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The Evergreen State College

Last Updated: 03/29/2008

Program Catalog Description

Knowing Nature

2007 - 08

Knowing Nature: Fall, Winter and Spring Quarters

Faculty: Andrew Reece (classical studies), Charles Pailthorp (philosophy), Kathleen Eamon (philosophy), Krishna Chowdary (physics)

Major areas of study include philosophy, classical studies, history and philosophy of science, art history, literature, writing and quantitative reasoning.

"Nature" can mean several different things. In one sense, nature is simply "what's out there," the material world-often connoting the parts least affected by people. In another sense, it is the world of living organisms, things that are born, mature and die. This is the notion we detect in the Latin natura, with its root in nascor ("to be born"). In a third sense, "nature" denotes "essence," as when we speak of "the nature of politics" or "human nature." Whatever we take the word to mean, we are compelled to ask questions about our relationship to the natural environment, to other species of animals and to our own nature as humans. Are humans part of nature? Only in part? Wholly? Not at all? We often imagine that people are rational, moral and political animals. So, how do these qualities distinguish them from, or give them special place within, the natural order? How do these qualities implicate them in, or make them responsible for, the natural order? Clearly, technology shapes how humans understand and deal with the natural order, but how do we determine who is changing what, or what is changing whom?

In this program, we will identify and explore the many tensions that arise among humans, human nature and the natural order: our changing conceptions of the natural order, and on what basis we should draw conclusions about what is natural or unnatural; the place of humans within the natural order, and how our view of ourselves as a part of nature has changed; whether or not reason exempts us from the natural order or gives us special responsibility if it;  whether or not our “animal” passions and mortality show that any claim to exception from the natural order must be mistaken.

Although the historical scope of the inquiry is broad, we will focus on three periods when questions about our place in nature have arisen with particular insight or urgency. During fall quarter, we will begin with Greco-Roman antiquity, whose mythical art and literature represents humans as occupying a privileged but precarious position between the animal and the divine, and whose philosophy set forth the problems that Western cosmology, physics, ethics and politics have been trying to solve since. In this period, humans and the natural order were, overall, understood as elements in a purposive, organic cosmos.

In winter quarter, we will move to the later Renaissance and Early Modern periods. The very idea of order moved from a purposive cosmos to a mechanistic, rationally intelligible universe. Developments in navigation, commerce, and the sciences forced an increasingly broad, larger and more complex view of the world and the individual's place in it. These developments led Hobbes, Locke and others to contrast "civil society" with a "state of nature," and propose concepts of property, rights and persons that underlie our political and economic realities today.

During spring quarter, we will study the period stretching from the Industrial Revolution to the present, in which profound changes in land use, energy sources, the sciences, transportation, other technologies, and the economy have altered and continue to alter the natural world and our relationships to it in ways previously impossible to imagine. Again, these developments have transformed and will continue to transform politics and our conception of what it means to live and govern well, and what is at stake when we don't.

Authors studied will include Homer, Hesiod, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Thomas Kuhn, Richard White, among others.

Students should expect to complete a great deal of reading and to write and revise many essays and descriptive narratives. We will also work on developing skills of observation and the analysis and interpretation of artistic forms as well as of quantitative data. By the start of fall quarter, the faculty team hopes to have determined a workable field trip that can help us explore some of the complex ways in which natural, economic, and technological forces implicate us in the transformation of nature and in the ways we find ourselves transformed in turn.

Total: 16 credits each quarter.

Program is preparatory for careers and future studies in philosophy, classics, literature, history, natuarl science and education.

Special Expenses: $100 for field trips.