What is Enlightenment? The Science, Culture and Politics of Reason

fall schedule

The two-semester First-Year Seminar, through the reading of a series of core texts common to all sections, introduces every in-coming student to crucially important intellectual, artistic, and cultural ideas which serve, in turn, as a strong basis for a liberal arts training as each student develops in subsequent years at the college.  Yet the course is not meant to be a mere survey of background material.  Rather, frequent writing assignments and an intimate seminar format among peers encourage an active debate over ideas for which there is no foregone conclusion.  Seminar reading and discussions are supplemented by a mandatory series of guest lectures, panel presentations and films.

The seminar's current yearlong theme is “What is Enlightenment?” and its main focus is on the intellectual ideas of 17th -18th  Century European culture.  The fall semester course, subtitled “The Science, Culture and Politics of Reason”, also looks back to the Ancient World and to earlier texts that crucially influenced European thought.  The spring semester course, subtitled “Revolution and the Limits of Reason”, also looks forward to our modern era in which many assumptions of the Enlightenment have fallen under severe critical scrutiny.

The core reading for the Fall 2008 semester will be:

        The Book of Genesis

        Plato: The Republic

        St. Augustine:  Confessions

        Ibn Tufayl: The Story of Hayy bin Yaqzan

        Galileo Galilei: The Starry Messenger and Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

        Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: First I Dream

        Rene Descartes: Discourse on Method

        John Locke: Second Treatise on Civil Government

        Denis Diderot: Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage

        Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

        Voltaire:  Candide           

By way of an engaged encounter with the above texts, a number of critical problems will emerge that pertain to the formation of modern intellectual disciplines.  For instance, scientific method, psychology, political theory, economics, and the novel were all new ways of knowing the world that came into being during "the long eighteenth century". Not only did the concepts of equality and individual liberty represent a radical departure from the past, but the rise of global exploration and empire influenced scientific and political thought as well.

Students are encouraged to pursue the development and articulation of their own point of view on the core reading.  The spirit of First-Year Seminar is best exemplified by the observation that in our daily lives we frequently encounter (and ourselves invoke) concepts drawn from the selected texts; without a first-hand knowledge of those concepts and a critical and historical framework in which to understand them, we risk having others define them for us.  First-Year Seminar is designed to be a cornerstone for each student’s rigorous and individualized pursuit of learning at Bard.


FIRST-YEAR SEMINAR  -- Spring 2009

What is Enlightenment?  Revolution and the Limits of Reason

During the Fall semester of First Year Seminar, students focused on the constructive agenda of “Enlightenment.”   The authors read gave life to Kant’s dictum, "Have the courage to use your own reason!" to describe the world they saw and how they thought it should be.  The Spring semester begins with the eventful culmination of Enlightenment thinking, and then explores the complex and ambivalent re-evaluation of the Enlightenment’s ideals throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries.  Readings and discussions will show how Enlightenment thought was challenged by its encounters with different cultures and traditions, as well as its own limitations.  Throughout the semester, we will contrast different approaches to the challenges faced during these historically and intellectually tumultuous times.  We will also look forward in time, reflecting on how the spirits of Enlightenment and Revolution are present in our modern world.

The core reading list for the Spring 2009 semester will be:

        Jane Austen:  Sense and Sensibility

        Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

        Immanuel Kant: Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

        William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

        Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

        Friedrich Nietzsche: Also Sprach Zarathustra

        Karl Marx: Essay on Estranged Labor, and The Communist Manifesto

        Max Weber: Selections from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

        Albert Einstein: Relativity, along with

        Werner Heisenberg: The Development of Philosophical Ideas Since Descartes

                                 in Comparison with the New Situation in Quantum Theory

        Sigmund Freud: Civilization and Its Discontents

        Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse

Beyond the reading assignments, students and faculty will explore revolution and the limits of reason in other ways.  Seminar discussions and extensive writing throughout the semester will challenge us all to actively engage in addressing difficult questions, rather than to take the writings of any our predecessors as the last word on a subject.  Weekly symposia will supplement our text-based studies with lectures and other presentations that will focus on historical, artistic, and scientific perspectives of the ideas raised in the course.

Students will be asked to read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility during the month of January for discussion during the Spring semester.