Course: The Great War and Modern Philosophy
Length: 8 weeks
Instructor: Nicolas de Warren
Quote:In the celebrated words of the American diplomat George Kennan, the First World War was the ‘original catastrophe of the 20th century’, a catastrophe that, arguably, left no aspect of European civilization unchanged. But in what sense was the First World War the original catastrophe of modern philosophy, of philosophy in the twentieth century?
One of the most remarkable aspects of the war is the way in which philosophers in various belligerent nations felt the need to speak about the war, to address the war in philosophical terms. There was a sense in which something was philosophically at stake in the war which required philosophers to mobilize their concepts and arguments towards this understanding.
In this course, we’re interested in pursuing different ways in which philosophers during the First World War responded and thought about the war.
On April 2, 1917, the United States entered WWI with a declaration of war against Germany. My local historical society is just wrapping up an exhibit on the impact of the war in Maine, so I’ve been seeing posters and documents displayed in the windows nearly every day as I walk down Congress Street. The timing of this course coincides with the anniversary, but this was its second run; the first was almost two years ago.
I have mixed feelings about the course. On the plus side, I encountered a huge swath of philosophy from thinkers I hadn’t read before. On the down side, the swath was too huge – most weeks required 50 pages of dense reading – and I was only able to get a very general sense of the major points through lectures far to brief to cover the material in any depth. Other names were more familiar. I noticed this was an adjunct to an in-person course, so maybe that’s why it had the feel of an introduction to a “real” class. It’s the kind of material that, for me at least, would require far more time to absorb.
It was, I will say, an outstandingly produced introduction. The lecture videos were nearly cinematic, with carefully chosen locations and introductory music that began as a low, ominous hum under the spoken words, then crescendoed at a well-chosen break point to develop into a lovely melancholic theme overlaid by old-style film cuts complete with blotches, pops and crackles. I was astonished at the work that must’ve gone into the timing and graphics of these intros. Some videos were “conversations” with a verité feel, filmed in a coffee shop – again, with a nicely composed introduction of umbrella’d arrival and cappuccino artistry. The production values were extraordinarily high; I just wish the lectures had been twice as long, at least.
Much of the material was quite depressing, partly because it’s a bit alarming to study the breakup of Old Europe when the breakup of new Europe may be in progress. Reading the German idealist and nationalist materials brought to mind American exceptionalism and MAGA, both of which feel catastrophic to me at the moment. The poetry was heartbreaking, the art devastating. But I think it’s important that we not lose touch, in this era of drones and air assaults launched from hundreds of miles away from the targets, in a time when most American families do not have anyone in the military, of the real pain that war entails, of the real sight, sound, and feel of death and destruction, so maybe we won’t be so eager to chant war slogans from the safety of our living rooms and offices when our pride is the only thing wounded.
Hey, I warned you it was depressing.
Grading was based primarily on self-evaluation of discussion board contributions. I had a pretty good conversation with one student about German idealism, and made a few other substantial posts. A few multiple choice quizzes, and one peer-assessment assignment, rounded out the graded material.
Somehow I felt like I just missed the boat somewhere along the line, in spite of the artistry and the emotionality. Maybe it’s because I was overwhelmed with too many courses for the first six weeks; maybe it’s a side effect of the current moment, or maybe I was just missing out on some historical subtext. I wish there had been more, but I don’t know exactly what. Still, I’m glad to have some idea of the flow of ideas through the period, and I hope I can expand upon it more in the future.