Philosophy and Political Thought

“The unexamined life is not worth living”, said Socrates. Students in Philosophy and Political Thought will examine their lives: Is the world that we see and inhabit a product of our imaginations? Which habits of mind and action lead to the most fulfilling lives? What does justice require of us? Does history bring progress? As one philosopher famously asked: What can I know? What should I do? And what can I hope for? Rather than confronting these sorts of questions on their own, students will have texts from a number of traditions as their guides. They will learn to read these works closely, to dissect arguments into their constituent parts, and to understand them in their broader contexts. Students will also learn to read texts sympathetically, to search for insight in the very parts of a book that might initially seem wrongheaded or strange.

Semester One’s writings about Confucius, Socrates, and other thinkers offer ancient wisdom in the form of dialogues between different interlocutors, and the mode of instruction in the Yale-NUS classroom will reflect this dialogical format as professors introduce topics for conversation and encourage students to interrogate their own assumptions. Semester Two brings students into contact with the intellectual makers of the modern world – the original proponents of modern science and technology, of free trade and economic growth, and of the modern state – and with their deepest critics. Here, students will develop understandings of how different conceptions of modernity and enlightenment appear and shed light on one another.

Examples of course content

Can ethics be taught? If so, how? What roles do reason and emotion play in ethical behaviour? Is there one set of ethical virtues appropriate for all people? How do the traditions of Confucian ethics differ from that of Aristotle’s ethics? How can we properly begin to compare them?

What duties do we have to our parents or to our countries? One view emerges in Mengzi’s understanding of Confucian ethics, while a different view can be found in Cicero’s Roman writings. Can these views be brought into conversation with one another, or were the historical contexts so different as to make them wholly incommensurable?

Is the state a form of political organisation designed to secure freedom? Or is it a great threat to freedom? The early modern European social contract tradition offers one answer, while Gandhi offers a very different view. From what perspective can we best understand the promises and pitfalls of the modern nation-state?

What exists? What ethical consequences follow from our answer to that question? The Indian writer Nāgārjuna and the European philosopher Spinoza both argued that the reality of the world was radically different from, and simpler than, its appearance. Spinoza argued his points
in sparse, logical prose, while Nāgārjuna wrote in riddling verse. Does the mode of expression influence the philosophic content of their thought?

What distinguishes certain knowledge from opinion, imagination, sense-perception, and illusion? While Descartes builds his philosophical system upon the certainty of knowledge of the self, a number of Buddhist philosophers question our very access to a unified self, and Nietzsche asks whether living well might not require a certain amount of falsehood and illusion.

Learning Goals

Students in Philosophy and Political Thought will:

  • Learn to distinguish sound arguments from specious ones.
  • Learn to write clearly and logically.
  • Immerse themselves in the intellectual world of certain authors deeply enough to gain an understanding of their distinct patterns of thought.
  • Develop a capacity for empathetic understanding as well as habits of skeptical questioning by exploring difficult texts about perennially challenging questions.
  • Become familiar with major strands of moral reasoning and ethical thought, philosophical approaches to the nature of reality and human perception, and theoretical accounts of politics and justice.
  • Reflect on the deepest sources of their beliefs about the world.
Justify their opinions about what is good and worthy of admiration.
  • Articulate the nature of their obligations to others.