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Instructor: Alexander Jech. This course meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30AM – 10:45AM in Peabody 216.

Political Philosophy: The Contested Ideal of Liberty

Few concepts in political discourse today are as prized, or as contested, as that of liberty. Everyone or almost everyone wants to claim that they are on the side of freedom and liberty, but different groups and individuals draw opposite conclusions from their support for freedom. We are told both that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision struck a blow for freedom of speech, and that it struck a blow against freedom of speech. Which is true? That will depend upon which conception of freedom is at work, and it is therefore crucial for us to evaluate the different ideals of freedom that have been proposed and determine what place we wish them to have in our common life as a people.

Contemporary debates regarding liberty are vigorous and highly nuanced, but neither these debates, nor the place of liberty in our society, can be fully understood apart from the history of the ideal and the role it has played within political life. This course will therefore be concerned with both historical and contemporary authors. The course will give central place to some great texts in the history of the long debate over liberty, texts whose important insights continue to shape debates today, such as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourses and Social Contract, using these as landmarks to help us navigate the difficult waters of contemporary debates about liberty.

A principal goal of the class will be to provide students with a wide-ranging fluency in the language of liberty, equipping them to go beyond the simple taxonomy of “negative” and “positive” freedom, or “negative,” “positive,” and “republican” freedom. Students will be introduced to the history of ‘freedom’ and the variety of conceptions currently fought over in contemporary debates, so that they will be able to make very fine-grained distinctions between different conceptions of freedom and also to situate themselves within this complex debate by taking a stand upon how we should conceive of, value, and pursue the ideal of liberty.

Please note: Some seats in this class have been reserved for PPE minors.

This course satisfies the PH and NA general education requirements.

Alexander Jech’s webpage