Introduction to Political Philosophy syllabus

I’m about to teach an Introduction to Political Philosophy course for the second time. Last time around I used an adaptation of Robin James’ Social and Political Philosophy syllabus, which had a ton of great material but proved to be a bit much for my students. So I’ve more or less rewritten the whole course to go much more slowly through texts and topics. I’m planning to open with some conversations about race, gender and class as the three categories of analysis we’ll be using for thinking about how societies are organised, and then we’ll explore some key themes via reading and discussing some key political philosophers, as follows:

WEEK 1. Introduction to Political Philosophy
WEEK 2. The social contract: Thomas Hobbes
WEEK 3. The sexual contract: Carol Pateman
WEEK 4. The racial contract: Charles Mills
WEEK 5. Private Property: John Locke
WEEK 6. Communism: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
WEEK 7. ENRICHMENT WEEK
WEEK 8. Freedom: John Stuart Mill
WEEK 9. Resistance: Frantz Fanon
WEEK 10. Liberty: Robert Nozick
WEEK 11: Control: Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Paul B Preciado
WEEK 12: Topic selected by the class

Thanks to everyone who chipped in when I was planning the first iteration of this course; I went back over all the comments this time around and found them super helpful. Because I’ll be teaching a mixture of students doing Politics and PPE as well as some of our own students taking Philosophy, Religion and Ethics, I’ll be teaching a class of around 60, by far the biggest group I’ve ever taught. I’m planning to experiment with Nearpod to see if that will let me keep some meaningful element of student interaction in my classes, but if anyone has any tips for managing a group that size (we’ll be stuck in a lecture-style theatre just for added barriers to small group discussion) etc, I’m all ears! PO1103 PPE1001 S2 Handbook 2017-2018, for those who are interested.

 

Great Christian Thinkers 2 Syllabus: Greater, Christian-er, Thinkier

I start teaching again next week so have been adding the finishing touches to my new semester syllabi. At Winchester we have a course rotation system whereby a bunch of our courses for second and third year students run every other year, which is nice for the students insofar as it gives them more options, but currently a bit exhausting for me as I begin my second year in post with an almost entirely new teaching roster (I’ll be posting my syllabi for a course on Hegel, Marx and Dialectical Thinking and an Introduction to Political Philosophy one over the next couple of weeks).

My Great Christian Thinkers Part 1 class focused on introducing Augustine, key concepts in Christian theology, and core study, research and writing skills to our first year students, all organised around the theme of suffering and the question of whether it is, as Phillip Goodchild suggests, ‘what matters most’. Part 2 aims to give students an overview of some key developments in Christian history via a survey of five important Christian thinkers. I’m hoping that we’ll use the five in different ways to think about what it means to be a ‘great’ thinker; what makes someone specifically a Christian thinkers, and what counts or gets recognised as ‘thought’. So I’m opening the semester with Ursula Le Guins’ ‘The Mother Tongue‘, a commencement address she gave at Bryn Mawr college in 1986, where she talks about the kinds of thought that universities train students in and the limits of that training.

I’ve decided that my canon this time around will consist of Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, John Calvin, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Gustavo Gutiérrez. I’ve tried to pick primary and secondary texts that give a feel for what’s distinctive about them as thinkers but also as representatives of particular historical periods, and that focus on some of the themes of suffering we covered in semester one. You can take a look at my complete syllabus here.

The violence of refusal

I’m currently working through some (hopefully final) edits on my book about Dionysius and Žižek, and have found myself back trying to figure out the relationship between Žižek’s account of violence (primarily in his book Violence) and the account of violence in Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. I’ve pointed out before the way that Žižek ignores the fact that Benjamin’s discussion is dealing in part with the question of violence in relation to the general strike. But what I hadn’t quite grasped is that where, for Žižek, it is acts of passive refusal such as Bartleby the Scrivener’s ‘I would prefer not to’ or Saramago’s fictional country where all the citizens spontaneously refuse to fill our election ballots which best exemplify ‘divine violence’, for Benjamin the general strike is specifically not violent. That seems like an important distinction between the two accounts of violence, but I can’t quite get straight what that distinction is, so I’m hoping some of you might be able to help me figure it out. Here’s where I’ve got to:

For Žižek there are four types of violence. There is law-founding or mythical violence, which consists of the unjustifiable decision to create a social or symbolic order in the first place. The violence (that is, the excessive nature of this act – its lack of grounding in any reason or cause) of this moment is often covered up by reference to a God or gods: we do things this way and not that way because God has so ordained it. There is law-maintaining violence, the various forms of coercion directed at anything which threatens the ongoing existence of the social and symbolic order – whether that’s calling the police on strikers or gossiping about the person who made a social faux pas. There is simple criminal violence, which transgresses the law but doesn’t pose a threat to it. And there is divine violence, which for Žižek is anything which poses an existential threat to the existing social order, forcing a radical transformation.

Benjamin is trickier. Again, violence is always entangled with the social and symbolic order – Critique of Violence says that the question of violence arises in relation to law and justice. For law, violence can be justified only if it is deployed in order to achieve ends which are sanctioned by the law. The law wants a monopoly on violence – it wants to be the sole arbiter of whether or not violence is justified. Even when violence is legal, if it is not wielded directly by the state, then it poses a threat to the law: and this is where we get to the question of the strike. Benjamin argues that organised labour is ‘apart from the state probably the only legal subject entitled to exercise violence.’ And here’s where it gets tricky. A strike is not an action so much as a refusal to act. It is a withdrawal from the violent coercion of the employer. But a strike can aim either at an end that is sanctioned by the law – higher wages, say – or at an end that threatens the existence of the law as such – revolution, the end of the law. In the second case, although striking as such is legal, the law cries violence because the aim of the strike is one that threatens its existence.

Later, though, Benjamin makes a distinction between  the political general strike and the proletarian general strike. The political general strike doesn’t want to overthrow the law and the state, it just wants a reorganisation of the state or law: different bosses, different conditions for waged labour. But the proletarian general strike wants to end the state and the law. If the law is defined as a set of agreements about when violence is and is not legitimate (so a legal contract, Benjamin says, confers on each party the right to resort to some kind of violence against the other if they break the terms of the contract), then the general strike is properly anarchic: the strikers refuse to work until there is no more state, no more law, no more society in which the decision to work or to not work is enforced by the threat of violence. In the political general strike, the strikers want more control of the power of violent coercion held by the state; in the proletarian general strike, the strikers refuse any kind of social order built on violent coercion.

And then we get to divine violence. If mythic violence is lawmaking, Benjamin says, divine violence is law-destroying. It is not about enforcing the law, and so it is not about retribution or payback. It kills not to enforce the law of talion, but for the sake of humanity, whose value cannot be reduced to the law. On Žižek’s reading of Benjamin, this would mean that the proletarian general strike is the ideal exemplar of divine violence, and Benjamin has earlier indicated that the law might indeed perceive the general strike as violent. But he has also argued that the proletarian general strike is not violent.

I can’t work out how to square this circle. In part, I am not quite sure what Benjamin means by violence. Sometimes it seems that coercion is at play; but this again would seem to make the proletarian general strike violent, though Benjamin insists  that it is not. We could see it as having to do with the law, and specifically the way in which the law is founded on the state’s monopoly of violence and the law of talion. But then divine violence, which takes place in utter indifference to the state’s authority or the law of talion, would not count as violence. Either way, I’m stumped, and if anyone with a better grasp of Benjamin can help me out I’d be extremely grateful.

Help me plan a course about Great Christian Thinkers

I like to think that there will come a point in my life where I will have time to think about something other than teaching, but I think I’m a little way off that yet. I’m just over a third of the way into Semester 1 and already Semester 2 is looming large. I’ll be teaching three courses next semester instead of the two I’m teaching this semester, and if I make it through alive I’ll be in danger of believing in miracles. I’ll probably post about all three courses separately over the course of syllabus design and redesign, but I’ll be teaching Great Christian Thinkers Part 2, the second half of my first year intro course, an Introduction to Political Philosophy, and a module on Marx, Hegel and Dialectical Thinking.

The idea behind Great Christian Thinkers Part 2 is to give students an overview of some major Christian thinkers so they get some familiarity with some of the Big Names of Christian theology, some initial sense of the development of Christian theology over time, as well as a general sense of how some of the core theological concepts we’ve looked at in semester 1 play out in later thinkers. Last time around they did St Paul, Aquinas, Calvin, Schleiermacher and Barth.

This iteration of the course is themed around suffering, and in semester 1 we’ve been working through major Christian doctrines in relation to the idea of suffering as follows:

WEEK 1: What Matters Most
WEEK 2: Augustine, Theology, and the Problem of Suffering
WEEK 3: God, Evil and the Nature of Suffering
WEEK 4: The Fall
WEEK 5: Free to Suffer?
WEEK 6: The Devil
WEEK 7: ENRICHMENT WEEK
WEEK 8: Suffering Desire, Desiring Suffering
WEEK 9: Suffering and the Ethics of Sacrifice
WEEK 10: Political Suffering: A Tale of Two Cities
WEEK 11: Political Suffering: War
WEEK 12: What Matters Most?

This is probably the only module on the course where the students will spend a lot of time with pre-20th century Big Name Theologians so I’m trying to work out which of those thinkers are most important for the students to have some familiarity with. I’m tempted to keep the line-up roughly the same but perhaps swap out Barth and add in Catherine of Siena so we can really spend some time thinking about the crucial shifts that happen in the medieval period. But I’m also not a specialist on any of those thinkers (maybe more so with Aquinas), so would gratefully appreciate any thoughts on the following:

  • Which are the most indispensable Big Theological Thinkers, especially pre-20th century?
  • What’s some good secondary reading on any of those Big Names that might help me find interesting ways into thinking about them, especially when it comes to the role of suffering in their work? I’d love to use the Aquinas section to think about the crucial role of Christian  encounters with Jewish and Muslim thought in forming systematic theology, for example.

Updated Critical Reading Worksheet

Thanks to everyone who commented on the last version of my close reading worksheet, now re-named a critical reading worksheet after it turned out that “close reading” is its own specific kind of thing, and tweaked a bit in response to suggestions from lots of people. In particular, I’ve added some questions to encourage my students to think about what they’re bringing to the text, and to notice their own reactions to it; and some questions which will hopefully get them thinking about the structure of the text and (where relevant) the argument. I think in future I might try to expand it to give some examples of paragraphs from academic texts which show the kinds of critical engagement that might result from asking each of these different questions, but this is the version I’ll be using in my teaching this year:

Continue reading “Updated Critical Reading Worksheet”

What’s the point of university?

I’m teaching my first Great Christian Thinkers class on Friday, and because it’s meant to be a course that orients my students to their degree as a whole and we’re opening on the theme of ‘What Matters Most?’, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the purpose of university; both what they want to get out of their degree and what a range of other people and institutions might want them to get out of it. I’ve pulled together some short extracts for them to discuss as part of the session, and thought they might be of interest to others: you are welcome to borrow and/or adapt these at will. Continue reading “What’s the point of university?”

A guide to close reading

I’m planning to give my first year undergraduates a worksheet designed to help them engage with the theological and philosophical texts we study during our course. I’ve noticed that a lot of my students struggle to find critical ways into the texts, and I’m hoping that giving them some fairly generic questions to work through will help them find ways in. I’m planning to talk through the list of questions when I hand them out then use them as a basis for some of our seminar discussions over the rest of the semester so that the students can get a handle on how to use them.

Here’s the list of questions I’ve drafted so far; I’d really appreciate any comments/suggestions/wisdom gleaned from other people’s teaching experience, and of course you’re welcome to appropriate these for yourself if they look like they’d help you in your own teaching:

Continue reading “A guide to close reading”