This course seeks to investigate the ordinary activities of speaking, eating and thinking in order to learn how each of these activities can be a site of political and ethical reflection, judgment and action.
In Unit One, “Speaking”, each text frames moral and political questions by with attention to the meaning and use of the words we use in speaking to each other. Whether what is at issue is the proper use of rhetoric and figural language in our public discourse; how detailed analyses of the different inflections of similar words reveals important differences in how we account for, and justify, action; or whether morality and politics is a sphere in which speaking with others is a process of making more explicit to ourselves and others the range of our commitments, cares and relationships; each text shows how our everyday practices of speaking reveal, and can be transformed by, our ignorance of the “real” meaning of what we say and why we say it.
In Unit Two, “Eating”, our practices of consuming food are shown to be more problematic than we tend to believe while we are chewing away at our latest meal. Issues to be raised include arguments for vegetarianism; the nature of our relations with animals; the political significance of the “Slow Food” movement; and the ethical and political dilemmas emerging as a result of modern practices of agricultural production.
Unit Three, “Thinking”, examines how philosophy, or thinking and theorizing, might not only be defined by a series of texts, or problems, but as a way of life with important moral and political consequences. Arendt, for example, argues that the sheer act of thinking is a critical practice of inner dialogue that can lead the thinker to resist societal pressures to commit immoral acts. Hadot sees thinking as part of a choice to commit to a certain kind of life, one in which thought is a “practice” that contributes to developing the ethical self. Connolly builds on a similar idea in the context of recent findings in neuroscience suggesting that affect plays a significant role in our thought processes. If thinking is a way of life with consequences for public life, then how does a seemingly “interior” process become so important for public politics?
This course invites you to see phenomena as a political theorist might see them, that is, as human activities which raise questions about the nature and place of power, persuasion, consumption, production, public space and rationality. The course requires no prior experience with political theory or philosophy. However, it does require you to take seriously the questions raised by each of the texts we read, many of which claim that the life you—that’s right, you, reading this course description—are leading right now is thoughtless, meaningless, artificial, ethically suspect, politically indifferent or even unjust, contributing to the destruction of the natural world and endangering the possibility of human life on this planet: in short, a seriously questionable life. If you are not interested in the possibility that such things may be true—which doesn’t mean that they are true—then this may not be the course for you. But if you are willing to engage such possibilities, this course will enable you to think more critically and rigorously about the political nature and consequences of even the most mundane activities.