Education Programs: Enduring Questions: Pilot Course Grants

Period of Performance

5/1/2014 - 4/30/2017

Funding Totals

$21,913.00 (approved)
$21,911.55 (awarded)

NEH Enduring Questions Course on the Pursuit of Self-Knowledge through Philosophy and Literature

FAIN: AQ-51002-14

University of Central Arkansas (Conway, AR 72035-5001)
Jesse W. Butler (Project Director: September 2013 to August 2017)

The development of a first-year course that explores, through literature and philosophy, the pursuit of self-knowledge.

The development of a first-year course that explores, through literature and philosophy, the pursuit of self-knowledge. The freshman-level course, drawing in the main on philosophical and literary works, explores the human pursuit of self-knowledge and facilitates students' understanding of themselves in relation to diverse conceptions of self and identity. The course begins with core readings on two ancient figures who shaped world history through inquiries into their own nature: the Greek philosopher Socrates and the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama. Students study Socrates' oracle-inspired quest to "know thyself," as portrayed in Plato's Apology and Phaedo, then turn to Siddhartha's pursuit of enlightenment through inquiry into his true nature, as depicted in the Anatta-lakkhana ("Discourse on the Not Self Characteristic") and Maha-parinibbana ("Last Days of the Buddha"). This course is grounded in the comparative exploration of these figures to highlight two influential yet quite different conceptions of the self: the identification of oneself as an immortal rational soul and the view that the self is a temporary illusion fabricated through desire. To bridge the ancients with modernity, students explore Aristotle's commentary on the soul, virtuous self-cultivation in Confucianism, Christian conceptions of the soul in the medieval period, and modern conceptions of self in Rousseau and Descartes. The course then turns to an exploration of personal identity in nineteenth- and twentieth-century North American literature, focusing on four largely autobiographical works: Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Crow medicine man Yellowtail's account of his participation in the Sun Dance, Helen Keller's The Story of My Life, and bell hooks's Bone Black: Memories of Childhood. A study of the contemporary frontiers of the human self via the intersections of the sciences and humanities includes Patricia Churchland's Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy and Owen Flanagan's The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them and MindScience: An East-West Dialogue, the latter a compendium of conversations with humanistic scholars and scientists in the fields of religion, psychology, neuroscience, and medicine. The course concludes with Andy Clark's Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence, which argues that modern technology is nothing less than an extension of ourselves.

Media Coverage

Professor Jesse Butler chosen as Fulbright Scholar (Media Coverage)
Author(s): UCA Campus News
Publication: UCA Campus News and The Log Cabin Democrat
Date: 7/25/2016
Abstract: I received a Fulbright Scholar Award to teach in China using the curriculum I developed through my NEH Enduring Questions grant. This is a press release about my Fulbright Scholar Award, which also mentions the role my NEH Enduring Questions project has played for my Fulbright project. The press release was posted by the University of Central Arkansas, and also appeared in our local newspaper in Conway, AR.

Associated Products

Companion Website for Enduring Questions Course on Self-Knowledge (Web Resource)
Title: Companion Website for Enduring Questions Course on Self-Knowledge
Author: Jesse Butler
Abstract: This is a companion website developed in conjunction with a course on self-knowledge at the University of Central Arkansas. The course itself is a result of Enduring Questions Grant # AQ-51002-14. The course website contains links to many of the assigned readings from the course, along with various additional supplementary materials related to the course topic. [Note: the current version of the website, as of 5-28-2015, reflects content from the first version of the course, from the Spring 2015 semester. The course will be taught again Spring 2016, so the website may be revised and updated in preparation for the second run of the course.]
Year: 2015
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: This URL links directly to the companion website.

Cross-Cultural Conceptions of Self (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Cross-Cultural Conceptions of Self
Author: Jesse Butler
Abstract: In comparative work on Eastern and Western conceptions of the self, contrasting differences are often primarily emphasized. While there are important differences to be noted, there are interesting and important commonalities as well, the recognition of which can help foster cross-cultural education and scholarship. I will survey representative differences and commonalities across Eastern and Western conceptions of self, with emphasis towards a pluralistic understanding of self-knowledge that can stimulate cross-cultural dialogue and interdisciplinary collaboration in research and the classroom. Some attention will be given to relevant historical figures and viewpoints (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Buddhism, Confucius, Zhuangzi, Descartes, and Hume), though I will focus in particular on converging overlap between Asian philosophy and developments in contemporary philosophy and cognitive science.
Date: 3-20-2015
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: This is a link to a PDF of a handout I gave to attendees at the presentation. It contains the presentation abstract and a bibliography of research resources related to the presentation topic.
Secondary URL:
Secondary URL Description: This is a link to a PDF of the conference program. The presentation is listed on p. 4, as part of the “Crossing Boundaries: Collaboration, Interdisciplinarity, and Comparative Research” panel.
Conference Name: Asian Studies Development Program, 21st Annual National Conference