I was asked recently what my favorite books are in the Shimer curriculum. Of course, that's as easy a question to answer as: So, have you stopped beating your wife yet? (Just try answering that yes or no.) But I have given the matter some thought, and after a lot of painful agonizing and trying to ignore sighs and indignant yells of other titles on my bookshelf, I've come up with a top five list.
This is entirely subject to change of opinion, time, experience, etc.
1. Godel's Proof. This is the culmination of Integrative Studies 2, and, I would argue, one of the most important books you'll ever read at Shimer. It refuted the idea of absolute mathematical truths and essentially proved that you could not have a non-axiomatic system. I translate that in practical terms to say that you will always have assumptions in an argument; you cannot prove everything. It's a challenging read, even the summary of it that we do cover (the full proof is too complex to get into in the amount of time that we have to read it), but I feel its implications appeal even to the non-mathematically minded. I have been thinking of things in terms of systems and axioms ever since I read this. It applies to any analysis of reading that I care to do.
2. Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway. One James Joyce and one Virginia Woolf, I include these together because they were both parts of an elective that I took last year. My mind exploded with implications for fiction and literature after I read both of these. They've inspired thoughts about how human minds work, and how, as an author, I can communicate this in literary characters. Both novels do stupendous jobs of chronicling one day of ordinary life in such a way as to celebrate that; as much as we as human beings strive for something "special," often our day-to-day life is fuller than any extraordinary event we can possibly imagine.
3. What Is Life? and Mind and Matter. This is part of the Natural Sciences 4 course, and you read it towards the end of the class. Erwin Schrodinger is an amazingly readable scientific author, and while I enjoyed reading his explanations of cellular processes as connected to chemistry (part of What is Life? and the only thing we were actually supposed to read), I found his writing in Mind and Matter to be absolutely brain-blowing. He talks about the separation of mind and body as the inherent assumption in modern science--and how that doesn't exist, and what the implications of that are in terms of how we approach the world and the ideal of "objectivity" in science. It's the best reading I ever read by accident as I thought it was assigned.
4. The Chimpanzees of Gombe. Another Natural Sciences reading, this one from Nat Sci 2. Maybe it seems odd to have Jane Goodall on my top five list, but the study of chimpanzees for me holds a lot of clues as to how we evolved into the human beings we are today. It fits for me the way Shimer studies ideas from the past in order to understand the present; I feel I gained insight into possible interpretations of human nature from reading about chimpanzees. The most interesting speculation I had, that Goodall mentions at the end, is that it was primarily war that caused chimps to evolve into human beings: the chimps that were better-organized and more able to fight and kill off rivals were the ones that survived. If human beings evolved by conflict, what does that say about our current course, and what we can do in the future?
5. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. This choice is equal parts pleasure as much as impact on my thought. It's the first thing you read in Humanities 2, and you spend a week or two discussing selected poems from the anthology. I wish we read more poetry, but this part of Hum 2 was blissful for me. While it's all western poetry, of course, it's got a huge range of authors and dates (including a lot of modern poetry), and we picked from all over the spectrum. I believe in poetry as much as expository writing as a mode of communicating philosophy. But unlike exposition, poetry deliberately lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations, and in a way stimulates the thought in a way that straight-out philosophical prose does not.
These are what I've read so far that have either blown my mind away or changed the way I think. I am always up for discussion on any of these.
So, last semester wasn't the best of semesters for me. I didn't do as well as I could have, but I passed all my classes and learned a thing or two. And with the memory of my struggles last semester fresh in my mind, I came back for my second semester of college.
That seems to be a fairly frequently asked question, and it's one that I've wondered about myself. The stereotype is unfortunately one of Western books written by DWM ("dead white men"), and for the most part the traditional Great Books curriculum (if there even is such a thing) includes some 450 odd-works that whose authors fit that category.
I say this spurred by the interest of a book someone recently brought to my attention called A Great Idea At the Time: The Rise, Fall and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam. Now I haven't read it, yet, but I did read the reviews of it and it mentioned the two people who were instrumental in starting the Great Books program in the University of Chicago back in the 1950s: Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler. Both of those names are familiar to me because Shimer still follows a large part of the Hutchins plan in its curriculum (in fact, one of our classrooms is named after him) and Mortimer J. Adler (along with Charles Van Doren) wrote a book called How to Read a Book, which I very much enjoyed. (It is an odd sort of thing to read a book about reading books, but it bears reading more than once. Sometimes older, "classical" books are frustrating because we haven't the slightest clue how to approach them. How to Read a Book gives you all that and more.)
Hutchins and Adler put 443 books they named the canon of western literature into 54 volumes, which they then published and sold door-to-door, trying to spread knowledge to the greater population outside of academia. (An interesting connection I found: my calculus teacher, from IIT this past semester, sold these volumes as a door-to-door salesman when he was younger.) A Great Idea at the Time chronicles that history and its apparent demise. Reading the review brought to my mind a great deal of arguments that have been made against pursuing the Great Books education:
1) It's not practical in the least.
2) Everything's outdated. I mean, who reads Newton and Fourier nowadays? Their achievements are embedded into our scientific history, but no one needs their experiments anymore.
3) They don't promote the cultural diversity that's the vogue nowadays. As mentioned above, the authors are almost all of them DWM.
4) They are difficult to approach and sometimes near impossible to wade through. I dare you to read Kant without once ranting at him.
My defense of what has arguably become my life in the past year and a half:
1) Practical is admittedly one of the arguments most thrown against four years of reading books. But our definitions of practicality usually align with learning the skills and facts that will enable us to get a job. Reading the Great Books, by contrast, will not help one get a job. This is not true. If you want to fight facts with facts, I could say there's a lot of studies out there that have shown that employers in the scientific and medical fields are actually looking for applicants with prior degrees in the liberal arts (going on to specialized and graduate school afterward, of course) because they know that these people are better critical thinkers, better analyzers, open-minded and aware of what's going on in the world. Or I could say that the better the books that you read, the better your writing becomes: Great Books have launched the career of many a journalist, a writer, a reporter. Others have gone on to become lawyers, teachers, business owners; just about anything you can imagine. The Great Books education is not "practical" in the narrow definition because no, it does not teach you the latest in computer science, nor does it require you to memorize the periodic table or quantum formulas. But it teaches you to see the connections between things, the evolution of ideas across the ages, and knowing this you can more easily see how our world works today. It gives you the critical eye needed to cut through a lot of the information pills that our media force-feeds us today and pay attention to what's actually going on in the world, to make your own decisions based on primary sources rather than second- or third-hand sources. And, one thing that I feel is uniquely Shimer--and I freely admit my bias here, as well as lack of experience elsewhere--it helps you to discover what it is you really want to do. Many colleges that you enter are specialized to some degree or another, and you have to choose a degree about halfway through. Shimer's education is general all the way down the line, and you don't have to choose what you want to do so quickly. Reading what I have, both in and out of Shimer's curriculum, has pointed me down a lot of avenues I might not have otherwise explored. But that's for another post.
2) Outdated, yes. Useless? No. Much of science that I was taught throughout my public school years involved memorizing formulas, with little emphasis on how the ideas actually came about. Reading the really, really old scientists, even the ones that seem ridiculous (the pre-Socratics: the world is made out of earth, air, fire and water? Hah!), allows you to trace the evolution of ideas and really know why we are where we are today in science, politics, humanities and so many other areas. I think about it in the same way I think about math: if you know how to derive a million formulas from a single base, then you really only have to remember one thing.
3) Now, while this charge is true of some Great Books curricula, it is certainly not true of Shimer's. I'll name a few authors I've read here that are definitely not D, W, M or otherwise: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Mary Wollstonecraft, W.E.B. DuBois, Jane Goodall, Ruth Benedict, Carol Gilligan... and many others I have not yet had the chance to read. Shimer doesn't stick to the Great Books of the Western World canon outlined fifty years ago; it constantly challenges and updates itself. We read modern, female, minority authors that few, if any, other Great Books colleges include. The importance of that? The Great Books are not dead. The conversations and the writings continue still.
4) This is why we approach the books as a group. I admit, the first time I read through Jame Joyce's Ulysses I was hitting my head on the nearest wall. But when I came into class and we were all equally confused, we came out of our confusion together to some kind of understanding, and the effort it took to work through it made it seem even better: my mind was stretched, and my world expanded. I believe that the basic mentality towards many books written today is that they should be automatically intelligible to everyone, and books written a long time ago are only for smart people to read. Neither statement is true. It's the book that you struggle with before understanding that sticks with you the most, and I really think that almost anyone who puts their mind to it can, with aid, get through a lot of the classical books written centuries ago. It doesn't mean that you have to enjoy all of them (I certainly don't). But there is so much to be gotten from them that you can't simply not try.
Reading these is what brings the Shimer community together as a whole. Whatever other differences in views and opinion we might have, we've all read the same thing. That, to me, is one of the greatest aspects of Shimer's education.
I've mentioned already that I am a junior at Shimer, however most of the other Shimerians here with me in Oxford are in their last year and are thus working on their Senior theses. The idea behind the thesis is that it affords Shimer students a culminating opportunity to really do substantive work on a project or idea that we are passionate about in a way that draws on everything we've learned while at the college. Among some of the really interesting things my comrades here are doing are theses involving research projects, recording music, or translating poetry. All of this puts me in mind to start pondering what I think I'd like to do for my own thesis next year and just this week I think I've begun to develop an idea that I am really excited about.
I've always been really interested in vision, the visual arts and all the fertile connections there are to be made between them and philosophy. I am especially interested in the way that our ideas about seeing get used as a kind of metaphor for both knowledge and illusion. These kinds of associations can be traced back at least to Plato, who, in his famous “Allegory of the Cave” in the Republic used the play of shadows cast on a cave's wall to illustrate the deceptive world of appearances on earth and the symbol of blinding sunlight to represent the eternal truth of the forms.
But I think what I would particularly like to explore in a thesis is the way slightly more modern philosophers use the model of sight to try to understand the problems of human consciousness, or, more specifically what many 19th and 20th century German philosophers would begin to call 'false consciousness' or 'ideology.'
Take, for example, Ludwig Fuerbach's musing on the eye in his book The Essence of Christianity.“The eye looks into the starry heavens [and] gazes at that light [and] sees its own nature and its own origin. Hence Man [sic] elevates himself above the earth only with the eye.” Without going into to too much detail about his philosophy, I can say that Feuerbach uses this model of the human eye, seeing it's own divine nature in the heavens, to propel an argument that challenges Christian doctrines. Not that he wants to get rid of religion, in fact, he actually places a high value on it, because he thinks it expresses, though in an inverted form, humanity's idea of its true essence. Feuerbach argues that though religion represents human creativity as if it depends on God, in reality God is just the projection of an ideal image of humanity's own capacities. Feuerbach goes back to optical metaphors to try to explain this inversion and the projection of human potential into the idea of God saying it is like “the double refraction of the rays of light.” Feuerbach thought that if he could get people to change the way they interpreted their own nature—to stop inverting their own potential through a prism of false consciousness—then many of humanities problems could be solved.
Karl Marx, who came along shortly after Feuerbach, thought all this talk about ideals and essences was flaky. Writing about Feuerbach, Marx famously said “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” For Marx, the character of human life doesn't come from contemplation of starry abstractions; it comes from real-world activity. Marx thinks that Feuerbach makes a big mistake in trying to improve human conditions by simply getting people to think differently. In fact, for Marx putting ideas before action (or in the lingo of philosophers, theory before praxis) obscures our consciousness of our relationships to the world and each other. To summarize the disagreement more succinctly: Feuerbach thinks that abstract ideas determine human the nature of human existence; but Marx thinks human actions produce all our ideas. The problem of false consciouness as Marx see it, is that people (and I think he would include Feuerbach here) fail to see the role active production plays in the formation of our ideas. But what is so interesting to me is that Marx picks up, and even elaborates on the optical tropes used by Feuerbach to make this point. In The German Ideology Marx writes that “men [sic] are the produces of their conceptions, ideals, etc. [...] If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera-obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.”
Wouldn't it be really interesting to trace these and other strains of thought linking vision to false consciousness in relation to the development of optical technologies such as the lens or the photograph or film?
I think this kind of thesis would raise another question: is there something fundamentally deceptive about seeing? Or on the contrary can vision, or different visual technologies, ever reveal things about our existence that are otherwise hidden? (Walter Benjamin makes a really interesting argument to this effect in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction when he claims that film can reveal an “optical unconscious”... more fodder for the thesis, I guess)
Anyway, just in case this post isn't long enough already, Marx's mention of the camera obscura lets me segue neatly into something really cool here in Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum of Science.
They have a whole collection of neat optical devices ranging from ancient telescopes to early microscopes and primitive photographic projectors. The coolest thing they have, however, is a functioning camera obscura.
The name is Latin for 'dark chamber,' and it's basically
a way to project an image onto a surface. Lots of Renaissance artists
used them as drawing aides and Aristotle used a primitive form of the
principle to watch an eclipse, the old pinhole in a dixie cup from
grade school. This is a more advanced application of the same idea,
using lenses and mirrors (which is why in the image I show below isn't inverted in the way Marx mentions).
This is the aperture:
It looks out the window on to Broad Street.
And to see the image, you poke your head under the sheet.
I really dig the ghostly quality of the camera obscura image. I feel like its a bit of a precursor to the appeal of sitting in a dark theater and watching a movie. If you ever get a chance to get into one, I recommend it.
This week I've been reading an essay by Martin Heidegger for my Oxford tutorial on Aesthetics and Critical Theory. In the essay, Heidegger asks a deceptively simple question: what does a work of art do? As Heidegger sees it, art work is about more than making something beautiful to hang on the wall. In fact as Heidegger contends, art does nothing short of creating our world. At first this sounds like quite a stretch—how can art create a world? Heidegger holds up the example of a Greek temple as a kind of art work to make this point. For the ancient Greeks, a temple was not about its beauty; instead, the work of building and consecrating a temple is about opening up a space for a collective understanding of all the ups and downs of existence. In this sense, the term “art work” has a kind of active connotation; it is a process of making the world meaningful, of figuring out what it means to be human in the context of other people and things at a given time. The up shot of all of this (at least as I plan to argue to my tutor) is that Heidegger presents us with a startling reversal of the conventional wisdom that a given culture produce art. Instead, what this essays seems to tell us is that it is in art work that we find the positive enactment of a community. (I feel the jargon coming on, so I'll stop with the bit about the temple.)
All of this becomes a little bit more clear when Heidegger give us another gives us another example by way of a painting of a peasant woman's shoes by Vincent Van Gogh.
On one level, Heidegger tells us that the shoes are merely things—mute objects that don't hold any meaning. On another level, the shoes mean something to the peasant they belong to—they are every day things that are useful for walking around and keeping warm, but she never really gives them a second thought. But here is the important part: in the work of art, the shoes reveal the truth of not just their own existence, but that of their surroundings, their owner, and, as I think as Heidegger might argue, even us. Heidegger unpacks all of this in a stunning passage.
From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth , its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry fields.
As much as I like Heidegger's exegesis of the Van Gogh, it would be disingenuous of me, looking at the painting in the 21st , to say that I see everything that Heidegger sees in the shoes. I have a feeling that this is because I grew up in Chicago in the 1980's and 90's and, frankly, have had little experience “trudging in furrows” or “toiling with ripening grain.” In short, I come from a different world than the peasant woman implied by the painting. But what happens in this case? What happens when we lose contact with the context of the world and the community that art belongs to? I think that Heidegger would say that when art stops being something that makes sense of existence and no longer unites a community it becomes a mere thing. In the paper I am writing for my tutorial I argue that it is at this point—when we become disconnected from the world that art creates—that we start to talk about beauty, aesthetics, and art for art's sake. For an excellent example, I don't need to look too far from Oxford. I'm thinking of the Elgin marbles, which were removed from the Parthenon in Athens and brought to the British Gallery in London in the 19th century.
When I visit them in London, removed as they are from their context, I can appreciate their form, their symmetry, their repose, but they will never have the dynamic, living meaning for me as they would have for Pericles gazing up on them from the Acropolis in the 5th century BC. That deeper meaning of these works of art is lost to me. They may be beautiful, but in many ways they are just dead stone, just plain things.
This reduction of art to its “thing” quality is also something I have been exploring in my tutorial. The Van Gogh painting or the Elgin marbles seem like “things” or plain old objects to me now, but this is because the worlds they conjure up are alien as a result of distances in space and the passing of time. But many recent critics contend that even contemporary art works fails to go beyond being merely things to reveal truths about the world. Many of these kinds of claims cite Karl Marx and his work Capital. There Marx argues that modern economies are able to exchange goods and labor by thinking about everything in terms of equivalent things or, in short, by objectifying everything into the form of commodities. Many Marxist thinkers I have read in this term argue that this way of thinking has penetrated almost every aspect of our consciousness, including our art. The cultural critic Fredric Jameson does an excellent job of illustrating this point by comparing Heidegger's reading of Van Gogh's shoes to Diamond Dust Shoes, a painting by Andy Warhol.
Unlike the Van Gogh, which conjures up a whole lived experience, Jameson says that Warhol's shoes are a “random collection of dead objects hanging together on the canvas like so many turnips, [...] shorn of their earlier life.” The Warhol shoes exist superficially and we can't imagine them being worn or revealing any profound truths about their world in the way that the peasant's shoes do. Here, like in his famous soup can paintings, Warhol seems to be examining the effects of commodification on works art.
All of this is, of course, fascinating and, as any good set of readings should, it leaves me with more questions than answers. Of few of them being:
If Heidegger is right and art really does “set up a world,” what are the responsibilities of the artist? (This question seems even more pressing when we consider the aestheticization of politics carried out by the Nazis, with whom Heidegger was complicit)
Can we ever truly understand the art of a bygone world? Do art works offer a way to empathize with others from different times and places? And if so couldn't this kind of empathy be counted among arts beautiful qualities?
Has the commodification of our modern (or postmodern world) eliminated the possibility of authentic art as Heidegger sees it? If not what might be some examples of authentic contemporary art works?
My name is Heath Iverson. I'm a junior majoring in humanities at Shimer College . Currently, I am taking part in the college's biannual Shimer-in-Oxford program where I am studying continental philosophy, art, and film. I came to Shimer two years ago after spending a few really unsatisfying years at another college. My time at Shimer has been the most challenging and stimulating of my life and has given me so many opportunities to explore my own intellectual interests both at home in Chicago and here in Britain with experts at Oxford University and the National School of Film and Television. After graduating next year I plan on pursuing a MA in moving image archiving and preservation followed by a PhD in cinema studies.
The opinions expressed by the Shimer bloggers are theirs alone, are subject to change upon each blogger's reflection, and do not reflect the opinions of Shimer College. Shimer is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of any of the information supplied on this blog and strongly encourages you to contact the Shimer Admission Office directly if you have questions about Shimer. The entries on this blog belong to their authors and to Shimer College. Shimer encourages and deeply values discussion, but the college is not responsible for what is posted by commenters and reserves the right to delete any comment for any reason whatsoever. Deletions will likely be made if commentary is commercial, irrelevant, abusive, profane, rude, or destructively inaccurate. Shimer students on the regular staff of this blog are modestly compensated for their efforts.