Summer Symposium

Each summer, the Program of Liberal Studies and General Program alumni/ae gather on Notre Dame's campus, eager to engage their teachers, the authors of the Great Books.

The Program of Liberal Studies coordinates the events which are centered on seminars that explore the week's theme.



JUNE 1-6, 2014



“Then what is life, I cried?” Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Triumph of Life (1822)

The annual PLS Alumni Summer Symposium for 2014 will be held from Sunday, June 1 to Friday, June 6. The theme this year is “What Is Life (and other small questions).” As its title suggests, the Symposium will range over a broad swath of ethical, scientific, political, aesthetic, and literary questions and concerns—and we promise that those in attendance will have all the answers by the end of the week. There will be three four-day seminars this year: one given by Professor Emeritus Phillip Sloan on the theme, “What Is Life? An Inquiry”; a second given by Professor Thomas Stapleford on “Nietzsche and the Genealogy of Ethics”; and a third given by Professor Henry Weinfield on “Sophocles, Tragedy, and the Gods.” In addition, there will be three two-day seminars: Professor Emeritus Walter Nicgorski’s seminar on “John Locke: Father of Our Vices or Our Virtues”; Professor Joseph Rosenberg’s seminar, “Samuel Beckett’s Art of Impoverishment”; and Professor Christopher Chowrimootoo’s seminar, “Nietzsche’s Wagner: Interpreting The Ring.” Finally, in a one-day seminar Professor Felicitas Munzel and Matthew Dowd will continue the investigations into the “Quantum World” that they have been pursuing with alumni for a number of years.

This year’s PLS Alumni Summer Symposium will introduce alumni to our two newest colleagues: Christopher Chowrimootoo, a musicologist who comes to us from Oxford and is a specialist on modern opera, especially the work of Benjamin Britten, and Joseph Rosenberg, our current undergraduate advisor, who did his doctoral work at Cambridge and is a specialist on modern fiction (including such authors as Henry James and Samuel Beckett).

A number of the seminars will be focusing on the writings of the nineteenth-century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, including The Birth of Tragedy, The Genealogy of Morals, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Case of Wagner. These works are included in The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann (Modern Library; ISBN: 978-0679783398).

As always, we look forward to seeing you in June for a wonderful week of conversation and of renewing old friendships and making new ones.

Here are the course descriptions for the seminars we will be offering:

Four day seminars

What is Life? An Inquiry—Phillip Sloan
Course Description:
The four day seminar I will offer this summer takes on a complex problem with many ramifications scientific, ethical, religious—What is Life? We will explore this question with readings from a contemporary philosophical text with ancillary readings from a select number of classical sources.

All participants please read: Reflection on Life and Organism

The central text will be Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life. Several editions of this are available at low cost from We will accompany this by selected readings from primary sources:

Aristotle, On the Soul Book II. This can be used in any edition. A version is available on-line at:

Descartes, Selection from Treatise on Man.

Jacques Loeb, “The Mechanistic Conception of Life” (1911).

Hans Driesch, Selection from Science and Philosophy of the Organism.

Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? this is available electronically at

Nietzsche and the Genealogy of EthicsThomas Stapleford
Over four sessions we will explore Nietzsche’s “genealogical” approach to ethics, working through his two key texts on this topic: Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals. We will grapple both with Nietzsche’s critiques and with the implications of his arguments. For out texts, we will rely on The Basic Writings of Nietzsche (ISBN: 978-0679783398).

Sophocles, Tragedy and the GodsHenry Weinfield
This four-day seminar will focus on the theory of tragedy both in itself and as it pertains to Sophocles’ plays Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. We shall begin by discussing Aristotle’s view of tragedy in the Poetics, and then, because Aristotle views Oedipus the King as a paradigm of what is involved in tragedy, we shall turn our attention to that play as well as to its successor, Oedipus at Colonus. The seminar will conclude with a discussion of Nietzsche’s first major study, The Birth of Tragedy, a book that is important in its own right and offers a view of tragedy that is different from—indeed, somewhat antithetical to—Aristotle’s.

Day 1: Aristotle’s Poetics and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

Day 2: Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus

Day 3: Oedipus at Colonus and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy

Day 4: The Birth of Tragedy

Aristotle, Poetics. Translated by Richard Janko. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987. (Any other good      edition of the Poetics may be substituted.)

Sophocles, Three Theban Plays. Translated by Theodore Howard Banks. New York: Oxford        University Press, 1956. (Please use this translation; the text listed above contains the two      Oedipus plays along with Antigone.)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (out of the Spirit of Music). The Basic Writings of Nietzsche.

Two day seminars

Nietzsche’s Wagner: Interpreting The Ring—Christopher Chowrimootoo
Course Summary: This course offers an investigation of Wagner’s Ring from the perspective of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Rationale: A common response to Nietzsche’s writings on Wagner is to explain them away in narrowly biographical, even psychoanalytical, terms. Nietzsche’s motivation, commentators often conclude, can be reduced a straightforwardly Oedipal desire to shake off Wagner’s overbearing influence, and usurp his place at the center of nineteenth-century philosophy and aesthetics. Such an account is seemingly confirmed by the personal and contradictory nature of the philosopher’s attacks, along with the fact that he rarely engages with any of Wagner’s works in detail. In spite of all this, it is hard to deny that Nietzsche’s commentaries on Wagner pose difficult and penetrating questions about both the style and subject matter of the latter’s music dramas. In this two-day seminar, we will take Nietzsche seriously as a critic of Wagner. By exploring selected scenes from Der Ring des Nibelungen through a Nietzschean lens, we will tease out some of the aesthetic, moral, and philosophical tensions that underpin this monument of nineteenth-century art.

Day 1 - Music as Tragedy

Richard Wagner, Die Walküre, Act I, Scene 3 and Act 2, Scene I.

[Video Clips will be made available through the library’s e-resources]

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Sections 16-25.

Class 2 - Nietzsche contra Wagner

Richard Wagner, Götterdämmerung, Act 3.

[Video Clips will be made available through the library’s e-resources]

Friedrich Nietzsche, “Nietzsche contra Wagner” (1888) [Available Online] and “The Case of Wagner” (1888) in The Basic Writings of Nietzsche.

John Locke: Father of Our Vices or Our Virtues?—Walter Nicgorski
Two sessions on Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (also known as An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government) are offered. Some have, with good reason, argued that this central political writing of Locke shows him to be America’s most important founding father. This work was formative for Jefferson’s thinking and, indeed, for his very phrases in the creedal section of the Declaration of Independence. Enthusiasm and respect for Locke are found both among contemporary liberals and conservatives. In recent decades Locke’s argument has been seen more clearly to be grounded on the individual right to life and all that follows in the form of various rights from self-possession or true ownership of the self. Locke speaks both to the tensions between equality and liberty and on the basis of the right to revolution. He explores the limits, if any, on majority rule, and the rights to property and to self-defense (the latter anticipating recent controversies in Florida and Detroit). He draws out the implications of our individualism for marriage and family life. How adequate is Locke’s influential political teaching? Are there viable alternatives?

We hope to have substantial and spirited discussions of this essay, taking up Chapters 1 through 5 for our first session and the remainder of the essay’s 19 chapters for the second session. This is a short work whose 19 chapters contain in total 243 numbered paragraphs. 

Utilize an edition that preserves the paragraph numbering. There are many available in hard copy and on-line. In recent years, PLS students have been using an inexpensive paperback edited by Richard Cox and featuring a fascinating introduction in which Locke’s place in Western intellectual history is considered as well his way of engaging Biblical authority. Older PLS grads will find Locke’s essay in the large Modern Library volume they once used; it is edited by Edwin Burtt and titled The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill. If you “google” the topic of “John Locke Second Treatise” you will find various on-line versions, most of them in the public domain including that which you can reach in the Library of Liberty at //

Beckett’s Art of Impoverishment—Joseph Rosenberg
Although Samuel Beckett is most well-known to us as a playwright, the bulk of his oeuvre is actually short stories. In this two-day seminar, we will examine a number of these remarkable works in an effort to understand Beckett’s unique aesthetics of “lessness.” Beckett’s stories, that is, take the impoverishment of expression to its limit. As he once put it, “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail.” We will ask just what this hunger for failure entails, examining Beckett’s fascination with silence, untimeliness, meaninglessness, and his rather surprising debt to Dante.

Required Text:
The Poems, Short Fiction, and Criticism of Samuel Beckett. Ed. Paul Auster. New York: Grove, 2014.

One day seminar

Continued Investigations in the Quantum World—Felicitas Munzel and Matthew Dowd
We will again lead a one-seminar discussion of topics related to quantum theory. In particular, we will continue our examination of how quantum physics is related to questions of consciousness. Two texts will form the basis of our discussion, and both will be somewhat more technical than in past years. The first is available online through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The article’s title is “Quantum Approaches to Consciousness,” The second is the book The Quantum Divide: Why Schrödinger’s Cat is Either Dead or Alive, by Christopher C. Gerry and Kimberley M. Bruno. We are particularly interested in chapter 7, “Schrödinger’s Cat and Leggett’s SQUID: Quantum Effects on a Large Scale?” This book begins with more basic issues that we have already discussed, but uses some mathematical nomenclature that we haven’t used before, so chapters 1–5 can be useful as an introduction or review of the material, as well as explanation of the mathematics.