11 September 2007


Today was cloudy and rainy. In general, I don't do well in this sort of weather, especially as the days begin to get shorter. I end up staring into space a lot and, if I remain stationary for more than 10 minutes, I tend to fall asleep. Thus I didn't get as much work done today and I would have liked.

Today was also Claire's first full day of Kindergarten, which seemed to go smoothly, though tonight she was a bit more tired and grouchy than normal. Still, she seemed to enjoy her day and getting to know other kids. She's only one of ten kids in her class, which is a nice size and the teacher seems like an old pro.

In other news, my proposal for a Harry Potter course appears to have met with approval from my department chair, though we still need to decide on a class meeting time. Here's a portion of what I proposed:
I plan to use the seven books of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling in order to stimulate discussion on philosophical topics.

The book series functions across a number of genres – boarding school literature, coming of age story, fantasy, quest, mystery, social and political parody. As such, the books take many of the features of our world and experience and highlight them, exaggerating certain features for effect or drawing attention to particular narrative threads and themes. Thus they prove a useful lens through which to engage real-world issues, including many that intersect importantly with philosophy.

The two primary areas of philosophical discussion generated by the books involve ethics and metaphysics.

In terms of ethics, the books raise questions of moral psychology (e.g., the nature of self-deception), virtue and vice (e.g., is ambition a virtue), ethical ambiguity (e.g., can a person be brave and good and yet be petty and vindictive), friendship and its analogues (e.g., how does common action among friends for good ends differ from allies in wrongdoing), the ethics of self-sacrifice, questions of politics and society, and so on.

In terms of metaphysics, the books raise questions of fiction in general (e.g., do fictional creatures in some sense exist), the nature of personal identity (e.g., can a fractured self maintain identity), the soul and post-mortem existence (e.g., if we can somehow survive death, what is it that survives), the character of science/technology over against alchemy, magic, hermeticism, and astrology, foreknowledge and freedom in relation to prophecy, and so on.

Philosophy instructors who have run similar courses at other schools report that using the books as the basis for discussion tends to attract students who are already interested, who want to talk about the books, whose imagination and attention engage readily with the material.

Tentative Texts:

Baggett, David and Shawn E. Klein, Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristote Ran Hogwarts (Open Court 2004).

Baggett, David, “Love Potion #9¾: Vice, Volition, and Voldemort” (unpublished paper).

Chevalier, Noel, “The Liberty Tree and the Whomping Willow: Political Justice, Magical Science, and Harry Potter,” The Lion and the Unicorn 29 (2005) 397-415.

Granger, John, excerpts from Looking for God in Harry Potter (Saltriver 2006).

Gupta, Suman, excerpts from Re-Reading Harry Potter (Palgrave 2003).

Jacobsen, Ken, “Harry Potter and the Secular City: The Dialectical Religious Vision of J.K. Rowling,” Animus: A Philosophical Journal for Our Time 9 (2004).

Kern, Edmund M., excerpts from The Wisdom of Harry Potter (Prometheus 2003).

Linden, Stanton J., “Francis Bacon and Alchemy: The Reformation of Vulcan,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 35.4 (Oct - Dec 1974) 547-560.

MacNeil, William, “‘Kidlit’ as ‘Law-and-Lit’: Harry Potter and the Scales of Justice,” Law and Literature 14.3 (Autumn 2002) 545-64.

McFall, Lynne, “Inventing the Truth: Fiction As Moral Philosophy,” The Henry James Review 18.3 (Fall 1997) 217-222.

Schanoes, Veronica L., “Cruel Heroes and Treacherous Texts: Educating the Reader in Moral Complexity and Critical Reading…” in G.L. Anatol, ed., Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays (Praeger 2003).

Van Inwagen, Peter, “Creatures of Fiction,” American Philosophical Quarterly 14 (1977) 299-308.
That list of texts is only tentative. I've also written to several folks asking if I might use papers they've presented at some recent conferences.

Now that the course is approved, I'm going to try to plan a couple of bonus events - perhaps ask John Granger (who is local) whether he might want to come to give a talk and talk to our campus programming center about scheduling a Wizard Rock concert (I talked to the Moaning Myrtles and they seem keen on the idea).

On this last point, there's a paper I'm hoping to include concerning the nature of Harry Potter fan fiction and other sorts of literary spin-offs. Also, if anyone with expertise in aesthetics and cultural studies is reading this, I'd be interested in any articles you could point me to that addresses how art (in this case a literary text) can be taken up by others in new works of art (fan fiction, visual art, music, poetry, etc.) within popular culture.

Well, now it's time for a glass of wine and watching an old 1960s episode of The Avengers.