Stephen Asma : Teaching


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The emotions play a significant role in our inner lives. Sometimes the emotions act in concert with our cognitive decision-making, and sometimes they crash over our rational thinking like uncontrollable storms. Emotions influence and fuel our behavior, values, art, and other aspects of culture. Yet, systematic study of the emotions is quite recent. In this course we will examine Western psychology and philosophy of emotions.

This course is designed to explore Eastern spiritual traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. In this course I compare and contrast these different philosophical systems with each other as well as dominant Western systems. We will try to understand these philosophies in their historical context, but also reflect upon their contemporary spiritual relevance. Readings are taken from the Hindu Upanishads, the Buddhist Tripitika, the Confucian Analects, the Dao de jing, the Zhuang zi, and more.

Evolution of Mind
The human mind is a product of biological and cultural evolution. This course will study the philosophical and psychological implications of this claim. What makes the human mind unique, compared with those aspects of mind we share with non-human animals? What is the relationship between emotion and thought? What are the successes and failures of evolutionary psychology and philosophy of mind? Are religion and ethics products of the evolution of the mind?

This course investigates the interaction of religion and science in Western culture, with an occasional comparison with non-Western traditions. The course introduces students to some of the historical conflicts (Galileo's trial, evolution versus creationism, etc.), and also explores contemporary avenues of conciliation between religion, spirituality and science. We examine the religious and spiritual issues in cosmology, evolution, genetics and medical ethics. In addition to the more standard flashpoints like the Darwinian or Einsteinian revolutions, I spend some time on the science/religion tension as it surfaces in developing countries. The modernization of increasing globalization often runs headlong into indigenous forms of religious knowledge, and compatibility issues flare up in striking ways.

Topics in Philosophy: Anger
Anger appears to be a fundamental part of the human condition. Its causes are varied and its individual and cultural expressions are diverse, but we all experience some form of anger. Philosophers have perennially tried to understand anger and find some way to manage its destructive power. Some pacifists argue for the elimination of anger, while others recognize its motivational energy for social justice issues. This course looks at philosophical ideas about anger, ranging over Eastern and Western traditions as well as Ancient and Modern eras. Some of the perspectives explored include Buddhism, Stoicism, Existentialism, Sociobiology, Postmodernism, Feminism, and more.  

This course addresses philosophical themes including ethical issues, metaphysical questions and existential quandaries through the use of films. The study of philosophy can open up vistas of meaning for any student, and films can effectively realize abstract ideas in palpable and compelling ways. Films are studied that reflect perennial philosophical problems and students read important works by eminent philosophers such as Descartes, Sartre, Buddha and Plato. The course is divided into thematic sections, each section begins with the reading and discussion of a philosophical text. We then study a film that specifically addresses the issues raised by the respective text. The course attempts to open up a dialogue between those films and books that struggle with common philosophical problems. Students are encouraged to appreciate the manner in which the art of film and the art of philosophy can illuminate each other. Some themes include: Authenticity, The Labyrinth of Skepticism, Desire and the Good Life: East/West Perspectives, Freedom and Responsibility. Films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Goodfellas, The Matrix, Bladerunner, Afterlife, Black Narcissus, Memento, Wings of Desire, Being John Malkovich, etc.

This course was taught at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This was an intensive study of Hinayana Buddhist philosophy with some relevant comparative work in Mahayana traditions. We began by developing an understanding of the Hindu philosophies that surrounded the young Buddha. Then we explored the many continuities and discontinuities that resulted from the Buddha's original revolution. Using primary scriptures, in English translation, we analyzed the Four Noble Truths, the doctrine of Anatta, the Middle Way, the doctrine of Dependent Arising, Kamma, Anicca, and Nibbana, among others. While I taught the students about text-based academic Buddhist philosophies, they taught me about Khmer cultural Buddhism. We focused on the areas where the philosophies and the practices converged and diverged.

This course examines the central issues and major movements of philosophy in the Twentieth Century, including pragmatism, existentialism, ordinary language analysis, feminist philosophy, and cognitive science epistemology. Larger thematic trends will be uncovered, such as Twentieth Century critiques of Modern philosophy's “quest for certainty.” Readings will include: William James, John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Evelyn Fox Keller, Isaiah Berlin, Daniel Dennett, and others. Our goal is to examine both Continental and Anglo-American attempts to rethink knowledge without traditional foundations.