English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities-- Baroque and Enlightenment
(L. Baker's sections)
Goals and methods of the course
The humanities embrace literature (including theology, philosophy and history, as well as fiction in prose, verse or the theater), the visual arts (painting, sculpture and architecture) and music (which, alas, we shall only marginally address). Our course, the third part of the Introduction to Western Humanities sequence at Kansas State, will explore central developments and masterpieces that emerged during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in Europe (an era often labeled the "Early Modern Period").
Specifically, we will focus on the period between 1517 (when Luther precipitated debate that culminated in the Protestant Reformation) to 1789 (the outbreak of the French Revolution). From time to time, however, we will have to reach back into the middle ages and even into the eras of the Greeks and Romans and into Biblical times, in order to understand what the people whose works we are examining were reacting against or re-appropriating for their own purposes.
(See, eventually, the more specific description of the way in which our theme is articulated in the Organizational Framework of the Course.)
But we are here interested in more than this theme in itself. An essential reason-for-being of this course is to induct students into the kinds of thinking that people must be able to carry out in order to make sense of our cultural past.
Your job here is to "pick up my moves," to "get the hang of" the various activities the works we address call for on the part of their original audience, and on the part of an audience of our time. What questions do these different critters prompt us to ask? How are so they constructed as to provide materials for answers? And what do we need to do to convert these materials-for-answers into answers?
- We will not, in other words, be taking up the works we read in isolation from each other. Always we will be trying to integrate them into a larger picture.
- This does not, however, mean that we will be trying to reconcile them with each other, for they definitely do not speak with one voice.
- So we will not be looking for any single "plot" behind this history, as if what has happened were a story crafted by an author pursuing a definite theme ("the discovery of the individual," "the emergence of freedom as a cultural idea," "the birth of the modern democratic ideal"). Nor will we be focusing, in the works we take up, on their lowest common denominator with some conception of what we take ourselves to have become in the present.
- Of course we will discover some important continuities: Voltaire, for example, sees himself in important ways as an apostle of Francis Bacon a century earlier; and Swift will inherit from Donne both his hostility to the "New Science" and his pessimism about the prospect of human improvement, at the same time he shares with Erasmus (two centuries before) an admiration for the wisdom of the ancients and the New Testament.
- But often our integration will consist of seeing how different minds take divergent positions on the same issues, and of seeing how different issues connect up with each other.
- These conflicts are often actively with us today. It is, in other words, an illusion to believe that there is such a thing as "the" Western World, or that there is any "essence" or what Aristotle would have called an "entelechy" working itself out in the course of time. Our past bequeaths the conditions and the materials out of which become what we do. But what we become is always in important ways up for grabs. The "end of history" is not yet come.
To sum up: There are several misconceptions that students sometimes bring to a course such as ours. It is important to get these cleared up as soon as possible. One is the assumption that our business here is simply to master certain facts -- about the meaning of certain works, about trends in history, about the lives and views of important people. Of course we won't get far if we aren't ambitious to know these things. But we cannot rationally and passionately care about these matters unless we are even more curious about their various dimensions of significance -- and this is to say, avid to pursue their interrelationships. And this we cannot do by just memorizing another "body of facts" (the second- and third- and n-order facts about their interrelationships). No, it means we have to get competent and turned on in the business of thinking about them. Indeed, we have to get engaged in the activity of thinking our way through paintings, fictions, different sorts of philosophical works in the first place. How do we make sense of these? And what do we "do with" the sense that we have made? More fundamentally, how does one learn to think (as opposed to memorize things read in textbooks or said by instructors)?
You may also want to reflect on the role of Reason and Objectivity in Interpretation, which explores what it does (and does not) mean to say that interpretation of works of art (paintings, plays, and poems, for example) is "necessarily subjective." If you have questions on the issues raised here or on the positions I adopt upon them, by all means raise your questions to class. Or you can e-mail your puzzlements to me at email@example.com and I will try to satisfy your curiosity.
An important link available from the document just cited is a short essay More on "being able", which addresses various damaging confusions many students have about the nature of "intellectual talent," the business of a university education, and the role in such an education of courses like ours. As you will see, the kind of expectations students put upon themselves in their general elective courses has serious political consequences for the future of whatever country they happen to be citizens of.
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Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Contents copyright © 2001 by Lyman A. Baker.
Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.
This page last updated 20 August 2001.