Ancient Philosophies with a Digital Twist

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HASS’ flagship course on Asian religion and philosophy, “Sages Through the Ages”, provides a 3000 year snapshot of some of the most important thinkers in Indian and Chinese intellectual history, beginning in northwest India in 1500 BCE and ending in southeast China in 1500 CE. Combining research in the fields of South Asian Studies, East Asian Studies, Religious Studies and Philosophy, this multifaceted course would be difficult to teach outside of SUTD’s interdisciplinary environment in a traditional area studies, philosophy or religious studies department.

Dr Alastair Gornall and Dr Zhao Zhenxing share a picture with the few centuries old Chinese theatre stage at SUTD


When designing “Sages”, as it is fondly referred to by students, Dr Alastair Gornall and Dr Zhenxing Zhao saw a unique opportunity to develop a comparative philosophy course that did not treat Western philosophy as the standard of comparison. The course is centred on philosophical writings in the Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist traditions and, by relying almost exclusively on primary sources, students are given the experience of conducting real research in the humanities. The regional focus of the course further enables an investigation of the genuine intellectual ties between India and China while also allowing engineers and architects with little training in Western philosophy to derive their own emic, analytical categories of comparison from within the traditions they are studying. In allowing our students to become philosophers themselves, students learn how to define a vision, embody values, and empower themselves through critical thinking and analysis.

Now in its fourth iteration “Sages” has become an important part of the SUTD student experience. Students have been overwhelmingly positive in their response to the course and many have expressed their satisfaction in overcoming the considerable challenge of wrestling with old ideas that puzzle and inspire alike. One student from the 2014 class remarked, for instance, that the course was the ‘toughest HASS I’ve ever taken. But it is also the most useful HASS I’ve ever taken.’

It is such encouraging feedback that has motivated Dr Gornall and Dr Zhao to finetune the course continually over the years to best cater to the learning dispositions and prior knowledge of SUTD’s technophilic student population. Inspired by recent developments in the digital humanities, they have experimented with different modes of assessment including asking the students to create an interactive, digital lexicon of key concepts in Chinese and Indian philosophy and having them make educational videos about particular philosophers that can be hosted online.

Seated Buddha with Attending Bodhisattva, China, Northern Wei Dynasty, early 6th century AD, limestone – Worcester Art Museum