Philosophy and Literary Art Forms (PHIL*2220) | College of Arts

Philosophy and Literary Art Forms (PHIL*2220)

Term: Fall 2015


The distinct studies of philosophy and literature seem to pertain to different worlds and types of inquiry.  While philosophy seeks after the truth of the world, literature has sought different ways of aesthetically expressing the world and our experience of it through the diversity of written human language.  Despite this difference, the two fields often find themselves coming into contact.  Philosophy frequently draws heavily from literary situations and insights about the human condition, and literature often lends itself to philosophical reflections on both the nature of reality and the type of being at the center of human expression.  The aim of this course is to investigate this point of encounter between philosophy and literature.  Throughout the course we will read pieces of literature from four major genres: drama, poetry, short stories, and the novel. We will take these pieces up with a philosophical eye toward analyzing their implications for understanding human experience and its complicated situation in the world.  To assist us in this type of investigation, we will read a series of philosophical texts.  Some of these texts provide direct interpretations of the literature themselves, while others pursue themes central to them.  In seeking to elucidate the human condition, we will focus specifically on the individual’s relation to death, time, and memory.

            Our study will begin with one of the philosophically richest and seminal pieces of literature in the Western tradition: Sophocles’ dramatic play Antigone.  We will devote a number of weeks to closely analyzing the play’s challenging depictions of human decision in light of the antagonisms between social, familial, and divine values, as well as the inevitability of death in human life.  We will read a series of philosophical interpretations on the figure of Antigone that bring to light both the paradoxical nature of her decision and what it expresses about human nature and the social world more generally.  We will then turn to T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, a modern piece of poetry that reflects on the human experience of time.  We will read two pieces from the history of philosophy that provide philosophical and existential reflections on the nature of time and eternity, ideas which are at the core of Eliot’s poem.  We will then turn to a very different form of literature: the contemporary short story.  Building on our discussion of time, Borges and Kafka provide distinct ways of presenting the experience of human memory and the intricacies of human perception.  In the final part of the course, we will read W. G. Sebald contemporary novel Austerlitz. Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Storyteller” contextualizes the significance and loss involved in the historical transition from the form of the story to that of the modern novel.  The final series of texts will allow us to philosophically question the form of modern literature, the role of identity and perspective, and significance of memory in human writing.


Course Goals

The primary goal of this course is to learn and discover what it would mean to study literature directly through philosophical ideas. To accomplish this, we will (1) do close textual analyses of a diverse range of literature from a philosophical perspective, (2) write clear and sophisticated interpretative essays on the relation between this literature using philosophical ideas, and (3) discuss and challenge our interpretations of these texts with one another. Rather than treating these literary works as containing a single meaning, we will endeavor to use philosophical ideas to discover what these works contain for the understanding of human life.


Required Texts

  • Sophocles, Antigone
  • Jorges-Luis Borges, Collected Fictions
  • Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories
  • W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
  • Additional texts available on CourseLink


Seminar Format

This course will be a combination of lectures and group discussion. Each meeting will be devoted to a portion of text specified in the reading schedule below. Together we will work through the problems and questions motivating each work, explain their important ideas, critically assess their arguments, and think about the significance of these ideas and arguments in the context of understanding the complexities of human life.



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