Engl./Phil 109 Blinding Knowledge : The Humanities Reconsidered

Fall 1999

MWF 11:00 to 11:50 a.m. Griffin 7

David L. Smith, English and Steven B. Gerrard, Philosophy


To know the truth, our tradition teaches, is the basis for freedom; and freedom is intrinsically a good, desirable thing. The benefits of knowledge seem obvious, yet the religious, philosophical, and political traditions of the West have been deeply preoccupied with its costs. The light of truth may blind the eyes.

This course will examine how the problem of knowledge has been addressed in some of the great works in the Western tradition. In particular, we will trace how the metaphors of light/darkness and master/slave have been used in philosophical and literary works concerned with knowledge, morality, and power. Beginning with the Bible and various mythological narratives, we will continue with Sophocles, Plato, Descartes, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Hume, Hegel, Shelley, Melville, Twain, Nietzsche, Freud, Du Bois, and Ellison. In addition we will explore films, works of art and music. For example, we will investigate the relationship between master and slave in Hegel’s Phenomenology, Shakespeare’s Tempest, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We will then compare those works with Boris Karloff’s film version of Frankenstein. We will also study two works of the contemporary artists Tony Oursler: one at MASS MoCA and the other at the Williams College Museum of Art.

This course is an introduction to some of the crucial themes, techniques, methods, and attitudes of the humanities, and will provide a basis from which students can pursue the humanities at Williams.

David L. Smith

Offices: Dean of the Faculty’s Office, 3rd floor, Hopkins Hall and Stetson F-10

Office Phone: 597-4351

Office Hours: Mondays, 9-10 a.m. in Hopkins Hall, and by appointment

e-mail: [email protected] or [email protected]

Steven B. Gerrard

Office: President’s office, 3rd floor Hopkins Hall

Office Phone: 597-4252

Office Hours: Mondays, 9:15-10:30, and by appointment

e-mail: [email protected] or [email protected]

Teaching Assistant: Anselm T. McClain

Phone: x2607

Dorm: Chadbourne 8

e-mail: [email protected]

Readings: The following books should be purchased at Water Street Books:

Sophocles, Sophocles I: Three Tragedies

Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings

Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

Shakespeare, The Tempest

Shelley, Frankenstein

Melville, Billy Budd and Other Tales

Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Ellison, The Invisible Man

A packet of readings should be purchased in Stetson B4 (the same level as the upper parking lot). The contents of the packet are:

Bible, Genesis 1-4
Edith Hamilton, Mythology, selections
Plato, the “Meno”
Plato, the “Republic”, selections from Books IV and VII
Montaigne, “Of Cannibals”, selections
Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, selections
W. E. B. Du Bois, “Of the Coming of John”
Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, selections
Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams and other selections from The Freud Reader

Two copies of the Labeltalk series, published by the Williams College Museum of Art, are on reserve in Sawyer Library.

Films: We will see five films in this class: Gospel at Colonus, Forbidden Planet, Frankenstein, Blade Runner, and Dr. Strangelove. The films will all be shown in the evening (the schedule is below). Popcorn will be provided. We recognize that sometimes people have other evening commitments, and all the films will also be available on reserve in Sawyer Library.

Class Listserver: Everyone should be enrolled in the class listserver: LIGHT-L. When you send an e-mail message to LIGHT-L it will be received by everyone in the class.

Assignments: There will be an assignment due each week, with the exception of Week Eleven (Thanksgiving). No late assignments can be accepted.


Overture: “Let there be light”

9/10 Introduction

Week One

9/13 Bible, Genesis 1-4 [in the packet]

Edith Hamilton, Mythology, selections [in the packet]

Plato, the “Meno” [in the packet]

9/15 “Meno”, continued

Plato, the “Republic”, selections [in the packet]

9/17 Plato, continued

A. Dark Places and the Natural Light of Reason

Week Two

9/20 No Class. Yom Kippur

9/21 Tuesday evening, 8:00, Gospel at Colonus

9/22 Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus [in Sophocles I]

9/24 Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

Descartes, Discourse on the Method (for background reading)

Week Three

9/27 Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, continued

9/29 Field trip to MASS MoCA to see Optics by Tony Oursler

10/1 Descartes, Optics [in Selected Philosophical Writings]

Week Four

10/4 Introjection: Tony Oursler mid-career survey, 1976-1999

4:00 p.m. Discussion with Tony Oursler at the Williams College Museum of Art

10/6 Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

10/8 Dostoevsky, continued

Week Five

10/11 Dostoevsky, continued

Mastery & Bondage

10/13 Hegel, selections from The Phenomenology of Spirit [in the packet]

10/15 Hegel, continued [Guest lecture by Mark Taylor (tentative)]

Week Six

10/18 No class Reading Period

10/20 Shakespeare, The Tempest

Montaigne, “Of Cannibals” [in the packet]

8:00 p.m.: Forbidden Planet

10/22 Shakespeare, continued…

Forbidden Planet

Week Seven

10/25 Shakespeare, continued

Forbidden Planet

10/27 Melville “Benito Cereno” [in Billy Budd and Other Tales]

10/29 Melville, continued

Du Bois “Of the Coming of John” [in the packet]

Week Eight

11/1 Melville and Du Bois, continued

11/3 Shelley, Frankenstein

11/4 Thursday evening, 8:00: Frankenstein

11/5 Shelley, continued

Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein

Guest Lecture by Shawn Rosenheim

Week Nine

11/8 Shelley and Frankenstein, continued

C. Knowledge, Desire and Limits

11/10 Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

11/11 Thursday evening, 8:00: Blade Runner

11/12 Hume, continued; Blade Runner

Week Ten

11/15 Hume and Blade Runner, continued

11/17 Twain, Life on the Mississippi, Chapters I- XXI (pp. 29-166)

11/19 Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams and other selections [in the packet]

(Guest Lecture: Susan Engel)

Week Eleven

11/22 Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, selections [in the packet]

Freud, continued

11/23 Tuesday evening, 8:00: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and

Love the Bomb

11/24 Freud, Nietzsche and Dr. Strangelove, continued

11/26 No class Thanksgiving Holiday

Week Twelve

11/29 Ellison, Invisible Man

12/1 Ellison, continued

12/3 Ellison, continued

Week Thirteen

12/6 Ellison, continued

12/8 Last Day of Class: Enlightened Darkness?

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