Program of Study

Seminar Overview

This two-week NEH seminar explores the disputatio as a tool for engaging wisdom questions in the humanities.  The first week focuses on understanding the various features of disputatio and the nature of the wisdom questions it was developed to address.  The project of the second week is to explore the potential of disputatio to aid in the pursuit of wisdom in the humanities.  In this connection, seminar participants will engage a variety of literary and philosophical texts that address a variety of wisdom questions about the nature of justice.  In consultation with the Project Team, participants will also develop a curricular application of disputatio suited to their own teaching needs.  

Seminar Objectives:

The activities of this seminar will be oriented toward the accomplishment of the following objectives.

  • To foster intellectual growth among participants by engaging in humanistic inquiry
  • To promote the humanities by developing a strategy for strengthening the instruction and teaching in the humanities
  • to advance civic education by mastering a pattern that prepares citizen for self-government in a pluralistic society 
Seminar Outcomes:

Participants that complete this seminar should be able to

  • define wisdom and contrast it with knowledge
  • recognize wisdom questions as they arise in the context of the humanities
  • identify the elements of disputatio and explain what each element contributes to constructing well-reasoned responses to wisdom questions 
  • engage the philosophical themes of literary texts by means of disputatio
  • engage philosophical essay and debates by means of disputatio
  • develop curricular applications of disputatio suited to individual needs
Seminar Discussion Guidelines

This seminar explores an effective means of pursuing wisdom in the humanities.  Wisdom questions are always disputed, and the disputes concern foundational matters.  Seminar discussion will therefore involve disagreement among participants that represent a variety of perspectives on wisdom questions.  It will be vital therefore to conduct this seminar on the basis of the Principles of Civility for NEH Seminars, Institutes, and Workshops.  According to these principles, seminar discussion should be rigorously grounded, free from partisan advocacy, respectful of divergent views, free of ad hominem commentary, and devoid of ethnic, racial, religious, gender, and disability bias.  All participants should expect to abide by these principles at all times.  

Reading Assignments

One of the chief aims of this seminar is to foster intellectual growth through the engagement of the humanities.  In order to accomplish this objective, participants are expected to read assigned materials in advance of each session.  The seminar schedule allows ample time to complete reading assignments. Optional group reading time is included in the schedule.  

Seminar Accommodations

Participants with special needs that require accommodation are asked to communicate in advance with the co-directors.  

Primary Sources

These sources are required reading according the daily schedule below.  Required readings will be distributed prior to the start of the seminar.

  • Readings related to the nature of wisdom questions and the development of disputatio
    • Plato, Euthyphro
    • Plato, The Apology of Socrates
    • Plato, Meno
    • Plato, Phaedrus
    • Epicurus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism
    • John Rawls, “Wide-Reflective Equilibrium,” selection from A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., Harvard University Press: 1999.  
  • Readings related to the form of disputatio and its application in the pursuit of wisdom
    • Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on the Virtues (selections)
    • Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (selections)
  • Readings related to the use of disputatio to engaging wisdom questions in literary texts
    • Sophocles, Antigone
    • Shakespeare, Hamlet
  • Readings related to the use of disputatio to engage wisdom questions in philosophy
    • Elizabeth Anscombe, “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” in G. E. M. Anscombe, Ethics, Religion and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers Volume III. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981.  
    • Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1972):  229-243. 
    • Onora O’neil, “Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems,” in Matters of Life and Death, Thomas Regan, ed., McGraw Hill, 1980.  
Secondary Sources 

These sources are recommended for establishing context for assigned primary source readings, and guiding further exploration of the topics addressed; participants are encouraged to consult as needed.

  • On Wisdom Questions
    • Todd Buras, “On the Nature of Wisdom Questions,” unpublished manuscript. 
    • Ryan, Sharon, "Wisdom", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = .
  • On Plato, Socrates, and the Elenchus
    • Kraut, Richard, "Plato", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
    • Nails, Debra, "Socrates", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = .
    • Griswold, Charles L., "Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = .
  • On Thomas Aquinas
    • McInerny, Ralph and O'Callaghan, John, "Saint Thomas Aquinas", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
  • On Ancient Skepticism 
    • Vogt, Katja, "Ancient Skepticism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
  • On Reflective Equilibrium
    • Daniels, Norman, "Reflective Equilibrium", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
  • On Philosophical Engagement of Literary Texts
    • Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice:  The Literary Imagination and Public Life, Beacon Press, 1997.  
  • On Antigone 
    • Kevin Hawthorne, “The Chorus as Rhetorical Audience:  a Sophoklean Agon Pattern,” American Journal of Philology 130 (2009): 25-26.
    • Lukas van den Berge, “Sophocles’ Antigone and the Promise of Ethical Life:  Tragic Ambiguities and the Tragedy of Reason,” Law and Humanities 11 (2017): 205-227.  
  • On Hamlet
    • William Franke, “Prophesy Eclipsed:  Hamlet as Tragedy of Knowledge,” Secular Scriptures, The Ohio State University Press, 2016.  
    • Bernice W. Kilman, ed., Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Modern Languages Association of America, 2002.  
  • On Anscombe and Just War Theory
  • Elizabeth Anscombe, “War and Murder,” in Nuclear Weapons: a Catholic Response, Walter Stein (ed.), London: Merlin, 1961, 43–62.
    • Nagel, Thomas, 1979. “War and Massacre,” in Mortal Questions, New York: Cambridge University Press, 53–74.
  • Driver, Julia, "Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
    • Lazar, Seth, "War", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = .
  • On Distributive Justice and Duties to Aid
    • Deen K. Chatterjee, ed., The Ethics of Assistance:  Morality and the Distant Needy, Cambridge University Press, 2004.  
    • Lamont, Julian and Favor, Christi, "Distributive Justice", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
NEH - National Endowment for the Humanities