Great Ideas that Have Shaped our World: from the Axial Age to the Artificial Intelligence Revolution
Universidad Pompeu Fabra
Area of Study
Taught In English
Recommended U.S. Semester Credits3
Recommended U.S. Quarter Units4
Hours & Credits
Course focus and approach:
This course focuses on three types of questions and ideas, ethical-philosophical, political, and scientific, that have revolutionised and shaped our world. We will analyse these revolutionary ideas dealing with the subjective, intersubjective, and natural world as providing resources for understanding and tacking problems in times of radical uncertainty and transformation generated by disruptive technologies (AI, genetic engineering), climate emergency, and populist-authoritarian upheavals.
Given the interdisciplinary nature of this course, it will be helpful for students in social sciences, humanities, economics, and hard sciences. The approach of the course will be global, as we will discuss theories, debates, and ideas from different geographical areas.
Primary sources will be granted central importance: original texts from Aristotle, Confucius and Darwin to Gandhi and Einstein will be discussed in the class. We will also use video materials and documentaries on key figures, ideas, and theories (e.g., Einstein’s theory of relativity, Jane Goodall on the specificity of human, or the dilemmas posed by Artificial Intelligence and biotech). Students will be encouraged to write projects based on their previous knowledge and background.
Our world is in a multilayered crisis and transformation: the genetic, robot and AI revolutions challenge the limits between natural and artificial, human and non-human. At once, democratic societies are plagued by (gender) inequality, ecological emergency, and the rise of different forms of authoritarianism, which generate radical uncertainty and raise anew the question of the possibility of leading a good life and organising a free society.
This course starts from the premise of the crucial importance of ethical-political, philosophical, and scientific imagination in developing human societies and tackling these crises. It focuses on critical moral-political, philosophical, and scientific innovative ideas that have revolutionized and shaped society from Antiquity to nowadays. It also provides ways of dealing with crises, uncertainty, and new problems at personal and public life levels.
The course deals with understanding the context of these ideas' emergence and their impact on the contemporary world and mentality. We deal with three interrelated questions: how should I live my life? How should society be organised? How does nature work?
We begin with the “Axial Age” (Karl Jaspers) characterised by a series of ethical-religious, scientific, and philosophical innovations from China and India to Ancient Greece and the Middle East. We move chronologically to Renaissance, Enlightenment, and the current robot and AI revolution.
The substantive and methodological approach is not Euro-centric and reductionist but global and interdisciplinary. We adopt a problem-solving approach based on understanding why and how new and creative ideas - from Buddhism and monotheism to Marxist materialism, genetic engineering, and quantum physics - answer different types of challenges and queries – ethicalexistential, political, and scientific.
- Critical assessment of fundamental ideas that have revolutionized the world (i.e., Confucianism, liberalism, environmentalism, genetics, the theory of relativity).
- A deeper understanding of the contemporary world, its challenges, and crises.
- Creative use of ideas in building autonomous research and collaborative projects.
- Having a better understanding of the interaction between science and society
- Deeper understanding of the future challenges and of the existing toolkits that can help in dealing with them.
Course workload and materials:
The workload comprises readings (generally one 20-page reading per lecture; sometimes students will have to watch a video/documentary/film). All materials will be made available to the students via Moodle.
The PowerPoint for each class will be also uploaded.
The classes are structured in lectures (1 hour) and open discussions based on texts and videos/documentaries. The emphasis is on discussing primary sources (e.g. texts by Confucius, Darwin, Einstein, etc).
We adopt a problem-solving approach based on understanding why and how new and creative ideas - from Buddhism and monotheism to Marxist materialism, genetic engineering and quantum physics - answer different types of challenges and queries (existential, epistemic, or moral-political).
The methodology is comparative and global (Edward Said 1978; Amartya Sen 2009) and not parochial or Eurocentric; to illustrate, we will explore comparatively the ideas of human excellence in Aristotle and Confucius or the notions of salvation in Buddhism and Christianity.
The methodological approach is based on the importance of interdisciplinarity, namely, on approaching societal phenomena from the pluralist perspective of scientific and humanistic disciplines (Sapolsky, 2017).
Visit We will pay a guided visit to the science museum of Barcelona or another relevant temporary exhibition.
Invited Guest The course will also benefit from an invited scientist who will deal with the question of the genetic revolution.
Projects: 30% of the final grade. Students will be encouraged to propose original projects by creatively using the background knowledge of their passions and interests and the knowledge acquired in the class. The project can be individual or involve 2 or 3 students (the latter case entails a proportional increase in work). The project can take a written or video form.
Students will also be provided with an optional list of project themes that may help to guide them. The tutor will provide part of the materials necessary for the projects.
Exams: 50%. (10% mid-term, 40% final exam). The exam format and questions will be announced and discussed in class. Critical reasoning will be encouraged.
Participation: 20%. Students will be encouraged to raise critical questions and participate in class by making short presentations. Evaluation: English.
Courses and course hours of instruction are subject to change.