Introduction to Political and Legal Thinking: Reacting to the Past

Reacting to the Past: The Concept

Most college seminars adopt, intentionally or not, a Socratic approach: the instructor guides students through difficult texts by posing questions. This class is different. Here students will play at least one, and perhaps more, elaborate game. Each game lasts about a ten class sessions. The syllabus will indicate what game(s) will be included in the course and what materials you should acquire for each game. They will include a student game book (published by Longman) and often additional texts.

For the first few sessions of each game, the instructor provides guidance on the issues and historical context on which the game will turn. After several sessions, your instructor will give you your own role assignment, based on an historical figure. The class will break into factions, as students with similar roles meet together to accomplish their objectives. You will probably meet with your faction outside of class as well.

Following faction meetings, the class will again meet as one. Students whose characters function in a supervisory capacity --president of the Athenian Assembly, First Grand Secretary in the Hanlin Academy of the Ming Dynasty, Governor General of the Simla Conference in India-- will preside over what transpires. The instructor will intrude merely to resolve disputes or issue rulings on other matters.

The heart of the game is persuasion. For nearly every role to which you've been assigned, you must persuade others that your views make more sense than those of your opponents. Your views will be informed by important texts cited in your role objectives.

Historical Contingency

Reacting seeks to replicate the historical context of a particular past, with all its causal forces: economic, sociological, political, and otherwise. But it also provides students with the opportunity to explore counterfactual issues of individual agency: Would a different constellation of leaders in Socratic Athens have effectively resisted the rise of Athenian democracy? Would a different set of arguments have prevented Galileo from being convicted by the Inquisition? To assert that human agency matters is to say that what actually happened need not have happened. Historical forces do not foreordain human affairs. History is not predetermined. It is contingent on multiple factors, including the vagaries of human individuality.

This course presumes that individuals play a significant role in history; it asserts that broader economic and social forces place constraints on what individuals may do, but that those forces do not determine human events. People do.

Individual Agency

In order to illuminate the element of agency inherent in human affairs, this course, though set in the past, is constructed as a game. It differs from most games in that you do not know all the rules at the outset. Things will happen that you may not anticipate and over which you have little or no control. The game will unfold in ways that are undetermined from the outset: what you do affects what will happen.

Nevertheless, not all people begin the game --or life-- on equal footing. The role you are given at the outset certainly influences your prospects. Some objectives are more difficult to achieve than others and chance intervenes in unpredictable ways. Thus you may play a game brilliantly and still not win your objectives, or you can bungle your way to success; this is true in life as well.

As in life, too, you can improve your prospects for success in several ways: by forming an effective and cooperative team; by studying the world you inhabit; by making plans for the unexpected; and by working hard to win others over to your views. You also need information, lots of it: about the historical context, and about the other players. You need to understand those whom you wish to persuade, and those who may seek to block your goals. Read the game materials several times and the accompany texts carefully. You will also need real skills: to speak and write clearly and persuasively; to work effectively with others; and to figure out how to solve problems.

The game is based on the game designers' sense of the period. What happened in the past will not necessarily repeat itself in this game, but the "real" history may provide some sense of the likely issues that will emerge and of the designers' understanding of historical causation. If you study the historical context carefully, you have a better chance of understanding what will likely happen in the future. That, too, is true in life as well.

Course Requirements


The central premise of Reacting is that ideas influence lives and that the problems confronting particular lives influence the evolution of ideas. A less obvious corollary is that the study of ideas cannot be undertaken without consideration of the social context in which they emerged, and that the study of people requires an awareness of the intellectual constructs that have shaped their societies and cultures.

This is important to the game because you will be obliged, in a very short time, to acquire a solid understanding of complex ideas, and also to navigate through an historical situation that is equally complicated.

The readings, consequently, tend to be of two types: 1) the works of important thinkers; and 2) books and articles that establish the social or historical context. You may be daunted by your first encounter with Plato's Republic, the Analects of Confucius, or the sermons of Puritan ministers. These works are not easy because the ideas themselves are (literally) so thoughtful. There are good reasons why they have had so powerful an impact on civilizations. You cannot understand such texts without engaging with them fully, and in the light of the historical moment that brought them to the fore. You may be tempted to take a point that makes sense to us without bothering to figure out how the argument was originally framed. (We all know that democracy is good, right?)

This strategy almost surely will not work: the superficiality of your engagement with the material will be evident to the instructor. More importantly, your easy arguments, though perhaps attuned to your classmates, will be hard to defend when sharply examined by those whose roles contradict yours. Socrates/Plato has devised an ingenious worldview, with a series of powerful presuppositions; this is true of Confucius and the Puritans, too. If you have failed to engage with the entire train of their ideas, you will be hard-pressed to make persuasive arguments.

Your task as reader is simplified by the fact that your position is determined at the outset. That is, if you have been assigned the task of persuading the people of Athens in 403 B.C. that democracy is good, then your reading of Plato's Republic will be adversarial. If you are assigned to be a Hindu radical in India, 1945, you will be inclined to criticize the literature of the Islamic nationalist, Muhammad Iqbal. You will look for weaknesses of evidence or argument.

You will also need to understand the historical context. Some students in every game will have roles that are indeterminate or ambiguous. The "indeterminates" are partially free to read the primary texts and listen to the class debates with an open mind. But heed the modifier partially: the roles of these students are not determined, but they are shaped by history. Their "victory objectives" oblige them to "represent" a type of actual historical person. This cannot be defined precisely: the "indeterminates" will have the freedom to arrive at their own opinions, but their opinions must in some way be consistent with their historical role. This, too, is like life. When, for example, you are called to serve as juror, you are free to vote your opinion, yet you have also agreed, through your oath as juror, to abide by the laws of the state. "Indeterminates," though free to take whatever position they wish, are still obliged to represent with some credibility their social/historical role. (In their initial paper and remarks, the "indeterminates" may wish to request guidance from the disputants.)

To win the debates --to persuade the "indeterminates" to support your objectives-- you must understand the historical/social context of their assumed lives. To further promote historical verisimilitude, additional roles will be included in some games. That is, the objectives of some students may be determined (stated at the outset) and yet not correspond with those of the major factions. In life, some people always have their own, or merely different, agendas. The purpose of such roles is to establish additional links to the actual forces that impinged on the historical debates. A close reading of the historical context will provide clues as to these forces.


You have two ways of expressing your views: orally and in writing. Each game will have written assignments totaling ten to twelve pages. Papers will be read and evaluated by the instructor. Your instructor will inform you of how much of your grade is based on your written work.

You must understand the ideas that inform your historical role; you must also persuade others that the ideas make sense. Your writing will be an exercise in persuasion. You need not believe what you argue, but you must make your case persuasively.

Because the purpose of your written work is to persuade other students, it should be posted on the class Moodle site or website where appropriate or distributed in class. And you must submit your work on time. A beautifully crafted defense of Socrates does him no good if he has already sipped the hemlock. Late work harms your team as well. The requirements of the game --particularly the mechanism for posting all papers on the web site-- further necessitate timely submission of written work. I will impose a penalty for written work that is late.

You are largely free to choose whatever form of written expression you wish. The purpose of your written work is to help you achieve your "victory objectives." You may think it advantageous to write a legal indictment, a poem, a sermon, a newspaper article, a diary entry, or whatever else serves your purpose. A common form of expression will be an essay to rebut the arguments of your opponents. For many roles, you will find it wise to coordinate your work with others whose goals are similar to your own.

Just as you will sometimes criticize the views of those whose purposes differ from your own, they will subject your written work to a sharp reading. The written work will form an important part of class discussions.

Class Participation

You will also seek to achieve your "victory objectives" by expressing your views in the full classroom. You will sometimes speak as a member of a particular team, or faction; sometimes you will be alone; and sometimes your role will be indeterminate, and you will have the freedom to write your own game objective in response to what you have read and heard. But in all roles, you must sooner or later seek to persuade others so as to achieve your objectives and win the game.

There is one constraint on your oral performance: you may refer to notes but reading aloud is unnecessary (the full and precise text of your major presentations may be posted on a web site). Your class performance counts for toward your grade for each game, as graded by the instructor; it is nearly impossible to receive an A for classroom presentations that have been read aloud verbatim.

Unless you are "dead" or have somehow been silenced, you can participate freely in all oral discussions. Those students whose roles make them responsible for running the class may determine who speaks and when. This may prove frustrating. As a means of ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to speak, the classroom may be provided with a podium, at which anyone may stand. Anyone who approaches the podium asserts the right to give a speech, to pose questions, or to address the class. If someone is already at the podium, you may take a place in line behind her.

Playing the Game

In life, most people are assigned multiple roles. We ""perform" as students, parents, spouses, employees, voters, etc., without being fully conscious of our goals, or, more precisely, without understanding how one role may affect our performance of another. (One example: bosses may script a role that requires our total commitment to work and offer us abundant and tangible rewards for a good performance; yet we may sometimes reject this role because our friends or family demand a very different performance.) No one knows for certain his or her own ultimate goals; people who presume to know that information about themselves or others are mistaken.

For this reason, and for some practical ones as well, students should not assume that their initial, printed "game objectives" are permanent. Opinions change, as do objectives. The fates (or the Gamemaster) may alter students' objectives, perhaps informing them so by e-mail. Sometimes students will be enjoined to secrecy. Again, as in life, never assume that your knowledge is complete or perfect.

Other Players: "In" Role or "Out" of It?

Reacting games often acquire considerable intensity. Sometimes debates continue in dining halls and dorm rooms. Sometimes factions will meet on weekends. Sometimes roommates find themselves on different factions. Students should remind themselves that they and their "opponents" are performing roles and playing a game. When another player criticizes your speech or your argument, she is not criticizing you as a person; she is criticizing the role and ideas that have been assigned to you. Nevertheless, players will often identify to some extent with their roles; once someone attacks their roles, they may perceive it as a personal attack.

One way to help reinforce the point that "it's all a game" is to be sure to identify yourself by your game role (and name), and, when addressing others, to call them by their Game Name. Consider the difference between the following: "Your argument, Laura, is ridiculous" versus "Your argument, Mr. Oligarch, is ridiculous."

In some games, your Game Name is explicit: You have been assigned the role of Thrasybulus in ancient Athens, John Cotton in Puritan New England, or Nehru in India. Often, however, you will be a generic member of a faction. In that case, the Gamemaster may assign you a Game Name or suggest that you provide one that the Gamemaster will approve. When you cannot remember a student's Game Name, you can usually think of a generic appellation: Athenian, or Citizen (revolutionary France), or Professor. When you post papers on a website, you must use your Game Name; insofar as your written work is graded not by the Gamemaster but by your Instructor, you should put your real name in parenthesis on copies that are to be graded.

Those students who are assigned roles where they preside over sessions should distribute name cards with each student's Game Name. And the presiders should remind students not to refer to their classmates as "Laura" or "Bob." Student leaders should politely interject: "I assume, fellow Athenian, that you are referring to Red-Headed Oligarch," or "I assume, Mr. Azad, that you are referring to Mr. Nehru."

Students should also use their Game Names when they are in game mode out of class. Say, for example, that in the dining hall a student spots an indeterminate in the French revolution game and wants to persuade her to join the radical faction. That student might signal that she is in "game mode" by approaching the indeterminate in this way: "Hello, Citizen of France."

Even when you are talking to someone you know well --perhaps even your roommate-- you should use Game Names whenever you are playing the game. This repeatedly affirms that what transpires is not meant personally, and that you are only "playing a game."

You should never allow someone to confuse their game identity with their personal identity. If, for example, another player says: "Please vote with me on this issue. After all, I'm your friend / roommate / etc.," you should reply: "If we are in Ming China, you are not my roommate. You are a fellow scholar."

When a student makes a personal appeal, he or she is not only violating the spirit of the game, but also unfairly transforming a game into something that is personal. Again, the best reply is to insist on a clarification of identities. If the issue pertains to what is transpiring in a game, insist on being addressed by your Game Name; and refer to your fellow players by their Game Names. A fair appeal, outside of class, can be as follows: "Citizen: please vote with me on this issue. The fate of France depends on it." If the other decides not to do so, then neither student will be likely to take it personally.

Instructor versus Gamemaster

Your instructor for this course has two somewhat different roles. On the one hand, she will grade your oral and written work much like an instructor in your other courses. During the introductory classes for each game, moreover, she will lecture or lead discussions in the conventional manner. But the instructor is also responsible for running games and advising students on matters of strategy and rhetoric. Her main goal in running the games is to ensure, as best she can, that the game be a fulfilling and historically credible experience. Thus she cannot disclose to a member of Faction A the strategy of someone in Faction B. Nor can she reveal some of the elements of game design that were hidden from the actual historical figures. Part of the game experience is the unfolding of these elements.

Thus, in running the game, the instructor will not tell you everything she knows. So that you can distinguish between when the instructor is behaving in the conventional manner and when she is acting in proprietary fashion as Gamemaster, she may so identify herself. That is to say, if the instructor identifies herself, in class or in e-mails as Gamemaster, she is functioning in that special role. When she identifies herself as instructor, she is acting as a normal teacher. Or, if the instructor addresses you by your Game Name (Mr. De Lancey, I do not think that your speech about X is consistent with your goals.), then you know that she is functioning as Gamemaster. If she uses your own name, she is functioning as Instructor. If you are not sure which hat she is wearing, simply ask her.

Decorum, Leadership and Time Commitment

We are taught to be polite to and considerate of others. Such behavior is good and has been praised by moral philosophers (and parents) for millennia. A genial manner is also a wise rhetorical strategy: it helps win people over to your views; sarcasm, on the other hand, is dangerous because it often alienates undecided listeners. Sometimes, however, you will be obliged to disagree with others and muster up all possible rhetorical power to refute them. If you're obliged to defend Socrates, can you smilingly let stand an argument that digs his grave? You should remember that what players say and do is part of their role, not an expression of their personal feelings. Remember, too, that bitter foes in one game will likely be staunch allies in the next.

Those students who are assigned leadership roles, or who are elected to them, will generally have a heavier workload. They may organize after-class strategy sessions for their faction, cajole dilatory essayists, and take the lead in class debates. But to equalize the burden, the Instructor will try to avoid having the leaders in one game repeat as leaders in subsequent games.

If you have a special activity during part of the semester that will restrict your time, you should advise the instructor before he distributes the roles. You might be given a lighter role for that month. Sometimes the major roles the central figures in any game are not explicitly defined as leadership roles. Often students with seemingly minor roles emerge as the critical figures in the game and in history.