S1710 Comparing East and West (Cultures of the World core)

Zöller Günter

Philosophy East and West.

Self and Society in European and Asian Political Thought


Course Description

The course will investigate the relation between the individual and civil society in a comprehensive perspective that encompasses the ancient and the modern world, in addition to spanning Western European and East Asian cultures. The focus is on philosophical accounts of the civico-social self in the past and the present in the East and the West. Throughout, the focus will be on the communal character of civic selfhood in classical and contemporary philosophical thought. The course will be organized in two parts, devoted to Western and Eastern thinking about the civic self, respectively.

The course will begin with the dramatic representation of emerging civic life in two Greek tragedies, Sophocles' Antigone (441 BCE), which portrays the conflict between unwritten, family-based law and positive, state-issued law, and Aeschylus' Oresteia (458 BCE), which features the replacement of personal revenge and family feuding by public justice and civil courts.

Next the course will discuss Plato's extended analogy between the soul (psyche) and the city state (polis) in his most famous dialogue, The Republic (ca. 380 BCE). The focus here will be on Plato's threefold partitioning of the inner human being and on the corresponding tripartite division of the body politic.

Next the course will turn to Aristotle's influential characterization of the human being as a “political animal” (zoon politikon) in The Politics (ca. 350 BCE). The pertinent points here will be the distinction between the private and the public sphere and the civically conditioned character of the life of a free human being.

Moving from classical antiquity to modern times, the course will draw on Montesquieu's comprehensive comparative study of political society in On the Spirit of the Laws (1748). Here particular attention will be devoted to the republican principle of the rule of law and the mutual requirement of freedom and law.

From there the course will turn to the modern conception of citizenship within a republican constitution, to be found in Rousseau's influential work, On the Social Contract (1762). The main point here will be the twofold status of the citizens as subject to laws that are of their own making (self-legislation, autonomy).

Turning to Kant, the course will address his reinterpretation of the Platonic Republic under the modern idea of civic freedom, sketched in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), and his distinction between the private and the public use of reason in Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment? (1784).

Then the course will turn to the contrastive comparison of ancient and modern civic life, as detailed by Benjamin Constant in his discourse, On the Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns (1819). Here the issue will be the significant dissociation of the modern individual from immediate civic involvement and direct political influence.

We will then move on to address Hegel's influential distinction between the social spheres of civil society and the state in his comprehensive account of modern social life, Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820). The chief concern here will be with the functional division of the modern human being into the city burger and the state citizen.

In a major further move the course then will compare and contrast the ancient and modern Western conception of civic life analyzed so far with Eastern ways of describing and prescribing the individual's relation to a social and civil whole. The focus here will be on Confucian social and civic ethics in the specifically different but structurally akin relations between ruler and ruled and parents and children. The primary text here will be the posthumous collection of Confucius' teachings and conversations, The Analects. In concluding, the course will consider the nature and significance of the contemporary revival of ancient Confucian ethical thought in an otherwise increasingly modernized East Asian world.



The course will include a site visit to Venice Biennale of Art, in the second half of May.


Learning Outcomes:

Students will acquire historical and philosophical knowledge about the relation between ancient and modern as well as European and Asian conceptions of political society, improve their skills in the analysis of philosophical texts and problems, and enhance their ability to discuss complex theoretical issues in written and spoken academic English.