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ENGLISH 3Q03 History: Critical Theory (C01)

Academic Year: Winter 2020

Term: Winter

Day/Evening: E

Instructor: Dr. David Clark


Office: Chester New Hall 321

Phone: 905-525-9140 x 23737


Office Hours: Tuesdays 5:00-6:00PM

Course Objectives:

Course Description and Objectives:

This course explores the history of critical thinking about the difficulties and possibilities that attend the formation, evolution, revolution, and governance of ethical communities. Throughout the course, emphasis will be given to a cluster of closely related questions: 

                What is justice, and what does it mean to strive to create a just society? 

                What responsibilities and obligations attend social and political life?

                What is the role that education, teaching, and learning play in sustaining an equitable society?

                How is social and political life imagined differently by different thinkers . . . and why?

                In what ways is social and political life formed and deformed by violence, including war violence?

                To what extent does social and political thought address the question of suffering?

                In what ways is social and political thought an affirmation of the irrepressible interdependence of life on Earth?

                In what ways is social and political thought complicit with forms of violence, exclusion, and domination?

                What are the roles of the university in social and political life? What is the social and political life of the                                      university?

The objective of this course is to provide students with a good working knowledge of a broad range of social and political thinkers and theories from classical antiquity to the 19th century—all in the context of the question of justice. Attention is also given to writing effective essays, i.e., essays that i) have a discernible thesis, ii) make a detailed case for that thesis and iii) are written with elegance, economy, and correct grammar.

Supplemental readings and Study Notes for specific readings designed to help you consolidate the course material will be provided on Avenue as the course unfolds. Memoranda providing helpful hints on how to write an effective essay, as well as how to prepare for and write an effective midterm examination will also be posted.

It is very important to take good notes during class. Of course, many of you already know how to take good notes and the importance of having notes. Good notes help you prepare for your midterms examinations and essays. The final examination for the course tests your knowledge of the assigned materials for the entire term, so having detailed notes from the start of the course will help you as you study for that examination.

Keeping on top of the readings (and there are a lot of readings in this course) is essential both for your comprehension of the course materials and your understanding of the lectures. Knowing the materials will also contribute significantly to the quality of your remarks during the third hour of the course. Part of what the midterm examination and the final examination for the course test is whether you have read the materials with care. Try your level best not to rely on on-line summaries of the assigned materials and instead have the courage to wrestle with their actual difficulties, insights, and challenges.

Over the course of the Winter term we establish a broad historical context for social and political thought, beginning with the writings of Plato and concluding with Karl Marx. Although we attend to the specific historical contexts informing the assigned readings, the focus will consistently be on the contemporaneity of the work of these thinkers—i.e., how their writings provide an evocative critical language with which to parse the difficulties of social and political life today. In other words, the work we will be considering will not be treated as remote historical artefacts but as living and breathing things that speak to our own worries and hopes for political and social existence. These assigned materials are not without their own problems and limitations—those too will be discussed. Among the texts that we consider are: Plato’s Republic, a founding text for the exploration of the problems and possibilities that attend the formation of just communities; Immanuel Kant’s essay, Toward Perpetual Peace (1795), the precursor for the United Nations Charter; and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the founding text of Anglo-American feminist political thought. We also examine Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848), his revolutionary denunciation of the wounding powers of capital, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689), which supplies many of the basic principles for modern liberal democracies, for better and for worse, and Sir Philip Sidney’s A Defense of Poetry (1595), his eloquent plea for humanistic tolerance and learning during a time—the age of Elizabeth I—of intensifying intolerance and dogma. The term begins with a screening and discussion of Astra Taylor’s well-regarded documentary, What is Democracy?

Textbooks, Materials & Fees:

Required Texts:

All assigned reading material for the course will be posted on the Avenue to Learn coursepage.

Two documentaries also for part of the required material for the course:

Marx Reloaded. Dir. Jason Barker. Films Noirs/Medea Films, 2011.

What is Democracy? Dir. Astra Taylor. Zeitgeist Films and the National Film Board of Canada, 2018. [107 minutes]

From time to time, supplemental materials will be added to the coursepage on Avenue to help you consolidate the course materials.

Method of Assessment:

Course Assignments and Weighting:


Midterm examination:                       20%            (Written in class, 1 hour, 25 February 2020.

Essay (10 pages / 2500 words):       45%             (Essay assignment will be circulated and posted on the course-page.                                                                                               Essay due 31 March 2020)

Final Examination (2 hours):             35%            (Written during the examination period at the end of the semester.)

Policy on Missed Work, Extensions, and Late Penalties:

Essay Due Date:

The essay is due in class, at start of class, 31 March 2020. 

No essays will be accepted after 31 March 2020. A grade of zero/F will therefore be assigned to essays not submitted by that due date and time.

Since the essay is weighted heavily in this course, students are encouraged not to leave working on this assignment until late in the term. Suggested essay topics will be posted on Avenue. You are strongly encouraged to discuss and develop your essay topic with either Dr. Clark or the course T.A. earlier in the term. The course TA and I are strongly committed to helping you develop and write the very best essay that you can write!  

If you are a smoker, please ensure that you print your essay in a smoke-free environment.

Please Note the Following Policies and Statements:

Academic Dishonesty

You are expected to exhibit honesty and use ethical behaviour in all aspects of the learning process. Academic credentials you earn are rooted in principles of honesty and academic integrity.

Academic dishonesty is to knowingly act or fail to act in a way that results or could result in unearned academic credit or advantage. This behaviour can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: "Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty"), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.

It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty. For information on the various types of academic dishonesty please refer to the Academic Integrity Policy, located at

The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty:

  1. Plagiarism, e.g. the submission of work that is not one’s own or for which other credit has been obtained.
  2. Improper collaboration in group work.
  3. Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations.

Email correspondence policy

It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from each student’s own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student.  Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.

Modification of course outlines

The University reserves the right to change dates and/or deadlines etc. for any or all courses in the case of an emergency situation or labour disruption or civil unrest/disobedience, etc. If a modification becomes necessary, reasonable notice and communication with the students will be given with an explanation and the opportunity to comment on changes. Any significant changes should be made in consultation with the Department Chair.

McMaster Student Absence Form (MSAF)

In the event of an absence for medical or other reasons, students should review and follow the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work. Please note these regulations have changed beginning Fall 2015. You can find information at If you have any questions about the MSAF, please contact your Associate Dean's office.

Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities

Students who require academic accommodation must contact Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to make arrangements with a Program Coordinator. Academic accommodations must be arranged for each term of study. Student Accessibility Services can be contacted by phone 905-525-9140 ext. 28652 or e-mail For further information, consult McMaster University's Policy for Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities.

Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous and Spiritual Observances

Students requiring academic accommodation based on religion and spiritual observances should follow the procedures set out in the Course Calendar or by their respective Faculty. In most cases, the student should contact his or her professor or academic advisor as soon as possible to arrange accommodations for classes, assignments, tests and examinations that might be affected by a religious holiday or spiritual observance.

Topics and Readings:

Provisional Lecture Schedule

Jan   7     Prefatory Remarks + What is Democracy? [documentary screening + class discussion]

      14    Plato, The Republic [Book I, II, IV]

      21    Plato, The Republic [Book V, VII]

      28    Plato, The Republic


Feb  4     Sir Philip Sidney, Defense of Poetry

      11    John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government [selections]

      18    Mid-term recess

      25    Midterm Examination (no class before or after examination)


March  3   Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace

        10  Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace

        17  Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman [pages 21-141] 

        24  Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto + Capital [selections] John Bellamy Foster, “Absolute                                                          Capitalism”

        31  Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto + Capital [selections] + Marx Reloaded [documentary [Essay due in person, at                  start of class]

April 7     Recapitulation