Series of lectures and seminars: “Personhood, Law & Literature. Humane Philosophy and the Idea of the Tragic”; The materials for the seminar”

4 lis, 2014; Aktualności Ogłoszenia Wykłady gościnne

Department of Philosophy of Culture (Institute of Philosophy, UW) and The Humane Philosophy Project invite for the series of lectures and seminars:

Personhood, Law & Literature. Humane Philosophy and the Idea of the Tragic

Jonathan Price (PhD Fellow and Lecturer at University of Leiden Law School; Tutor at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford)
dr Przemysław Bursztyka (Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw)
mgr Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode (Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw)

The aim of the ongoing seminar series is to analyse the human condition in the light of the concept of the tragic. In this perspective the human being appears as a fragile structure whose existence is essentially determined by the constant and dramatic necessity of choosing between competing systems of values, as well as by being split between different or even contradictory political, legal, cultural and ontological orders. The aim of the seminar series is to provide possible answers to the question how the idea of human personhood (or individuality – in a more modern idiom) arises out of these contradictions as well as from the confrontation with the general idea of law. It is to be done by means of the extensive analysis of the classical and modern literature as well as the relevant examples of the philosophical works.

The second series – 2014/2015:
Time and Place: Thursdays 1:30 – 4:30 pm, room 108 (Institute of Philosophy UW)
Schedule (I semester): 06.11; 20.11; 11.12; 15.01; 29.0; the second part will also consist of five meetings; the dates will be given during the course
The number of hours: 40
Credit allocation: 3.00


  • Jonathan Price (PhD Fellow and Lecturer at University of Leiden Law School; Tutor at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford)
  • dr Przemysław Bursztyka (Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw)
  • prof. Ferenc Hörcher (Institute of Philosophy of Hungarian Academy of Sciences; Pázmány Péter Catholic University)
  • mgr Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode (Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw)

The materials for the seminar

Part I
Contract, polis and person

(lecturer: Jonathan Price)

The theme of ‘contract’ or in a more religious register, ‘covenant’, gets to the heart of something permanent and evolutionary in our understanding of moral obligation, and thus our understanding of what it is to be a person. This theme also connects how political power is justified or perpetuated – e.g., appeals to ‘the consent of the people’ – to certain beliefs about the individual persons who are supposed to be consenting. Both Aristotle and Tocqueville wondered how far personal identity may be determined by the constitution of the group, namely, the political community. The high valuation of contract in determining moral obligations in our age (consensual obligations preferred to those coming from history, status or authority), should be of great interest to modern democrats who also happen to be students of philosophy. For, contractarian politics assumes a consenting agent, a centre of autonomous moral responsibility that should be respected; said differently, a freeman with, necessarily, a free will. As is apparent, this theme immediately connects law and personhood. It would almost seem that a contractarian system of law and politics requires a certain concept of the person as sui juris or ‘autonomous’.

Just how the two constitutions, the political one in which positive law functions and the personal one in which the law of conscience reigns, connect will be examined in these seminars by way of a literary and philosophical enquiry into questions surrounding contractual obligations. Our fellow enquirers will be King David, Medea, Hamlet, King Lear, Justinian’s first book of Roman law, and many more.
This part of the seminar will consist of three meetings.

Reading materials:
Selections from the Old Testament of the Bible, including the Ten Commandments, the story of David and Bathsheba, and the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den;
Eurypides, “Medea”;
Selections from “Book I of the Justinian Code of Roman Law”;
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”;
Sophocles, “Ajax”;
William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”;
Book VII of Aristotle’s “Politics”;
Thomas Aquinas’s “Treatise on Law”;
William Shakespeare, “King Lear”

Part II
The dialectics of self-creation and the tragedy of modernity. Reading “Faust” by Johann Wolfgang Goethe

(lecturer: Przemysław Bursztyka)

One of the leading motives of modernity is the Kantian idea of Enlightenment as the exit from the self-imposed condition of immaturity, where the latter is defined as ‘the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another’. This idea of ‘maturity’ essentially connects the notion of personhood with that of freedom, where the latter is seen in its double meaning. First, it is the freedom from any constraints imposed by tradition, authority, pre-established norms and obligations and so on, which were supposed to provide the solid frameworks for our thinking and acting, but in fact only veiled the deeper sense of being human. Secondly, it is based on the fundamental act of self-assertion the almost infinite possibility of the usage of one’s own rational abilities. In accordance with this ideal the ultimate sense of being human would be the absolute lawgiving autonomy, which eventually is to constitute the open community of fully rational and freely acting individuals. In this way under the general idea of the free creativity, the freedom of thought is to meet the freedom of action, and the idea of the individual emancipation is to be identical with the constitution of the earthly kingdom of the rational freedom.

While analysing “Faust” by Johann Wolfgang Goethe we will point at the main traits of this great idea of modernity as well as the tragic dimensions which appear to be essentially inscribed into it, and eventually turn it into the a never fulfilled ideal. Faust is the archetype of the modern heroic individuality who transgresses all dependencies binding him/her to the established, traditional world in order to freely create and re-create himself/herself and join this activity with the never-ending creation of the better social and physical reality. But this heroism is tragic in nature. Faust not only, and from the very beginning, fails in constituting himself as the absolutely autonomous subject who tries to simply negate the sphere of his own primal and constitutive dependencies; not only frees the dark powers which he is not able to fully command. First and foremost, the project he undertakes eventually turns, by its very necessity, against him by depriving him of his own ground and justification. And that is because of the paradox immanent to the very idea of creativity. Tragedy with which we are faced here takes place on the individual, social but also metaphysical level.  This part will consist of two meetings.

Reading material:
Johan Wolfgang Goethe “Faust”

Part III
Tragedy and Christianity

(lecturers: Ferenc Hörcher, Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode)

The latter part of the course will trace other incarnations of the Faustian myth in Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, and Mann’s Doktor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend. In Marlowe the focus will be on the encounter between Tragedy and Christianity, and the relation of tragic choice to the concept of sin. This theme will be developed by addressing the question of the possibility of a Christian Tragedy with reference to Jaspers’ essay Tragedy is not Enough, in the perspective of the redemptive and the unredemptive narratives constituted by Christianity and Tragedy respectively. Through studying Mann’s novel we will map the Faust legend on to a 20th-century context of the rise of the Nazi regime and the ensuing cultural catastrophe.  The question of the possibility of a Christian Tragedy will be taken up in light of 20th century formulations of the problem of evil.

Two meetings will be co-convened by prof. Ferenc Hörcher, who will talk about the difference between artistic and philosophical, ancient and modern, secular and religious, personal and political accounts of tragic human choice in Sophocles and Aristotle, T.S. Eliot and Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, John Kekes and Roger Scruton.
This part will consist of five meetings.

Reading materials:
Christopher Marlowe, “Doctor Faustus”
Thomas Mann, “Doctor Faustus”
Karl Jaspers, “Tragedy is not Enough “
Sophocles,  “Antigone”
T. S. Eliot,  “Murder in the Cathedral”