FYS BC 1468

Barnard, Spring 2015


Synopsis of the Seminar

Freedom is a crucial concept in the history of human thought. But what does it mean to be free? By the end of this course, it will be evident that there are actually very different notions of freedom out there, each of which is interesting for significantly different reasons. In fact, at times different freedoms may even clash. We’ll get to grasp the complexities and interest(s) of each of these notions. We might even get to formulate some nice answers to what deceivingly looks like a very simple question: are we free?


Goals of the Seminar

We’ll have four goals:

1. Learn how to (i) analyse and (ii) critically an engage with the materials. You’ll be able to engage with the material both by discussing/presenting it, and by writing about the topics we cover

2. Get acquainted with the fact that there are in fact many notions of freedoms, which are very different from each other, and are useful for different reasons. (Note that we are going to look at some notions of freedom; the list we will cover in the seminar is not going to be exhaustive.)

3. Look at how some of the notions of freedom we’ll consider get applied in “real life”. We’ll do this both via fieldtrips (see the course outline below) and with a couple of somewhat practical activities in class (see the course outline below).

4. Learn to present and discuss things in a group.


Format of the Seminar

The format of these classes is not that of a standard frontal lecture. That’s why we call it ‘seminar’ rather than ‘course’. Here is how a seminar works. You have to do the readings in advance, and classes are for you to reconstruct and discuss the readings. My role is essentially that of guiding you to do that, so to put you in a position to critically discuss & write about the material. For instance, I will come to class and ask you help me to reconstruct the readings. In general, information about what’s in these readings will therefore come from you, rather than from me.



a)  Two short presentations. You have to do at least two short presentations (10- 15 mins) in class. They will be about the readings for that meeting. They will introduce the material and we’ll then take off our discussion from there. If you want to do joint presentations (they are great fun to prepare!), then you and your partner will do two of them together (say). Think about what you want to present on. We'll aim at having a presentations schedule ready by the end of week 1.

b)  Six assignments (three shorts assignments, each revised and resubmitted) and participation in class discussion. The first four assignments are papers. For the fifth and sixth assignment, you can EITHER write a paper OR shoot a short-movie (3 mins long - its first submission is the movie script) – for more details see Courseworks and below. No late submission will be accepted — except by prior arrangement on compelling grounds or in emergencies.


Regular (punctual) class attendance and participation

The primary text in this class is the text you create at the table through discussion. There are many ways to participate. I expect participation to consist both of listening and speaking; in other words, responding (to each other, to the texts, to me). Some examples? Listen to another student, take a quote from a text with which we are working and ask a question or make an observation or connect it to another text from class. And these are just some examples! Moreover, participation here also includes attending a speaking fellows workshop. (Info below.)

In addition to these general interactions, each of you will be asked to do a couple of short presentations (see above). The participation grade is not about the presentation. It’s about your interactions in class (when not presenting).

Missing class is the opposite of participating. It’s anti-participating. So a helpful guideline is: don’t miss class (unless you must because of illness or religious observance). Your participation grade will start to be heavily affected if you miss class more than twice.



Participation: 10% of the final grade (participating includes showing up for the Speaking Fellow session; details on where and when the session takes place will be announced in class as soon as I receive them from the Speaking Fellows – in week 2).

Essay one: 20% of the final grade
Essay two: 20% of the final grade
Assignment three (essay or short movie): 35% of the final grade Presentations: 15% of the final grade

As you can see, only the final version of each assignment (that is, only your second, fourth and sixth submissions) will be graded. However, the submission of essay drafts (or movie script, in one case) by the relevant deadline is compulsory. This is because you will then receive feedback on the draft, which will in turn help you to improve your essay (or movie) further. Needless to say, in preparing the final version of your assignment you don’t need to confine yourself to addressing the feedback you received. If you also have further ideas on how to improve the essay, go for it!

NB: I will deduce one grade for each day of delay in submitting an assignment (both for the draft submission, and for the submission of the final version), unless we agreed on an extension in advance (which, again, will only be granted on compelling grounds).


Submissions Guidelines and Deadlines

1) First Submission: draft of essay 1. To be submitted to the writing fellow by February 17 at 5pm, via e-mail.

2) Second Submission: final version of essay 1. To be submitted to me via Courseworks by March 5 at 5pm (see 'Assignments').

3)  Third Submission: draft of essay 2. To be submitted to the Head Writing Fellow via e-mail by March 20 at 5pm.

4)  Forth Submission: final version of assignment 2. To bes ubmitted on Courseworks by April 2 at 5pm.

5)  Fifth Submission: draft of assignment 3 (this is a movie script, if you choose to shot a movie as your third assignment). To be submitted either to me (send it to me if it is a movie script: I’ll forward it to the film-maker Joseph Brightly, who’ll give us feedback) or to the Head Writing Fellow (if it is an essay draft) via e-mail, by April 25 at 5pm.

6)  Sixth Submission: final version of paper-3/movie. To be submitted on Courseworks by May 9 at 5pm.

Assignment questions and further guidelines will be circulated in week 1.



There will be a writing fellow and a speaking fellow associated with this seminar.

Go to the writing fellow for feedback on your writing (in fact, I set this up as a requirement; so you have to go and see the writing fellow; I let you know how to reach her below – see course outline).

Barnard also has a wonderful speaking centre, where fellows teach us how to do effective presentations. The centre will offer us a class on how to do effective presentations, and further info about how the centre works. Details on this workshop to follow -- a speaking fellow will visit us on Feb 2.

I have also uploaded a file on Courseworks with detailed suggestions about how to write an essay, and some links to further sources of advice. (Students tend to find it really helpful.)



The primary text in this class is the text you create at the table through discussion. Let’s make sure we create a great text. In addition, there will be readings from several authors. I will post a copy of all the readings on Courseworks. It’s up to you whether to buy the paper- format of the texts of not (you might want to buy the texts that you’d like to have in the future; but again, I leave this choice to you are free).

I will make sure that the following texts, among others, are reserved for us at the Barnard Library:

1. On Liberty, by J. S. Mill.

2. The Bhagavad Gita.

3. Conversations with Maya Angelou, Jeffrey E. (ed.).

4. Antigone, by Sophocles (Hackett edition).


Week-by-week Course Plan

Jan 21. Introductory meeting

We’ll introduce the course and, most importantly, each other. We’ll also start thinking about presentations and have our first round-table discussion.

The rest of the course is divided in three parts, as follows.


PART I: Individual Freedoms

Week 1. Freedom as free will

When asked about his philosophy of life, the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) used to tell his friends: “I believe in free will. I have no choice”. But what is free will? And is there really such a thing as free will?


Study Questions (to keep in mind while doing the readings):

  • How can we define free will, if at all?
  • Is there free will?
  • Is it plausible to assume that only human beings have free will? Why?


- Jan 26 - arguments in favor of the existence of free will.

  • “The Debate over Free Will”, from Problems from Philosophy, pp. 109-118.

- Jan 28 - arguments against free will.

  • “A lawyer’s famous case against free will” (selection from a talk given to prisoners in Chicago), from Problems from Philosophy, pp. 94-99.

  • “Determinism, Psychology, and Genes”, from Problems from Philosophy, pp. 99-104.

Week 2. Sartre’s notion of freedom (existential freedom, part 1)

Study Questions

  • What does Sartre mean by ‘free’?
  • What’s this notion useful for, if anything?
  • What’s the connection between Sartre’s notion of freedom and his existentialism? Is this a good connection? And why? 


- Feb 2

  • Sartre, J. P. (1977). “The Humanism of Existentialism”, in Essays in Existentialism. New Jersey: The Citadel Press.

- Feb 4

  • Sartre, J. P. Being and Nothingness, selections.


Week 3. De Beauvoir’s notion of freedom (existential freedom, part 2)


Simone De Beauvoir is mostly known for her wonderful autobiography and her feminist major text, The Second Sex. The Ethics of Ambiguity is an understudied but in fact incredibly significant text of hers. There she developed an existentialist ethics that condemned the “spirit of seriousness” in which people too readily identify with certain abstractions at the expense of individual freedom and responsibility. We’ll read parts of it.

Study Questions

  • Is De Beauvoir’s notion of existential freedom the same as Sartre’s notion of existential freedom? Why?
  • Is De Beauvoir right when she says we should not be too serious? Why? And what does she mean by ‘serious’?


- Feb 9

  • Selections from De Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity.

- Feb 11

  • Selections from De Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity.


Week 4. Freedom in Maya Angelou’s poems

In 2010, Maya Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One of her most famous poems contains the following lines: ‘for the caged bird/sings of freedom’. How so? What freedom does Maya Angelou give voice to?

Study Questions

  • What freedom does Angelou give voice to?
  • ‘For the caged bird/sings of freedom’. In what sense?
  • Is Angelou’s notion of freedom a good notion? Why? 

Readings & Guest Speaker

- Feb 16 - Guest Speaker: poet Nora Brooks (The New School)

  • Maya Angelou’s poems “Caged Bird”, and “Love’s Exquisite Freedom”.
  • Selections from Angelou’s autobiography I know why the Caged Bird Sings. 

- Feb 19

  • Conversations with Maya Angelou, selections.


Feb 20 - DRAFT VERSION OF ESSAY #1 DUE, at 5pm.

This submission of a draft is compulsory, but will not be graded. Please submit it to the writing fellow, Claire Daniels, via e-mail, at

The writing fellow will give you an appointment to receive feedback on your draft. The feedback will help you to improve/rewrite the final version of the essay, which you will submit later and will in turn be graded.

The better the draft, the more the writing fellow will be able to give you great feedback (by which I mean feedback that will show you how to write outstanding essays). That’s why it’s important to submit the best possible draft.


Week 5. Kantian freedom (freedom as rational autonomy)

Kant claimed that freedom is the ‘keystone’ of his philosophical system. But why? And what notion of freedom does he have in mind? Do you think it’s a good notion? We'll try to find out.

Study Questions

  • Kant connects freedom and autonomy. Why?
  • What is this freedom a freedom from, if anything? And what is the use of Kant’s notion of freedom, if any?


- Feb 23

  • Kant, I. Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, selections.

- Feb 25

  • Kant, I. Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, selections.


Field Trip! (Feb 26)

Theatre performance by Arts Works for Freedom. (The performance reconstructs the final part of the life of a woman who had been a slave of sex-traffickers for many years, but managed to escape.)


Week 6. Yoga and freedom (a notion of freedom in Eastern thought)

Many lines of thought in the Eastern tradition tell us that meditation is a crucial exercise on the path to freedom. We’ll try it out for real, and do a short (15 mins long), guided meditation during the first class of this week. Discussion on why and how this method might help us to become free will follow.

Study Questions

  • Do you think that meditation made you get a grip on the notion of freedom which may be in play in the Baghavad Gita? If not, why not? If yes, how so?
  • What kind of freedom, if any, is in play in the Baghavad Gita?
  • How does this notion of freedom differ from notions encountered before?
  • In what sense, if any, is this freedom absolute? Why? How would you object to the opposite claim, the claim that this Yogi notion of freedom is not absolute? 


- Mar 2

  • Baghavad Gita, ch. 3.

- Mar 4

  • Baghavad Gita, ch. 6 and 18.


March, 6 at 5pm - FINAL VERSION OF ESSAY #1 DUE

This version will be graded. (So will the other final versions.) Please submit the essay on Courseworks, under ‘Assignments’ on the left bar.


PART II. Freedom in Society


Week 7. Freedom and society in ancient Greek tragedy: Sophocles

Study Questions

  • Is Antigone free? In what sense?
  • The philosopher Georg Hegel claimed that there is a sense in which modern freedoms started with Antigone. Do you agree?


- Mar 9

  • Sophocles, Antigone.

- Mar 11

  • Sophocles, Antigone.
  • “Hegel on Antigone”. [Courseworks]
  • “Mythological Context of the Antigone”. [Courseworks]


Week 8. NO CLASSES (Spring break!)


March, 23 at 9pam: DRAFT VERSION OF ESSAY # 2 DUE

Please submit your draft to the Head Writing Fellow, via e-mail.


Week 9. John Stuart Mill & Mary Wollstonecraft

Study Questions

  • Liberty, or freedom, has for Mill a very specific meaning: which one? Is this a good notion of freedom? Why?
  • Would you say that Antigone was free in Mill’s sense? Or is the sense of freedom Mill has in mind quite different from Sophocles’? Why?
  • In what way, if any, does Wollstonecraft’s vindication make women free?
  • Is the notion of freedom at play in On Liberty also present in Wollstonecraft’s Vindication? If not, why not? If yes, how so?


- Mar 23

  • J.S. Mill, On Liberty, selections (on Courseworks).

- Mar 25

  • Wollstonecraft, M. (1972). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, selections.


Week 10. Marxist Freedom (material freedom)

Study Questions

  • What freedom comes with the market?
  • Does the market make us unfree? In what way?
  • Why does Marx think that there is freedom in the community?

Readings & Guest Speaker

- Mar 30 - Guest speaker: John Clegg (NYU)

  • Cohen (1983). “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom” [about the notion of capitalist unfreedom].

- Apr 1

  • Marx, K. Capital, chapter 6.
  • Chitty, A. “Freedom and Community in Marx”.
  • Marx, K. “Notes on James Mill”. [Optional. This is Marx’s reply to James Mill (the father of J. S. Mill, whom we read last week); it contains his idea of communism as freedom; this piece is a bit hard to read, but our guest speaker will tackle it with us.]


April, 2 at 5pm: FINAL VERSION OF ESSAY # 2 DUE Submission via Courseworks.


Week 11. Arendt’s Political Freedom

Study Questions

  • Explain Arendt’s own answer to the question ‘What is Freedom?’.
  • Is it a good answer?
  • What are the origins of totalitarianism according to Arendt? Why?


- Apr 6

  • Arendt, H. (1993). “What is Freedom?”, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, (New York: Penguin).

- Apr 8

  • Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, selections.


Week 12. Freedom according to Amartya Sen: Development

Study Questions

  • Why does Sen think that development makes us free? What do ‘free’ and ‘development’ mean here?
  • Compare and contrast Sen’s and Marx’s notion of freedom. 


- Apr 13 and Apr 15

  • Sen, A. (2001). Development as Freedom, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, selections.


Week 13. Freedom & Prisons

Study Questions

  • What freedom(s) does prison deprive us of? Why? And what freedom(s) does it leave us with, if any?
  • Should there be boundaries to our freedoms? Who should give them and why? 

Readings & Guest Speakers

- April 20 - Guest speaker: Daniel Saiewski

Daniel will tell us about his own experience in prison. Discussion will follow.

  • Zimbardo, P. “The Pathology of Imprisonment” (1972), in Society 9, pp. 4-8.

- April 23 - Guest speaker: conceptual artist Netta Sadovsky

Netta will tell us about her experience in an art installation in Brooklyn: she chose to spend hours in a cage under specific rules. She found it a freeing experience, and will tell us why.


Week 14. How to shoot a short movie, round-table discussion

- April 27 - Guest speaker: film-maker Joseph Brightly

Joseph has been a film-maker for MTV for many years, and will give us a practical overview of how to shoot a short movie (pre- production, production and post-production) about freedom in New York.

- April 29 - Round-table discussion

We’ll compare and contrast the different notions of freedom we looked at over the course, and consider whether and how, if at all, they fit together. Can you think of clashes of freedoms? How are we going to get out of the clash, if at all? Why?


April, 30 at 5 pm: FIRST DRAFT ASSIGNMENT #3 DUE

If you choose to write an essay: please submit a paper copy of the paper to the Head Writing Fellow – just as you did for the first and second draft. If you choose to shot a short movie, please submit a copy of your movie script to me; I will meet with Joseph Brightly and we will provide you with feedback.


May, 9 at 5 pm: FINAL VERSION OF ASSIGNMENT #3 DUE Submission via Courseworks.