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Fall 2023 - Class Option #1

What Science Can’t Teach Us: A Humanities Approach to Making Sense of the World

The great political theorist Isaiah Berlin once said that there is an old quarrel between two rival ways of knowing the world: a paradigmatically scientific form of knowledge that is produced by methodical, systematic inquiry, and a more impalpable alternative that has been variously characterized as good judgment, wisdom, or art.

In this course we will be examining various oppositions related to this rivalry, like the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge, between empiricism and aesthetics, between reason and emotion, and between fact and value.

One major aim of this course is to use these oppositions to help explore some differences between the sciences and the humanities.  It is often taken for granted that the natural sciences aim at knowledge that is theoretical, empirical, rational, and fact-based; but there is much less certainty about whether the humanities should be guided by the same paradigm of knowledge, or whether it would be better served by adopting a fundamentally different conception of its aims and methods. Are there distinctively literary or aesthetic ways of knowing, different from the sciences? What do arts, practices, feelings and values teach us that knowledge cannot?

 We will pursue these questions by engaging both literary and philosophical texts.

Sample Texts

Course enhancement possibilities

We anticipate inviting scholars to the class to reflect on the nature of research in humanities, and we also hope to arrange a visit to a museum or two to explore the unique epistemological problems posed by the visual arts:  How are museums organized differently, either to present knowledge or stimulate aesthetic appreciation? Does scientific information need to be presented aesthetically, and do art museums do more than present information?


Mark Alznauer is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy. He has a B.A. from St. John’s College (Annapolis) and a Ph.D. from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago (2008). He specializes in ethics, aesthetics, and social theory in nineteenth century European philosophy. He also has interests in the history of political philosophy, the theory of action, and the philosophy of religion. He is the author of Hegel’s Theory of Responsibility (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and the former Vice President of the Hegel Society of America.

Vivasvan Soni is Associate Professor in the Department of English. His book, Mourning Happiness: Narrative and the Politics of Modernity, won the MLA’s prize for a first book. It examines how novels shape the modern concept of happiness and make it unusable for politics, arguing that classical ideas of happiness are better suited to the political imagination. He is currently completing a book manuscript on The Crisis of Judgment, which traces our modern discomfort with judgment to the eighteenth century, and explains why judgment is so important to a humanistic understanding of the world. When that is complete, he hopes to work on a book about Jane Austen’s politics, and one about utopian writing.