There may be no golden fleece, but human riches I'll release.
July 1, 2012 4:29 PM   Subscribe

In my last year of college I took a seminar course at my school's "humanities center," a small interdisciplinary program that mostly focused on continental philosophy. Some of my fondest memories of college are from that course. Where and how can I recapture something of that fantastic mindstorm?

It was a very small seminar course led by a kindly and enormously learned professor emeritus. The course had a title and a syllabus, but it was essentially all one long, far-ranging conversation about the idea of "cosmogony" throughout civilized history. We wandered through Plato's Timaeus, and the Book of Genesis, and Kepler's De Nive Sexangula, and Bacon's Organon, and Shakespeare's Tempest, and Mill's debates with Whewell, and Mill on Plato, and Coleridge on everyone in history ever, and Kafka's parables, and C. S. Peirce on new modes of logic, and Poe's Eureka, and thence went on to talk about Modernist poets, and Wallace Stevens, and Krazy Kat, and Abram Tertz, and Witold Gombrowicz, and lots and lots besides. And it didn't really happen in any order, but more or less simultaneously, because everything was intricately connected, a web of ideas stretching through history.

The experience was humbling and even transcendent. Our fantastically erudite mentor opened remarkable perspectives, allowing his students a glimpse of the richness and complexity of human thought. It's been several years since graduation, but I still have most of our readings, notes, and chronologies in PDF, and reread them occasionally.

How can I recapture some aspects of that staggering and somewhat numinous experience?

The ideas I've had don't come especially close. I can explore connections between ideas on my own, but I don't have that lifetime of learning to call upon. I've tried looking into reading groups or book clubs in this subject, but they're really quite limited and dominated by typical freshman-year philosophy class bullshit. "Great courses on audio" are a little closer, but they stick to a set list of topics and generally seem aimed at massaging the listener's ego ("how to make cocktail party chatter about Plato's Republic"). Where else can I turn? Or was my experience one of a kind?
posted by Nomyte to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Barthes's lecture notes have qualities like that--woolly, unfinished, asyndetonic, wide-ranging, etc.: The Neutral and The Preparation of the Novel. That's my best guess at a textual equivalent of what you mean, and if it's in the right ballpark, plenty of things sort of like that come to mind. If you're looking for something more interactive, Greg Ulmer used to give talks like that--here's one that sounds about right, though I'm afraid haven't watched it.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:28 PM on July 1, 2012

You might try attending classes at a college near you as an auditor. The feasibility would depend on the college, but the university I went to for undergrad allows a set number community auditors to sit in on lectures on a non-credit basis for a minimal fee.
posted by dragonfruit at 5:31 PM on July 1, 2012

Reading Gödel, Escher, Bach made me feel that way, though it was a solitary experience and there wasn't all that seminarish back-and-forth.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:59 PM on July 1, 2012

Professors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly have written a book - All Things Shining. The book is about a few "great books" as seen through a particular continental perspective. Kelly has posted audio of the course he taught based on the book. The Dreyfus course is Philosophy 6 and on iTunes-U.

I haven't finished the book and lectures but it does remind me of a course I took much like the one you describe.
posted by jade east at 6:03 PM on July 1, 2012

dragonfruit: I already work for a university full time and take technical classes during the day. Even more college classes is unrealistic.

Monsieur Caution: Yes! I have a skinny volume of Barthes in a box somewhere. I'd love to hear recommendations for other stuff that follows a similar agenda.

nebulawindphone: I read a lot of Hofstadter in my foundations of cognitive science class (which was also fantastically far-ranging), and he's certainly tilling a nearby field. Ian Hacking wrote some relevant books as well. Sadly, a book — even very erudite reviews of intellectual history — that I read by myself can only take me so far. I need someone to expand, and elaborate, and improvise upon the material, and a book can't really do that.

jade east: Thanks, I'll definitely check that stuff out, although I'm not strictly speaking after "great books." I suspect that few people would place Coleridge's chatty table talk among their "top ten greats," but it still brings together a huge number of threads.
posted by Nomyte at 6:16 PM on July 1, 2012

Have you thought of creating your own group? Something that attracts other people who are interested in this kind of conversation. You could also speak to some professors (even that actual professor) for advice on how to lead or even ask then to guest lead a couple of discussions.
posted by Vaike at 6:27 PM on July 1, 2012

OK, then, these are course / lecture / semi-informal / or somewhat didactic materials related to Continental thought--more or less hidden texts that mobilize obscure references their authors have collected over a lifetime into a swarm of quick thoughts:

- Barthes, The Neutral and The Preparation of the Novel (recently published lecture notes that show Barthes doing even more wide-ranging stuff than usual)
- Eco, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (well, this is simply a book about literature, not off the beaten path in form at all, but at least it's organized as brief lectures and mixes in Eco's fairly obscure favorite tidbits)
- Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (in particular, Foucault's brief summaries of lecture series that have also been individually published at full length)
- Scholes, Comley, and Ulmer (eds.), Text Book (freshman English textbook by well-known American literary theorists that includes snippets like Labov on narrative, successive drafts of a section of Finnegan's Wake, etc.; link goes to cheap old used copies)
- Ulmer (ed.), Internet Invention ("next generation" English textbook with exercises connected to Beuys, Tarkovsky, Barthes, Jameson, etc., etc., etc., including choice selections from everywhere; the Ulmer lecture I linked previously likely gives the wrong impression, except insofar as it connects Charlie Chaplin, Derrida, Avatar, etc.)

These are more formal full-length works with similarly wide-ranging approaches, aiming at something more coherent but perhaps in the realm of what you experienced:

- Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (imagine the course you took being about space rather than cosmogony; more humanistic than a lot of this other stuff, but probably on point; Bachelard has similar works on air and dreams, fire, etc.)
- Bataille (et al.), Encyclopedia Acephalica (aphoristic arts/sociology material basically Surrealist in approach--dizzying and fun, though less classical in its references)
- Barthes, Barthes by Barthes (at the same time an autobiography and Barthes playing at the limits of structuralism)
- Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator (brief essay making connections between shipwreck metaphors from mainly, IIRC, Roman and German sources)
- Calasso, The Ruin of Kasch (Calvino's blurb says it best: "... takes up two subjects: the first is Talleyrand, and the second is everything else"; his book on Greek myth is more approachable but more focused)
- Gass, On Being Blue (imagine the course you took being about blue movies, blue colors, etc. rather than cosmogony)
- Hyde, The Gift (imagine your course being about the gift in an anthropological sense rather than cosmogony; somewhat humanistically connects Mauss, Eckhart, Whitman, Pound, Luther, Hermes, etc. in a way the various subtitles it's had don't express)
- Sebald, everything but let's say The Rings of Saturn (semi-fictional sustained meditations that go all over the place)

I've skipped things that, though woolly and sometimes unfocused, are still straight up works of philosophy or history, so I'll just mention them: aphoristic stuff like a ton of Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Cioran, etc. and full-length (often problematic) arguments like Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, Canetti's Crowds and Power, Sloterdijk's Critique of Cynical Reason, and Schama's Landscape and Memory.

Anyway, it sounds like what you want is everything eclectic and obscure rolled into one ball of wax, and I reckon any of the above could offer some sense of the erudition and surprise that a good humanities seminar with some Continental philosophy component to it might have.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:40 PM on July 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

I don't know, I get those feelings at the weirdest times under the weirdest circumstances.

If you just want your mind blow, and it doesn't have to be philosophy, try Connections by James Burke. It's absolutely amazing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:00 AM on July 2, 2012

I believe the guy you want to look at is Mortimer Adler.

This book might have an entry on cosmogeny which closely parallels the trip through the whole Western Civilization history you describe in your question. It is 1000 big pages, small printing, dense dense dense with footnotes. You can get it used for $6.62 + shipping.
posted by bukvich at 6:40 PM on July 2, 2012

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