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Harry Potter & Philosophy
Wizarding & Wisdom

Philosophy 276
Tuesdays 6:15 - 8:55pm
Wister Hall 204


Catalogue Description

J.K. Rowling’s seven-book series provides unique and imaginative material for engaging philosophical topics of perennial interest: good and evil, virtue and vice, friendship, personal identity, the use and abuse of technology, and so on. We will also frame discussion by considering the role literature plays in shaping a philosophical imagination and the relationship of fiction to philosophy.

Prerequisite: Students are expected to have read at least five of the Harry Potter books prior to the course. It is best if you have read all seven since the course will presuppose thorough knowledge of all seven books and will make reference to the plot and contents of all seven books. Furthermore, writing and debates will require knowledge of the texts, plots, characters, etc.

Explanation

We will 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 several primary areas of philosophical discussion generated by the books involve ethics, hermeneutics and epistemology, 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 hermeneutics and epistemology, the books raise questions of proper and multiple interpretation (e.g., competing claims regarding the character of the novels), memory and time (e.g., the objectivity of saved memories), the possibility of radical self-deception (e.g., self-interested failure to accept evident truth claims), the danger of false experiences (e.g., the possibility of altered memory or experience), the role of narrative misdirection (e.g., how we can be led away from truth by narrating events in particular ways), 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.

If you are already interested in Harry Potter and want to talk about the books, then your imagination and attention should engage readily with the material, resulting in an enjoyable course.

Texts:

Required text:
David Baggett and Shawn E. Klein
Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts
Open Court 2004
ISBN-10: 0812694554
ISBN-13: 978-0812694550
Retail price: $17.95
Suggested text:
Travis Prinzi
Harry Potter & Imagination: The Way between Two Worlds
Zossima Press 2008
ISBN-10: 0982238517
ISBN-13: 978-0982238516
Retail price: $17.99
The first text (Baggett and Klein) is required and will provide a number of the core readings for the course. The second text (Prinzi) is not required, but it is a helpful and fascinating book that will help further explain and illuminate a number of issues we will be addressing. Where this is the case, the course Schedule of Readings will refer to the Prinzi volume, providing page numbers as either "Supplemental" or "Alternative" readings.

Your textbooks will not be available in the Campus Store. Rather, you will be responsible for obtaining the texts yourselves prior to the beginning of the semester.

All of these texts are currently in stock and available through a variety of online retailers such as Half.com, Amazon.com, and Barnesandnoble.com. I've included authors, titles, editions, publishers, ISBNs, and retail prices above for the sake of comparison shopping.

In addition to the Baggett and Klein volume, I will hand out several photocopied articles. Furthermore, I will send you (via email) and/or provide (as downloadable links) a variety of documents in Word and PDF formats, as well as occasional links to online materials.

If you do not own the books in the Harry Potter series, I would strongly recommend purchasing or borrowing them, so that you have them available for ready access. All seven books are now available in paperback. Having watched the available films will not be a sufficient basis for class discussion or writing.

Expectations:

If this class is going to be interesting and worthwhile, you will have to contribute substantially. This will require your attention to several areas: Attendance: Since this class meets only once a week, regular attendence is absolutely vital. Missing a single class is like missing an entire week of day classes. If you are going to miss a class, or even part of a class, please talk to me, ahead of time if at all possible.

Participation: Much of the class will be revolve around discussion based upon the readings. Thus it is important to make sure you complete all the readings ahead of the class during which they will be discussed. You are also expected to fully participate in group activities, to ask and answer questions, and to contribute to discussion.

Readings: The readings for this class will involve a variety of chapters and articles, usually 2-4 per week. For a timetable of readings, consult the more detailed Schedule of Readings. The schedule also includes study questions to help guide your reading.

Homework: You will be assigned homework each week on most of the readings. These will take the form of answering questions, personal reflections, summaries, relating readings to one another, comparing and contrasting perspectives, and so on. These will form a significant part of your grade, so be sure to do them.

Debates: The class will be divided into four houses of 8 students each - Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. Pairs of houses will debate a variety of issues in a series of five debates. Houses not debating will judge the debaters to determine winners. Each house will debate at least twice, using 4 members of their house as presenters per debate, using an adapted formal debate structure. These debates are part of your final grade.

Mid-Term Essay: A first essay will be due the Tuesday before Spring Break, March 2. This essay will be a 5-6 page critical analysis essay, based upon one of the articles we will have read, in relation to the content of the Harry Potter series.

Final Essay: A final essay will be due on the Wednesday of exam week, May 5. This essay will be a 8-10 page argumentative essay, proposing a philosophical thesis in relation to the content of the Harry Potter series, developing and arguing for that thesis, and answering objections to that thesis. The essay should interact with secondary literature, either from our readings in class or that you research on your own.

Please note: I will accept written work in the form of a hard copy only - no electronic submissions. If, for some reason you need to miss class and want to turn in an assignment electronically in order for it to be counted as "on time," that is acceptable, but you must follow up with submitting a hard copy as soon as possible thereafter or you will not receive credit for the assignment. Thanks for your cooperation with this.

Grading:

The following is a breakdown of how your various grades will be weighed:
Participation
Homework
Debate
Mid-Term Essay
Final Essay
10%
15%
20%
25%
30%