European Studies

M.A., European Thought and Culture

The M.A. in European Thought and Culture (ETC), administered by the Department of European Languages and Studies in the School of Humanities, draws on expertise from faculty in other departments in the Schools of Humanities and Social Sciences in order to take an interdisciplinary approach to this area of study. The degree will provide students with a rigorous course of study in the foundational philosophical texts and cultural products in literature and the arts produced in Europe from the Middle Ages to the present, locating them in their historical contexts. The program will have students entering in two ways: (1) Students with a B.A. degree can apply to the “stand-alone” program and pursue a one-year degree consisting of nine courses, plus either a comprehensive examination or a thesis. (2) This will also be a 4+1 M.A. program so that UC Irvine undergraduates in good academic standing can apply in their final year for formal admission, begin with the program’s three Core Seminars during their senior year, and spend a fifth year at UCI completing their nine courses, plus either a comprehensive examination or a thesis.

Professional Objectives

Increasing numbers of students recognize that for academic and career reasons a degree beyond the B.A. is desirable. Our program allows those with interests in a wide array of disciplines (European studies, history, philosophy, comparative literature, art history, political theory, anthropology, law, religious studies, as well as English, French, German, Italian , and Russian literature) to pursue the study of the modern European tradition, which is foundational for understanding developments in those fields. This may be a goal in itself or preparation for a variety of careers in business, government, and non-government organizations. In addition, the program. The critical thinking, writing, and interpretive skills learned in the M.A. program provides an excellent preparation for application to Ph.D. programs with fellowship opportunities.

The objective of the program is to train students in interpreting and writing about cultural products (literature and the arts) and philosophical texts (broadly speaking, including works in political theory, the history of science, and theology) from the European tradition. This training has three goals: (1) attentiveness to the formal structures and languages in which ideas are expressed; (2) location of ideas in   larger historical contexts, be they social, economic, or political institutions, cultural developments, or in conversation with other ideas; (3) exploration of ideas and texts that are crucial for understanding the formation of modern critical theory. The program will also emphasize the legacy and transformation of this tradition, in both recent developments in the broad area of “literary and critical theory” and in colonial, postcolonial, and other non-European contexts.

In a society that is focused narrowly on both contemporary events and the strictly U.S. context, academia is one place where students can invest time and energy in the study of foreign and past traditions. Such study must not be “historicist,” i.e., concerned with the past or foreign for its own sake, but rather must understand it as part of what has been called “the history of our present.” Study of the European tradition and its critiques contributes, in other words, to a self-understanding of our place in our own world. This program, in addition to providing a direct service for both post-baccalaureate students of the European traditions, conceives its mission as giving citizens access to the rich and diverse cultural and intellectual tradition that forms the foundation of the modern world—even (or especially) as many contemporary voices are engaged in strong critiques of this very tradition. In sum, the program contributes to our society’s critical self-reflection on where it came from and where it could be headed.

Intellectual Aims

A broad field of “theory” has emerged in the humanities and social sciences that attempts take a holistic perspective on human meaning rather than the reduction to a specific disciplinary perspective that characterizes the sciences. Though often associated with the study of literature (hence, “Literary Theory”), wider concepts of “critical theory” and cultural studies encompass the reflexive assessment of the study of society, politics, and culture as a totality. A major aim of this program is to provide students with a historical foundation in the cultural developments out of which critical theory itself emerged in Europe.

Because UCI has had a long-standing reputation as an institutional home for “theory” (in many shapes and guises), it has over the years attracted graduate students with interests in a variety of theoretical directions—poststructuralism, hermeneutics, Marxism, postcolonial theory, feminism, queer theory, critical race studies, political theory, and Frankfurt School Kritische Theorie (among others). Many of these students encountered such theories either in their undergraduate studies or early in their graduate work. But they quickly discover that a majority of theorists in all these directions rely heavily on the European cultural and philosophical tradition—even as many of the theorists challenge it. (As one student put it: “I’ve been deconstructing the Cartesian subject for years, but never read Descartes.”) Thus, students often sense a major lacuna in their training because they have not had the opportunity to build a firm foundation. While many of the major texts are often taught in philosophy departments, the interests of “professional” philosophers lies less in the “big picture” that provides historical context, connects a broad pattern of issues with one another, and assesses relevance for contemporary theoretical debates than in exploring the validity of specific arguments.

This program builds upon the disciplines of literary and cultural studies, critical theory, as well as intellectual and cultural history. Associated with the German notion of Geistesgeschichte, these disciplines do not view products of the human spirit from the past as isolated objects of antiquarian study. Rather, in looking at the way ideas change over time, they explore the changing contexts that help us understand the ideas, whether those contexts be themselves other ideas or wider socio-political and discursive phenomena and institutions. Moreover, because human existence is essentially historical, our self-understanding necessarily involves the study of our historical development. This means putting cultural products from the past in dialogue not only with each other and their contexts, but also with the present. Thus, although often concerned with major philosophical, literary, and art historical texts, approaches like the ones taken in this program will have a broad historical and cultural focus. Finally, because ideas take many forms of expression and representation, the exploration of “thought and culture” will involve a variety of specialists who are attentive to the unique modalities of the “language” (be it linguistic or visual) in which works of the European tradition are presented.

The specific role of the European tradition in the development of the modern world cannot be denied (even as it also is only one of many ways that modernity has unfolded). This M.A. looks to both the distant and recent history of Europe for ways in which its alterity to or intersection with the global past and present can help us understand the modern world. Major developments in the European tradition include the transition from medieval to Early Modern modes of organizing intellectual, social, and political life, urbanization, the Reformation and the wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the formation of the nation  state, colonialism, the rise of modern science, the Enlightenment, pre-modern, early modern, and modern political revolutions, concepts of sovereignty, the development of the modern notions of individual subjectivity, agency, and autonomy, as well as modernist and postmodernist critiques of this very tradition.

Moreover, and just as significantly, the program includes an emphasis in the non- European legacies of the European tradition, i.e., how it framed and intersected with other major civilizations (the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire, and the indigenous civilizations of the New World), on the one hand, and was translated and transformed by colonial and postcolonial writers (the likes of Césaire, Senghor, Fanon, etc.) as well as by African American writers and theorists (many of whom spent formative years in Europe), on the other.