PSCI 430: Dignity
Last offered: Fall 2015

Over the last few decades, the concept of dignity has become one of the most contentious and emotive terms in democratic politics. Policy battles over embryonic stem cell research, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, life-sustaining treatments such as mechanical ventilation, and the constitutionality of the death penalty have all been fought out on the grounds of human dignity. But what exactly does dignity mean? Is it an existential demand for respect? A moral, intangible quality of a person? A set of legally guaranteed rights of citizens? This course examines some of the strongest attacks on and defenses of human dignity, both in theory and in practice. The emphasis will be on the role of dignity in shaping modern ideas of democracy, citizenship, and human rights. Readings construct a genealogy of dignity that includes Aquinas, Pico della Mirandola and Kant. Contemporary theories of dignity will be explored through the work of Drucilla Cornell, Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, Jeremy Waldron, and the dignity jurisprudence of Canada, Germany, Namibia, South Africa, and the United States.


PSCI 430: Critical Theory (on the concept of progress)
Last offered: Fall 2018

This course explores two major themes emerging from the work of theorists associated with the Frankfurt School: the critique of progress, Enlightenment and modernity and the recuperation of certain Enlightenment ideals and hopes for progress in new, aesthetic forms. The first part of the course looks at Karl Marx's critique of alienation and reification, asking how Marx's ideas are picked up and modified in the writings of Georg Lukacs, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.  We will also pay attention to the influence of Freud on Herbert Marcuse's critique of civilization. The second part of the course turns to the writings of Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, whose efforts to reconstruct emancipatory ideals in Marxist thought after the collapse of teleology have been described as “maverick” and “utopian.”  Among our questions: What is the price of progress? What are the prospects for freedom in modern societies, where individuality, down to the very structure of our instincts and drives, is shaped by mass culture and social institutions? Can agency and subjectivity be recovered within a “totally administered society”?  What may we hope?

Key texts:
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project Ernst Bloch, Traces
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents
Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History
Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness
Robert C. Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader


PSCI 430: Critical Theory (on money and politics)
Last offered: Fall 2019

This course takes a critical look at the nexus of money and political power in the United States and world politics, using the concept of “racket society” to guide our inquiry. The theory of “rackets” was first put forward by Frankfurt School theorists in the 1940s as a way of analyzing linkages among organized crime, cartels, monopolies, corporate interests, and political institutions. Their project, which we will recreate in this course, was to trace the effects of the adaptation of the legal system (and other state institutions) to the conglomeration of capital and the concentration of wealth in a few hands. The flow of money offers insights into these deeper trends. Course readings begin with the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Franz Neumann, Friedrich Pollock, and Herbert Marcuse, paying special attention to their discussion of the anti-democratic effects of money on political institutions. We will also look carefully at their critique of legal frameworks that protect the wealthy while criminalizing the poor. Although these concerns were not exclusive to the Frankfurt School, the approach they took had some unique features. Having fled Nazi Germany and re-established their research institute in exile the United States, Horkheimer and his colleagues brought an outsider-insider perspective to the problem. Among our questions are the following: How did the intellectual heritage of the Frankfurt School and their experiences in Germany shape their analysis of racket society in 1940s America? Does the theory of rackets still have analytical power today? Given the massive expansion of the U.S. economy and the role of transnational capital in driving economic globalization in recent decades, what insights might the early Frankfurt School offer critics of anti-democratic tendencies in world politics today?