University of Chicago

Global Environmental Humanities  

Hurricanes, heat waves, polar vortexes, wild fires. Climate makes the news these days. As “natural” disasters and extreme weather become more common, problems that scientists have been warning of for a generation are suddenly at the forefront of our imaginations, and perhaps our fears. And yet talking about the environment on a global scale has proven challenging. How do we as political actors, scholars, and citizens begin to understand, let alone respond to, a problem as large and complicated as worldwide climate change? Climate change, it turns out, is not just a climate problem but an everything problem. 

Together we will interrogate political, ethical, and epistemological questions raised by climate change. We will interrogate the term Anthropocene, broadly used to register the impact of humans upon the global climate, but also a candidate to become an official geological epoch. Reading texts from across the humanities and social sciences, we will attend to the ways that “environment” registers in political, aesthetic, and social life. Are our existing tools of representation adequate to the challenges of climate change? Can human exceptionalism, the idea the humans are qualitatively apart from nature, hold up in this time of deepening environmental crisis? What is our responsibility to other people, and to our planet?

Authors include: Jedidiah Purdy, Anna Tsing, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Deborah R. Coen, Bill McKibben, Ursula Heise, Amitav Ghosh, Christopher Stone.

Biology, Technology, and Politics in 20th-Century Europe

For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.- Michel Foucault

This course surveys central topics at the intersection of biology, technology, and politics in modern Europe.  These include mechanization and labor, colonialism, eugenics and racism, gender and sexuality, psychoanalysis, cybernetics, bioethics and reproduction. Just as importantly, however, the course is designed to introduce you to a range of methodological approaches to these topics:  we will read work by biologists, philosophers, historians, playwrights, anthropologists, sociologists, and critical theorists.  Our syllabus proceeds roughly chronologically, albeit with some diversions in the service of thematic coherence.  Beginning in the early twentieth century, we explore the following questions:  How did the growing salience of the life sciences transform the social, physical, psychological, and working lives of Europeans? How was biology invoked to authorize specific social and political agendas, both in colonial and European contexts? How did the ascendency of genetics reshape so many questions central to what it means to be human?

Authors include: Alice Conklin, Peter Galison, Robert Proctor, Anson Rabinbach, Jessica Riskin, Camille Robcis, Judith Surkis, Helen Tilley, Karel Čapek, Sigmund Freud, Hans Jonas, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Loeb.

Philosophies of Life before and after DNA 

What is life?  Most of us learn in high-school biology that life is some combination of growth, reproduction, and animation, and that it always contains DNA.  Yet upon reflection, this definition is unsatisfying.  This quarter we will explore some of the philosophical implications of modern biology by reading some of the best twentieth-century thinkers on the subject.  The authors we will read have distinct theories about the nature of life, but they share the belief that understanding organic life, not simply spiritual or intellectual life, but the material basis of existence, is a fundamental task for thought.  What makes these texts so exciting is that they were written during a time when biology itself was undergoing a series of profound revolutions, most notably (for us), the molecular turn and the discovery of the structure of DNA.  As a result of these discoveries, ultimately some thinkers came to wonder, does life exist at all?

After taking this course you will have a grounding in the core philosophical problems that are raised by modern biology about the concept of life. You will gain an understanding of the ways that science, far from simply providing answers, continually furnishes us with new questions about the nature of existence, many of which may be outside the scope of science itself.  This course emphasizes close reading and careful analysis of texts.  You will be asked “think with” the text before you begin to critique it; this is a crucial skill for the study of philosophy and intellectual history, or indeed any humanist endeavor

Authors include: Hans Jonas, Georges Canguilhem, Hannah Landecker, Michel Foucault, Erwin Schrödinger, Henri Atlan, Stefan Helmreich, Martin Heidegger, Jakob von Uexküll, Jessica Riskin, François Jacob.

The End of History from Hegel to the Large Hadron Collider

In this course we will consider some ways of conceptualizing historical and human time as finite.  In the modern period, large-scale historical events have often been interpreted as portending an “end” of history: from the revolutions of the nineteenth century to the catastrophe of the World Wars in the mid-twentieth, to globalization, the end of the Cold War, and the threat of climate change.  This quarter we will ask what it means ethically, epistemologically, and methodologically to think and to write about an “end” of history.  Our focus will be on the modern period, and above all on the twentieth century. How has the sense of an imminent end shaped understandings of history, ideology, war, the human, and the environment?  How do narratives of catastrophe and apocalypse shape the relationship between history, politics, and ethics?

Some of the texts we will read attempt to grapple with the “end of history” on a methodological level.  Others are urgent calls to ward off nuclear or environmental catastrophe. Still others urge us carefully to imagine our post-apocalyptic future rather than deny it.  Throughout, we will pay careful attention to the ways that each different imagination of the end – the end of ideology, the end of history, the end of man, the end of nature – speaks to the importance of history in the present.

Authors include: G.W.F Hegel, Oswald Spengler, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Susan Buck-Morss, Giorgio Agamben, Francis Fukuyama, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Elizabeth Kolbert, Martin Jay, Dipesh Chakrabarty.

Biology and Human Nature

Available upon request.

Columbia University

Contemporary Civilization (year-long sophomore Great Books seminar)

Fall Syllabus

Spring Syllabus