LS 810: Self and Society

Fall 2012  | Dr. Jack Martin

Course Outline

The ways in which persons are entwined with their societies has been the subject of much Classical, Enlightenment, Romantic, and Modern thought. A decidedly Modern, arguably “post-modern,” twist to this subject was introduced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the mid-1700s. In two strikingly original discourses, Rousseau “problematized” the self-society relation by drawing attention to necessary, perilous, variable, and inequitable aspects of that bond. Rousseau’s attacks on Enlightenment and Classical conceptions of the nature of persons and societies initiated a critical stream of philosophy and social theory that continues to unfold.

In this offering of LS 810, we will begin with the discourses of Rousseau, and move on to the “self-society” tensions and necessities theorized by Freud (“Civilization and its Discontents”), John Dewey (“Human Nature and Conduct”), Hannah Arendt (“The Human Condition”), Ernest Becker (“Escape from Evil”), and most recently by philosopher David Sprintzen in his “Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory” (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2009). All these works assert complex, co-constitutive relations between persons and their societies, considering topics such as enculturation, socialization, self and other understanding, alienation, mortality awareness, social criticism, sustainability, and the possibility of social renewal. Contemporary social, economic, political, and environmental challenges will provide a context for our deliberations.

An organizing question will be, “Do our most fundamental modes of thought and action, personhood and identity, human agency and freedom, social-political organization, economic development, and relation to nature require radical revision if human life on this planet is to survive and prosper?” Although many contemporary critical theorists, post-structuralists, and social constructionists are perhaps rightly suspicious of anything with hints of an “Enlightenment Project,” the existential (some would say, moral) question of our responsibility for the human condition (even if highly localized) cannot be set aside.

Course Schedule

Week 1: Orientation, Introduction, Overview, and Organization

Weeks 2 & 3: Rousseau’s First and Second Discourses

Weeks 4 & 5: Dewey’s “Human Nature and Conduct”

Week 6: Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents”

Weeks 7 & 8: Arendt’s “The Human Condition (2nd ed.)”

Weeks 9: Becker’s “Escape from Evil”

Weeks 10 & 11: Sprintzen’s “Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory” &

                                    A Revisiting of Themes and Challenges

Weeks 12 & 13: Student “Position Presentations” &



Each student will prepare a single 15-page (double-spaced) essay in which she or he draws from a critical reading of the course texts to articulate a coherent position concerning the nature of the relation between persons and their societies, and the implications of this relation for the lives of individuals and communities.


The works by Rousseau, Dewey, Freud, and Arendt can be located on-line for no cost. The remaining two books, by Becker and Sprintzen, can be purchased as e-books at reduced cost. To assist with locating these two volumes, full bibliographical details are:

Becker, E. (1975). Escape from Evil. New York: The Free Press.

Sprintzen, D. (2009). Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.