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The John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought

This is an archived copy of the 2012-13 catalog. To access the most recent version of the catalog, please visit


  • Robert Pippin


  • Lorraine Daston
  • Vincent Descombes
  • Wendy Doniger
  • Hans Joas
  • Irad Kimhi
  • Gabriel Lear
  • Jonathan Lear
  • Jean Luc Marion
  • Heinrich Meier
  • Glenn W. Most
  • David Nirenberg
  • Thomas Pavel
  • Mark Payne
  • Robert B. Pippin
  • James M. Redfield
  • Haun Saussy
  • Laura Slatkin
  • Nathan Tarcov
  • Rosanna Warren
  • David Wellbery
  • Adam Zagajewski


  • Paul Friedrich
  • Leon Kass
  • Joel Kraemer
  • Ralph Lerner
  • Charles W. Rosen
  • David Tracy
  • Anthony C. Yu

The John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought was established as a degree granting body in 1941 by the historian John U. Nef (1899-1988), with the assistance of the economist Frank Knight, the anthropologist Robert Redfield, and Robert M. Hutchins, then President of the University. The Committee is a group of diverse scholars sharing a common concern for the unity of the human sciences. Their premises were that the serious study of any academic topic, or of any philosophical or literary work, is best prepared for by a wide and deep acquaintance with the fundamental issues presupposed in all such studies, that students should learn about these issues by acquainting themselves with a select number of classic ancient and modern texts in an inter-disciplinary atmosphere, and should only then concentrate on a specific dissertation topic. It accepts qualified graduate students seeking to pursue their particular studies within this broader context, and aims both to teach precision of scholarship and to foster awareness of the permanent questions at the origin of all learned inquiry.

The primary themes of the Committee’s intellectual life have continued to be literature, religion, philosophy, politics, history, art and society. The Committee differs from the normal department in that it has no specific subject matter and is organized neither in terms of a single intellectual discipline nor around any specific interdisciplinary focus. It exists to bring together scholars in a variety of fields sharing a concern with basic and trans-disciplinary issues, and to enable them to work in close intellectual association with other like-minded graduate students seeking to pursue their particular studies in this broader context. Inevitably, the faculty of the Committee does not encompass within itself the full range of intellectual disciplines necessary for these studies, and the fields represented by the faculty have changed substantially during the Committee’s history. Students apply to work with the faculty who are here at any particular time and, where appropriate, with other faculty at the University of Chicago. Although it offers a variety of courses, seminars, and tutorials, it does not require specific courses. Rather, students, with the advice of Committee faculty, discover the points at which study in established disciplines can shape and strengthen their research, and they often work closely with members of other departments. Through its several lecture and seminar series, the Committee also seeks to draw on the intellectual world beyond the University.

Students admitted to the Committee work toward the Ph.D. There are three principal requirements for this degree: the fundamentals examination, the foreign language examination and the dissertation. Study for the fundamental exam centers on twelve to fifteen books, selected by the student in consultation with the faculty. Each student is free to draw from the widest range of works of imaginative literature, religious thought, philosophy, history, political thought, and social theory and ranging in date from classical times to the twentieth century. Non-Western books may also be included. Study of these fundamental works is intended to help students relate their specialized concerns to the broad themes of the Committee’s intellectual life. Some of the student’s books will be studied first in formal courses offered by faculty, though books may also be prepared through reading courses, tutorials, or independent study.

Preparation for the fundamentals examination generally occupies the first two or three years of a student’s program, together with appropriate philological, statistical, and other disciplinary training.

After successful completion of the fundamentals examination, the student writes a dissertation under faculty supervision on an important topic using appropriately specialized skills. A Committee on Social Thought dissertation is expected to combine exact scholarship with broad cultural understanding and literary merit. In lieu of an oral defense, a public lecture on an aspect of their research of general interest to the scholarly community is to be given.

As a partial guide, and to suggest the variety of possible programs, there follows a list of titles of some of the dissertations accepted by the Committee since 1994:

  • Heidegger’s Polemos: From Being to Politics
  • Nature’s Artistry: Goethe’s Science and Die Wahlverwandtschaften
  • Nietzsche’s Schopenhauer: The Peak of Modernity and the Problem of Affirmation
  • Feminism and Liberalism: The Problem of Equality
  • A Hesitant Dionysos: Nietzsche and the Revelry of Intuition
  • Conrad’s Case Against Thinking
  • Reading the Republic as Plato’s Own Apology
  • Cartesian Theodicy: Descartes Quest for Certitude
  • Plato’s Gorgias and the Power of Speech and Reason in Politics
  • World Government and the Tension between Reason and Faith in
  • Dante Alighieri’s Monarchia
  • A House Divided: The Tragedy of Agamemnon
  • Eros and Ambition in Greek Political Thought
  • Natural Ends and the Savage Pattern: The Unity of Rousseau’s Thought
  • Revisited
  • A Sense of Place. Reading Rousseau: The Idea of Natural Freedom
  • Churchill’s Military Histories: A Rhetorical Study
  • A Nation of Agents: The Making of the American Social Character
  • The Problem of Religion in Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico Politicus
  • A Great Arrangement of Mankind: Edmund Burke’s Principles and Practice of Statesmanship
  • The Dance of the Muses
  • Tocqueville Unveiled: A Historian and his Sources in L Ancien Régime et la Révolution
  • The Search for Biological Causes of Mental Illness
  • War, Politics, and Writing in Machiavelli’s Art of War
  • Plato’s Laws on the Roots and Foundation of the Family
  • The Philosophy of Friendship: Aristotle and the Classical Tradition on Friendship and Self Love
  • Regions of Sorrow: Spaces of Anxiety and Messianic Tome in Hannah Arendt and W.H. Auden
  • Converting the Saints: An Investigation of Religious Conflict using a Study of Protestant Missionary Methods in an Early 20th Century Engagement with Mormonism
  • The Significance of Art in Kant’s Critique of Judgment
  • Historicism and the Theory of the Avant Garde
  • Human Freedom in the Philosophy of Pierre Gassendi
  • Taking Her Seriously: Penelope and the Plot of Homer’s Odyssey
  • Karna in the Mahabharata
  • Hegel on Mind, Action, and Social Life: The Theory of Geist as a Theory of Explanation. Liberalism in the Shadow of Totalitarianism: The Problem of Authority and Values Since World War Two
  • Nietzsche’s Problem of Socrates and Plato’s Political Psychology
  • Tocqueville’s New Political Science: A Critical Assessment of Montesquieu’s Vision of a Liberal Modernity
  • Magnanimity and Modernity: Self Love in the Scottish Enlightenment
  • Hegel’s Conscience: Radical Subjectivity and Rational Institutions
  • Religious Zeal, Political Faction and the Corruption of Morals: Adam Smith and the Limits of Enlightenment
  • This Distracted Globe: Hamlet and the Misgivings of Early Modern Memory
  • Teaching the Contemplative Life: The Psychagogical Role of the Language of Theoria in Plato and Aristotle
  • The Allegory of the Island: Solitude, Isolation, and Individualism in the Writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau
  • The Convergence of Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses
  • The Curiosity of the Idle Reader: Self Consciousness in Renaissance Epic
  • Bacon on Virtue: The Moral Philosophy of Nature’s Conqueror
  • Picturing the Path: The Visual Rhetoric of Barabudur
  • Collecting Objects/Excluding People: Chinese Subjects and the American Art Discourse 1870-1900
  • From Religionskrieg to Religionsgesprach: The Theological Path of Boden's Colloquium Heptaplomeres
  • The Problem of Autonomy in the Thought of Montaigne
  • The Virtue of the Soul and the Limits of Human Wisdom: The Search for SÔPHROSUNÊ in Plato’s Charmides
  • Nietzsche’s “Fantastic Commentary”: On the Problem of Self-Knowledge
  • Erotic Uncertainty: Towards a Poetic Psychology of Literary Creativity
  • Cruelty: On the Limits of Humanity
  • Hamletian Romanticism: Social Critique and Literary Performance from Wordsworth to Trollope
  • Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Adventures in Political Culture and Drama 1952-2002
  • Acquiring “Feelings that do not Err”: Moral Deliberation and the Sympathetic Point of View in the Ethics of Dai Zhen
  • The Contest of Regimes and the Problem of Justice: Political Lessons from Aristotle’s Politics
  • Socrates and the Second Person: The Craft of Platonic Dialogue
  • In the Grip of the Future: The Tragic Experience of Time
  • Thucydides on the Political Soul: Pericles, Love of Glory, and Freedom
  • Connecting Agency and Morality in Kant’s Moral Theory
  • Tocqueville and the Question of the Nation
  • Pierre Bayle’s “Machiavellianism”
  • The Burial of Hektor: The Emergence of the Spiritual World of the Polis in the Iliad
  • Hegel’s Defense of Moral Responsibility
  • Dostoevsky, Madness, and Religious Fervor: Reason and its Adversaries
  • The Uses of Boredom
  • Two Loves, Two Cities: Intellectus and Voluntas in Augustine’s Political Thought
  • Power and Goodness: Leibniz, Locke and Modern Philosophy
  • Soren Kierkegaard and the Very Idea of Advance Beyond Socrates
  • Between City and Empire: Political Ambition and Political Form in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives
  • Gluttony and Philosophical Moderation in Plato’s Republic
  • Plato’s Immoralists and their Attachment to Justice: A Look at Thrasymachus and Callicles
  • The Great Law of Change: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Meaning of the Past in a Democratic Age
  • Devil’s Advocate: Politcs and Morality in the Work of Carl Schmitt
  • Relation without Relation: Emily Dickinson – Maurice Blanchot
  • Perfecting Adam: The Perils of Innocence in the Modern Novel
  • Stubborn Against the Fact: Literary Ideals, Philosophy and Criticism
  • One Man Show: Poiesis and Genesis in the Iliad and Odyssey
  • Political Theology in Eric Voegelin’s Philosphy of History
  • The Ancient Quarrel Unsettled: Plato and the Erotics of Tragic Poetry
  • Heroic Action and Erotic Desire in Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare

Areas of Study

Work with the Committee is not limited as to subject matter. Any serious program of study, based on the Fundamentals Examination, culminating in a scholarly doctoral dissertation, and requiring a framework wider than that of a specialized department, may be appropriate. In practice, however, the Committee is unwilling to accept a student for whom it is unable to provide competent guidance in some special field of interest, either from its own ranks or with the help of other members of the University.


Students in the Committee have unusual scope for independent study, which means that successful work in Social Thought requires mature judgment and considerable individual initiative. Naturally, the Committee wishes to be reasonably confident of an entering student’s ability to make the most of the opportunities the Committee offers and to complete the program of study. Hence, we request that the personal statement required by the University application should take the form of a letter to the Committee which addresses the following questions: What intellectual interests, concerns, and aspirations lead you to undertake further study and why do you want to pursue them with the Committee? What kind of work do you propose to do here? (If you can, include your intentions for the Fundamentals requirement, further language study, and dissertation research.) How has your education to date prepared you? In addition, you should include a sample of your best written work, preferably relevant to the kind of work you propose to do at the Committee, though you may also include a short sample of fiction or poetry in addition. Should we consider the evidence submitted to be insufficient, we may ask you to add to it. Applicants are also required to take the Graduate Record Examination.

How To Apply

The application process for admission and financial aid for all Social Sciences graduate programs is administered through the divisional Office of the Dean of Students. The Application for Admission and Financial Aid, with instructions, deadlines and department specific information is available online at: .

Questions pertaining to admissions and aid should be directed to or (773) 702-8415. Most material for the application can be uploaded into the application system. Additional correspondence and materials sent in support of applications should be mailed to:

The University of Chicago
Division of the Social Sciences
Admissions Office, Foster 105
1130 East 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637

Foreign students must provide evidence of English proficiency by submitting scores from either the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

For additional information about the Social Thought program, please call 773-702-8410.


The department website offers descriptions of graduate courses scheduled for the current academic year: . Or you may email the Committee directly and request a copy of the current course schedule.

Social Thought Courses

SCTH 30002. Performance as Subversion under Totalitarian Censorship. 100 Units.

This course explores theater, music, and film as forms of subversion during periods of militaristic and totalitarian dictatorships where strict censorship was applied to public performance. Students choose topics and submit a final paper after a class presentation.

Instructor(s): D. Buch     Terms Offered: Winter
Equivalent Course(s): TAPS 29104

SCTH 30612. Plato on Poets. 100 Units.

Plato is famous among literary people, though not necessarily among philosophers, for having peppered some of his works with attacks on poets and poetry. The course will argue for a nuanced description of such attacks and for a connection between some of his arguments on poets and poetry and some of his general philosophical arguments (e.g., on knowledge). Among the topics to be discussed will be the relationship between what poets know, what poets can do, and what poets say (namely what they say they know). Of particular interest will also be the connection between Plato’s descriptions of poets and Socrates’ notions of obeying a voice, a dream or an oracle. Works to be discussed include the Apology and the Ion (in their entirety), as well as substantial sections of the Republic, Phaedo, Phaedrus and, not least, Gorgias.

Instructor(s): M. Tamen     Terms Offered: Spring
Note(s): No knowledge of Greek is required.
Equivalent Course(s): PORT 25013,PORT 35013

SCTH 31770. Plato's REPUBLIC. 100 Units.

This course is devoted to reading and discussion of Plato’s Republic and some secondary work with attention to justice in the city and the soul, war and warriors, education, theology, poetry, gender, eros, and actually existing cities.

Instructor(s): Nathan Tarcov     Terms Offered: Winter 2013
Prerequisite(s): Undergrad course by consent
Equivalent Course(s): PLSC 43820,FNDL 29503

SCTH 31920. The Historical Context of the Platonic Dialogue. 100 Units.

Plato’s historical fictions, like most such work, use the past as a way of confronting with current issues. This course will place them in the context of the history of philosophy and the development of prose literature, at a time when colloquial prose was new and philosophy was a highly contested term, overlapping with religion. Final paper.

Instructor(s): James Redfield     Terms Offered: Winter 2013
Note(s): 0pen to undergrads with consent of instructor
Equivalent Course(s): CLAS 34812,CLCV 24812

SCTH 35802. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile ou de l'éducation. 100 Units.

In his treatise on education, Rousseau has to find a way out of a deep paradox inherent to the Enlightenment psychology: how could he account for the socialization of a human being with the conceptual resources of a solipsistic psychology? The course will consist in close readings of selected sections from Rousseau's Emile ou de l'éducation (GF Flammarion, 2009).

Instructor(s): V. Descombes     Terms Offered: Autumn
Note(s): Taught in French
Equivalent Course(s): FREN 34112,FREN 24112

SCTH 35901. Sohocles, Oedipus at Colonus. 100 Units.

A close literary and philological analysis of one of the most extraordinary of all Greek tragedies. While this play, in its many dimensions, will offer more than adequate material for classroom analysis and discussion, some attention will also be directed to its reception.

Instructor(s): Glenn Most     Terms Offered: Winter 2013
Prerequisite(s): Greek or consent of instructor
Equivalent Course(s): GREK 40112,CMLT 35903

SCTH 35902. Virgil, The Aeneid. 100 Units.

A close literary analysis of one of the most celebrated works of European literature. While the text, in its many dimensions, will offer more than adequate material for classroom analysis and discussion, attention will also be directed to the extraordinary reception of this epic, from Virgil's times to ours.

Instructor(s): Glenn Most     Terms Offered: Winter 2013
Prerequisite(s): Latin helpful
Equivalent Course(s): CLAS 44512,ENGL 35902,CMLT 35902

SCTH 38211. Fiction, Ideals, and Norms. 100 Units.

This course will discuss the ways in which fiction imagines a multitude of individual cases meant to incite reflection on moral practices. The topics will include: the distance between the “I” and its life, the birth of moral responsibility, and the role of affection and gratitude. We will read philosophical texts by Elisabeth Anscombe, Charles Taylor, Robert Pippin, Hans Joas, Charles Larmore, and Candace Vogler, and literary texts by Shakespeare, Balzac, Theodor Fontane, Henry James, Carson McCullers, and Sandor Marai. 

Instructor(s): T. Pavel     Terms Offered: Spring
Equivalent Course(s): FREN 28600,CMLT 28601,CMLT 38601,FREN 38600

SCTH 38240. Beautiful Souls, Adventurers, and Rogues. The European 18th Century Novel. 100 Units.

The course will examine several major eighteenth-century novels, including Manon Lescaut by Prevost, Pamela and fragments from Clarissa by Richardson, Shamela and fragments from Joseph Andrews by Fielding, Jacques le Fataliste by Diderot, and The Sufferings of Young Werther by Goethe.

Instructor(s): T. Pavel     Terms Offered: Winter
Prerequisite(s): Not open to first-year undergraduates.
Note(s): Taught in English. A weekly session in French will be held for French majors and graduate students.
Equivalent Course(s): FREN 35301,CMLT 24401,CMLT 34401,FREN 25301

SCTH 39126. Empire and Enlightenment. 100 Units.

The European Enlightenment was a formative period in the development of modern historiography. It was also an age in which the expansionist impulse of European monarchies came under intense philosophical scrutiny on moral, religious, cultural, and economic grounds. We chart a course through these debates by focusing in the first instance on histories of Rome by William Robertson and Edward Gibbon, as well as writing on law and historical method by Giambattista Vico.

Instructor(s): Ralph Lerner and Clifford Ando     Terms Offered: Winter 2013
Equivalent Course(s): CLCV 25107,CLAS 35107,HIST 30502,HIST 20502

SCTH 40106. Secularization & Resacralization of the Work of Art. 100 Units.

For course description contact Art History.

Equivalent Course(s): ARTH 46309

SCTH 50087. Max Weber's Sociology of Religion. 100 Units.

Max Weber is perhaps the one undisputed classical figure in the discipline of sociology today. His reputation is to a large extent based on his historical and comparative studies of the "economic ethics" of the world religions and on the formulation of a systematic approach for the historical-sociological study of religion (in the relevant chapter of his "Economy and Society"). The seminar will start with a close reading of the religion chapter in "Economy and Society" and then continue with selections from his comparative studies. The focus of interest will not only be on Weber's theory, but also on the present state of research on the questions Weber was dealing with.

Instructor(s): H. Joas     Terms Offered: Spring
Equivalent Course(s): SOCI 50087,AASR 50087

SCTH 50200. Seminar: George Herbert Mead. 100 Units.

While George Herbert Mead's work has been a continual inspiration for sociology and social psychology in the last decades, it has not been appreciated in its full extension. The sociological reception has ignored large parts of Mead's philosophical writings; in philosophy Mead is counted among the most important pragmatists, but the revival of interest in pragmatist philosophy has hardly led to new interpretations of his work. This is particularly regrettable since there is considerable potential in his writings for contemporary questions in moral philosophy, the study of temporality, etc. The seminar starts with a close reading of Mead's best-known book Mind, Self, and Society. Since this book is based on notes taken in his classes, we will then continue with some of Mead's essays and selections from his other books. We should reserve some time for discussion about the relationship between Mead and contemporary social thought. Required reading: G. H. Mead, Mind, Self, and Society. University of Chicago Press 1934 (and many later editions); Hans Joas, G. H. Mead. A Contemporary Re-examination of his Thought. MIT Press 1985 and 1997 (second edition).

Instructor(s): H. Joas     Terms Offered: Spring
Equivalent Course(s): SOCI 50022

SCTH 51301. The Concept of Institution: From Modern Political Philosophical to Social Philosophy. 100 Units.

Modern political philosophy is an inquiry into the legitimacy of political authority (why should I be submitted to a Sovereign?). Social philosophy is an inquiry into the meaning of social action : what does it take for an agent to be acting socially?
,According to the French School of sociology (Durkheim, Mauss, Lévi-Strauss, Dumont), human beings are social beings insofar as their lifes are governed by collective representations and institutions. This view can be presented as a way of dealing with the paradoxes of a purely political view of social life as found in social contract theories of political sovereignty.
,First, we will assess Durkheim’s reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau Social Contract as having anticipated the sociological understanding of social life by overcoming a purely atomistic view of political associations (with the concept of a “general will” and its foundation in the “moral” constitution of the people, i.e. its collective habits and social institutions).
,Then, we will consider contemporary proposals to locate the concept of institution within the framework of a philosophy of action (Anscombe, “On Brute Facts”; Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society).

Instructor(s): V. Descombes     Terms Offered: Autumn
Equivalent Course(s): FREN 41301,PHIL 52201

SCTH 51400. Arabesque Narrative: A Hybrid Form of the Imaginary. 100 Units.

For course description contact CDIN Center for Disciplinary Innovation.

Equivalent Course(s): CDIN 51400,ARTH 46210,GRMN 51400

SCTH 55391. Plato on Beauty and Truth. 100 Units.

Plato thinks that beautiful speech is truthful and that truthful speech is, in some way, beautiful.  Why does he think this and why does he think it important?  Readings will include portions of the Republic, Sophist, and Phaedrus so as to understand the beauty of philosophical dialectic by contrast with the false beauties of (some) poetry and rhetoric. (IV)

Instructor(s): G. Lear     Terms Offered: Autumn
Equivalent Course(s): PHIL 55391,PHIL 45391

SCTH 55603. Being and Creation. 100 Units.

The distinction between essence and existence was introduced as part of metaphysical doctrine of creation in Islamic theology. This doctrine cannot be found among the ancient philosophers but became central to the Scholastics. In the seminar we shall read works by Avicenna, Averroes, and Thomas Aquinas. We shall compare Descartes' and Spinoza's receptions of the creation doctrine. I will propose that central concepts of contemporary philosophy such states of affairs or facts and notions of the mind and of the world that go with them can be traced to the doctrine of creation.

Instructor(s): I. Kimhi     Terms Offered: Autumn
Equivalent Course(s): PHIL 51114