Imagining the Individual: Theology, Capitalism, Politics

Instructor: Suzanne Schneider
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Individualism is a sacrosanct pillar of American society. Though frequently invoked to support positions associated with contemporary conservative politicsfrom “school choice” to opposition to universal healthcare and the embrace of private enterprise—individualism has a longer and more checkered past than is often acknowledged. Rather than constituting a historical constant, individualism is actually of quite recent vintage, having emerged in early modern Europe amid a flurry of theological, political, and economic transitions. From Martin Luther’s accountable soul to Hegel’s “World Historical Individual” and the more recent cult of the entrepreneur, this course will ask how and why the contemporary sense of individualism came to exist, and how this past continues to shape our increasingly interconnected present.  

Students will trace a genealogy of individualism stretching from the Protestant Reformation to early modern political theory, Enlightenment philosophy and the crystallization of liberalism. Examining original works from thinkers including Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill—alongside more contemporary reflections by Bertrand Russell, C.B. Macpherson, Charles Taylor, and Larry Siedentop—we will grapple with individualism as a double-sided phenomenon: simultaneously the guarantor of many freedoms we hold dear, and a social and political force that undermines commitment to communities and the common good. We will ask: What assumptions about personality and human will are subsumed within modern constructions of the individual, and do we find them tenable? What is the optimal relationship between the individual and society, and in what ways has collective thinking about this question evolved? Finally, how do changing views of human agency relate to broader political, economic, and social transformations?

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
May 12 — June 02, 2020
4 weeks


Registration Open

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