English R1B

Reading & Composition: The Hazards of Belief

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
17 Spring 2014 Langione, Matt
TTh 11-12:30 225 Wheeler

Book List

Dickinson, Emily: Final Harvest: Poems; Emerson, Ralph Waldo: Nature and Selected Essays; Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby; Peirce, Charles Sanders: Chance, Love, and Logic; Salinger, J.D.: Nine Stories; Whitman, Walt: Leaves of Grass; Wittgenstein, Ludwig: On Certainty

Other Readings and Media

Films: The Graduate (1967), Lost in Translation (2003), Paris, Texas (1984), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


It is natural to think of perception as the bedrock of belief. We watch the sun appear over the eastern horizon every morning and then, after dark, we fall asleep secure in the belief that its light will wake us again tomorrow. This is how induction works. But is it possible that there are cases in which our perceptions are clouded by our beliefs? The term “sunrise,” after all, is nothing more than a misnomer derived from a false belief in a geocentric model of the cosmos. Yet errors of perception are hardly always so innocent and historical. They remain so pervasive in laboratory experiments that scientists routinely practice a “double blind” standard of objectivity in order to stamp out problems of cognitive bias. If trained scientists operating in controlled environments must be protected from the hazards of their beliefs, imagine how often in our daily lives our senses deceive us, imprisoning us in a world beheld by the false light of our own stale notions and clumsy biases. The situation, however, is not so hopeless if we follow C.S. Peirce in regarding belief as a matter of habit. The problem then turns on the question: How do we eliminate our bad habits without losing the good?

Literature might seem, at first glance, an unlikely remedy. But American literature rose to its cultural and institutional prominence, in part, as a response to the crisis of belief brought about by religion’s loss of epistemic authority in the nineteenth century. It seems worthwhile now to reflect on how literature has taken up the mantle. The readings and films for this course will prepare us to ask how fiction, poetry, and cinema function as correctives to the habitualizing effects of routine experience, and how beauty, their distinguishing mark, expands the canon of our knowledge.

Pursuing the answers to these questions will require not only reading and class discussion but also, and above all, several extended writing assignments designed to introduce research methods, to refine fluency in exposition, and to encourage the development of clear and complex argumentation. 

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