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GS101-3: The Western Political Tradition in Critical Perspective

What is the relationship between freedom and authority, between ethics and politics, between religious and political life, and between rights and responsibility? How is knowledge produced and transmitted across generations? How were human communities constituted and how did they address questions of freedom, inequality and difference in the past? This two-block course will explore these questions through a close reading of texts that are considered as formative of the Western philosophical and political traditions. In the first block, we will read ancient, medieval and early modern texts so that we can think about these themes historically. Readings will include selections from Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics & Nichomachean Ethics, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Quran, and selected works by St. Augustine, Aquinas, Ibn Rushd, Descartes, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Hobbes, and Locke. In addition to exploring prior understandings of concepts such as ethics, politics, freedom, equality, power, rationality and salvation, our readings and class discussions will provide us with an opportunity to examine critically our own understandings of these concepts.

In the second block, we will continue our explorations by reading several eighteenth and nineteenth century texts that are foundational of the modern philosophical and political tradition of the west. We will end with more recent works that have questioned many of the central claims and assumptions of this tradition. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which have been described as the age of Enlightenment and of capital respectively, were also the period when western imperial powers consolidated their rule over much of the world, a process that was characterized by historically unprecedented forms of violence and by the emergence of concepts and practices such as racism and nationalism. In other words, the modern age is characterized both by the emergence of universal ideas of individual freedom, rights and equality and by new modalities of power and ideas and practices of cultural, racial and sexual difference and exclusion. In this block, our aim will be to critically examine concepts that are constitutive of our understanding of modernity: reason, history, capital, progress, justice, freedom, emancipation, equality, rights, revolution, liberalism, democracy, feminism, nationalism, globalization, etc. Readings will include works by Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Olympe de Gouges, W.E.B. DuBois, Simone de Beauvoir, Franz Fanon, Judith Butler, Albert Memmi, Michel Foucault, and Sidney Mintz.