Modern Political Philosophy (Politics 266) Winter 2013
“Modern” is a contentious word. There are various ways to get acquainted with its meaning and connection to political philosophy. Describing the ”modern” political philosophers often say “science.” Of course there are ancient sciences. The revolution of Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton through to our contemporary neurosciences overturns classical view of the nature of “the human” and all things “transcendent” And that would include the nature of “thought” itself — therewith our orientation to political life, including our sense of and place in “a world.” The latest iteration of this scientific revolution is undoubtedly the sciences of brain and behavior. Before experimental psychology as we know it was conceived, we had to be persuaded of certain opinions shaped by philosophical movement. Oddly enough among them is the claim that we are not rational creatures. Reason turns on itself. As a consequence “humans” — we reason ourselves into fundamentally sentimental beasts. We start just there, here and now in our present. Two books guide us: David Brooks’ The Social Animal: The Hidden Meaning of Love, Character, and Achievement and Tom Wolfe’s latest (October 23rd, 2012) Back to Blood. Brooks is a political philosopher by education and practice. In novel form, Brooks tells the story of a man and woman, fictitious characters, weaving in the latest research on the new frontier of the “unconscious.” We ask: whence this marriage of political philosophy and the neuroscience? Following the trajectory of Wolfe’s novels, most expect Back to Blood to continue the author’s life-long contemplation of American culture. On this occasion, Wolfe moves from the neurosciences (I Am Charlotte Simmons) to blood lines. Scientists and philosophers alike recognize the importance of the sentimental psychology of the Scottish Enlightenment as a harbinger of the neurosciences. It is not so much David Hume that deserves credit as his student and loyal friend Adam Smith. We read Smith’s often cited and rarely read The Theory of Moral Sentiments (a book all but dead in most politics and economics departments). The Theory of Moral Sentiments is the psychological framework of his Wealth of Nations. Is modern capitalism somehow inextricably bound to the evolution of modern sciences? We pair Smith with Jane Austen’s astonishingly prescient Persuasion, arguably an imaginative re-conception of politics, commerce, family, love and marriage in terms of Smith’s sentimental psychology. The historical connections are ambiguous — and yet the echoes of Smith in Austen are loud and strong. If good character and good leadership is not principally the fruit of moral reasoning, how is character in-formed? Rooting our “selves” in our affections and habits radically alters what we educate vis-a-vis predictable lectures, papers, tests, and information. Modern Political Philosophy alters the substance and style of teaching. And it does so by bringing contemplative awareness to our habits. We practice The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Habitual transformations of character is a route recently popularized by Charles Duhigg: We learn dexterity with “tools” (as we call them) by writing course assignments on wordpress.com. Whether a politics, c-school, English or science major, all students proficient with wordpress and social media are compelling candidates for all the major professions and businesses. Rather than disparage social media, let us learn how to use it well. Claim your space in our digitized world before someone claims it for you. Speak in your name before someone speaks for you. Find us on Facebook and Pearltrees.
Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Bhante Guarantana, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Francisco Varela, et. al., The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience
All students, all majors welcomed. While Politics 111 is the usual pre-requisite several other 100-level courses may just as well serve our purposes. Kindly request permission to enroll and I will ensure you are cleared for registration. Take concurrently with Politics 265 if you wish. Or take absent of 265 (no one is at a disadvantage were he or she to take 266 without 265).