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Amherst College Courses

Amherst College Courses

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Philosophy

Professors Gentzler (Chair), A. George, Moore, Shah; Associate Professor Hasan* and Assistant Professor Leydon-Hardy. Visiting Professor Gooding.

An education in philosophy conveys a sense of wonder about ourselves and our world. It achieves this partly through exploration of philosophical texts, which comprise some of the most stimulating creations of the human intellect, and partly through direct and personal engagement with philosophical issues. At the same time, an education in philosophy cultivates a critical stance to this elicited puzzlement, which would otherwise merely bewilder us.

The central topics of philosophy include the nature of reality (metaphysics); the ways we represent reality to ourselves and to others (philosophy of mind and philosophy of language); the nature and analysis of inference and reasoning (logic); knowledge and the ways we acquire it (epistemology and philosophy of science); and value and morality (aesthetics, ethics, and political philosophy). Students who major in philosophy at Amherst are encouraged to study broadly in all of these areas of philosophy.

Students new to philosophy should feel comfortable enrolling in any of the entry-level courses numbered in the 100s or in the 200s. The 300-level courses through 341 are somewhat more advanced, typically assuming a previous course in philosophy. The 400-level courses are seminars and have restricted enrollments, a two-course prerequisite, and are more narrowly focused. 

All students are welcome to organize and to participate in the activities of the Philosophy Club.

Major Program. To satisfy the comprehensive requirement for the major, students must pass nine courses, exclusive of PHIL 498 and 499. Among these nine courses, majors are required to take:

1. two courses in the History of Philosophy (for example, PHIL 217: Ancient Greek Philosophy, 218: Early Modern Philosophy, or 359: Kant and the 19th Century);

2. one course on a Major Figure or Movement (for example, PHIL 359: Kant and the 19th Century, 360: Language, or Method & Nonsense: Origins of Analytic Philosophy);

3. one course in Logic (for example, PHIL: 213 Logic);

4. one course in Moral Philosophy (for example, PHIL: 310 Ethics);

5. one course in Theoretical Philosophy (for example, PHIL: 332 Metaphysics, 335: Theory of Knowledge, 341: Freedom & Responsibility, or 360: Language, Method & Nonsense: Origins of Analytic Philosophy);

6. one Seminar (for example, PHIL: 410 Seminar: Epistemic Agency, or 450-479);

7. two electives (for example, PHIL: 111 Philosophical Questions).

No course can count toward more than one requirement.  Ordinarily, no more than three of these courses can be taken outside the Amherst College Department of Philosophy.

Departmental Honors Program. Candidates for Honors in Philosophy must complete the Major Program and the Senior Honors sequence, PHIL 498 and 499. Admission to PHIL 499 will be contingent on the ability to write an acceptable honors thesis as demonstrated, in part, by performances in PHIL 498 and by a research paper on the thesis topic (due in mid-January). The due date for the thesis usually falls in the third week of April.

Five College Certificate in Logic. The Logic Certificate Program brings together aspects of logic from different regions of the curriculum: Philosophy, Mathematics, Computer Science, and Linguistics. The program is designed to acquaint students with the uses of logic and initiate them into the profound mysteries and discoveries of modern logic. For further information about the relevant courses, faculty, requirements, and special events, see https://www.fivecolleges.edu/logic.

*On leave 2023-24; ‡on leave fall semester 2023-24.

111 Philosophical Questions

This is an introduction to philosophy that explores a range of issues pertaining to religious conviction, knowledge, mind, freedom, ethics, and value. This exploration will take place through critical engagement, via reflection, writing, and conversation, with written work – some classical, some contemporary – in the philosophical tradition.

Limited to 20 students. In the Fall 10 seats will be reserved for first-year students. Fall semester: Professors Leydon-Hardy and Gooding . Spring semester: Professor George 

Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2013, Fall 2022, Spring 2023, Fall 2023, Fall 2024, Spring 2025

133 Education: For Whom and What For

Education has often been considered a fundamental social good. But who should have access to education and to what sorts? Should citizens who have political power in a democracy be obligated to be educated, and if so, in what way? These questions, in turn, raise more basic philosophical questions. What is the nature of a just society? What role does education play in a good human life? Is the value of education mainly instrumental in giving one the skills and credentials that are desired in a market economy, and thus allow for the possibility of individual social mobility and a robust market economy? Do certain forms of education have intrinsic value for human beings?

This course is designed as a first-year seminar for transfer students. In addition to the philosophical content of this course, we will focus on the academic skills (e.g., critical reading, writing, discussion, public speaking) and institutional knowledge required for students to thrive academically at Amherst College. If overenrolled: Priority given to incoming transfers over transfers who have been enrolled for a semester or longer.

Omitted 2223-24. Professor Gentzler 

2023-24: Not offered

201 Love and Friendship

This course will look at philosophical discussions of love and friendship from Ancient Greece up until the present day. Our reading will not be confined, however, to philosophy as ordinarily or narrowly conceived; we will also read poets, cultural critics and political activists. The course will be organized around the following themes: (1) The nature of love/friendship: What are love and friendship? What are the bases on which we come to develop friendships or fall in love? (2) Love/friendship and morality: What do we do when the demands of love and loyalty seem to conflict with those of morality? We will also consider feminist critiques of the modern notion of romantic love, asking whether it implicitly embodies patriarchal norms. (3) Love/friendship and the self: How do love and friendship shape one’s identity and self-conception?  (4) Civic love and political friendship: What role does friendship have in a just and flourishing political community? How has love functioned as an animating ideal of radical critique and political imagination?

The readings for the course will include work from throughout the history of philosophy (including Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Montaigne, Kant, and Simone de Beauvoir), as well as more recent essays and speeches (e.g., by Neera Badhwar, bell hooks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rae Langton, and Amia Srinivasan).
 

Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Professor Gooding. 

213 Logic

"All philosophers are wise and Socrates is a philosopher; therefore, Socrates is wise." Our topic is this mysterious "therefore." We shall expose the hidden structure of everyday statements on which the correctness of our reasoning turns. To aid us, we shall develop a logical language that makes this underlying structure more perspicuous. We shall also examine fundamental concepts of logic and use them to explore the logical properties of statements and the logical relations between them. This is a first course in formal logic, the study of correct reasoning; no previous philosophical, mathematical, or logical training needed.

One communal lecture and two small-group practice meetings each week.  There will be three practice sections, each limited to 15 students and section 1 being restricted to first-years.

Fall semester. Professor A. George.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018, Fall 2019, Fall 2020, Fall 2021, Fall 2022, Fall 2023, Fall 2024

217 Ancient Greek Philosophy

European and American philosophers trace their intellectual heritage to Ancient Greece.  Plato and Aristotle, in particular, have set standards for philosophical inquiry, by distinguishing it from other practices such as poetry, drama, and sophistry.  In this class, we will examine and critically assess their understanding of the nature of philosophical inquiry, by comparing the writing of those whom that they deemed to be philosophers to Homeric poetry, Sophoclean drama, and Protagorean sophistry. We will also examine and critically assess the arguments that Ancient Greek philosophers offered in support of their answers to questions about the nature, sources, and limits of human knowledge; about the merits of relativism, subjectivism, and objectivism in science and ethics; about the nature of the good life; about the relationship between obligations to others and self-interest; and about the connection between the body and the mind. Open to all students.

Limited to 25 students with 10 spots reserved for first-year students. Fall semester. Professor Gentzler. 

Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2023

218 Early Modern Philosophy

A survey of European philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with emphasis on Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. Reading and discussion of selected works of the period.

Limited to 18 students per section. Spring 2024 semester. Assistant Professor Leydon-Hardy. 

Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Spring 2025

223 Human Health: Rights and Wrongs

U.S. citizens are currently faced with many important decisions about health care policy. Who should have access to health care and to which services?   Should people shoulder the costs of their own unhealthy choices, or would a just society provide health care to all equally?  Should physician-assisted suicide be legalized?  Should abortion remain legal?  Should I be able to make decisions about the health care of my future incompetent self with dementia, even if my future self would disagree with these decisions?  What are our moral obligations to protect human health globally? These issues, in turn, raise basic philosophical questions.  What is the nature of a just society? When are individuals rightly held responsible for their choices?  Am I the same person as any future person with severe dementia?  When does my life begin and when does it end?  What are rights?  Do we, for example, have a basic moral right to health care, to privacy, to decide the course of our treatment, or to authority about the timing and manner of our deaths?  Do we have rights to other goods that have even more impact on our health than access to health care?  Do fetuses have a right to life? These issues, in turn, raise questions about the relative weight and nature of various goods  (e.g., life, pain relief, health, privacy, autonomy, and relationships) and questions about the justice of various distributions of these goods between different individuals.  Finally, our attempts to answer these questions will raise basic questions about the nature of rationality. Is it possible to reach rational decisions about ethical matters, or is ethics merely subjective?

Limited to 25 students. Spring Semester. Professor Gentzler.

Other years: Offered in Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2022

241 Ancient Philosophy in Dialogue: China, India, and Greece

(Offered as PHIL 241 and RELI 241). This course puts into dialogue the ancient philosophical traditions of China, India, and Greece. We will explore their reflections and debates on how to live a good life, how to gain knowledge, and how to understand our place in the universe. Through close readings of texts, we will compare ancient philosophical conceptions, styles of discourse, and intellectual contexts. The course reconsiders the Eurocentric history and ideologies of many modern conceptions of philosophy.

No prerequisites. Limited to 60 students. Omitted 2223-24.. Professors Gentzler, and Heim, and Harold. 

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2023

301 Education for Democracy

(Offered as PHIL 301 and EDST 301) In the past decade, public support for democratic institutions has waned significantly all over the world.  The solution to this problem, some argue, is to educate our citizens better so that they understand the value of democracy.  Against this solution, others argue that democracy is not the best way to govern a complex nation, since the people lack the knowledge and character that they need to govern well.  The solution to this problem, some argue, is to educate our citizens so that they develop the knowledge and character required to exercise the rights of a democratic citizen responsibly and well.In this class, we will consider and assess philosophical arguments for and against different sorts of democracies. In light of this inquiry, we will consider what it would mean to educate for effective democratic citizenship.  What knowledge and dispositions should democratic citizens have? How should they be taught?  Who should have the authority to determine how the children of democratic citizens are educated?  Is segregation of children by social identity in different types of schools compatible with an effective democratic citizenship?  Or should schools be fully integrated with all children given the same educational opportunities? Readings will be drawn from the works of Plato, Jason Brennan, Hélène Landemore, Henry Richardson, Elizabeth Anderson, Amy Guttman, Harvey Siegel, Harry Brighouse, William Galston, David Wallace Adams, K. Tsianina Lomawaima, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Russell Rickford, Tommie Shelby, and others.

Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2023-2024. Professors Gentzler.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2022, Spring 2023

306 Gems of 20th Century Analytic Philosophy

Each week, we will dive deeply into one extraordinary piece of philosophy.  These masterpieces will vary from year to year.  Topics will also vary but readings will be chosen that represent the broad scope of philosophical inquiry.  Meets once a week. 

Requisite: One course in Philosophy required.  Spring semester. Professor Alexander George

309 Of Theories and Theorems: Philosophical Questions about Science and Mathematics

 We will explore such questions as: What is "the scientific method"?  How can we know anything beyond what we have experienced?  What is a theoretical entity, like an electron?  What is an explanation in science?  What is mathematics about?  How is mathematical knowledge acquired?  What are mathematical objects, like natural numbers?  What is a proof?  How do we know which principles of reasoning are correct?  What is an infinite collection?  Why is mathematics so useful to science?

Requisite: one course in philosophy required. Limited to 20 students. Fall semester. Professor Alexander George.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

310 Ethics

We will be concerned to see whether there is anything to be said in a principled way about right and wrong. The core of the course will be an examination of three central traditions in ethical philosophy in the West, typified by Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill. We will also look at contemporary discussions of the relation between the demands of morality and those personal obligations that spring from friendships, as well as recent views about the nature of personal welfare.

Requisite: One course in PHIL or consent of the instructor. Priority is given to Amherst College students. Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Professor Shah. 

Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2014, Fall 2022, Spring 2025

312 The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School

The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School was an attempt both to study modern capitalist society and to make possible its eventual transformation. Generally influenced by a Marxist critique of modern capitalism and its alienated form of life, thinkers in the Frankfurt School were troubled and disappointed by the fact that the promised Marxist revolution never took place. The relation between theory and practice turned out to be more difficult than assumed. Therefore, they also wanted to address the question of how to contribute to change in a society in which opposition so easily becomes co-opted. Modern society has, arguably, a cunning ability to undermine resistance. What role does Critical Theory play in such a state of society?

This course will examine this tradition both historically and in terms of its contemporary relevance. Readings will be made up mostly of primary sources, including writings from Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin, Habermas, and Honneth. These readings are often very densely constructed, so we will also look at some secondary literature to aid in the tasks of understanding and interpretation.

Requisite: One course in philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Omitted 2023-24. Visiting Professor Anders Bartonek.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2022

313 Philosophy of Time

Is time real? If so, are the past and the future as real as the present?  Do they even exist? And how should we understand time anyway? Is it independent of things within it? Could there be time without change? Time seems linear, and also to have an intrinsic direction or “arrow”? But does it have to be this way? It’s often said that time passes, but what does this mean? How fast does it pass? In what sense is time “open” in the future? Is time travel possible? Finally, can we, and should we, reconcile our everyday understanding of time with the sometimes counter-intuitive theories of modern physics? These questions have received a great deal of attention from philosophers and scientists. This class will explore these questions and others about the nature of time. 

Requisite: One course in Philosophy required. Limited to 25 students. Fall semester. Professor Moore.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

315 Aesthetics

In this course we will investigate the central issues of aesthetics. These include: the value of art, the nature of artworks, expression, creativity, artistic meaning, aesthetic experience, interpretation, criticism, beauty, sublimity. In the first part of the course, we will explore historical texts—from Hume to Heidegger—that have been influential in both the study and practice of art. In the later stages, we will discuss contemporary treatments of selected topics in aesthetics. Requires one previous course in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. 

Spring semester. Professor Moore

333 Philosophy of Mind

An introduction to philosophical problems concerning the nature of the mind. Central to the course is the mind-body problem—the question of whether there is a mind (or soul or self) that is distinct from the body, and the question of how thought, feelings, sensations, and so on, are related to states of the brain and body. In connection with this, we will consider, among other things, the nature of consciousness, mental representation, the emotions, self-knowledge, and persons.

Requisite: One course in Philosophy. Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2023-24. Professor Moore.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Fall 2014, Fall 2016, Spring 2023

335 Theory of Knowledge

(Offered as PHIL 335 and EDST 335) This is a course on epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Consider two parallel scenarios. In both cases you ask a passer-by for directions to the store. In the Good Case, the passer-by happens to be an employee of the store. In the Bad Case, they simply take a confident guess. In either case the passer-by gives you identical directions. From your perspective, the testimonies are indistinguishable, and in both cases you form a true belief.

 Are you better off in one case than the other? One thought might be that in the Good Case, you acquire knowledge, whereas in the Bad Case you acquire a (fortuitously) true belief. Is there a difference between knowledge and true belief? What is the relationship between our reasons for belief and the status of our beliefs (like whether a belief is somehow justified, or counts as knowledge)? Can we know anything at all? Or does the arguably pervasive possibility of being in a near-miss situation, like the Bad Case, undermine our claim to truly knowing much of anything?

This course will address why we should care about what knowledge is, and what it requires; the relationship between our reasons for belief and the biases that we have and their impact on the credibility we afford to members of marginalized groups; ways that our identities intersect with our ability to both acquire and to disseminate knowledge; and whether we have an obligation to speak out against what is false, or unjustified.

Requisite: One course in PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 25 students. Spring Semester.  Assistant Professor Leydon-Hardy.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2013, Spring 2017, Fall 2019, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, Fall 2024

341 Freedom and Responsibility

Are we free? Do we possess the freedom necessary for moral responsibility? What form of freedom is necessary for moral responsibility? Is this freedom compatible with causal determinism? To be morally responsible for an action, must its agent have been able to act otherwise? Must she have chosen her own character? What is it to be morally responsible for an action? These are the main questions we shall address in this course. To address them, we shall read works by Hume, Reid, Chisholm, Ayer, Strawson, Frankfurt, Nagel, and others.

Requisite: One course in PHIL. Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2023-2024. Professor Shah

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2018, Spring 2020, Fall 2021, Spring 2025

359 Kant and the Nineteenth Century

Immanuel Kant's philosophy set off a revolution that reverberated throughout 19th-century Europe. For Kant, it is our own reason, not God or nature, which is the original source of all moral principles, freedom, and even goodness itself. The rational autonomy of human beings, Kant somewhat surprisingly suggests, commits them to building a more just and humane world.

We will trace the effects of the Kantian revolution, including several influential responses to it. We begin with Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), which grounds ethical obligations in the idea of rational autonomy, before considering his theory of the state in the Doctrine of Right (1797). Other readings will vary from year to year. Authors may include: Frederick Douglass, J.G. Fichte, G.W.F. Hegel, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Topics discussed may include: property, human rights, gender, capitalism, religion, and racism.

Our goal is to understand and evaluate some of the most exciting (and difficult) philosophical texts of the 18th and 19th centuries, and to write about them in clear and analytical prose.

Requisite: One prior course in Philosophy. Limited to 25 students.Omitted 2023-24. Professor Hasan

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2023, Fall 2024

360 Language, Method, and Nonsense: Origins of Analytic Philosophy

Language and the nature of meaning, the search for a philosophical method, and the limits of logic and of what can be thought—these are the central topics that drove the pioneers of analytic philosophy. We shall explore these themes through classic readings by some of the major figures of the tradition: Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, and W. V. Quine.

Requisite: One course in PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Omitted 2023-24. Professor George.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2013, Spring 2016, Fall 2018, Spring 2025

373 Seminar: Speech & Harm

It’s your wedding day. After exchanging heart-felt vows, you and your partner celebrate as the judge says “I now pronounce you a married couple.” Unbeknownst to you, the judge has recently been disbarred. Even though she uttered the right words, the judge didn’t have standing to carry out her pronouncement. Unfortunately, you’re not married.

This linguistic example brings out how successful speech depends not just upon the words that are uttered, or upon the intentions of the speaker, but also upon social conditions that enable speakers to do things with their words. For over half a century, philosophers and linguists have tried to explain the workings of many different types of speech, including irony, jokes, expletives, slurs, and the fictional utterances of actors on a stage.

Very recently, philosophers have asked how harm might arise when speech goes awry. Does, for example, a pornographic culture effectively silence women by undermining their ability to issue restrictive commands (like “stop!”), or even to decline unwanted proposals? Does racist hate speech undermine the status of certain speakers to make genuine assertions, or even to ask questions? If so, exercising free speech requires not merely the freedom to utter words, but also the type of surrounding cultural conditions that enable genuine speech acts. Moreover, some speech that is currently protected as free might actually undermine the free speech of others. All of this raises the difficult question of what limits might justifiably be put on our freedoms of speech.

Requisite:  One course in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students.  Omitted 2023-24.  Professor Shah.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

374 Population Ethics

(See ENST 474)

410 Seminar on Epistemic Agency

(Offered as PHIL 410 and EDST 410) What does it mean to be responsible for your beliefs? Here’s one idea: when we think about responsibility, we think about choice. For example, we might say that you are responsible for your misdeeds because you could have chosen otherwise; you chose to act as you did. What is the analog to this way of explaining responsibility when it comes to our mental lives? In what sense could we have believed otherwise? And in what sense ought we to know certain things? Some epistemologists—philosophers who study knowledge and belief—have argued that epistemic agency is an empty concept. Belief, as they say, “aims at the truth”. The idea is that I do not choose to believe that Milo is the best dog because I prefer to believe it, or because I have decided that the evidence is in his favor (it is!). Instead, I believe it because its truth compels me: it is evident, and in virtue of recognizing the evidence for what it is, the belief arises in me unbidden. Your beliefs smack you in the face; they happen to you, not because of you. But what, then, do we make of our widespread—and, arguably, deeply meaningful—practice of evaluating one another on the basis of our beliefs? Why do we admire one another for our good ideas, or repudiate one another for reactionary, dogmatic, or bigoted beliefs? If these practices of evaluation—which seem to presuppose that we are responsible for our beliefs—are legitimate, why are they? In what sense are our beliefs under our control? Are we free to know, and believe?

Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Fall semester. Omitted 2023-24. Professor Leydon-Hardy.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2021

412 Marxist Theories of Racism

What are the relationships between racism and capitalism? What economic changes—in the distribution of income and wealth, in production, and in the division of labor—are necessary to achieve racial justice? Marxist theorists of racism have argued that racism is necessary for the reproduction and expansion of capitalism because it maintains divisions among workers and provides an ideological justification for inequality. In this course we will focus on understanding the relationship between economic exploitation and racial oppression, the nature and functions of racial ideology, and the mechanisms by which racial inequality is reproduced. Then, we will consider how these ideas bear on the theoretical question of what racial justice requires and the practical question of how to pursue it.

Requisite:  One course in Philosophy or Black Studies, or other familiarity with Marxism or theories of racism, is preferred but not required. Limited to 20 students. Omited 2023-24. 

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

413 Philosophy: Insight or Illusion?

The twentieth century saw powerful attempts to bring a halt to the kind of philosophy that had consumed people for millennia. Key figures included Wittgenstein, Quine, and so-called Ordinary Language Philosophers. They did not seek to provide solutions to philosophical problems, but tried instead to show that the problems are illusions.  We will examine their attempts through several case studies involving language, mind, knowledge, and ethics.

Requisite: two courses in Philosophy. Omitted 2023-24. Professors George and Shah. 

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2023

459 Seminar: Just Human Health

Citizens of the United States are currently engaged in heated debates about access to health care. Is it okay that some of us find it much easier than others to access quality health care that can save our lives? How much access do any of us have a right to? These debates have been informed by our understanding of what a just society guarantees for its different members as well as our understanding of how a just society distributes advantages and burdens among its members when all needs cannot be met. These debates are also informed by our understanding of the nature of health and its value to our lives, as well as our understanding of how different people are responsible for their own health and that of others. Recent research and scholarship have challenged the common view that access to health care is the most relevant factor in determining health outcomes. In particular, recent research has suggested that in addition to access to health care, the following factors play a significant role in our long-term health: our relative status in the groups to which we belong; our access to loving parents, partners, family members, and friends; our access to challenging, stimulating, and inclusive education; our sense of safety in our homes and neighborhoods; our access to meaningful work and engaging play; among other things.Recent research in philosophy has also challenged our assumptions about the most reasonable principles for determining whether certain actions, policies, or emotional dispositions are just or unjust. Putting all of these considerations and observations together, we as scholars are faced with the challenge of providing justified answers to the questions: Do we have any obligation of justice to protect the health of others? If so, in which cases and why? To answer these questions, we will explore and assess recent philosophers’ efforts to understand the general nature of our obligations to one another, the various situations of privilege and disadvantage that we humans experience in relation to one another, and the effects of these relations on our long term health. We will then apply our best understanding of the nature of justice to particular cases to determine whether a given health disparity is a matter of justice, or instead, of good or bad fortune that no one has a moral obligation to change.

Requisite: Two courses in philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2023-24. Professor Gentzler

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2020, Spring 2022

463 The Later Wittgenstein

In 1930, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) returned to Cambridge, England and to philosophy, more than a decade after having solved, in his earlier work, all its problems to his satisfaction.  He now had some doubts.  In 1933, he began to dictate to his students a series of notes on his revolutionary new ideas "so that they might have something to carry home with them, in their hands if not in their brains."  These notes were not published during his lifetime but were circulated privately; they eventually came to be known as The Blue Book.  This course will primarily be a slow reading and discussion of this seminal, original, and radical work, and will serve as an introduction to Wittgenstein's later thought on language, mind, and philosophy. Requisite: two courses in PHIL. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2023 - 24. Professor George.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2010, Fall 2011, Spring 2015, Spring 2017, Spring 2021

464 Seminar: Population Ethics

(Offered as PHIL 464 and ENST 464) Is our planet overpopulated? And if so, how many of us should live on it? Population raises tricky questions that are both empirical and broadly philosophical: How should we weigh the well-being of future individuals against the lives of those currently living? Should we aim for a future population whose average or whose total level of well-being is maximized—or should we apply some other standard? Even more fundamentally: are we right to think of human life as, on balance, a positive thing? And how might a policy based on answers to such questions be weighed against rights to reproductive choice, and against considerations of justice?

In this seminar, we will explore recent work in the emerging and fascinating field of population ethics. We will chart new areas for research, as well as for practical policy-making.

Requisite: At least one course in either ENST or PHIL. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2023-24. Professor Moore.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2016, Spring 2018, Fall 2019

467 Seminar: Philosophy of Music

Music is sometimes described as a language, but what, if anything, does Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha” say to us? If music isn’t representational, then how should we understand its connection to the various emotions that it can express and invoke? (Or maybe these aren’t genuine emotions: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is widely described as sad, but what exactly are we—or is it—sad about? And why would we choose to listen to Mozart’s Requiem if it genuinely terrified us?) Perhaps our musical descriptions and experiences are metaphorical in some way—but how, and why?

What exactly is a musical work anyway? Where, when and how do “Summertime,” or “Stairway to Heaven,” or “Shake Ya Tailfeather” exist? And what makes for a performance of one or the other (or of no work at all)?

What, if anything, guides a proper “listening” or understanding of a musical work? Does it require knowledge of relevant musical and cultural conventions, or of the composition’s historical context, or even of the composer’s intentions and guiding aesthetic philosophy? (Think of gamelan music; think of the Sgt. Pepper’s album; think of John Cage.)

What determines whether a work, or a performance of it, is good? What role is played by beauty, grace, intensity and so on? And how objective are these aesthetic properties? Finally, why do we sometimes find music to be not just enjoyable, but intensely moving and even profound?

Requisite: Two courses in PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2023-24. Professor Moore.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2013, Fall 2014, Spring 2018, Spring 2020, Fall 2022, Spring 2025

470 Sem: Equality/Inequality

Open a newspaper today and one will encounter statistics like the following: in the United States the top 1% of households have 15 times more wealth than the bottom 50%. Over the past three decades, the top 10% of U.S. households have seen their wealth rise by almost ten percentage points, while the total wealth controlled by the bottom 50% has been cut nearly in half. And in the time of pandemic, the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider.

Many people think there is something unjust about a society in which some have so much more than others. But is inequality unjust, and, if so, why? Reducing inequality will involve taking away some of what hard-working, innovative people have earned through legitimate avenues. What could justify governments in doing this?

We will consider these questions by studying two of the most-discussed works of modern political philosophy: John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971) and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). Rawls argues that a society genuinely committed to equality must redistribute wealth so as to promote the well-being of the worst off. Nozick argues that redistributive taxation unjustly interferes with our freedom. Reading Rawls and Nozick together allows us to investigate whether freedom and equality are, in fact, irreconcilable values.

Along the way, we will also examine arguments for a universal basic income, the relation between personal responsibility and economic inequality, and inequalities of power in the workplace. To this end, we will read contemporary philosophers such as Elizabeth Anderson, G.A. Cohen, and Thomas Nagel.

Requisite: Two prior courses in PHIL. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2023-24. Professor Hasan.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2016, Fall 2021

475 Racial Justice and Injustice: Tommie Shelby’s Dark Ghettos

Does philosophy have anything to contribute to the problem of deeply disadvantaged neighborhoods? Social scientists have long studied concentrations of poverty and racial segregation in the United States. Drawing on this body of literature, Tommie Shelby’s book, Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform (Harvard, 2016), asks: What is racial justice and what does it demand with respect to the urban poor? We will engage Shelby’s arguments as a way of thinking more broadly about racism. Difficult questions of political morality will be central to our discussions. Should governments integrate neighborhoods? Is crime ever justified? Do the oppressed have duties to help overthrow their own oppression?  Alongside Dark Ghettos we will read key sources for Shelby’s thinking, including sociological work on race and racism, as well as classics of political thought in the Black radical, Marxist, and liberal egalitarian traditions. Students will actively participate in discussion with four visiting speakers over the course of the term about their recent work on racial justice and injustice: Myisha Cherry, Erin Kelly, Vanessa Wills, and Tommie Shelby himself.

Requisite: Two courses in PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2023-24. Professor Hasan.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2023

481 Seminar: Does Philosophy of Mind Rest on a Mistake?

 Philosophers have often found it natural to hear our ordinary talk of “minds” as naming a singularly mysterious type of object, with special properties such as thought, sensation, consciousness, perception, emotion, imagination and will. And so, they set out to investigate the nature of this object in order to unravel its mysteries. Some philosophers—most famously René Descartes—claimed to have discovered that this object, this ghostly soul, is radically different from any physical object, while others countered that this object could be understood as entirely physical—as a brain, or as some fancy composite of physical parts. Both sides agreed, though, that "mind" names a special object or substance. This consensus was shattered 75 years ago by the publication of Gilbert Ryle’s revolutionary (and witty) The Concept of Mind (1949)Ryle argued that traditional theories of mind make a massive category-mistake: "mind" does not name an object, or at least not in the same sense that "body" names an object, and thus the philosophy of mind does not have a subject matter in the way that the natural sciences do. Ryle took himself to have exorcised the “ghost in the machine”; at the very least, he had transformed the theoretical landscape. We will carefully examine Ryle’s arguments for this radical thesis, along with various philosophical reactions, running from Ryle’s own ingenious suggestions right up to contemporary accounts of how we should properly understand our ordinary talk of minds.  

Required two courses in Philosophy. Spring Semester. Co-taught by Professors N. Shah and J. Moore

482 Seminar: What We Epistemically Owe to One Another

This seminar explores our obligations to one another concerning what we know and believe. The language of "oughts," "shoulds," and "obligations" is familiar in the context of moral and political philosophy. But what do we epistemically owe to one another? Are we ever obliged to believe what someone tells us—not for moral or political reasons, like solidarity—but for epistemic reasons, including what evidence we have, or should have? And how do facts about social identity and the cognitive science of human bias inform these issues? Might we be obliged to bear witness to certain kinds of testimonies? Is it not only morally, but also epistemically wrong, to disbelieve a speaker on the basis of a hearer’s sincerely held identity-prejudicial attitude? Are there ways in which one’s social identity might make it harder, or easier, for them to acquire, or share, certain kinds of knowledge? Could it be wrong to defer to a speaker on the basis of their identity, out of a morally praiseworthy attitude, such as anti-racism? Are there some forms of knowledge to which we are entitled? Or, from which we deserve to be protected? We will explore these issues in theory and through applied discussions on topics including gaslighting, predatory grooming, false confessions in the criminal justice system, tokenism, and stereotype threat, and more. 

Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy. Limited to 15 students. Fall Semester.  Professor Leydon-Hardy

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

490 Special Topics

Independent reading course. Reading in an area selected by the student and approved in advance by a member of the Department.

Admission with consent of the instructor. Fall and spring semesters. The Department.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Fall 2016, Spring 2017, Fall 2017, Spring 2018, Fall 2018, Spring 2019, Fall 2019, Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, Spring 2022, Fall 2022, Spring 2023, Fall 2023

497 Senior Honors Seminar

The senior honors seminar supports the first half of senior thesis work in philosophy. It will provide a hands-on introduction to philosophical research. During the course of the semester, students will fine-tune and develop their initial thesis proposals into detailed thesis plans, and then draft significant chunks of their eventual theses. This will be accomplished through close reading and discussion of central texts, structured writing, and the eventual sharing of student drafts. By the end of the semester, students will be connected with a faculty member who will then direct their research through the second semester of the honors work.

Requisite: Departmental approval of a thesis proposal due the first day of the fall semester. Fall semester. TBD.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2024

498 Senior Departmental Honors

Required of candidates for Honors in Philosophy. Directed research culminating in a substantial essay on a topic chosen by the student and approved by the Department.

Open to seniors with consent of the Department. Fall semester. The Department.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018, Fall 2019, Fall 2020, Fall 2021, Fall 2022, Fall 2023

499 Departmental Honors Course

Required of candidates for Honors in Philosophy. The continuation of PHIL 498. In special cases, subject to approval of the Department, a double course (499D).

Admission with consent of the instructor. Spring semester. The Department.

Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Spring 2021, Spring 2022, Spring 2023, Fall 2023, Spring 2025

Departmental Courses

226 Introduction to Political Philosophy: Justice, Freedom, and the State

States are made up of individuals. And yet states have powers that no individuals have. They collect taxes, put us in jail, draft us into the army, tell us what we can and cannot own, etc. In general, states compel us to do things in the name of the "common good," even when that good conflicts with what we would individually prefer to do. In this course, an introduction to key concepts in Western political philosophy, we seek to understand what, if anything, could justify states’ having this power over us. To this end, we examine two philosophical issues raised by the state. (1) The problem of political obligation. Is there any reason why we ought to obey the law? What are the grounds for legitimate civil disobedience? (2) The question of distributive justice. What reasons are there to tax the rich in order to give to the poor? What is the role of the state in securing economic equality?

Readings include: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Nozick, Rawls, Elizabeth Anderson, and others.

Limited to 25 students. Priority is given to Amherst College students. In the Fall 10 seats will be reserved for first-year students. Omited 2023-24. Professor Hasan. 

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2024

332 Metaphysics

Metaphysics investigates the nature of reality at the most fundamental level. It asks basic questions about the nature of time, space, causation, change, composition, possibility, identity and existence. Among the questions we will encounter are: How does time pass? Is the present like a spotlight shining on events laid out in a fourth dimension? Causation is sometimes called the cement of the universe, but is it anything more than one thing regularly following another? Can there be backward causation? How about time travel? Is a statue identical to the lump of clay from which it is fashioned—after all, the same clay might have taken a different shape? Can things really change over time, or do they last for just a moment (or both)? Can you survive in a new body? Does redness exist independently of red things? Are things any more than bundles of properties? Are there merely possible things, like the symphony I never wrote in college? Or fictional entities, like Hermione Granger? Is there more than one type of existence? Metaphysics has been an especially vibrant area of philosophy in recent years, so we will read mostly contemporary work in the field.

Requisite: One course in PHIL. Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2023-24. Professor Moore.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2013, Fall 2015, Fall 2017, Fall 2022