Spring 2014 Undergraduate English Courses: Literary Theory
01 TTH4 CAC 16547 GASKILL SC-219
Pragmatism, a philosophical method devoted to grounding concepts in lived experience, is often celebrated as America’s most distinctive contribution to the history of philosophy. Between the 1870s and 1940s, its main proponents—C.S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey—developed novel accounts of truth, consciousness, language, identity, and democracy that shaped the intellectual and cultural climates of the country. In our course, we will put this intellectual tradition in dialogue with literary works that adapt, perform, prefigure, and challenge its central concepts and methods. We will use this pairing not only to understand some significant examples of American literary writing but also to ask a more general series of questions about literature and philosophy: What makes a literary text philosophical? How do novels and poems “think” in ways distinctive from philosophy? What does philosophy gain from literature? And how can philosophy give us terms for discussing the significance of literary works?
We will begin with the “pre-history” of pragmatism in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau. We will then use philosophers and writers to investigate pragmatist notions of experience, truth, and identity. We will develop a general understanding of what pragmatist philosophy is, but we will focus in particular on those aspects of pragmatism most helpful to the study of literature: Peirce’s theory of signs, James’s psychology, and Dewey’s aesthetics. Other readings will include works by Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Alain Locke, and Jane Addams. All of our readings will help us to track the development of a particularly pragmatist notion of aesthetics, one based on the creation of new energies and possibilities within experience (rather than on canons of taste or artistic conventions).
Requirements: regular reading responses, a short paper, a revision of that short paper, and a final seminar paper.