Rhetoric in Law and Politics
166 001 | CCN: 31209
Law, Freedom, Polity: Early Modern Thought and the Founding of the New Nation
Instructor: Nancy Weston
Date / Time: Mo/We 5:00pm - 6:29pm
The enduring questions of legal and political philosophy are the essential questions facing a people and a nation at any time — and acutely so, for us, at the present moment:
What is law?
What is freedom?
What is polity: What is it, to live in political community with one another — and on the basis of what understandings of law and freedom?
These questions are perhaps more pressing, present, and urgent at this moment than ever before in our nation’s history — with one exception: at its beginning. Attending to the legal and political thought that gave rise to that beginning, to the grounds of that thinking — and above all to the revolutionary foundational understandings of the world and of human being on which it rests — we may be aided in thinking anew on these questions in our own challenging times.
Our reflection, undertaken as a philosophical seminar, will thus invite us to see this history, and this thought, as our own, as having brought us to where we find ourselves in the present historic moment:
How is it that we have come to think on law, polity, and freedom as we do?
Yet this is not a question we can address adequately in isolation; rather, tracing back the course of our legal and political understandings, we shall find ourselves inquiring into the premises, grounds, and sense of the formative thought of Western modernity as a whole. As we shall come to see, the American revolution, and the legal and political thought of the prior century from which it took its impetus, belong to an entire epoch of revolution, in a great many realms, such that early modern thought finds its unity in enacting a sweeping and decisive break with all that came before.
Ground-breaking philosophies of religion, science, governance, and much else, entailing new understandings of law, polity, and freedom, suddenly burst into articulation and prominence in 16th and 17th century Europe. In the 18th, this thinking inspired the revolutionaries and guided the founders of the nascent United States, providing the rationale for the revolution and the foundation for the institutions devised to support its new kind of governance.
On what did that thought, and so the foundation of the new nation, rest?
What spirit and character did this new political thought share with the revolutionary understandings of science and religion of the same era?
What is the ground and essence of this revolutionary thinking?
This is not, then, a course on the history, political science, or social and economic circumstances of that or any era, nor on the ensuing structure of the American constitution or other governmental institutions. Rather, stepping back from all such empirical concerns and from the documents and arguments of the American founding itself, we shall undertake to engage with their foundation in the whole breadth of the novel philosophical theories of the previous two centuries — the thinking that nurtured that beginning, revolutionary in every sense — and above all to contemplate that thinking’s philosophical commitments, existential positions, and metaphysical understandings of the world and of human being, understandings that came to prevail decisively just then — as they do, still.
Prior exposure to philosophy is not required; an openness to its challenges is.
PLEASE NOTE: All students interested in taking this class — whether pre-enrolled, wait-listed, or neither — are to attend the first class meeting, on Wednesday, January 20, from 5-6:30 p.m. In accordance with university directives in response to the pandemic, the seminar will be conducted on Zoom. Accordingly, it is necessary that anyone interested in taking this class who is not enrolled contact me for the Zoom invitation code (which I will send to all enrolled students before class begins) in order to enter our class meeting; only those students who are enrolled or who have contacted me in advance will be able to enter the Zoom seminar meeting.
In planning their schedules, students should be aware that wide-ranging collective discussions, often lasting an hour or more, will generally occur on Wednesdays following our class meetings. In past classes, students have found these informal but intense discussions to be of substantial help in coming to terms with difficult material encountered in the course. Students are strongly encouraged to plan their schedules so as to be able to attend these sessions.
In addition to weekly reading and writing assignments and prepared participation in each week’s seminar meetings, students will attend to writing a final paper, to be developed, with abundant feedback, throughout the duration of the course.
Immanuel Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H.J. Paton (New York: Harper & Row, 1964 or Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009) ISBN-10: 0061766313; ISBN-13: 978-0061766312
David Wootton, ed., Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, 2d Ed. (Hackett Publishing Co., 2008) ISBN-13: 978-0872208971; ISBN 10: 0872208974 (a substantial anthology of early modern political thought, including works of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and Montesquieu).
Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. by David Farrell Krell (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, rev. and exp. ed., 2008) ISBN-10: 0061627011; ISBN-13: 978-0061627019
A course reader of supplementary materials, to be made available for purchase at Copy Central on Telegraph Avenue.