From Rousseau to Foucault: Introduction to Social Theory
From Rousseau to Weber and Freud to Foucault, this class introduces you to some of the canonical theorists of modernity, but with a twist. We will trace their urgent and powerful answers to the question, “how has capitalism shaped who we are?”
Debates about capitalism often focus on exploitation or the unequal distribution of wealth and power. We will excavate a closely related view: that capitalism makes and remakes us all as particular kinds of people—in ways that harm us and prevent us from flourishing. This is an introduction to the philosophical critique of social pathology. We will explore the development of modern Euro-American capitalism from a bureaucratic market society at the turn of the twentieth century, to social-democratic prosperity, to contemporary neoliberalism. We will ask how these transformations overhauled subjectivities, shaping our attitudes, feelings, behaviours and identities. Throughout, our question will be: What does it mean for people to be not just impoverished or enriched, but remade by capitalism?
We will begin with an introduction to the critique of social pathology, reading Rousseau’s Second Discourse on the Origins of Inequality as a classic statement of the problem and seeing how 20th-century contributions from Simone de Beauvoir and Frantz Fanon expanded Rousseau’s concern with the interrelations of property, domination and subject-formation. We will discuss contemporary theories of social pathology in work by Axel Honneth and others, alongside similar ideas in the cultural criticism of Mark Fisher, asking above all whether the concept of social pathology is indelibly tied to humanism. We’ll then launch our historical survey of twentieth century capitalism with a focus on Max Weber and his Marxist disciple and critic Georg Lukács. Next, we will examine Frankfurt School critiques of mid-century prosperity from Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, both deeply but critically influenced by Freud. And, lastly, we’ll turn to the study of neoliberal selfhood in Michel Foucault and the contemporary affect theory of Lauren Berlant. Throughout the course, we will grapple with two of the big questions of critical social theory. What is capitalism? And what, if anything, might be wrong with it?
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30PM BST
September 24 — October 15, 2020