Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Idea of a Course

I was thinking recently about an underappreciated philosophical genre: the philosophy course syllabus. Real-life syllabi, of course, have a lot of things in them that are required by the administration, or that are included to reduce the work of the instructor, but the essential core of a syllabus is to give the Idea of a Course -- and, since what we mean by a 'course' is a preliminary course of study, that is the same as to say the Idea of a Preliminary Study of a Topic. Most philosophical genres are concerned with an end result, but there's obviously a value with looking at how one might begin; one finds that similar genres -- lists of favorite books and 'what I'm reading' blogposts -- have a real value to people. So one can imagine a pure syllabus -- all the administrative overlay and encrustation removed, a guide for the student more than a protection for the instructor. It's like the relation between a composer's Mass and a liturgical Mass: the composer's Mass focuses wholly on the musical aspect, and will accomplish the result even if it does not follow the exact liturgical rubrics, or if the rubrics the composer had in mind are out of date, although in principle a properly done composer's Mass could, all things being considered and those things changed that needed to be changed, be adapted to a liturgical Mass, since it is in some sense subordinate to the latter. A great deal of the modern course is a concession to rules that don't have much to do with the topic, although they may sometimes be genuinely necessary or important for practice. Actually teaching a course is more important than some idealized Idea of the Course, but this doesn't mean that the latter is irrelevant; it can serve as a sketch for lines of inquiry.

About five years back I was asked to come up with a course on Jane Austen as a moral philosopher. The course ended up falling through -- a combination of insufficient enrollment and poor administration -- but I did get far enough to start sketching out the first thoughts about how it might work. Perhaps it is worth dusting it off and putting into a bit more shape. Here was my very, very first sketch of possibilities for readings:




Basics of Jane Austen
James Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, Chapter V
Susan Morgan, “Why There’s No Sex in Jane Austen’s Novels”
(need plot summary handouts)

Why Moral Philosopher
Gilbert Ryle, “Jane Austen and the Moralists”
Philip Drew, “Jane Austen and Bishop Butler”
Thomas Rodham, “Reading Jane Austen as a Moral Philosopher”

Why Revolutionary Aristotelianism
David Gallop, “Jane Austen and the Aristotelian Ethic”
Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Nature of Virtue”

{summary and comparison sheets for: Aristotle, Shaftesbury, Butler, Hume}
Something on novel itself as philosophical?
nb. the role of reading itself in moral education in Austen
MacIntyre on characters?

I. Lady Susan

Virtue, Vice, and Moral Education


Reading Lady Susan as an Argument: The Roots of Social Disintegration and Revolutionary Aristotelianism

II. Sense and Sensibility

Selections from Gilpin on Picturesque Beauty
Dadlez, “Aesthetics and Humean Aesthetic Norms in the Novels of Jane Austen” ??

Phronesis, Prudence, Sense

Kearney, “Jane Austen and the Reason-Feeling Debate” ??
Clyde Ray, "Uncommon Prudence in Sense and Sensibility" ??

Reading Sense and Sensibility as an Argument: The Nature of Happiness
Sarah Emsley, “Sense and Sensibility: ‘Know Your Own Happiness’”
Selections from Aristotle on eudaimonia
Claudia Martin, "Austen's Assimilation of Lockean Ideals"

III. Mansfield Park

Virtue and the Moral Picturesque
Selections from Repton?
Selections from Cowper's "The Task"?

Andreia, Fortitude, Constancy
{need something noting importance of fact that Aristotle's is 'manliness' while Austen, as seen in Anne's comments in Persuasion, associates 'constancy' with women}

Reading Mansfield Park as an Argument: Limits of Sociability as a Foundation for Ethics

Practices and Institutions in Mansfield Park


The references to "Revolutionary" I would drop -- they were a concession to other parties who wanted a more exciting course title than I had originally come up with. The course, being limited by time to a single term, could not cover the full oeuvre. But a pure syllabus doesn't have that problem. So it could be expanded to include the other major works -- Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey. I had forgotten completely aobut it, but I like the idea (for a preliminary course of study) of the abstract structure (which needn't always be chronological), Introduction to X + "Reading X as an Argument" + Relating X to Other Philosophical Discussions. Looking at the first sketch here, I would certainly not have sketched out all the same possibilities were I doing it today. I think the overall Introduction should have its own section on Picturesque Theory, which is probably the most obvious point on which Austen directly relates to actual philosophical discussions; perhaps also a section on Theory of Sensibility, which is another point, recurring through the novels, on which Austen directly engages larger philosophical questions. Discussing the course at the time with Mrs. Darwin, she had made a suggestion of distinguishing philosophical novels from didactic novels, and this seems like a good thing for the introductory as well. (Of course, the introductory material need not all be at the beginning of the course, since some of it might be more appropriate leading into particular novels.) It's also certainly the case that some of the possible candidates, while relevant, would not be best suited to this particular preliminary course of study and have to be culled in favor of focusing on the more valuable materials. While relation to other philosophical discussions is important, it is also important not to collapse the course into mining Austen for things relevant to Aristotle/Hume/Shaftesbury rather than making it a course about Austen's own philosophical work.

I haven't looked recently at whether there is any more recent scholarship relevant to the philosophical content of Austen's courses, but as it's a slow-moving field, I wouldn't expect that it would require much updating. Of course there have been a few potentially useful things -- Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship, which of course is an adaptation of Lady Susan, to take just one example. And not long after all of this was being planned, Sarah Emsley did her online conference on Mansfield Park, any of the material for which might be relevant.

Of course a course should have some kind of project -- not just reading things, but doing something with the readings. One idea idea I had was some kind of guided project on Austen's unfinished work, Sanditon -- essentially, analyze the fragment, write scenes that could be part of a continuation and analyze how they might tie into the argument that she seems to be developing (about moral hypochondria). Another, and one to which I was leaning at the time, was to have them look in some way at one of the major works that was not covered. Obviously this would not in itself be relevant to a course that covered them all, but then you can just open the field and have a project using any of the works. Another suggestion of the Darwins that I liked was to focus the project on the heroes rather than the heroines -- particularly since the obvious route for the readings is to focus on the heroines, which leaves the heroes as an opportunity for exploration. I never got far enough to work out any precise guidelines for such a project; I tend to like highly structure projects, so I would certainly have a project with several stages.

Lots of work that would still be needed to get a finalized pure syllabus; but I think one can see what I mean from the example.

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