lives of humans—the ways, for example, they change what it means to “reach out and touch someone,” what it means to be a social self. While critics have fretted over the dangers of losing ourselves (and our grammar) to machines, defenders remain fascinated by the practical and conceptual elegance of devices that transport our voices, and thus our selves, to one another. This course will address this persistent fascination in works ranging from classical philosophies of rhetoric and modern media theory to nineteenth-century fiction about telecommunication and dystopian film about the dangers posed by such innovations. We will likely cover works by Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Terry Gilliam, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault and others.
Walter Benjamin once wrote that The Arcades Project was “the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas.” Never completed and well over a decade in the making, The Arcades Project takes on the presentation and history of an entire era and place: the Parisian Arcades of the early 19th century. Via quotations, observations, commentaries, philosophical fragments, and “literary montage,” Benjamin attempts a better understanding of the conditions that fashioned both that era and, more importantly, his own. This extraordinarily unique text focuses on some of the most key questions a philosopher can ask: How should we understand the world around us? How should we interpret this world? How should we understand its time? What are social phenomena, history, philosophy, and criticism? What are they for? In this course, we will approach The Arcades Project alongside other writings by Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Theodor Adorno, and later commentators in an attempt to understand Benjamin’s philosophy of historical materialism as well as the shocks and phantasmagoria of our own time.
In this class – the Brooklyn Institute’s inaugural offering – we will closely examine and discuss two of the most influential works in the history of political philosophy: Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics. We will not only read these texts but will think directly about how they were created, what critical reading and philosophical thinking are, and how they relate to our lives in a city today. What is politics? Why do we have it? What is the relationship between politics and metaphysics, politics and economics? How do we understand the body politic and the politics of the body? The foundation of these and numerous other questions are still open to this day.
Freud’s biographers and commentators often note that we all ‘speak Freud’ today, whether we like it or not. But how did we come to speak Freud, and do we do so well or badly? In examining these questions, this class returns to two of Freud’s most pivotal texts: Studies on Hysteria and the magisterial Interpretation of Dreams. How did the so-called ‘talking cure’ come into being? What is the unconscious and what are its implications for understanding human subjectivity? How do Freud’s ‘readings’ of the texts of dreams and sick bodies relate to theories of textual interpretation? What constitutes the practice of psychoanalysis? Why and how is Freud relevant in the contemporary world?
NB: This is *by no means* a therapy session, but students are encouraged (although certainly not required) to keep a dream-journal throughout the course of the class.