Seminar “Personhood, Law & Literature. Humane Philosophy and the Idea of the Tragic” (slightly modified program)

3 mar, 2016; 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
– the third series

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 Third Series – 2015/2016
Time and Place: Thursdays 5–8 pm, room 108 (Institute of Philosophy UW)
Schedule (I semester): 26.11; 10.12; 07.01; 14.01; 03.03; 17.03; 07.04; 12.05
The number of hours: 32
Credit allocation: 3

dr Przemysław Bursztyka (Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw)
mgr Mikołaj Sławkowski- Rode (Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw; University of Oxford)


  • dr Janusz Ostrowski (Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw)
  • Jonathan Price (PhD Fellow and Lecturer at University of Leiden Law School; Tutor at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford)
  • dr Agata Łukomska (Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw)
  • Ralph S. Weir (University of Oxford; University of Cambridge)
  • mgr Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode (Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw; Tutor and Lecturer at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford)
  • prof. Jos de Mul (Erasmus University of Rotterdam)
  • prof. Randall Auxier (Department of Philosophy, Southern Illinois University Carbondale)

Ancient Tragic Individuality of Ethical Life versus Modern Comical Subjectivity of Bourgeois’ Society (lecturer: dr Janusz Ostrowski)

The main aim of this part of the seminar is to analyze the phenomenon of the tragic which appears as the confrontation of state family and deity as it is presented in Sophocles’ “Antigone. This perspective will be confronted with – what one can call – the comedy of modernity as it is evoked in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. While the analysis of “Antigone” will be undertaken from a perspective of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”, the reflection on Shakespeare’s work will be inspired by Marx’ thought.

Structure of seminar meetings:
1. The concept of tragedy as a conflict of equivalent values (state, religion, family, powers, traditions, justifications etc.
1.1. Dependence of equivalent values (state and religion) and their constitution.
1.2. The explicite and implicite levels of relations of opposites.

2. Lack of transcendent perspective – the immanence of conflict
2.1. Play of dependence and independence as “the inner other” in opposites.
2.2. The annihilation of opposites as the annihilation of totality.

3. Indivuduality as embodiment of values.
3.1. Sozialization as the framework of the ancient individuality.

4. Impossibility of tragedy in bourgeois’ society.
4.1. Quantitative character of conflict.
4.2. Economy as the base of subjectivity.
4.3. Idividualization as the framework of sozialization.

This part will consist of two seminar meetings.
Sophocles, “Antigone” – first seminar meeting (26.11)
William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice” – second seminar meeting (10.12)

What is it like to be modern? (lecturer: Jonathan Price)

The aim of these two seminars is to present a minimalist functional definition of modern cultural identity in terms of consent, equality and autonomy. These are able to function as moral values, evaluations and virtues for anything properly called modern, together forming a cultural identity that we refer to merely as ‘modern’. Moreover, this cultural identity bridges the personal and the institutional – one can be a ‘modern man’ or form a ‘modern state’ – and thus they are able to tell us much about the character of modern law and modern personhood. For instance, if we say that a law is ‘medieval’, or when we say that a man is ‘quite modern’, we are usually implicitly appealing to one or more of these three moral values, or noting a deficiency in its presence, rather than only saying something is ‘not up to date’. We are judging it to be bad or good, as the case may be, based largely on those moral values. And we generally expect modern persons or institutions to act in certain ways, again based largely on these three values, but now recognized as virtues and concomitant vices. Wherever possible, examples are primarily drawn from literature, and presented in comparison to what came before, the ancient and its ancient law and personhood.

The dates of seminar meetings: 07.01 and 14.01

Luck, fate, and the ambitions of ethical theory (lecturer: dr Agata Łukomska)

Ever since they posed the question of what is, essentially, a good life, Western philosophers have concentrated on the issue of making it safe from things which are not up to us. Commands of the gods, secret forces behind the events in our lives, blind urges of our bodies, irrationality of our emotional attachments – the predominant ethical tradition came to see all those factors as threats to the stability necessary for a human life worth living. The natural reaction to such a vision is placing a general demand on practical thinking: it should be such that it can shield us from the disruptive force of what we cannot control. But can there indeed be a morality immune to luck? Following some chief skeptics (Martha Nussbaum, Bernard Williams, David Wiggins, Susan Wolf, Harry Frankfurt…), we will try to take a closer look at the limits of our practical thinking.

The date of the seminar meeting: 03.03

Law and moral personhood in Dostoyevsky (lecturers: Ralph S. Weir, Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode)

Perhaps the most famous passages from Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” are those describing the discussion between Alyosha and Ivan surrounding the latter’s “Grand Inquisitor” parable. Here, and elsewhere in the work, a central theme is the way in which human persons experience the world of value: aesthetic, epistemic, moral, and religious. Another place where this topic comes to the fore is in the speech of the public prosecutor who asserts that ‘we possess broad, unrestrained natures… capable of contemplating at one and the same time the two abysses – the abyss above us, the abyss of the highest ideals, and the abyss below us, the abyss of the lowest and most malodorous degradation.’  This class will discuss the experience of value in “Brothers Karamazov” with reference to other literary works and moral philosophy.

The date of the seminar meeting: 17.03
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “Brothers Karamazov”

The tragic humanism of Michel Houellebecq (lecturer: prof. Jos de Mul)

Various authors, including Friedrich Nietzsche and George Steiner, have argued that the tragic worldview, as we find it expressed in Greek tragedy, has become an entirely incomprehensible phenomenon for (post)modern man. In the seminar I would like to discuss a radically opposing view. It will be argued that tragedy can still teach us something today, and maybe even more so now than in the many intervening centuries that separate us from her days of glory in the fifth century BCE. The tragic reveals itself once more in (post)modern society, and nowhere more clearly than in technology, the domain in which we believed the tragic had been domesticated or even eliminated. Referring to the tragic humanism in Michel Houellebecq’s novels “The Elementary Particles” and “The Possibility of an Island” it is argued that it is precisely in (post)modern (bio)technologies that we experience the rebirth of the tragic.

The date of the seminar meeting: 07.04
Suggested  Readings:
Michel Houellebecq, “The Elementary Particles”
Michel Houellebecq, “The Possibility of an Island”
Jos de Mul (2014). “Destiny Domesticated. The Rebirth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Technology”, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Invisible Man (lecturer: prof. Randall Auxier)

This session will consider whether laws and entire cultures render some persons “invisible” in the sense depicted by Ralph Ellison’s classic novel. Is it possible to be metaphysically annihilated while retaining individuality, a legal status, and playing a vital role in the economic, artistic, and religious life of a nation? Is the failure or refusal to imagine the other an imaginative act?

The date of the seminar meeting: 12.05
Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”
Malcolm X, “Speech before the Harvard Law School Forum”, December 16, 1964
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience” (Speech before the Fellowship of the Concerned, November 16, 1961)

Personhood Law & Literature – Humane Philosophy and the Idea of the Tragic 2015-2016