Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

The Conscience

ENGLISH 87N

Why do you consider this in particular to be right? ‘Because my conscience tells me so; conscience never speaks immorally, indeed it determines what is moral in the first place!’ But why do you listen to the voice of conscience?” —Nietzsche, The Joyous Science

What kind of science, or knowledge, does the con-science impart? How does this knowledge relate to what the thinker above called the “intellectual conscience”? The indeterminacy of conscience’s claims makes it a subject that all but demands close reading, and it is a matter of historical fact that ethical reasoning has often taken place within and through literary forms. This course thus takes the scientific efflorescence of the early modern period (c. 1500-1800) as its historical center of gravity, but focuses above all on the development of interpretive habits: the careful, imaginative parsing of often-intractable texts that prepares us for a lifetime of engagement with ethical impasses. Proceeding through texts long associated with crises of conscience (selections may include Genesis, Macbeth, Moll Flanders), we will consider how the creative force of literary interpretation bears on evolving conceptions of ethical inquiry and intellectual obligation.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Esther Yu

Esther Yu is an assistant professor in the English department and a Stanford alumna, returning to teach here as of autumn 2019.

“Years ago, I took a wonderful sophomore seminar, CHEMENG 60Q: Environmental Regulation and Policy. I didn’t have the conceptual framework then to articulate my interests, but I was already wondering about the relationship between conscience and science, broadly defined. It would be in the humanities that I was given space to delve into these bedrock concepts; I came to value the work of thinking them through little-known as well as long cherished texts. For this seminar, I’m interested in assembling a group of discussants with a range of intellectual proclivities and styles of participation. No prior knowledge of course readings or concepts assumed.”