ENGL 138
What is a Self? Investigations in Literature, Philosophy, and Psychology Fall 2018 (also offered Spring 2019)
Division I Writing Skills
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Class Details

The experience of having a self (or a subjective point of view) informs and colors literally everything we think, see, and feel. And yet what, exactly, is a self? Is it the unchanging essence of who we are as individuals (like what Christians call the soul)? Or is it the historically contingent product of ever-changing cultural and political forces (like the media, gender norms, and ideologies about race, to name just a few)? Or, perhaps, is the belief that we have a self just one big illusion, as the Buddha suggested millennia ago and as modern philosophers and neuroscientists have argued in their own different idioms more recently? In this class, we’ll explore the deep mystery of human existence that we call “the self” or “subjectivity,” looking at various attempts to capture, represent, and explain it. Our investigations will be wide-ranging, looking at examples from literature, philosophy, religion, and science. Works we may study include: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Romantic poetry, and classic philosophical writings on the self by Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Sartre, among others. We’ll also study scientific findings about the relationship between the mind and the brain that have come from the fields of psychology and neuroscience, perhaps in conjunction with one of a wave of recently published “neuro-novels” (like Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker) that portray the self in terms borrowed from the brain sciences. Students who genuinely find the experience of the self puzzling and fascinating will get the most out of this class. Bring an open mind about what it is to have a mind in the first place.
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 19
Expected: 19
Class#: 1655
Grading: no pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: five analytical papers totaling 20 pages; active class participation; participation in other short writing assignments
Extra Info: may not be taken on a pass/fail basis; not available for the fifth course option
Prerequisites: none
Enrollment Preferences: first-year students who have not taken or placed out of a 100-level ENGL course
Distributions: Division I Writing Skills
Attributes: PHIL Related Courses

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