Paris: Humanities

Photo of students on lawn by the Cité
Early App Deadline: 
Monday, April 20, 2020
Final App Deadline: 
Friday, November 6, 2020
Language Requirement: 
Kylie Poulin
Core Credits: 
Arts Core

The College’s Spring Humanities program in Paris provides undergraduate students with an opportunity to devote themselves intensively to the humanities at the University of Chicago’s Center in Paris. This is a broadly conceived program, designed not for students from specific majors, but for all students, regardless of major, with an interest in the humanities and a desire to pursue this interest in the capital of France, a city rich in cultural resources and artistic traditions. This program normally includes upper-level courses in philosophy, art history and another humanistic discipline such as literature, music or linguistics. Program participants will also take a French language course, which runs at a normal pace through the quarter and is designed to help students connect with French (and Parisian) culture.

Apart from classroom work, the spring Humanities program offers a series of excursions to sites of artistic and historic interest within and in the vicinity of Paris. Indeed Paris itself, with its wealth of museums, libraries and theaters, its lively art and literary scene, its rich traditions of creation and critique, plays a central role in the program and students will be expected to make full use of its cultural resources.

SPRING 2019 Faculty & Courses | Program Theme: “The Myth of Enlightenment”

Jason Bridges (Philosophy) – Language, Meaning, and the Skeptical Denial of Human Knowledge*
We will explore the connection between two abiding concerns of Western philosophy, and French philosophy in particular: the nature of linguistic meaning and skepticism about the possibility of human knowledge.

20th century philosophers had an especially keen interest in language. This orientation was of a piece with the broader intellectual and aesthetic current of “modernism”, in which means of expression become a central focus of inquiry and experimentation.

In much of the arts and humanities, the modernist drive to scrutinize expressive media was motivated by misgivings about traditional modes of representing the world and the self, and suspicion of the longstanding cultural confidence in the accuracy and power of these modes.

But philosophy was a different case. For philosophy had already been struggling for millennia with doubts about the possibility of accurate representation, just as it had been struggling for that long with puzzles about the possibility of knowledge, and the objectivity of truth, and even the intelligibility of existence itself. Against the backdrop of this difficult history, the message of modernism seemed one of promise. Philosophers hoped that attention to the means of human expression, especially to language, could prove the key to dissolving the skeptical puzzles that had heretofore dogged their attempts to achieve a satisfactory understanding of our place in the world as knowers, thinkers, and agents.

We will take as our test case one such skeptical puzzle, perhaps the most famous one. This is the argument of ‘external-world skepticism’, according to which we can know nothing at all about the world around us. Some of the most famous and influential presentations of external-world skepticism are due to two French writers of the early modern period—Montaigne and Descartes—and we will begin by examining their texts.

In the remainder of the course, we will look at three attempts to solve the problem of external-world skepticism through reflection on the nature of language. The first is the logical empiricism of the early 20th century, which aimed to show that purported statements of skepticism or of other sweeping philosophical doctrines are meaningless. The second is the ordinary-language philosophy of the mid-century, according to which arguments for skepticism depend upon distortions of our ordinary practices of offering and assessing claims of knowledge. The third is contextualism, at work throughout the century and persisting into the present, which traces the skeptical threat to a failure to grasp the pervasive context-sensitivity of meaning. We will ask in each case whether the claims made about the nature of language can be sustained, and whether they really do have the power to defeat the skeptical challenge.

No philosophical background is presupposed. The texts we read are challenging (in addition to Montaigne and Descartes, they include Carnap, Quine, Wittgenstein, Austin, Cavell and Laugier), but we will talk carefully through the basic ideas needed to begin to appreciate what these writers might be after.

* This course will count as a Field B course for Philosophy majors.

Naomi Davidson (University of Ottawa/Visiting Senior Research Associate) – Commemorating and Contesting Colonialism*
This course examines the ways in which French colonialism has been celebrated, commemorated, taught, and contested in visual art, monuments, institutions and neighborhoods, from the revolutionary era to the present. From the commemorations of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition to the recently redesigned Islamic Art wing of the Louvre; from the Palais de la Porte Dorée that housed the 1931 Colonial Exposition to the Franco-Algerian artist Kader Attia’s recently opened “convivial space” La Colonie; from the Grand Mosque of Paris to the Institut du Monde Arabe; we will explore together the many ways that artists, sculptors, architects, city planners, and activists have responded to the French imperial project. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, successive regimes sponsored large- and small-scale efforts to make metropolitan citizens aware of French colonial efforts, ranging from monumental celebrations of military victories to the naming of streets after colonial administrators. At the same time, critics of empire, both colonial subjects and French activists, and postcolonial states have used art and architecture to contest those same efforts, exposing the limits of the French universalizing mission and the human costs of empire building. In examining the many ways different artistic forms have engaged with France’s colonial projects, we will pay particular attention to how historical events and contemporary political debates have shaped their production. Our site visits will likely be confined to the Paris region and we will devote much time to exploring the way the capital city has been defined by France’s colonial past, but class discussions will also feature artistic forms and urban landscapes from other French locales.

Students will participate in group and individual visits to monuments, museum exhibits, and other sites in and around Paris. Course readings will be drawn from the fields of Art History, History, Literature and Anthropology. Potential readings for this course include work by Edward Said, Assia Djebar, Todd Porterfield, Kristin Ross, Michael Rothberg, Sheila Crane, Samia Henni, Pierre Nora, and others.

* This art history course will be accepted as a credit toward the general education requirement in the arts.

Thomas Holt (History) – ‘Paris Noir:’ An African American City of Refuge
This course explores the phenomenal history of Paris as place of refuge for people of African descent, focusing especially on black Americans during the early and middle decades of the 20th century. Beginning in the years when the U.S. Jim Crow regime was being consolidated and continuing through the era of the Civil Right Movement, when that regime was being contested, black Americans considered Paris, the “city of light” and Enlightenment, to be a place of refuge from the racism they encountered at home. Novelists, musicians, sports and political figures, all found opportunity for creativity and freedom of expression in the “city of light,” even though its reputation for Enlightenment contrasted sharply with the fact that France had itself been one of the principal slave powers in the Americas and remained a major colonial empire until the mid-20th century. Nonetheless, its reputation for racial liberalism was both true and false, which profoundly shaped the race consciousness of the city’s inhabitants, white as well as black. How both French people, migrants from its colonies, and African American sojourners negotiated that apparent contradiction will be the principal issue addressed in course readings and discussions, which will focus on political activists like W.E.B. Du Bois and Black Panther member Elaine Brown; literary figures like Richard Wright and James Baldwin; and sports and entertainment personalities like Jack Johnson and Josephine Baker.

A prospective list of readings is likely to include selections from one or more of the following: James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son; Richard Wright’s “I Choose Exile”; Tyler Stovall’s Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light; Brent Edward’s Practicing Diaspora; Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism, and Michael Goebel’s Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism.

Center in Paris

Headquarters for the College’s study abroad programs in Paris is the University of Chicago Center in Paris, the University’s research and teaching arm in Europe. Situated in the thirteenth arrondissement, the Center in Paris is part of an ambitious intellectual project along the river Seine, including the Bibliothèque Nationale and a new home for Université Denis Diderot (University of Paris VII). The Center in Paris features classrooms, offices for faculty and graduate students, computer facilities, a small library and an apartment for the faculty director. For participants in Chicago’s programs, the Center in Paris provides a focus for academic activities, a central meeting place and a continuing Chicago “presence” within one of the major capitals of Europe.


Students in the Paris Humanities program are housed in a residence hall within the Cité Internationale Universitaire (Cité). The Cité, a park-like residential complex in the fourteenth arrondissement, is the international student campus in Paris, though French students also live there. Students reside in single rooms with a private bath and have access to Cité facilities, including a library, theater, laundry and athletic facilities. Students will have access to common kitchens in the residence halls and can purchase inexpensive meals at the Cité’s restaurant universitaire.

Credits and Registration

Participants in the Paris Humanities program remain registered as full-time students in the College. They receive one credit for each of the four courses offered through this program. If one of the humanities courses falls within a student’s major subject, he or she may use this course in their major without special petition. The use of these courses in related or interdisciplinary majors is also frequently possible, though for this students will have to submit a specific petition to the appropriate program chair. The art history course offered through this program is often accepted as a credit toward the general education requirement in the arts. The language course will normally count as an elective. Course titles, units of credit and grades are placed on the College transcript.


Study abroad students pay regular College tuition, a program fee, and a nonrefundable study abroad administrative fee. The tuition and program fee are paid in conformity with the home campus payment schedule, and the nonrefundable study abroad administrative fee is submitted when accepting a place in a program. Precise figures for the Paris Humanities program during the 2019-20 year are listed below:

Spring tuition: as set by the Bursar’s Office

Study abroad administrative fee: $675

Paris Humanities program fee: $4,900

Program fee includes: Out-of-pocket expenses include:
accommodation round-trip airfare to and from the program site
instruction transportation on site
student support meals
program excursions course materials
emergency travel insurance (ISOS) personal entertainment and travel
  communications (including cell phone usage)
  health insurance and upfront payments for care
  other miscellaneous expenses

Previous program participants report spending in the range of $200 to $250 per week on meals and incidentals while on the program, though frugal students may spend less, and others could spend much more. Bear in mind that the cost of living in Paris is relatively high and that, while it is possible to live frugally, it is also possible to run short of money if you are unwary. It is therefore essential that you budget your funds prudently, apportioning your resources so that they last for the duration of the program. If you are planning to travel before or after the program or on weekends, you should budget accordingly.

Study abroad students retain their financial aid eligibility. For more information about financial aid resources, please see our Tuition, Fees, and Funding section. 

Eligibility and Application

The Paris Humanities program is open to University of Chicago undergraduate students only. Applications from outside the University are not accepted.

The program is designed for undergraduates in good standing, including first-year students. While the program stipulates no minimum grade-point average, an applicant’s transcript should demonstrate that they are a serious student who will make the most of this opportunity. Because the humanities courses are taught in English, there is no language prerequisite, although students are encouraged to take French on campus before the program begins.

Each application is examined on the basis of the student’s scholastic record, personal statement and academic recommendation. If you are interested in applying for this program please fill out the online application.

Further Information

To discuss the Paris: Humanities program and the possibility of participating in it, please contact Kylie Poulin.

Learn more about the
Center in Paris.

What you’ll see: 

Contemporary Art in Paris students in conversation with Elena Korzhenevich of lettera27, photo courtesy of Prof. David Rodowick (Spring 2017)Photo of students on lawn by the CitéPhoto of musicians, dancers, and audience by the SeineHumanities students visit of the gardens of Versailles (Spring 2018), photo by Marie Sahakian, Center in Paris