An interdepartmental program in History of Ideas

Last updated: September 10, 2014 at 3:13 p.m.

Objectives

Santayana put it well: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." To understand the significance of our beliefs and commitments—even to understand the significance of the questions and problems that beset us—we need to trace their sources and their history. Because ideas are expressed in social and political institutions as well as in philosophical, scientific, religious, and literary works, the program in the history of ideas (HOID) is distinguished by its multidisciplinary approach. Because political structures and institutions are themselves articulated in vigorous intellectual debates, we need to understand the ideas that have formed and that continue to form them. HOID proposes to provide students with the historical background of the issues and values that have shaped their interests. The program is intended to provide students with the skills and the knowledge, the guidance and the freedom to construct a focused and rigorous course of study, one that explores the historical transformation of a set of ideas and institutions across several traditional disciplines.

Learning Goals

The History of Ideas Minor was developed to help students explore the sources of human beliefs and commitments by tracing their development over time. Its goal is to deepen understanding of both the significance of familiar ways of thinking and the strengths of unfamiliar ways. Our courses help students broaden their perspective on important issues by drawing attention to the diverse and ever-changing ways in which human beings have tried to make sense of their world and its problems.

The History of Ideas minor has students take two different kinds of courses: electives from departments outside their major and 2 interdisciplinary seminars that act as capstones for the program. The electives allow students to exercise independent judgment in putting together a set of courses that pursue common themes within very different interdisciplinary settings. The seminars, in contrast, allow them to pursue intensive study of important issues or intellectual periods in an environment that emphasizes the development of verbal and written communication skills. The minor is constructed as an interdisciplinary supplement to students’ majors, one that broadens the range of approaches that students encounter, while still demanding rigorous intellectual engagement with key texts and thinkers. In addition, the History of Ideas Minor contributes to the university’s social justice mission in two ways: 1) intellectually, by deepening our students’ understanding of the nature and sources of our claims about morality and justice; 2) practically, by increasing appreciation and respect for the diverse and ever-changing ways in which these claims have been made over time.

Completing the History of Ideas Minor helps students develop the following core skills:

  • Critical thinking, based on close analysis of texts and comparison of different and changing expressions of ideas.
  • Ability to analyze and write about complex ideas.
  • Ability to read and analyze texts from diverse and unfamiliar traditions.
  • Judgment about how to make the best use of different methodological approaches to the same issue.

Our courses in the minor vary, with students selecting their own electives from a wide range of departmental offerings and with capstone seminars changing each year. So the minor does not claim to impart to students a single body of knowledge. All of our courses aim, however, to help students appreciate:

  • The development of ideas over time.
  • The nature and extent of cultural diversity.
  • The sources of familiar and canonical ways of thinking.
  • The diverse and often contingent sources of long established beliefs and commitments.

The History of Ideas minor is especially attractive to students interested in graduate study in Philosophy, History, and other fields in Humanities and Social Sciences. As a result, many of our students go on to earn Ph.Ds and become academics. But it also helps prepare students well for any field, such as law, that requires careful analysis of the meaning and development of written texts.

How to Become a Minor

In order to declare a minor, students should meet with the undergraduate advising head of the program, who will help them to plan a course of study tailored to their intellectual needs while meeting core and elective requirements.

Committee

David Engerman, Chair
(History)

Richard Gaskins
(American Studies)

Susan Lanser
(Comparative Literature; English and American Literature; Women's and Gender Studies)

Jennifer Marusic (on leave academic year 2014-2015)
(Philosophy)

Robin Feuer Miller
(German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature)

Kate Moran
(Philosophy)

David Powelstock
(German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature)

Eugene Sheppard
(Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

Bernard Yack
(Politics)

Affiliated Faculty (contributing to the curriculum, advising and administration of the department or program)
Susan Lanser (English)
Robin Feuer Miller (German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature)
Kathleen Moran (Philosophy)
Bernard Yack (Politics)

Requirements for the Minor

The minor has three requirements:

A. Two history of ideas seminars. At least two seminars will be offered each year. Topics and faculty for the seminars will change each year. Students should consult the schedule of classes each semester for the specific seminar offerings.

B.  Three courses selected in consultation with the HOID undergraduate adviser, at least two of which will be taken in departments or programs beyond the student’s major(s). When joining the program, students will write a brief statement explaining the intellectual relationships that connect the subject matter of these three courses. Only one course from a student’s major—or one from each major, in the case of double majors—may be counted toward the total of five courses required for the minor.

C.  Students will present a substantial research paper or project to HOID faculty and students at a spring colloquium. This paper or project may develop out of work done in a history of ideas seminar, but it can also be drawn from independent research, such as a senior thesis or independent study, or from other work that students have done since coming to Brandeis. The colloquium is designed to give students the opportunity to engage with each other about their creative work at Brandeis.

D. No grade below a C- will be given credit toward the minor.

E. No course taken pass/fail may count toward the major requirements.

Courses of Instruction

(1-99) Primarily for Undergraduate Students

HOID 98a Independent Study
Usually offered every year.
Staff

HOID 98b Independent Study
Usually offered every year.
Staff

(100-199) For Both Undergraduate and Graduate Students

HOID 100a Introduction to Critical Theory
[ hum ]
How should we understand the cultural contradictions of modern society? This course will explore the evolution of Critical Theory as developed by the early Frankfurt School, with a specific focus on the works of Adorno, Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Marcuse. Special one-time offering, fall 2014.
Mr. Gamsby

History of Ideas Seminars

HOID 100a Introduction to Critical Theory
[ hum ]
How should we understand the cultural contradictions of modern society? This course will explore the evolution of Critical Theory as developed by the early Frankfurt School, with a specific focus on the works of Adorno, Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Marcuse. Special one-time offering, fall 2014.
Mr. Gamsby

POL 190b Seminar: Democratic Theory
[ ss ]
Explores in depth the nature, virtues, and limitations of democracy as a way of organizing political affairs. Brings together classic texts, for example, Rousseau's Social Contract, with more recent topical readings on topics like democracy and nationalism. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Yack

History of Ideas Electives

AAAS 168b The Black Intellectual Tradition
[ ss wi ]
Introduces broad historical themes, issues and debates that constitute the black intellectual tradition. Examines the works of male and female black intellectuals from slavery to present. Will explore issues of freedom, citizenship, uplift, gender, and race consciousness. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Williams

ANTH 108b History, Time, and Tradition
[ ss ]
Explores topics relating to the historical dimension of societies in cross-cultural and interdisciplinary perspectives: the cultural construction of the past, temporal and calendrical systems, the invention of tradition, ethnohistorical narrative, cultural memory and forgetting, historical monuments, and museums. Usually offered every third year.
Mr. Parmentier

ANTH 162b Struggles over Existence: Ontologies and Cosmopolitics
[ ss ]
Takes off from the field of Philosophical Anthropology to explore issues of ontology and cosmopolitics, probing various understandings of the nature of being and the nature of humanity. Addresses such questions as: What sorts of beings exist and for whom? What are the consequences of accepting certain beings as political agents, but not others? Should humans always be granted a privileged place in the social sciences? How do discussions regarding the nature of being impact our daily practices? Usually offered every fourth year.
Mr. Lino e Silva

COML/ENG 140b Children's Literature and Constructions of Childhood
[ hum ]
Explores whether children's literature has sought to civilize or to subvert, to moralize or to enchant, forming a bedrock for adult sensibility. Childhood reading reflects the unresolved complexity of the experience of childhood itself as well as larger cultural shifts around the globe in values and beliefs. Usually offered every third year.
Ms. Miller

ECS 100a European Cultural Studies Proseminar: Modernism
[ hum wi ]
Explores the interrelationship of literature, music, painting, philosophy, and other arts in the era of high modernism. Works by Artaud, Baudelaire, Benjamin, Mann, Mahler, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Kandinsky, Schiele, Beckett, Brecht, Adorno, Sartre, Heidegger, and others. Usually offered every fall semester.
Mr. Dowden

ENG 78b Modernism, Atheism, God
[ hum ]
Explores European and U.S. literature after Nietzche's proclamation, at the end of the 19th century, that God is dead. How does this writing imagine human life and the role of literature in God's absence? How does it imagine afterlives of God, and permutations of the sacred, in a post-religious world? How, or why, to have faith in the possibility of faith in a secular age? What does "the secular" actually mean, and how does it persuade itself that it's different than "religion"? Approaches international modernism as a political and theological debate about materialism and spirituality, finitude and transcendence, reason and salvation. Readings by Kafka, Joyce, Rilke, Faulkner, Eliot, Beckett, Pynchon, and others. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Sherman

ENG 171a The History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to Postmodernism
[ hum wi ]
Explores major documents in the history of criticism from Plato to the present. Texts will be read as representative moments in the history of criticism and as documents of self-sufficient literary and intellectual interest. Usually offered every third year.
Mr. Morrison or Ms. Quinney

FREN 111a The Republic
[ fl hum wi ]
Prerequisite: FREN 106b or the equivalent, or permission of the instructor.
The "Republic" analyzes how the republican ideal of the citizen devoid of religious, ethnic, or gender identity has fared in different Francophone political milieux. Course involves understanding how political institutions such as constitutions, parliaments, and court systems interact with reality of modern societies in which religious, ethnic, and gender identities play important roles. Usually offered every year.
Mr. Randall

FREN 139b Proust's Artistic Vision and the Beauty of Ordinary Life
[ fl hum wi ]
Prerequisite: FREN 106b.
Key readings from Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu engage students in an interdisciplinary exploration of themes (imagination and disappointment, time and memory, jealousy and desire, everyday life and redemption through art) and the author's revolutionary writing techniques. Usually offered every third year.
Ms. Harder

FREN 186b Literature and Politics
[ fl hum ]
Prerequisite: FREN 106b or the equivalent, or permission of the instructor.
We will be interested in how the literary is political and the political literary. We will organize the class around the relationship of the individual and the community. Texts include: Montaigne’s Essais, Corneille’s Horace, Genet’s Les nègres, Arendt’s What is Politics?, Dumont’s Essays on Individualism, Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs. Usually offered every third year.
Mr. Randall

GRK 115b Ancient Greek Drama
[ fl hum ]
The plays of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles, in Greek. A different playwright is studied each year. See Schedule of Classes for current topic. Usually offered every fourth year.
Mr. Muellner

HIST 169a Thought and Culture in Modern America
[ ss wi ]
Developments in American philosophy, literature, art, and political theory examined in the context of socioeconomic change. Usually offered every third year.
Mr. Engerman

HIST 169b The Radical 1950s: Politics and Culture in Postwar America
[ ss ]
This advanced seminar examines social criticism by the supposedly complacent Americans of the 1950s, looking for links to the turmoil that followed. Topics include foreign policy, treatment of African-Americans, roles for women, and the alienation of mass society. Usually offered every third year.
Mr. Engerman

HIST 181b Red Flags/Black Flags: Marxism vs. Anarchism, 1845-1968
[ ss ]
From Marx's first major book in 1845 to the French upheavals of 1968, the history of left-wing politics and ideas. The struggles between Marxist orthodoxy and anarchist-inspired, left Marxist alternatives. Usually offered every third year.
Mr. Hulliung

HIST 183b Community and Alienation: Social Theory from Hegel to Freud
[ ss ]
The rise of social theory understood as a response to the trauma of industrialization. Topics include Marx's concept of "alienation," Tönnies's distinction between "community" and "society," Durkheim's notion of "anomie," Weber's account of "disenchantment," and Nietzsche's repudiation of modernity. Usually offered every fourth year.
Mr. Hulliung

HIST 195a American Political Thought: From the Revolution to the Civil War
[ ss ]
Antebellum America as seen in the writings of Paine, Jefferson, Adams, the Federalists and Antifederalists, the Federalists and Republicans, the Whigs and the Jacksonians, the advocates and opponents of slavery, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Hulliung

JAPN 145a The World of Classical Japanese Literature
[ hum nw ]
A survey of some of the most important works of Japanese literature from its origins to the late sixteenth century, including a wide range of genres: fiction, essays, travelogues, poetry, and drama. All readings are in English. Usually offered every third year.
Mr. Fraleigh

LAT 118b Roman Historians
[ fl hum ]
Selections from the histories of Julius Caesar, Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus, in Latin. Usually offered every fourth year.
Ms. Walker

NEJS 124a Arabic Literature, Hebrew Literature (500-1500)
[ hum ]
A comparative study of Arabic and Hebrew literature from before the rise of Islam through the fifteenth century. Studies major trends in Arabic poetry and fiction and how Jewish authors utilized Arabic motifs in their Hebrew writings, both secular and sacred, and sometimes wrote in Arabic themselves. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Decter

NEJS 141b Human Rights: Law, Politics, Theology
[ hum ]
How did human rights work arise in recent decades, and why only then? Is it a new sort of religion? What critical thinking will help this vast work of advocacy, international law, democratization and humanitarianism alleviate human suffering? Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Mirsky

NEJS 155a Maimonides: A Jewish Thinker in the Islamic World
[ hum ]
A study of the life, world, and thought of Moses Maimonides, the most significant Jewish intellectual of the Islamic world. This course traces his intellectual output in philosophy and Judaism, from its beginning in Islamic Spain to the mature works produced in Morocco and Egypt, in the context of the Arabic-Islamic milieu. Half of the course is dedicated to studying his Guide of the Perplexed, a Judeo-Arabic work that engages the demands of revealed religion and philosophical rationalism. Usually offered every third year.
Mr. Decter

NEJS 155b Introduction to Jewish Legal Thought
[ hum ]
Traces the history of Jewish law from the Bible to the present. Jewish law is indispensable for understanding Jewish life, past, present and future, and is a rich source of reflection on law, ethics and religion. This course examines contemporary debates and controversies and explores its spiritual dimensions. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Mirsky

NEJS 159a Modern Jewish Philosophy
[ hum ]
Surveys the contours of modern Jewish philosophy by engaging some of its most important themes and voices. Competing Jewish inflections of and responses to rationalism, romanticism, idealism, existentialism, and nihilism. This provides the conceptual road signs of the course as we traverse the winding byways of Jewish philosophy from Baruch Spinoza to Emanuel Levinas. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Sheppard

PHIL 7a Science, Evolution, and Design
[ hum ]
This seminar considers several versions of the argument from design for the existence of God, culminating in a critical examination of the contemporary debate over intelligent design theory and the claim that it is a genuine science. Usually offered every second year.
Ms. Marusic

PHIL 21a Environmental Ethics
[ hum ]
Explores the ethical dimensions of human relationships to the natural world. Looks at environmental ethical theories such as deep ecology and eco-feminism and discusses the ethics of specific environmental issues such as wilderness preservation and climate change. Usually offered every second year.
Ms. Moran

PHIL 107b Kant's Moral Theory
[ hum ]
An examination of the main philosophical issues addressed in Kant's Critique of Practical Reason from the perspective of their relation to works specifically belonging to his ethical theory: the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Metaphysics of Morals. Usually offered every second year.
Ms. Moran

PHIL 109b Ethics and Emotions
[ hum ]
Prerequisite: One course in philosophy.
An examination of the historical and contemporary theories concerning the role that emotions and feeling ought to have in moral judgment and decision-making. Explores contemporary philosophical theories about the relationship between emotion and judgment. Usually offered every third year.
Ms. Moran

PHIL 122a History of Ethics
[ hum ]
Explores several major ethical traditions in the history of modern philosophy/ Examines the natural law theories of Hobbes and Grotius; moral sense theory; Kantianism; utilitarianism; and Nietzsche's response to these traditional moral theories. Usually offered every third year.
Ms. Moran

PHIL 146a Idea of God
[ hum ]
Prerequisite: PHIL 1a or PHIL 66b or one course numbered PHIL 35a through PHIL 38b.
Engages in a philosophical investigation, not of religion as an institution but of the very idea of God. Studies the distinction between human being and divine being and addresses the issue of the relation of God's essence to his existence. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Yourgrau

PHIL 168a Kant
[ hum ]
Prerequisite: PHIL 1a or permission of the instructor.
An attempt to understand and evaluate the main ideas of the Critique of Pure Reason, the subjectivity of space and time, the nature of consciousness, and the objectivity of the concepts of substance and causality. Usually offered every year.
Mr. Greenberg

POL 10a Introduction to Political Theory
[ ss ]
Open to first-year students.
Examination of classical political texts and modern writings for insights on central problems of political discourse, such as power and authority, human nature, freedom, obligation, justice, and the organization of the state. Usually offered every year.
Mr. Yack or Mr. Lenowitz

POL 187b Conservative Political Thought
[ ss ]
Focuses on American and European thinkers, with an emphasis on critics of equality and unlimited commercial and civil liberty. Readings include political philosophy and literature. Authors may include Burke, Oakeshott, Calhoun, Conrad, Hayek, Macintyre, and Strauss. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Yack

POL 188b Modern Political Thought
[ ss ]
Provides a survey of major works of modern political thought, beginning with Machiavelli and ending with John Rawls. It proceeds by way of careful reading and discussion of their most important arguments and the issues that they raise. Usually offered every year.
Mr. Yack

POL 189a Marx, Nietzsche, and Twentieth-Century Radicalism
[ ss ]
Comparison of two powerful and influential critiques of modern politics and society. Explanation of Marx's work, both for its own insights and as a model for radical theorists; and of Nietzsche's work as an alternative conception of radical social criticism. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Yack

POL 192b Seminar: Topics in Law and Political Theory
[ ss ]
Prerequisite: Sophomore standing or higher. May be repeated for credit if taught by different instructors.
Interplay among law, morality, and political theory. Specific topics vary from year to year. Usually offered every year.
Mr. Yack or Mr. Lenowitz

RECS 100a Russian Soul: Masterworks of Modern Russian Culture
[ hum ]
Open to all students. Conducted in English. Students may choose to do readings either in English translation or in Russian. Satisfies the Proseminar requirement for the Russian Studies major.
Examines masterpieces of modern Russian culture in literature, film, philosophy, art, music, theater, opera and ballet. How has Russian culture treated such common human themes as life, death, love, language, identity, and community? What makes Russian cultural tradition unique? Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Powelstock

RECS 130a The Russian Novel
[ hum wi ]
Open to all students. Conducted in English. Students may choose to do readings either in English translation or in Russian.
A comprehensive survey of the major writers and themes of the nineteenth century including Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and others. Usually offered every second year.
Ms. Miller

SOC 127a Religion, Ethnicity, and Nationalism
[ nw ss ]
Examines three sources of identity that are influential in global affairs: religion, ethnicity and nationalism. Considers theories of the relationship among these identities, especially "secularization theory," then reviews historical examples such as Poland, Iran, India, and Pakistan. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Rosenberger

SOC 162a Intellectuals and Revolutionary Politics
[ ss ]
Examines the role of intellectuals in modern politics, especially their relationship to nationalism and revolutionary movements. In reading across a range of political revolutions (e.g. in Central Europe, colonial Africa and Iran), students will have the chance to compare the relative significance of appeals to solidarity based on class, religion, ethnicity, and national identity. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Rosenberger