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On Being Human: Conceptions of the Self from Aristotle to Frankenstein

This course is expected to run but has not yet been scheduled.

Course Description

Does freedom mean acting on every desire we experience? To what extent are we free, and in what ways are our thoughts and actions determined by factors beyond our control (such as our biology or our culture)? How well do we know ourselves? Do we really know why we do what we do? This course examines classic explanations of human action and character. We explore these topics by critically analyzing and reflecting on philosophical texts and films. We study these materials closely not only to understand them but also to further develop our own views on these enduring human questions.

How we answer these questions generally has a strong impact on our views about what it means to live well. Should we aim for independence from culture and tradition or do we live well through harmonious integration in a tradition and community? Does freedom consist in acting in accord with our every desire, with reason, or with the will of a transcendent being?

This course examines these issues by considering powerful philosophical and literary texts about the nature of the human being and human excellence"from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as well as writings by Augustine, Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Charles Taylor. Each book introduces an influential perspective still relevant to contemporary debates. We engage these texts critically, to learn from them as well as to critique them. We will complement these texts with films that explore the same issues. Considering the texts and the films together highlights the contemporary presence of these classic ideas, provides a new perspective on the underlying questions, and raises novel questions about the films.

Students will learn how to read philosophical texts and to formulate their own philosophical arguments. You will be challenged to connect these discussions to existential questions about how you live your own life. The course thus provides an excellent introduction to philosophy, the academic study of religion, as well as the humanities more generally.

The only prerequisite is a willingness to work through challenging readings. The course does not presuppose any background in philosophy.