LS 810: Paradigm Shifts: Pivotal Changes in the Western Tradition

Fall 2016  | Dr. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon

Course Description:

In an interdisciplinary approach this course examines the pivotal shifts in the world vision and self understanding of Western Modernity since the Renaissance, as they are expressed in philosophy and in the lived experience of literature.

We will start with the 18th century Enlightenment that formulated changes in sensibilities since the Renaissance and prepared the democratic revolutions of the American and French revolutions, articulating the shift from the theocentric to an anthropocentric world vision in the West. Immanuel Kant’s article Sapere Aude, (Dare to know) is a plea for using independent human reason to struggle against tradition and political, social and religious authority. In literary form Denis Diderot’s dialogue, Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage reveals a critique of religion, colonialism and civil institutions, and a provocative reflection on human sexuality.

The Industrial Revolution brought about the most profound changes in the history of humanity. Karl Marx develops a method for understanding the actual workings of capitalist society. His polemical essay, The Communist Manifesto pleads for economic and social equality besides political and legal equality. His analysis finds a literary echo in one of the great 19th century novelists, Balzac, whose Old Goriot, recounts people’s lives in France’s emerging industrialization.

Another pivotal shift in Western consciousness concerns the position of women. Charlotte Perkins Gilman challenges the domestic ideal in her treatise Women and Economics, (1898) and demands economic and social equality for women besides formal democratic rights. In literature, Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse, (1927) illustrates the lived experience and aspirations of women in those times.

Another paradigm shift in the 20th century concerns the relations between the West and the rest of the world. Struggles for decolonization brought a change in the self understanding and image of the West, from benefactor to exploiter. In his book The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon describes colonialism as a source of violence, analyzing the role of class, race, national culture and violence in the struggle for national liberation. The book’s problematic is further explored in the film The Battle of Algiers.

We will end our course with Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, which inspired an environmental movement that changed the way we think of our relation to nature, and Pope Frances’ Encyclical,  On Care of our Common Home,  which analyzes the relation between the environmental crisis and our economic system.

Course readings:

  • Kant, What is Enlightenment?
  • Diderot, The Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville, in  Diderot’ Political Writings, Cambridge Univ. Press; 1992, ISBN 0-521-36911-8
  • Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto   
  • Balzac, Old Goriot, Penguin edition    
  • Charlotte Perkins-Gilman, Women and Economics, ISBN 0-87975-884-8
  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Broadview Press, ISBN 1-55111-396-1
  • Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, New York : Grove Press, 1965
  • Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
  • Pope Frances,  On Care of our Common Home, introduction by Naomi Oreskes, Melville House.