Critical Race Theory (Spring 2019)
This course explored of the history and continued relevance of the Critical Race Theory (CRT) movement. Beginning in the 1980s, critical race theorists have consistently challenged orthodox understandings of civil rights law, constitutional interpretation, and racial categorizations. Derrick Bell, for instance, argues that American racism is permanent and that racial progress occurs only when it benefits white Americans.
CRT has been widely influential in legal academia but has been largely ignored by mainstream philosophy. Philosophers, however, have begun to think about the relationship between ideal political theory and non-ideal theory. Critical race theorists deal almost exclusively with non-ideal theory and thus provide a useful resource for contemporary philosophers.
In this course, we read CRT literature with an eye to understating its relation to ideal political theory. Topics included: the nature of race and racism, structural determinism, race and crime, the construction of whiteness, and intersectionality.
Truth in the Trump Era (Fall 2017)
“Quid est veritas?” — John 18:38
Jesus claims to be the bearer of truth. Pilate responds with a simple question: “What is truth?” Answering Pilate’s question is particularly important considering the current president’s attacks on truth and admiration for “alternative facts.”
Moreover, some seek to undermine evolutionary theory and deny climate change by dismissing science as a source of truth. Still others deny moral truth, or hold that moral truth is relative. Surprisingly, some philosophers have claimed that there isn’t anything interesting to say about truth, that “true” is just a tool we use to get things done.
Even if we determine that truth exists and that we know how to find it, we must further determine what role truth should play in our political discourse and in our lives. In this course, we thought carefully about truth and tried to develop a few practical answers to our guiding questions.
Black Lives Matter (Spring 2017)
This course explored several philosophical questions that are intimately connected to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. What, for instance, does it mean for a life to matter? What is the point of political protest? Is racism a permanent phenomenon? If so, how should the #BlackLivesMatter movement adjust its activities? Given U.S. racism, are black Americans obligated to obey the criminal law?
In answering these questions, we read the work of several figures, including: Frantz Fanon, Derrick Bell, and Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Philosophy of Mind (Fall 2016)
We take it that human beings have minds and that inanimate objects—like toasters, for instance—do not. But what does it mean to have a mind?
In this course, we pursued this question by tackling several related questions, including:
Is the mind identical to the brain?
What does it mean to have a thought?
Can computers think?
Can empirical science fully explain the phenomenon of consciousness?
As we learned, there are no easy answers to these questions. However, thinking about the mind in a rigorous manner allowed us to better understand ourselves and our place in the world.
Philosophy of Language (Late Wittgenstein) (Spring 2016)
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. His groundbreaking Philosophical Investigations will be the subject of this course. In reading the Investigations, we were confronted with some of philosophy’s most pressing questions, including: What is the relationship between language and the world? What is truth? What does it mean to have a mind?
This course presumed no familiarity with Wittgenstein’s work.
Freedom (Fall 2015)
Freedom is an extremely elusive concept. We often take ourselves and others to be capable of acting freely. In fact, our whole system of criminal justice is based on the idea that persons who commit crimes are capable of self-control. But we also know that person's choices are, in large part, a product of their beliefs, desires, and values. How can we square these beliefs? Do we really believe that a kleptomaniac can choose not to steal?
We also value freedom, such that we take freedom to be something worth fighting for. According to Malcolm X, "[i]f you are not ready to die for it, [you should] put the word "freedom" out of your vocabulary." Does it make sense to risk one's life for freedom? Is it morally permissible to kill innocent people in order to obtain freedom for yourself and others?
In this course, we thought critically about both personal and political freedom. My view is that these concepts are intimately connected and the structure of the course reflected this belief. In the first section, we explored the classic problem of free will. In the second section, we considered the idea that free action cannot be distinguished from moral action. And, in the final section, we discussed the ethics of liberation.
Hip-Hop and Philosophy (Spring 2015)
Socrates tells us that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and Talib Kweli claims that “life without knowledge is death in disguise.” I believe that both hip-hop and philosophy provide us with an opportunity to both examine our lives and to think critically about the world in which we live.
Both philosophers and hip-hop artists think about God, death, criminal justice, and authenticity, among other things. But rarely do members of these two groups talk to one another about pressing social and philosophical issues. This is a shame, given that both hip-hop and philosophy have a rich history and have produced exemplary thinkers.
This course was a type of conversation between hip-hop and philosophy. We thought through a number of difficult questions, critically consulting the wisdom of both philosophers and hip-hop artists, but privileging neither group. The process was both entertaining and enlightening.