Who We Are

Venue: RHB 251, Goldsmiths, University of London

Conveners: Michail Theodosiadis, Ville Takala and Mihail Lustin

Full schedule (available here)

Sociology can be defined as a critical engagement with enlightenment notions of the rational autonomous subject. Whereas Kant and his colleagues asked everyone to use the reason that had been granted to them, Marx and Engels, empowered by the novel methods of sociological inquiry, identified around them structures that called into question the very possibility of human agency. Sociology thus emerges as a dialectic between agency and structure.

More recently, however, it seems that many have started to forget about the first part of the story. What, indeed, is the enlightenment tradition that we now so eagerly criticise? Does human consciousness play any part in our societies? How have enlightenment ideas influenced modern societies and their institutions? Motivated by a sense that the current curricula deals insufficiently with the subject, this reading group has been set up to revisit the tradition of enlightenment that emerged in the West in the 18th century. For those sharing the concern, the reading group offers perspectives to re-evaluate the significance of enlightenment ideas and ideals in our increasingly tumultuous times.

Timetable – Autumn term 2019/2020

Session 1: Thursday, 3.10.2019, 6 – 7 pm
John Locke – Two Treatises of Government (chapter 5, pp. 115 – 126) (1689), introduction by Andreas Panayides

What does it mean that each individual owns his/her own life? In the Two Treatises, Locke explains that the right to life, as well as the right to liberty, are inalienable. Arbitrary powers, that violate these rights, are illegitimate. Since every individual owns his own life, he owns his body, and all the labor that it performs. By adding his labor to a foreign object or good, that object becomes his property. The reading group begins by discussing Locke’s ideas on liberty and their contribution to modern societies.

Session report (available here).





Session 2: Thursday, 17.10.2019, 6 – 7 pm
Immanuel Kant – An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784), introduction by Ville Takala

Sapere Aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!” is the motto of Enlightenment, proclaims Immanuel Kant. Through the public and private use of reason, man releases himself from his “self-incurred immaturity” and good things begin to follow. By revisiting Kant’s classic challenge to us, this session reconsiders the role of autonomy, individuality, and universal reason for societal progress.

Session 3: Thursday, 31.10.2019, 6 – 7 pm
John Stuart Mill – On Liberty (chapter 2) (1859), introduction by Michail Theodosiadis

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill discusses the benefits of freedom of speech. All viewpoints, regardless of their quality, argues Mill, should be allowed to be expressed and discussed. Through open discussion viewpoints are scrutinized and tested, which increases the likelihood for fallible perceptions to be rejected. In contrast, by silencing “wrong” opinions, claims Mill, you increase the risk of prejudices becoming hardened. By revisiting Mill’s essay, we examine the role of free speech in democratic societies.

Session 4: Thursday, 14.11.2019, 6 – 7 pm
Thomas PaineCommon sense (pp. 67 – 84) (1775) introduction by Lukas Fuchs

Thomas Paine was a liberal pamphleteer, inspired by republicanism and abolitionism. The leaders of the American Revolution drew inspiration from his works, especially from his arguments in Common Sense (1775). Despite this work was written for a particular cause, certain passages can be found useful today. Paine, more importantly, expresses views that differ from many philosophers of his age. We will discuss whether Painer’s rejection of absolutism can have practical value for understanding politics today.

Session 5: Thursday, 9.12.2019, 6 – 7 pm (NEW VENUE: RHB 307)
Adam Smith – The Theory of Moral Sentiments (part 3) (1759), introduction by Mihail Lustin

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith discusses system of morals, exploring the propriety of action, reward and punishment, sense of duty, and the effect of numerous factors on moral sentiment. Smith developed innovative theories on virtues and moral judgment that are still relevant and accessible today. This session identifies some the reasons Smith’s work can be valued for its contribution in the understanding of the meaning of being good.

Session 6: Thursday, 12.12.2019, 6 – 7 pm (RHB 251)
Friedrich Nietzsche – The Gay Science (book three, passage 125) (1882), introduction by Selena Gray

In Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche expresses intense skepticism of what he calls the “death of God”, namely the collapse of a Christian morality that used to shepherd the western imagination for centuries. Nietzsche settles into a conviction that no new shared ideals exist capable of substituting the declining Christian representations. Nietzsche, an ardent critic of Christianity, explains that Christianity has led to the growth of liberal revolutions and the emergence of a culture of social decadence. The reading group concludes by discussing Nietzsche’s critique of the Enlightenment as a vehicle for social nihilism.