On course: Bryn Mawr courses and their reading lists

Political Philosophy in the 20th century: Political Science 327, Stephen Salkever, Mary Katharine Woodworth Professor of Political Science

"Western political philosophy in the past century is a genre strongly marked by a sense of its own history either as a burden to be cast off and overcome or as a resource to be developed," says Mary Katharine Woodworth Professor of Political Science Stephen Salkever. "In all of the political philosophy courses that I teach, the basic idea is to introduce students to a tradition that creates conversations about texts, from antiquity to the present, in relationship to one another within different times rather than seeing them as a progression from earliest to present.

The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt
Democracy and Difference, Seyla Benhabib, ed.
Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault
The Inclusion of the Other, Jürgen Habermas
Justice As Fairness: A Restatement, John Rawls
Development As Freedom, Amartya Sen
Multiculturalism, Charles Taylor

Crises of the Republic, Hannah Arendt
Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, Emmanuel Kant

"I want students to get the sense that this is an ongoing, contemporary discussion, and that their business is to try to fit themselves into it one way or another." He has at times included on the reading list writings by alumnae/i who have taken the course and invited them as speakers. Salkever himself studied with Leo Strauss, the premier teacher of political philosophy in the 20th century who revived the careful reading of classic texts from Plato to Nietzsche. "I tend not to include readings by Strauss in the course because I still feel too closely tied to that tradition, but there are always a couple of students interested in him," he says.

Students who have to miss a class for any reason must write a 500-600 word response paper on that week's reading. One or two class presentations on assigned reading are required as well as three 3-8-page papers on assigned reading and one of 12-15-pages on a topic of individual design.

Earlier readings required
"Recent writings seek to explain the political problems and possibilities of the contemporary world by extending and revising three different traditions within Western political philosophy: the English (or liberal), the German (or historicist), and the Greek (or species-teleological)," Salkever says. "Because contemporary political philosophy relies so much-in vocabulary, typical modes of argument, and particularly in its assumptions about its readers-on judgments about earlier theoretical discourse, it is impossible to read recent writings well without having read some Hobbes, Locke and Mill, Kant, Hegel and Marx, Plato and Aristotle. For this reason, at least a year's worth of introductory work in philosophy or political philosophy is a prerequisite for this course.

"Arendt, Habermas and Rawls all claim to be Kantians in some sense," he notes. For them and Foucault, he also recommends Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism" and his "The Question Concerning Technology," both in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Krell (Harper & Row). For Rawls, he recommends chapter five of J.S. Mill's Utilitarianism, "in which Mill presents a utilitarian theory of justice that Rawls treats as the principle alternative to his own theory of justice."

Salkever's fall 2001 class included nine seniors and six juniors with majors in political science, philosophy and biology, and minors in philosophy, German, French and arts.

"That class first met on September 10, so after 9/11 we had a week before our next meeting," he recalls. "I sent out e-mails asking if we should spend some time talking about it. Most of the sentiment was for continuing to discuss central questions of politics and philosophy, but bringing up the events when called for. Of course what had happened was in the back of everyone's mind. The classroom is a special place where you are able to set a context for events that go on all of the time, not trying to evade reality."

System and anti-system
"I've taught this course on and off for 20 or so years with different authors, but since the beginning two of the central figures have been Rawls and Arendt," Salkever says. "They are for me the best exemplars of two different approaches to doing political philosophy. Rawls treats philosophizing about politics as if he were a scientist aiming for precision and system, in effect trying to prescribe to his readers a set of principles of justice. Arendt is anti-system, discursive, indirect. She's in constant communication with a whole variety of others with whom she's in dialogue; texts and events pop in and out of her discussions. I make no secret of my preference for the Arendtian mode, but one of the points Imake in the course is that you have to be able to do both well.

"Increasingly, however, issues of globalization and questions about the future of the nation state have been central in ways they weren't before. Arendt is especially relevant there because she's a critic of modern nations altogether. In the future, I'm going to slant reading more towards questions of international human rights."

Habermas has become a constant in the course along with Rawls and Arendt. "A figure different from yet connected to both, he is a German social theorist, the most distinguished current representative of the Frankfurt school of theorizing, brought to America by Herbert Marcuse. Habermas draws on the tradition of German theorizing, from Marx and from Kant, yet he's very alert to contemporary theorizing and politics, primarily in Germany, which provides a nice mirror for talking about politics in the United States and in other parts of the world. He's not fun to read-he's a little jargony and takes some getting used to, but I've had students do very good work on him.

"Over the years, reading Arendt has been the most consistent pleasure for me. When she received the M. Carey Thomas Award in 1971 along with Georgia O'Keefe, I was delegated to chaperone her around campus, and she met with students. My first semester in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I had actually audited a course of hers, 'Introduction to Political Philosophy.' It was entirely about the Greek philosopher Parmenides and his poem on the worlds of truth and illusion, but she had more energy and intellectual vivacity than anyone I've ever seen before or since, zipping around the room throwing off these remarkable things."

Back to Plato and Aristotle
"Foucault is important for this course because his philosophical takeoff point, he says, is in Nietzsche, who is responding quite directly to Plato and the Greeks. I like reading Foucault in the class, partly because he can be such a shocking, unsettling writer. We read Discipline and Punish, which is a critique of liberal theories of punishment. It begins with a horrific account of the execution of a regicide and contrasts it with modern techniques in prison reform to the disadvantage of the latter. One of the themes of the course is the continuing critique and defense of liberalism in the late 20th century and now early 21st century thought."

Salkever's writings have been largely on Plato and Aristotle, "but always with an eye to bringing them into conversation with contemporary and later authors." He has been working on a five-year-old book project, Toward a Philosophical Political Science: Aristotle, Practical Reason, and Contemporary Political Analysis, of which he has published parts as papers.

"I find Plato and Aristotle indispensable for teaching contemporary political philosophy-they are my guides, not because of my adherence to particular political or philosophical doctrines of theirs, but because they make better sense of the kind of teaching I try to do than any other writers I know," he says. "It's of a piece with the notion that the importance of doingGreek philosophizing is to bring it into a conversation with contemporary political and philosophical issues for the sake of getting some perspective on the latter.

"I would never have read Habermas and Rawls if I were teaching at a university. At a small college, you have not only the chance but the obligation to deal with fundamental questions and shoot for larger, more synoptic approaches. Around 1980, I began to say to myself, 'there's all this material out there and I should be teaching it.' I remember the summer I spent hacking through Habermas. Although torturous in several ways, the stretch has made me a more effective writer and teacher."

You may order these books from the Bryn Mawr College Bookstore, whose proceeds benefit the College: Elizabeth Morris, Bryn Mawr College Bookshop, New Gulph Road, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010, 610 526 5322, emorris@brynmawr.edu

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