The Wisdom of Work

Jeff Hanson Teaching

PHIL: 175W - The Wisdom of Work (Thursdays, 12pm - 2:00pm in Emerson 307)


Course Description

If someone asked you, “When you finish college and are out on the job market, what do you want from your work?” What would you say? Many students I know tend to answer the following: “I want to do something that is meaningful, but if I can’t do that, then I would want to make a lot of money.” It’s a telling sign of the times when these seem to be the only two options available for valuing our work. In this course, we will ask questions about what it takes for work to be meaningful, and why someone would feel that a big paycheck could compensate for work that isn’t meaningful. In other words, by taking this course you will attempt to think about your future work philosophically.

The Western philosophical tradition is full of insights on work: what it means, why we should do it, and what makes it worth doing. Starting with Plato, who argued that work has nothing to do with making money, we move through Aristotle and then to the middle ages, when monks and nuns were required to do manual labor. We encounter interesting ideas like those of Martin Luther, who taught that all kinds of work were vocations from God, and John Locke, who put labor at the basis of private property. In the end we will look at some of the great reformers and social critics, including Marx, Ruskin, Simone Weil, and Hannah Arendt. When we’re done, hopefully you’ll have an answer to the question of what is the wisdom in work.

About the Professor

Jeffrey Hanson is a senior philosopher for the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Fordham University in 2005. Dr. Hanson's research on work spans the whole sweep of Western philosophical history, running from Plato to Hannah Arendt. Some of the questions he sought to answer were whether and how work could be thought of as an important part of a complete and flourishing human life and if so how it might be justified apart from strictly mercenary reasons, which in today’s culture seem to be the only sort of reasons people can cite in support of work’s desirability. He was especially interested to discover that the Platonic tradition—perhaps surprisingly—was rich in rationalizations for work that go beyond the merely instrumental. 

Prior to coming to Harvard, Dr. Hanson taught philosophy at Boston College from 2005 to 2010. From 2010 to 2015 he was a research fellow at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. He remains an honorary fellow of their Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry. He is the editor of Kierkegaard as Phenomenologist: An Experiment and co-editor with Michael R. Kelly of Michel Henry: The Affects of Thought. His first monograph, Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith: The Aesthetic, the Ethical, and the Religious in "Fear and Trembling" was published by Indiana University Press in 2017. His other research interests include issues in philosophy of religion, phenomenology, aesthetics, and the meaning of life. 

What to Expect from this Class

This class will be heavily focused on discussion of significant passages from classic writings both familiar and obscure. Key elements of major thinkers will be carefully considered for their relevance to a philosophy of labor that has contemporary impact as well as historical value, and unfamiliar figures who nevertheless made significant contributions to the history of the philosophy of work will be discovered. All students will be expected to be ready to participate in lively discussions and to develop their own thinking about the place of work in a complete human life. 

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