Course Details

Course offered Autumn 2020

HONORS 394 C: The Disenchantment of the West: From Shakespeare to the Coen Brothers (A&H / SSc)

HONORS 394 C: The Disenchantment of the West: From Shakespeare to the Coen Brothers (A&H / SSc)


John (Jack) Whelan (Foster School of Business)

Credits: 5
Limit: 35 students

Honors Credit Type

Tentatively scheduled for Monday/Wednesdays 3:30pm-5:20pm

5 seats reserved for incoming freshmen

This course is designed to help students become more aware of the forces that otherwise unconsciously impinge on them to shape the narratives that give their lives meaning–or don’t. It will do so by looking at the remarkable transformation in its social imaginary that Northern Atlantic Societies underwent since the Renaissance and Reformation.

We will use Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ (Harvard University Press, 2007) to provide the conceptual framework that tells the story of how the ‘social imaginary’, particularly in North Atlantic societies, morphed from what he describes as premodern imaginaries that were enchanted, i.e., an imagined world full of spirits and spiritual forces, to a modern one that became  profoundly disenchanted, that is following Weber, a world that has lost any robust collective or public sense of the sacred.

The course explores the hypothesis that figures like Shakespeare and the Coens  are transitional artists for their different times: Shakespeare for the transition from the premodern to the modern, the Coens for the transition from the modern to whatever comes next.

This course is in part about the history of ideas, but seeks more to trace the way the imagination of what we think is real and unreal has changed over the last millennium. This course will seek to understand  the intellectual, economic, religious, and artistic/imaginative forces that drove this transformation. Lectures will provide necessary historical and conceptual background. Optional out-of-class film viewing will be scheduled, and time will be apportioned each week for  discussion to hash through the themes and materials presented each week. Coursepack readings and films will be used to bring these ideas down to earth in such a way that we can contrast how people imagined the world hundred years ago with the way we imagine it now.  

The course will have two focus points: Part I will focus on late medieval and Renaissance influences on Shakespeare to understand better the premodern imagination that still played a deeply influential role in shaping his work. In the second half of the course, there will be an overview of the Enlightenment and Romantic thinking and imagination that has shaped what we have come to think of as the ‘modern’. This sets up what will be a more in-depth examination of the trends in thought in imagination since World War II to be explored in a second course, a 3 credit seminar to be offered in the winter quarter 2021: “Human/Transhuman/Posthuman”.  

The main thrust of this course is to give students an overview of the most important ideas over the last millennium as they have influenced the Western secularizing imagination of reality. This shift in the imagination from to one that is enchanted to  disenchanted, while having an enormous impact first in the societies of the North Atlantic, has had and is having, for better and worse, an equally significant  impact on cultures and societies everywhere else.