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What is a Self? Investigations in Literature, Philosophy, and Psychology
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 psychology. Works we will study include: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried , Toni Morrison’s Beloved , Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me , Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air , and theoretical writings on the self by Plato, Descartes, Thoreau, Sartre, and Bruner, among others. 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.
Grading: no pass/fail option,
no fifth course option
four analytical papers totaling 20 pages; active class participation; participation in other short writing assignments
first-year students who have not taken or placed out of a 100-level ENGL course
Four 5-page essays in multiple drafts. Students will receive from the instructor timely comments on their writing skills, with suggestions for improvement.
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