Philosophy 107

Philosophy and Literature

San Jose State University

Spring 2007

Prof. Janet D. Stemwedel

Faculty Office Bldg. Room 232

Office Hours:  Tu 11:00 am-1:00 pm, Th 10:00 am-12:00 noon, or by appointment

Office Phone: (408) 924-4521

Course Description: 

One of the most compelling problems philosophers have wrestled with is how to live a life that is good and at the same time authentically one's own.  While this question was broached even by the ancients, in the popular imagination the problem of "finding" oneself and creating original patterns for one's life has been cast as a peculiarly American problem.  Part of the challenge of living authentically as an American has been the confluence of different cultures in American thought and especially in the lives of immigrants from different countries and different historical periods.  How should one assign relative importance to the ideals of the parent culture and of the adopted culture?  Is there a way to live as an authentic member or two (or more) cultures, or do such efforts at "dual citizenship" ultimately result in being estranged from both cultures?  And finally, how can we reconcile the importance of membership in a culture with the "rugged individualism" associated with living a good life in America?

In this course, we will examine how some important philosophers (including three American philosophers) have approached the question of what counts as a good and authentic life and how we might live such a life.  We will also explore how the challenge of living authentically — against the backdrop of interactions and tensions between many cultures — plays out in novels, memoirs, essays, and short stories set in America.

Course Objectives:

This course is designed to meet the G.E. learning objectives for Area V (culture, civilization, and global understanding).  At the end of the course, students should be able to:

1.  "Compare systematically the ideas, values, images, cultural artifacts, economic structures, technological developments, or attitudes of people from different societies."  In particular, you should be able to compare conceptions of good and authentic lives from the French, German, and American philosophers we read, and discuss how these conceptions are reinforced or challenged by fiction and memoirs dealing with the cultures of Iran, Afghanistan, China, Poland, Mexico, and Native American communities.

2.  "Identify the historical context of ideas and cultural practices and their dynamic relation to other historical contexts."  For example, you should be able to explain the importance of religious and civil wars in the thought of Montaigne, of American political developments in the thought of Emerson, of Reconstruction and its aftermath in the thought of DuBois, and of Freudian psychology in the thought of Rorty.  You should be able to describe how the tension between parental ideals and American ideals influence the authentic identities developed by Kingston, Hoffman, Vowell, and Rodriguez.

3.  "Explain how a culture changes in response to internal and external pressures."  For example, you should be able to explain the development of Californian and Mexican-American identities described by Rodriguez and the development of Native American identities described by Alexie, especially how these identities are driven by internal pressures within the community and how they represent responses to other communities with different conceptions of authenticity.

Teaching Approach:

Our approach to the issues raised in this course will draw on the perspectives of philosophy and literary forms including the memoir, the novel, the short story, and the essay.  The format of this class will emphasize active learning on your part.  Besides lectures, there will be class discussion of reading assignments, small group discussions, Socratic dialogues, and role-playing exercises.  Class activities will draw on your skills in reading, writing, speaking, and critical thinking.  In addition, the research paper will require you to perform library research and draw upon information competencies.

Course Requirements:

Reading responses.  For 13 of the reading assignments, you will be asked to write a short essay (1 typed, double-spaced page, approximately 300 words) engaging with some issue or issues in the reading.  (Specific instructions for the reading response assignments will be distributed in class.)  The goal of these assignments is to help you read in an active, engaged way, and to encourage you to develop your own view about these issues.  Reading responses will be assessed for correctness, clarity, and conciseness and returned to you promptly.  You are encouraged to make use of the tutors in the Logic and Philosophy Lab (FOB 231) for additional help with writing for this course.  Reading responses are due at the beginning of class on the dates listed in the program.  No late reading responses will be accepted, but I will drop your three lowest reading response grades before calculating your final grade.  Taken together, the reading responses will count for 35% of your course grade.

In-class writing assignments.  Over the course of the term, you will write four short essays in class on the dates noted in the syllabus.  The in-class exercises are intended to evaluate your grasp of material from assigned readings, lecture, and class discussions, and your analysis of how this material bears on the problem of living authentically.  The questions for these assignments are included in the syllabus.  Taken together, the in-class writing assignments will count for 20% of the course grade.

Research paper.  You will research and write a longer paper (6-8 typed, double-spaced pages, 1800-2500 words).  After your preliminary literature search, you will turn in a prospectus of approximately 1 page which states clearly the specific topic you have chosen and the cultural and individual values at stake in it, as well as giving a progress report of your research and thinking to date.  The research paper prospectus will count for 5% of your course grade and is due on Monday, April 23, 2007.  The research paper will count for 25% of your final grade and is due on Monday, May 21, 2007 by 2:30 PM.

Class participation.  Dialogue and discussion will play an important role in our project of analyzing and assessing the central issues of the course raised in reading assignments and lectures.  Therefore, I expect that you will come to class with your books, having done the readings and thought about the issues they raise before our class meetings, and ready to participate in general discussion, in-class writing exercises, and periodic small group exercises.  Your class participation will count for 15% of your course grade. 


            Reading responses:                   35%

            In-class writing assignments:    20%

            Research paper prospectus:        5%

Research paper:                                    25%

            Class participation:       ______            15%

                        Total:                           100%

Your marks on assignments will be converted to percentages (e.g., 15/20 = 75%) and used to compute letter grades as follows:

























Academic Honesty.  I expect you to be familiar with university policies on plagiarism, cheating, and other forms of academic dishonesty.  As well, I expect you to understand the difference between proper attribution of the words and ideas of others and plagiarism.  If you do not understand the difference, please make an appointment with me to discuss proper attribution as soon as possible.  Plagiarism or cheating will result in a failing grade in this course, and offenders may be subject to further administrative sanctions.

Official academic integrity statement from the Office of Judicial Affairs:

 "Your own commitment to learning, as evidenced by your enrollment at San Jose State University, and the University's Integrity Policy, require you to be honest in all your academic course work.  Faculty members are required to report all infractions to the office of Judicial Affairs.  The policy on academic integrity can be found at:"

If you need course adaptations or accommodations because of a disability, or if you have emergency medical information to share with me, or if you need to make special arrangements in case the building must be evacuated, please make an appointment with me as soon as possible, or see me during office hours.

Presidential Directive 97-03 requires that students with disabilities requesting accommodations must register with the DRC to establish a record of their disability.

Required Texts:

Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Phil 107 Course Reader (CR)


Wednesday, Jan. 24

FIRST CLASS:  Introductory remarks.

Monday, Jan. 29

Emerson, "The American Scholar" CR

Reading Response 1:  Briefly explain what Emerson takes to be the function of the scholar (or "man thinking").

Wednesday, Jan. 31

Emerson, "Self-Reliance" CR

Reading Response 2:  Briefly explain what Emerson says distinguishes the moments of our lives with more reality from those with less reality.

Monday, Feb. 5

Herman Melville, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" CR

Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Wife of His Youth" CR

Wednesday, Feb. 7

H.D. Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience" CR

In-class writing assignment 1:  Explain what you think bothered the narrator so much about Bartleby, and how his issues with Bartleby might shed light on his views of what a good human life is like.

Monday, Feb. 12

Montaigne, "Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions", "Of Giving the Lie"  CR

Reading Response  3:  Briefly explain what Montaigne says in "Of Giving the Lie" about the value of writing about oneself.

Wednesday, Feb. 14

Montaigne, "Of Physiognomy"  CR

Reading Response  4:  Briefly set out the contrast Montaigne makes between Nature and cultivated learning.

Monday, Feb. 19

McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, "To the Reader" and "Yonder Peasant, Who Is He? " CR

In-class writing assignment 2:  What is the point, for McCarthy, of writing about her childhood?  In what way might this project of looking back help her to achieve unity of character as an adult?

Wednesday, Feb. 21

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book IV (Sections 276-7, 280, 283-5, 289-90, 292, 294-301, 303-5, 307, 315, 319, 324-9, 332, 335, 337-8, 340-1)

Reading Response 5:  Briefly explain how Nietzsche thinks we should use the test of eternal recurrence to judge our lives.

Monday, Feb. 26

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Preface (Sections 1-4); Sections 1-3, 6-7, 15, 17, 19, 25, 28, 33-34, 41, 45, 76, 78-79, 107-110, 120

Reading Response 6:  Briefly describe some of the things Nietzsche thinks we should learn from artists.

Wednesday, Feb. 28

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Sections 123-125, 241-242, 256, 267-275, 343-5, 381-383

Reading Response 7:  Briefly explain what Nietzsche says in Section 381 about our desire to be understood.

Monday, Mar. 5

Hoffman, Lost in Translation, "Exile"  CR


Wednesday, Mar. 7

Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran, "Gatsby"  CR

Monday, Mar. 12

Further discussion of Hoffman and Nafisi.

In-class writing assignment 3:  Nafisi began her first class at the University of Tehran with a quotation from Adorno: "The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one's own home."  This view is in tension with Nietzsche's, that living a good life involves finding the distance from which you can view it as art.  To what extent is Nafisi's teaching of works like Gatsby an activity that helps her (and her students) live lives of which Nietzsche would approve?  To what extent is it an activity that helps her (and her students) live lives of which Adorno would approve?

Wednesday, Mar. 14

Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Forethought; Essays I-II

Reading Response 8:  Briefly explain the "Negro Problem" Du Bois sets out in Essay I.

Monday, Mar. 19

Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Essays IV, VI

Reading Response 9:  Briefly describe what Du Bois says is the function of the Negro college.

Wednesday, Mar. 21

Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Essays XI-XII

Reading Response 10:  Briefly describe how the story of Alexander Crummell illustrates some features of life behind the Veil.


Monday, Apr. 2

Alexie, "A Drug Called Tradition", "This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona", "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire", "Distances"  CR

Wednesday, Apr. 4

Vowell, "What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill"  CR

In-class writing assignment 4:  What sorts of internal divisions do Native Americans have to contend with?  What strategies have we seen deployed to try to overcome these divisions, and how successful are they?

Monday, Apr. 9

Kingston, The Woman Warrior, "No Name Woman" and "White Tigers"  CR

Wednesday, Apr. 11

Kingston, The Woman Warrior, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe" CR

Monday, Apr. 16

Sartre, "The Humanism of Existentialism"  CR

Reading Response 11:  Briefly sketch the key features of existentialism as Sartre describes it and explain why he thinks it is not a pessimistic philosophy.

Wednesday, Apr. 18

Rorty, "The Contingency of Selfhood"  CR

Reading Response 12:  Briefly sketch how Rorty characterizes Freud's understanding of the self, and how this understanding of the self differs from Nietzsche's.

Monday, Apr. 23

Rorty, "Private Irony and Liberal Hope"  CR

Reading Response 13:  Briefly explain how Rorty thinks an ironist chooses her "final vocabulary".

Research paper prospectus due.

Wednesday, Apr. 25

Rodriguez, Days of Obligation, "My Parents' Village," "India," "Late Victorians," and "Mexico's Children"

Monday, Apr. 30

Rodriguez, Days of Obligation, "In Athens Once," "The Missions," and "Asians"

Wednesday, May 2

Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Monday, May 7

Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Wednesday, May 9

Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Monday, May 14

Hosseini, The Kite Runner


FINAL PAPER DUE Monday, May 21, 2007 by 2:30 PM