MIT Concourse – the Humanities


Our fall humanities subjects begin at the beginning, tracing the ideas that order contemporary thought and the structure of our lives back to their roots. By looking at the origins of the ideas through which we filter our world, we gain some independence to critically assess those ideas. We offer two journeys back to the foundations of modern thought, both of which focus attention on the ancient Greeks:

1] Becoming Human: Ancient Greek Perspectives on the Best Life (CC.110) focuses on the approach of Greek thinkers to questions of ethics, politics, and human flourishing. The ethical focus for the ancient Greeks was not on formulating a set of rules that any human being can follow, but on discovering what it means to be the best kind of human being, and how we might become that. We will use works, which are both foundational to modern thought and also quite foreign to us, as tools for thinking about the goals and purposes of our lives, lived in community with others.

2] Ancient Greek Philosophy and Mathematics (CC.113) follows modern philosophy and theoretical mathematics back to their conjoined origins on a small plot of land in Athens (Plato’s Academy) in the fourth century, B.C. In their investigation of mathematical and philosophical problems, the Greeks formulated conceptions of number, definition, proof, truth, reason, and even the idea of an idea, which productively challenge our modern conceptions. In grappling with the discovery of irrational numbers the Greeks had to reformulate their presumption that the cosmos, and our apprehension of it, are entirely rational and from that arose powerful and surprising notions of how to approach understanding the ideas that rule our lives: justice, truth, and the goals of human life.


In the spring we offer a rotation of classes, with at least two offerings in each term. Upperclass students may also participate in these classes.

1] Modern Conceptions of Freedom (CC.111) investigates the more immediate sources of modern thought, reading early modern political theorists, and tracing the growth of the central modern value: freedom.

2] Philosophy of Love (CC.112) explores the nature of love through works of philosophy, literature, film, poetry, and individual experience.

3] How to Rule the World (CC.116) considers fundamental political questions of justice and leadership, such as the tension between justice and interest, the causes of political crises, and the allure and limits of the political life, through a careful reading of original works that deal, in very different ways, with the theme of political ambition. Texts include works by Thucydides, Xenophon, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare, as well as portions of the Hebrew Bible. We will also discuss and read about contemporary political conflicts and leaders.

3] Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspective (21H.134J ) Surveys the conditions of material life and changing social and economic relations in medieval Europe using the comparative context of contemporary Islamic, Chinese, and Japanese experiences. Covers the emergence and decline of feudal institutions, the transformation of peasant agriculture, living standards and the course of epidemic disease, and the ebb and flow of long-distance trade across the Eurasian system. Particular emphasis placed on the study of those factors, both institutional and technological, which contributed to the emergence of capitalist organization and economic growth in western Europe in contrast to the trajectories followed by the other major medieval economies.

4] On the Soul (forthcoming) looks at the possibility and possible meaning of a non- material individual consciousness, through the literature of religion, philosophy, literature and neuroscience.

5] Objective Narratives: Portraits of Science through Material Culture (forthcoming) gives students tools for thinking and communicating about the material culture of scientific practice through a combination of written work and photographic practice. Course readings include selections from influential works in Science and Technology Studies (STS) on both contemporary and historical topics.