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Grant number: AQ-50748-12

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University of New England (Biddeford, ME 04005-9599)
David Livingston Smith (Project Director: September 2011 to present)

NEH Enduring Questions Course on "What Makes Us Human?"

The development of a course for undergraduates to investigate the question, What makes us human?

David Smith, associate professor of philosophy at the University of New England, develops a course that engages students in a philosophical, historical, and scientific reflection on the essence of what it means to be human. The course is organized around a series of subsidiary questions such as: "Is there such a thing as human nature? Does knowledge of human nature provide grounds for making inferences about how we should live? Is human nature essentially 'good' or 'bad'? Is human nature innate and non-malleable, or can it be changed? How have ideas about human nature been used to justify racism, slavery, colonialism, genocide, and the exploitation of non-human animals? What, if anything, can the scientific disciplines of evolutionary biology and neuroscience tell us about human nature?" The course reading includes Plato's Phaedo and Republic, Aristotle's De Anima and Nicomachean Ethics, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, Aquinas's Treatise on Human Nature, Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man, Descartes's Meditations, Hobbes's Leviathan, Rousseau's Discourse on Human Inequality, Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, Freud's Civilization and its Discontents, Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, and Saul Kripke's Naming and Necessity. The course aims to bring together students from a variety of majors and draw on existing strengths of the university - in particular, the Center for Excellence in Neuroscience and the Center for Global Humanities. Pursuant to course development, the project director's reading program is comprehensive and includes works on philosophical essentialism as background. The director also travels to two major conferences for the purpose of discussing the planned course with colleagues.

Project fields:
Philosophy, General

Enduring Questions: Pilot Course Grants

Education Programs

Total amounts:
$22,500 (approved)
$21,752 (awarded)

Grant period:
5/1/2012 – 4/30/2015