Thursday, October 31, 2013

Modern and Postmodern Philosophy

Modern and Postmodern philosophy
Coursera website -
Teacher: Prof. Michael S. Roth
Wesleyan University

It was a conversation with Justin, few months back, which got me interested into this course. He had shared the course link and i was generally looking for something more academic in this area for quite some time. Instinctively I had signed up. Today marks the end of this 14 week journey, and i have enjoyed it immensely.

To the people who ask why study philosophy, my answer is simple - To understand what is philosophy, what is modern philosophy and what is postmodern? I had never posed the why this course question to myself because i knew very well that i was doing it just to satiate my curiosity.

Since i read Kant's essay on What is  Enlightenment, i was hooked. Last 14 weeks were spent planning everything around this course. To give you an idea, i was reading Madame Bovary on the flight from India to US, not a good idea in hindsight as i was sleep deprived and under a mild headache - not the best time to read Flaubert. Ankur and Somnath invited me to join them for an evening visit to a beautiful cave in Bentonville but i had to skip as i wanted to finish readings on Karl Marx. The 10 day Sikkim trek made me read two weeks of reading compressed in one week with assignment and the very first thing that i did on internet  after coming down to Yuksom was to check my assignment's grade.  Infact, on the way to Bagdogra, i was reading Emerson (oh, what a joy that was! ) and even tried to read Focault at Tshoka but that turned out to be a disaster. As of now, my Kindle is not working properly as it got wet while hiking in rain. I watched the lectures on  Virginia Woolf  from the food court of Garuda mall while waiting for Parul before going to the film - Lunch box. You might not believe but i had planned for that time slot three days in advance. It has been worth every effort.  It has been a joy, an informative experience.

Before i show-off what i have read, i want to record my thoughts on some of the key takeaways. In other words, beyond the curiosity argument, why should anyone take this course?

~ With every philosopher you read, you agree with some of their points and disagree with others. But there are some who just sweep you off your feet and provide such a radical view-point that you had not thought of before. This by itself would be a good enough reason - new perspectives and outlooks. But we are reading the best of philosophers and here, you  find yourself agreeing with their radical theory. Your mind says to you - "Indeed, this makes sense! whoa".  Each one has their own set of philosophers that has done this to them. For me, it happened with Nietzsche and Freud. There is also the opposite effect where you say - "Really, what trash is this. " For me, i would not call anything trash but i would say - "I beg to differ, agree to disagree. But it was good to know the counter viewpoint".  For me, the former case happened much more.

~ The other very important takeaway has been the method of delivery by these authors. While reading some sentences in their text, i was just floored by the way each thought was conveyed, how the right word was chosen and the kind of feeling it emoted once the sentence was over. In numerous cases, i had to just re-read a line just to fully appreciate the magnitude of its construction and effect. Particular examples here were Rousseau, Marx and Emerson.

~ Historical perspective : The course starts with authors writing in 18th century and ends with some of the contemporary philosophers. Even with a limited set of readings, one can witness the change in the kind of work that has been the focussed and how the society/culture of that decade or century had shaped their respective works. I am always fascinated by history and this course does a great job in providing historical perspectives.

~ To The Lighthouse, Madame Bovary : To The Lighthouse is ranked 15th in Modern's list of 100 books of all time. It was always there on my TODO list. The book deserves its place in that list. Madame Bovary is considered to be one of the greatest novel every written; it is also one of the most influential novels ever written. I took the Greek and Roman mythology course just because they were reading Odyssey. This course had two books. Jokes apart, both these books are phenomenal read.

~ Failed attempts - I had tried to read some essay of Nietzsche in past but had failed to make sense of him in any way. (It was not easy this time either, at least the first time.) I was never interested in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams but wanted to read something more significant by him. Kant, Darwin and Emerson were all dreams unfulfilled. So, this course presented an excellent opportunity to cover all of them in one go.

~Professor Michael S. Roth as the teacher is very good. His enthusiasm, passion is viral, you can not escape it. Also, his understanding and ability to break down these texts into simple terms and convey the "really real" (haha) makes it very easy to follow the course. Also, in general the coursera online course format is quite good.

Things that i read as part of this course, along with one line on key takeaway.

1. Immanuel Kant - What is Enlightenment?
A short essay that explains Kantian meaning of enlightenment and it can be said that it kickstarted the whole modern philosophy. Enlightenment especially Kant's definition is referred throughout the course by many others.

2. Jean Jacques Rousseau - Discourse on the Arts and Sciences.
He argues that all arts and sciences are bad, man should go back to the stone age and live peacefully there. A difficult read but Rousseau's language is brilliant. Difficult to agree with him.

3. Jean Jacques Rousseau - Discourse on the Origins of Inequality
I did not complete this one, it was too long for me.

4. Karl Marx - Estranged Labor.
Brilliant. This text shocked me as it was so right. I have to re-read it and keep it at the back of my mind.

5. Karl Marx - The Communist Manifesto.
Very very good. If i was born at that time, i would have believed in Communism. I agree with Marx's diagnosis but find his solution, aka communism, difficult to digest, in particular now as we have seen how it breaks down.

6. Gustave Flaubert - Madame Bovary
A dig at Romanticism, Enlightenment, bourgeoise and many others, all happening under a story that is equally enchanting.

7. Charles Darwin - Struggle for Existence and Natural Selection from The Origin of Species, and Conclusion from The Descent of Man.
Very informative read. The text is anyways cult, so another "Been there done that". What insights for that age!

8. Charles Baudelaire  - Paris Spleen.
Prose poems - a completely new form of literature for me. Felt like reading Gulzar in English; a lot of emphasis on imagery.

9. Friedrich Nietzsche - Essay 2 in Genealogy of Morals.
Radical thought but very well argued. What is even shocking is that i agree with his line of thinking. The other two essays are a must  read now.

10. Sigmund Freud - Civilization and its discontents
Again very radical. You may not agree with all his points but when you do, you know something about yourself that you didn't knew before.

11. Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse.
Absolutely brilliant - Has to be read again. The last five pages of Act 1 is one of the best pieces of literature ever written.

12. Ralph Waldo Emerson - Self-Reliance from the book Essays: First Series.
Pure joy to read. I am an Emerson fan from now on.

13. Ludwig Wittgenstein, - Selections from his book Philosophical Investigations.
His bio on wikipedia was equally interesting to his text. Changes how you see at language. I have to read again to get its full grasp.

14. Horkheimer and Adorno - Chapter 1 from Dialectics of Enlightenment.
Quite difficult to follow. A lot of tirades and then the meaning comes. But when it comes, it comes with shock, grief and doom.

15. Michel Foucault - The Great Confinement from the book Madness and Civilization.
Man, this is all crazy! Foucalt rips apart the prison system and calls it madness.

16. Michel Foucault - What is Enlightenment.
I have no idea what this text meant until i saw the video lectures. Very very difficult to follow him.

17. Alison Bechdel, Fun home - A tragicomic story.
A graphic novel + memoir combination. Though, it was an optional read, i read it. Enjoyed the story, and the graphics.  But not as good as the two other works of fiction in this course.

18. Judith Butler - Introduction from Undoing Gender.
First time read - Made no sense. Second time read - interesting. Third time read - She is so right! Again, very difficult to follow.

19. Slavoj Zizek - You May.
"A philosopher's job is not to find answers but to ask the right questions" - Zizek. A very interesting character and the text.

20. Richard Rorty - Postmodern Bourgeoise Liberalism from the book Pragmatism - A Reader.
Pragmatism by itself is an interesting take. Other essays should be read from this book.

21. Cornell West - Prophetic Pragmatism from Pragmatism - A Reader.
Very interesting. West also brings it under the religious context but in his own terms.

22. Bruno Latour - Why has critique run out of steam?
Starting under how republicans trash the global warming theory, a spectacular take on critique and  how it needs to progress so that it survives.

23. Anthony Appiah  - Cosmopolitan Contamination from the book Cosmopiltanism.
I didn't agree with some of his arguments on globalization but it was a still quite informative. Easy to follow.

Follow up readings -
(I am too afraid to start this list as it is a long one)

1. Nietzsche - The other two essays in Genalogy of Morals and his other writings.
2. Anthony Appiah - Finish the book Cosmopolitanism.
3. Pragmatist - A Reader. Read few more essays especially by Dewey and the one on justice.
4. John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. On my reading list for quite some time.
5. Some more essays by Zizek.  General curiosity here.
6. Couple of more essays from Foucault's Madness and civilization, just want to know how else we are mad.
7. Order, and Finish Paris Spleen by Baudelaire.
8. Finish Rousseau's discourse on inequality someday.
9. Want to read Joyce to get more of stream-of-consciousness.
10. To the Lighthouse has to be read but not anytime soon.

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