February 10, 2003

Des Chene teaches philosophy of social spaces


By Rachel Robertson

Signing up for a philosophy course as a first-semester freshman at Emory is gutsy, to say the least. But, Dennis Des Chene had 14 brave souls take on his “Philosophy of Space and Time” freshman seminar course last fall.

Fortunately for the students, Des Chene understood what they were facing. “I don’t expect them to get it right away,” said the associate professor of philosophy. “One thing I’ve learned after teaching philosophy for 15 years is that writing philosophy is not an innate skill.”

The course was divided into two parts. The first part examined real space and time as discussed by philosophers and what physicists now believe to be true. Using texts such as The Philosophy of Space and Time by Hans Reichenbach, students learned some basic geometry of physical space and examined issues of measurement.

“Reichenbach points out that, at the expense of making your physics more complicated, by inserting unknown forces you can accommodate a lot of different geometries,” Des Chene said.

Through Robert Heinlein’s story, “All You Zombies,” students were exposed to ideas of time by examining the paradoxes of time travel. The main character of the story uses time travel to become both his own father and his own mother.

“It’s interesting because it looks very paradoxical at first, but then, after a while, if you think really hard, you realize the only paradox is that the main character’s timeline is a closed loop: The genetic information is coming from nowhere,” Des Chene said. “In physical terms, moreover, even a little violation of mass-energy conservation is a big deal.”

In the second half of the class, students read works of French philosophers Gaston Bachelard and Henri Lefebvre to examine issues of socially constructed and imagined space and time. Bachelard used poetry as evidence for his ideas of space as it is imagined in dreams and daydreams in The Poetics of Space. In particular, the class studied his analysis of the categories of inside and outside, corners and roundness, and the notion of a person’s “inner chamber.”

Through Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, students were exposed to a Marxist account of the production of “social space.” The class focused on the different ways in which social spaces are constructed, including the factors that influence the development of social spaces and how this has evolved over time.

“I didn’t want them to focus very much on the theoretical underpinnings,” Des Chene said. “Lefebvre had a lot of things to say about how city planning works and how social spaces are created, especially in a society like ours where a lot of public space is created through the market.”

Given the difficult nature of the texts, Des Chene attempted to hook the students into the material by integrating their own experiences into class assignments. For example, he asked students to describe a public space and apply their new knowledge of Bachelard’s and Lefebvre’s ideas to their descriptions. Students often chose places they knew very well; one described a theater her family was associated with, and another student wrote about a pool hall he frequented.

“That was a good paper,” Des Chene said of the latter. “Socially it’s a very interesting place. Often places that are now pool rooms didn’t start off as pool rooms. When buildings had been turned to a new purpose, I asked them to take note of it and look at what happens.”

Des Chene’s attempt to make a challenging subject accessible to the students worked for freshman Lauren Clepper.

“While we wrote demanding papers and read advanced texts, Dr. Des Chene always seemed to keep in mind that we were only first-semester freshmen and was willing to teach us the skills necessary for success,” Clepper said. “I feel that this class helped me grow in my thinking and my writing, and I will definitely take these skills with me the rest of my life.”






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