Constructing a degree

I have the fantastic opportunity/overwhelming responsibility of designing a BA in Philosophy and Ethics. There are a couple of parameters: 1) I have to use existing modules (so that I’m not proposing a whole range of new courses and the degree can grow organically within the department); 2) being in a Department of Theology and Religious Studies, there needs to be a substantial focus on the philosophy of religion. Apart from that, I have a good deal of freedom to propose modules.

I have a few goals. First, and most importantly, I want to offer students opportunities to study perspectives that challenge the accepted canon of Western philosophy. I think it’s important to study Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel (of course), etc. It’s also important, however, to help students recognise the contingent nature of this canon. Moreover, if we really think that philosophy is important, that ideas matter, then students need to grasp the way that this contingent canon has been intellectually exclusive and contributed to the social and political marginalisation of a variety of perspectives. Second, I don’t want students to approach the study of philosophy as the study of philosophers – I want them to study philosophical questions with the aid of the history of philosophy. I often think of this in terms of cooking. I love duck confit. When I look up a recipe, I’m not primarily interested in learning about the recipe – I want to eat duck confit. Too much of undergraduate education is thinking about recipes rather than eating.

In the past my teaching has fallen into the familiar pattern of studying a series of figures, occasionally puling back to discuss wider themes. So in a class entitle ‘Theology and Modernity’ we read Descartes, Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx and then considered feminist and post-Holocaust critiques of modernity. All too often class discussion focused on what Descartes said rather than understanding what Descartes said in order to think about the relationship between modern philosophy and theology. In my experience, the especially eager students are excited to be reading Hume or Nietzsche but a significant portion of the class winds up selecting an essay question, getting a handle on the basic concepts of a particular philosopher and then regurgitating this information in their essay. At the end of the term, they might know a bit more about Marx, but they haven’t critically engaged with the material. Trying to correct this lack of engagement requires changing the way the students engage with the material, which means rethinking the way I structure my classes.

If, as Adam Kotsko suggested in an episode of My Name is My Name with APS (an excellent podcast that you should check out), the purpose of higher education is to enable students to live better lives, rather than just memorising information, then that needs to be reflected in the way we teach.

New job. New blog.

I’ve let this blog languish during the course of finishing my PhD. I’m starting a new job this autumn at the University of Chichester and I’ve decided to revive the blog. I’ll mostly be focusing on starting out in academia, figuring out how to make undergrads care about philosophy and my ongoing research on Hegel, religion and politics.

Initially, I was going to delete all my earlier posts, but I’ve decided to leave a few. I don’t necessarily endorse everything, but some of it’s not terrible.

Milbank and Zizek

I’m giving a paper at next week’s ISRLC conference.  In preparation I’ve been rereading sections of Theology and Social Theory and The Monstrosity of Christ.  So far I have two dominant questions/issues.

(1) I’m still not entirely sure what Zizek wants to get out of theology.  Take for example a concluding sentence from the section on Christ, the Trinity, and Orthododoxy:

the ex-centricity of God himself, on account of which God himself needs man in order to come to himself, to reach himself, to actualize himself, so that God is born in man, and man is the cause of God.

Now, I like this: we have a blend of Lacan (ex-centricity), theology, and, in the context of this essay, politics.  I think what I struggle with is the way that Zizek presents his thesis. In contrast, consider Bloch.  In Atheism in Christianity, Bloch argues that the Bible contains some texts that are revolutionary and some that are reactionary (not his terms).  His goal becomes separating the two and reading the revolutionary texts against the reactionary ones in order to construct a revolutionary, and atheist, theology.  Zizek on the other hand, his rhetoric that is more reminiscent of death of God theology.  While I don’t think this detracts at all from his professed atheism, I do think it lends more credence to his opposition.  Perhaps this happens in the name of an internal critique of theology (or maybe this is all just a load of bull shit and not a very fair critique). I just found

Compared this passage with Bloch, for example.  Bloch tends to talk about ideas presented by a community, showing how the creation of certain myths reinforce the idea of a God above

Hegel and Meillassoux

In Stephen Houlgate’s The Opening of Hegel’s Logic, he provides a succinct treatment of the difference between Kant and Hegel in which he has Hegel basically providing an anti-correlationalist critique of Kant. This idea of Hegel as an anti-correlationalist came up at the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion conference a couple weeks back, but it really hit me reading this section. I might be late to the game on this one, but I thought it was an interesting connection.

Missed connections

In general I would say that I am interested in apocalyptic philosophy.  In other words, philosophies which utilize theological notions of end, rupture, promise, etc.  So I find people like Zizek, Badiou and Meillassoux very interesting.  But it seems risky to do a PhD exclusively on someone who is releasing a movie and speaking at Occupy Wall Street, so I’ve tried to find similar ideas in previous generations.  What I find surprising is the complete disconnect between the current reiteration of these ideas and earlier writers.  You look at someone like Zizek and he is basically attempting the same thing as Bloch, but you almost never see Bloch footnoted in Zizek (I think it may actually be never, but I haven’t done an exhaustive search).  And no one other than Roland Boer seems to be doing much to address this.  Thompson’s introduction to Atheism in Christinaity was good and Alberto Toscano picks up non-synchronicity in Fanaticism, in a way that points towards Zizek and Badiou, but these connections still remain largely unexplored.

Hegel and Radiolab

This is a cheap, shallow connection backed by little to no technical knowledge or research, but I thought it was interesting, so what the hell.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I like Hegel.  At first Hegel was the necessary evil that I had to go through to study Lacan, Marx and religion.  Then he took over my PhD, but in the back of my mind it was still just a hoop to jump through on the way to later research interests.  But now, I actually really like Hegel.  Especially after reading Heidegger.  I find Hegel so much more convincing in his method, his conclusions and the political implications of both (at least as I see them).

Then this morning I was listening to an old Radiolab episode on ‘What Technology Wants’, taken from the title of a Kevin Kelly book.  Kelly, who was one of the guests, was describing how technology taken as a whole, has come to have a degree of autonomy.  For example, imagine trying to turn off the internet.  I can’t even understand what that means.  How would you do it?

What Hegel offers is a way of understanding these kinds of things.  Technology, politics, religion… things that are related to human beings, but have developed a kind of autonomy.  God acts in the world.  I don’t believe in a divine being, but there is an idea, referred to commonly as God, who has effects on people.  Hegel gives us a way of understanding this without necessitating that we ascribe wholeheartedly to confessional ideas about God, but while also allowing us not to condescendingly dismiss the way that a substantial number of people order the world.  I think this logic is transferable to the way we think about all ideas or processes that originate within humanity, but then achieve a degree of autonomy (granted there is a difference between religion and technology, but perhaps the difference is as profound as often think).




Thoughts on reading Hegel

This week I concluded an 8-month reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.  Having finished, I have a few thoughts on the experience and things I would have done differently.

- Reading it in a group is definitely the way to go.  I met with a four other people each week to discuss relatively small chunks of text.  I don’t think I would have been able to read it as consistently without the pressure of knowing I needed to be able to talk about it once a week.

- A friend turned me on to J.M. Bernstein.  His syllabus provides an excellent list of secondary texts both generally and for specific sections.  His discussion questions also helped to focus my reading.  There is a also a trove of information in the audio from a series of lectures on the Phenomenology that he gave at Berkeley in 1994.

- Regarding secondary texts, I used Quentin Lauer’s Reading of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit” and Henry Silton Harris’ Hegel’s Ladder (2 volumes).  I read nearly all of Lauer, but I dipped in and out of Harris more arbitrarily.  Harris proves interesting paraphrases of each of the paragraphs in the Phenomenology.  These paired with the analysis of the text at the end of Miller’s translation helped me to work through more difficult sections.  I also started out reading Hyppolite’s The Structure and Genesis of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but decided about half way through that I wanted to read the book as a whole rather than breaking it up over the course of reading the primary text.

- On the side of thing I would have done differently, I think we may have rushed the reading a bit.  That may seem ridiculous since it took us 8 months, but I think that our/my impatience often got the better of us.  Realistically, I needed to get through the text so that I can move on to his other works, but I may have benefited from spending a little more time on the most difficult sections.

- In the Berstein tapes, in his introduction to the course, Bernstein tells the students that they will be writing short summaries of each of the sections as they go along.  I listened to this recording about 3/4 of the way through my reading and I didn’t feel like it was worth starting to do the summaries that close to the end, but I do think it would have helped me internalize the work more than I did.

Now that I’ve finished, I’m hoping to read Merold Westphal’s History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology, Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Idealism, and return to Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure.  I’m also nearly finished with Glenn Alexander Magee’s Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, which has been interesting to read in the wake of several of Marjorie Reeve’s works on Joachim of Fiore.  I suppose that I’ll also need to look at Cyril O’Regan’s The Heterodox Hegel and then I’ll be able to move on to the Philosophy of History and Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion.  Hopefully at that point I can move on to something other than Hegel… like Schelling.