English R1B

Reading and Composition: Thought Experiments

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
15 Fall 2021 Boyle, Elizabeth Vinyard
TTh 5-6:30 180 Social Sciences

Book List

Cavendish, Margaret: The Blazing World; Larsen, Nella: Passing; Radcliffe, Ann: Romance of the Forest; Shelley, Mary: The Last Man; Woolf, Virginia: Flush; de La Fayette, Mme.: Princesse de Clèves

Other Readings and Media

Shorter readings will include selections from Christine de Pizan, Frances Burney, Octavia Butler, and the writings of Plato, Aristotle, René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac.


In his 1641 Meditations, René Descartes made the claim that cogito ergo sum – thought entails existence, but nothing further may be given.  Fifty years later, John Locke posited the mind as a tabula rasa, an impressible space where ideas come from the world of things rather than any prior or anterior memory.  David Hume would come to similar conclusions, that therefore all abstractions – even the idea of universals – must in fact be combinations of particular experiences, imagining consciousness as a material cabinet where such perception-objects are stored and recombined.  What is the status, then, of that which is conceived or constructed by the human mind?  How do the categories of perception and imagination register shifts in experimental consciousness?  Where do we locate the reality of the extended thought experiment?

 Beginning with such philosophical queries, this class will take up a particularly persistent strain of experimental thinking through the history of literary fiction, texts that simulate and examine the nature, limits, and possibilities of experience, as well as the philosophical implications for thinking through or dwelling in such possibilities.  In the process, we will explore the terms of such as-if imaginings, as we ponder alongside them the peculiar nature of the human that such linguistic play makes possible.  What is the status of the reality defined through speculative or mimetic realism?  How do we reckon with the seeming being-ness of our fictional selves, characters who appear to narrate their realities into existence?  Along the way, we will read works both ancient and modern, encountering the experiential through disparate modes of rational and sensational knowledge: from classical and enlightenment philosophy, to medieval dream vision and renaissance speculative fiction; from the historical novel and gothic romance, to a modernism that posits consciousness at the limits of linguistic coherence and identity.  We will also learn to think of our own writing as thought experiments in reading, as we push ourselves in what we can articulate as meaning – and as meaningful collective response – reading closely and deeply as we work through a series of short papers and assignments that will culminate in a long final paper.

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