Past Courses


Humans and Other Animals

Non-human animals are everywhere in our lives: they’re food, they’re pets, they’re pests, they’re sources of clothing and other products, they’re experimental subjects, they’re the mascots of sports teams and the heroes of children’s stories. Depending on their role, we treat them with affection, indifference, cruelty, or sentimentality. They’re different from us, but also a lot like us in many ways. Thinking about how we regard animals will inevitably involve thinking about how we regard ourselves.

This course considers some of the ethical questions that inevitably arise when we think about animals: what duties do we have to them, and how do those duties differ from the duties we have to our fellow human beings? But we also ask broader questions about human nature and animal nature. What kind of life do we share with other animals, and what do our attitudes toward animals reveal about our attitude toward our own embodied existence?


Freedom and Its Limits

Freedom. Wars have been fought in its name. It’s been the emblem for youth movements and spiritual awakenings. People have been more reluctant to give up their freedom than to give up their lives.

But what is freedom? And why do people value it so highly?

This course examines the concept of freedom in some of the many forms it takes. We’ll look at free will, political liberty, existential freedom, individual autonomy, and spiritual liberation, among other things. We’ll consider the relative merits of these ideals and ask what they have in common that makes this same word, “freedom,” come up in such different contexts.


How Should We Live? Answers from the Modern World

We live in a world of abundant possibility. More than at any other time in history, people are free to choose how to live. But with this luxury of choice comes the burden of decision. How do I know if I’m living right? And how might I find meaning in my life at all? 

In the first half of this course, we confront the question of meaning head-on. We examine arguments that life is fundamentally absurd and consider proposals for how we might find meaning in the modern world. In the second half of the course, we look at thinkers who draw inspiration from ancient traditions and adapt them to the demands of the modern world.

Aublet - Reading on the Garden Path

The Story of Your Life: Life and Narrative (In-person intensive workshop)

People sometimes think about their own lives in terms of an unfolding story and make sense of events in their lives by situating them within that narrative. Biographies, autobiographies, and fictions also present lives in narrative form. But what is the relation between a life as lived and the form of a narrative? Are our lives essentially story-shaped? Or could it be that we fundamentally misrepresent our lives when we think about them in this way? What determines whether the stories we tell ourselves are truthful and how strong is the tendency to self-deception? And how do we adapt when the stories we tell ourselves come undone?


An Introduction to Philosophy in Ten Dangerous Ideas

The best philosophers are unafraid to follow a line of reasoning wherever it might lead. Sometimes their reasoning leads them to surprising places. This course offers an introduction to philosophy by way of ten arguments that challenge us with bold, and sometimes unsettling, conclusions. Our survey covers philosophers from the Greek, Chinese, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions, as well as contemporary thinkers.


The Philosophy of Love and Friendship

Love takes many forms. Some say it is the most important thing in life. Poets and pop singers can’t stop talking about it.

So what is love? And why does it matter so much?

This course investigates various forms of love and friendship, drawing on a mix of ancient and contemporary philosophers for guidance. We consider Greek conceptions of love and friendship, the Chinese Confucian ideal of family reverence, and the Buddhist ideal of loving-kindness, as well as more recent philosophical work on love and friendship. We ask what makes us love the people we love, whether we can or should have reasons for loving as we do, whether and how love is related to ethics—and whether true love is possible at all. 


“Know Thyself”: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy

Since its beginnings, philosophy has understood itself in comparison with literature—and more often than not in competition with it. In Book X of Plato’s Republic, the philosopher Socrates alludes to an “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy and argues for the banishment of poets from his ideal philosophical republic. This course takes Plato’s argument as a focal point: we work to understand why he wanted to banish poetry, whether he was right to do so, and what lessons we can draw from this argument today. In the process, we will ponder the sometimes competing claims of philosophy and literature as sources of wisdom. Besides writings by Plato, we read Sophocles’ great tragedy Oedipus the King and consider more recent responses to the question of what, if anything, we can learn from literature. 


How Should We Live? Answers from the Ancient World

The middle centuries of the first millennium BCE were a time of radical upheaval in civilizations across Eurasia. Philosophers and sages from Greece to China challenged traditional modes of thought and worked to imagine radically new ways that individuals and society might flourish.

We, too, find ourselves in a time of upheaval—politically, environmentally, and with the shock of a global pandemic. In this course, we read some of those ancient texts with modern eyes and ask whether the answers those thinkers found might fruitfully apply to some of the questions we face today. Participants consider texts from ancient Greece, India, and China that ask probing questions about what it means to be human and how we can find peace and happiness in a turbulent world.

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