Monday 1/14

Introduction

Synopsis

This is the first of hopefully many synopses. The synopses give me another shot at explaining points from lecture, let me highlight important points, and, frequently, let me expand on our discussions in (hopefully) useful ways.

Today I introduced the mechanics of the course and tried to motivate our topic for the semester--as if, I suppose, it needs much motivation.

As to mechanics, the course is fairly straightforward. First, it bears emphasis that there are no prerequisites for this course. In fact I've become convinced that this course is in its own way a useful introduction to philosophy--not so much in the range of topics ordinarily studied by philosophy, but in how philosophy proceeds, both historically and procedurally. In any case, I am quite confident that you need not have taken any previous course in philosophy to do well in this course. Indeed, whatever you may have heard of my reputation, this is by far the most accessible course I offer on this campus.

Accordingly, there is no term paper requirement for the course as would ordinarily be the case for a junior-level philosophy course. The writing you do, which is always extremely important in any philosophy class, will consist of short-essay answers to specific and detailed questions. In particular, there is a take-home midterm examination and a take-home final examination. It is a format I've used for some time, and I've found it a highly successfull approach to exploring this material. Your answers on these exams must be your own, of course, but they are take-home exams precisely to encourage groups of students to get together to discuss the questions. You see, it is in such discussions that the real study of philosophy takes place.

Along with the exams, there are daily reading quizzes. Now, I must confess that I rarely teach a course exactly the same semester after semester. That would be boring, and I always like to try out suggestions from student evaluations. For example, prior to teaching this course I had not done reading quizzes in any of my classes. I tried true/false reading quizzes with this class, but some students found them overly 'tricky'. As per their suggestions, I moved to short-essay reading quizzes. I have been quite pleased with the results, especially as the assignment gives me a clear picture of how well everyone has prepared for class. The procedure is simple. Beginning on Wednesday 01-23, I will prepare three essay questions about the reading assigned for that day and post them on the lecture page along with the readings, notes, etc. One of the questions will be chosen for the reading quiz, and we will spend five minutes (more or less) at the beginning of the day answering the question. I'll provide the paper. See the syllabus for details on scoring and further information about course mechanics. Please note that since I only take the best twenty of your reading quizzes, it is very much in your interest to take as many of these reading quizzes as time allows. The most I've ever done in a semester was 32; you can expect between 25 and 30, I should think.

As to motivating the topic for the course, well, a philosophical study of love and sex doesn't really need much motivation, does it?

I think it's important to understand that this is not a course in human sexuality with respect to either biology or psychology. Superficially this means that the course assumes you already know the basics. On a deeper level, I claim that even if all the neuro-physiological facts about love and sex were known, we still would not know what it is like to be in love, or to experience passion, or to understand the full dimension and importance of love to living a flourishing human life. Put another way, all the bio-chemical explanations that might be given for human bonding and sexual behaviors do not add up to an understanding of romantic love.

To underscore the fundamental importance of love in our lives, I invited everyone to consider 'Loveless Joe'. Loveless Joe is truly loveless. There is nothing he loves, including himself. Indeed, since he loves nothing, he hates nothing. He is, in short, perfect indifference personified. Yet more than that, Loveless Joe is a zombie. Not a Hollywood zombie, you understand: They at least love to eat brains. No, without love of anything whatsoever, Loveless Joe has no reason to do anything whatsoever. He would not, for instance, step out of the way of an oncoming bus, because he is completely indifferent to his own life. He would not even be found crossing the street to be hit by a bus in the first place, since what reason would he have for crossing? Lacking love, Loveless Joe lacks any caring whatsoever. Lacking caring, Loveless Joe lacks frustruation or anger. Lacking caring, Loveless Joe lacks agency itself.

It is also hard to conceive of Loveless Joe as the object of even the slightest affection. Loveless Joe's flatlined persona would engender neither anger nor love in others. Remember that Loveless Joe is not merely indifferent or casual with respect to others: He is perfectly and pathologically indifferent with respect to everything. What, then, would there be for someone else to love (or hate, as the case may be) about him? Indeed, it is a challenge to conceive of Loveless Joe as a person at all. He seems more robot than person, if even that. Love is the foundation on which the scaffold of our very personhood is built, on this view.

The Loveless Joe Thought Experiment highlights the enormous importance that love has for us and our lives. Love infuses our lives and gives them meaning. Without love, we have nothing. Without love, we are nothing. All the great and terrible things we do, we do, ultimately, for love. So, yes, perhaps it is worth having a semester conversation about the topic.

To be sure, the Loveless Joe Thought Experiment construes love in the widest possible sense. We glossed over a number of important questions which we will consider throughout the semester:

  • What is the difference between caring and loving?
  • What is the relationship between love and lust?
  • Is there such a thing as true love, or is love simply a biochemically fed delusion--a sickness of the mind, if you will?
  • If there is such a thing as true love, how shall we know when we have found it?
  • Is love essential to human flourishing, or can one be said to have lived a fully human life never having loved?
  • What is the relationship between aggression and love? Violence and love? Does the former necessarily exclude the latter?
  • When does the obsession of love become dangerous?
  • What is the difference between the love a mother has for her children and the love Romeo, say, had for Juliet?
  • Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, what can we conclude about love such that it has for thousands of years been the topic of greatest interest for poets, authors, painters, sculptors, and musicians alike?

Next time we begin with a classic philosophical treatise on love, Plato's Symposium. It is a delight to read and does an excellent job setting the stage for the entire semester. Indeed, if this class works out as previous classes have, we will return to ideas first discussed in the Symposium again and again as the semester proceeds.

I very much look forward to this class. It is always one of my favorites, but I suspect this is going to be a particularly lively and enjoyable class.

One more point before signing off.

As I mentioned in class, students often like to bring friends to this class. I'm generally fine with this, but I have two requests: First, please tell me in advance when you will be bringing a guest, even if it's just a few minutes before class; Second, please tell your guest that they must sign and abide by the same course confidentiality form you signed today. Thanks to the conscientious efforts of all its students, this class is special--we should do what we can to keep it so.

That is all for today. I look forward to working with each of you this semester. If previous incarnations of this course are any indication, our discussions will prove captivating for everyone, myself included. This makes the most important time we have the scant few hours we have in class together each week. Although it is up to you whether to attend every class given the sensitivity of some of the material we take up, please make an effort to attend most of them. The class' success depends on the active participation of everyone.

A final caveat, if I may: I am sometimes accused of having an adolescent sense of humor--I plead guilty as charged. Should my sense of humor offend, I hope you will feel comfortable visiting with me about it. I honestly do not intend to put anyone off, but I recognize from long experience that I sometimes cross the line. Okay, truth to tell, I usually cross the line; worse, I am sometimes horrified to discover there even was a line I crossed over.