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

Enduring Questions: Pilot Course Grants
Education Programs

[Grant products][Media coverage]

$21,913 (approved)
$21,912 (awarded)

Grant period:
5/1/2014 – 4/30/2017

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

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.