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Amherst College Philosophy for 2012-13

111 Introduction to Philosophy

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.

Two sections will be taught each semester.  Each section limited to 25 students.  Fall semester: Visiting Professors Boxer and Koltonski.  Spring semester: Professor George and Professor Emeritus Kearns.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015 and Spring 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Spring 2008, Fall 2008, Spring 2009, Fall 2009, Spring 2010, Fall 2010, Spring 2011, Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2016

213 Logic

"All philosophers are wise and Socrates is a philosopher; therefore, Socrates is wise." Our topic is this 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.

Fall semester. Professor A. George.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2016

217 Ancient Philosophy

An examination of the origins of Western philosophical thought in Ancient Greece. We will consider the views of the Milesians, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Protagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Particular attention will be paid 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, and relationship between, obligations to others and self-interest; and about the connection between the body and the mind.

Limited to 25 students. Fall semester. Professor Gentzler.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2016

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 30 students. Spring semester. Professor Vogel.

2015-16: Offered in Spring 2016
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014

219 Philosophy of Religion

(Offered as RELI 316 and PHIL 219.) An examination of several major discussion topics in the analytic philosophy of religion: the ethics of religious belief, the “problem of religious language,” the nature of God and the problem of evil. It would seem that it is always irrational to believe that statements about matters which transcend the realm of the empirical are true, since none of these statements can be directly supported by evidence. Thus it would seem that a great deal of religious belief is irrational. Is this the case, or can religious beliefs be supported by other means? Can philosophical reflection bring clarity to such puzzling matters as God's relationship to time, or the question of how a good and all-powerful God could permit the existence of evil? Alternatively, is the entire project of evaluating religious discourse as a set of claims about transcendent realities misguided--i.e., does religious language work differently than the language we use to speak about ordinary objects?

Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Professor A. Dole.

2015-16: Offered in Spring 2016
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Spring 2013

223 Health Care Ethics

This course is intended to introduce students to moral philosophy by exploring some of the central issues in medical ethics.  The first third of the course is designed to familiarize students with philosophical methodology and the three central traditions in normative ethics (Utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Virtue Ethics).  In the remainder of the course, students will apply what they have learned to controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, and human cloning. Matters to be considered include what makes right acts right; whether killing is intrinsically worse than letting die; what renders a being person; whether personhood entails a right to life; when a being’s future meaningfully qualifies as its future; and whether there is anything morally objectionable about cloning a human being, and, if so, what it is.

Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Visiting Professor Boxer.

2015-16: Offered in Spring 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Spring 2013, Spring 2014

225 Ethics and the Environment

(Offered as PHIL 225 and ENST 228) As our impact on the environment shows itself in increasingly dramatic ways, our interaction with the environment has become an important topic of cultural and political debate. In this course we will discuss various philosophical issues that arise in such debates, including: What obligations, if any, do we have to future generations, to non-human animals, and to entire ecosystems? How should we act when we are uncertain exactly how our actions will affect the environment? How should we go about determining environmental policy? And how should we implement the environmental policies we decide upon? What is the most appropriate image of nature?

Limited to 30 students. Spring semester. Professor Emeritus Kearns.

2015-16: Offered in Spring 2016
Other years: Offered in Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2014

226 Introduction to Political Philosophy

This course provides an introduction to Western political philosophy via an examination of three core values that have governed political debate since the Reformation: freedom, equality and community. We will consider them individually: What is it to be a free individual?  Why is equality important?  We will consider political debates that rely on them:  Is capitalism justified because it allows people to exercise their freedom in the marketplace?  Or is it unjustified because it deprives some of their freedom?  Does the demand for equality require some sort of economic egalitarianism?  Does respect for freedom require that individuals have a robust right to free expression?  And, finally, we will consider whether realizing one of them either requires or precludes realizing another:  Does allowing persons economic freedom prevent us from realizing the right sort of egalitarian society?  Or can we only be truly free when we live among equals?  Can we realize the demands of equality without living in a genuine community?  Can we live in a genuine community that is not a community of equals? Readings will be drawn from both contemporary and historical (post-Reformation) sources.

Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Visiting Professor Koltonski.

 

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2013

227 Aesthetics

The course investigates the central issues of aesthetics. These include: the nature and value of art, works of art, expression, creativity, artistic meaning, aesthetic experience, interpretation and aesthetic judgment. In the first half of the course, we will examine certain historical texts—from Plato to Tolstoy—that have been influential in both the study and practice of art. In the second half, we will discuss contemporary treatments of selected topics in aesthetics.

Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Professor Moore.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2015

245 Introduction to African-American Philosophy

(Offered as BLST 245 and PHIL 245.)  What is distinctive about African-American experience?  How does that distinctiveness bear on the theory and practice of philosophy and philosophical thinking?  And how does the African-American philosophical tradition alter conventional philosophical accounts of subjectivity, knowledge, time, language, history, embodiment, memory, and justice?  In this course, we will read a range of African-American thinkers from the twentieth century in order to develop an appreciation of the unique, critical philosophical voice in the black intellectual tradition.  Our readings of works by W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Anthony Appiah and Cornel West will open up crucial issues that transform philosophy's most central problems:  knowing, being, and acting.  As well, we will consider the cluster of thinkers with whom those works are critically concerned, including key texts from nineteenth century German philosophy, American pragmatism, and contemporary existentialism and postmodernism.  What emerges from these texts and critical encounters is a sense of philosophy and philosophical practice as embedded in the historical experience--in all of its complexity--of African-Americans in the twentieth century.

Fall semester.  Visiting Professor Drabinski.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012

310 Normative 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 Philosophy or consent of the instructor.  Limited to 25 students. Fall semester. Visiting Professor Koltonski

2015-16: Offered in Spring 2016
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2014, Spring 2015

332 Metaphysics

Metaphysics is the investigation, at the most fundamental level, of the nature of reality. It has been an especially vibrant area of philosophy in recent years, and we will read some of the freshest and most important work in the field. Among the questions to be considered are: What is existence? Is there more than one kind of existence? Are there merely possible things? Could you have been a poached egg (Tichy)? What is possibility anyway? Can things really change, or do they last for no more than a moment, or both? When are several things parts of some greater whole, and why? Is a statue identical to the lump of clay from which it is fashioned? How can you destroy the statue, yet not destroy the clay? Thinking through such basic questions leads to surprising perplexities and surprising insights. Readings by Quine, Kripke, Lewis, Van Inwagen, and others. 

Requisite: One course in philosophy. Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Professor Vogel.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2013

337 Philosophy of Science

The practice of science and its fruits have dominated the lives of human beings for centuries. But what is science? How does it differ, if at all, from common sense, or religion, or philosophy? One hears that scientists follow the “scientific method,” but what is that? It is said to be based on observation, but what is it to observe something? And how can our observations justify claims about what we do not, or even cannot, observe? The claims of science are often said to describe “laws of nature,” but what are such laws? These claims are said to form “theories,” but what is a theory? And if science issues in theories, what is their point, that is, what is the goal of science? To predict? To explain? What is it to explain something, anyway? And do all sciences explain in the same way; for instance, does physics explain in the way that psychology does? Science is often treated as the paragon of rationality and objectivity. But what is it to be rational or objective? To what degree does, or can, science really approach such ideals? Are there any values explicit or implicit in the practice of science? If so, do they threaten science’s alleged objectivity, and do they conflict with other values one might hold?

Requisite: One course in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 25 students. Fall semester. Professor A. George.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2012

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 Philosophy. Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Visiting Professor Boxer.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2016

360 Origins of Analytic Philosophy: Frege, Russell, and the Early Wittgenstein

Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein are towering figures in the history of analytic philosophy.  We shall examine their work, paying special attention to the following themes and their interconnections: language and the nature of meaning, the limits of sense and rationality, and the search for a philosophical method.

Requisite: One course in Philosophy.  Limited to 15 students. Spring semester. Professor George.

2015-16: Offered in Spring 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Spring 2013

368 Philosophy at the Extremes

A traditional view distinguishes two overarching approaches to philosophy, rationalism and empiricism.  Rationalists hold that reality is known primarily through reason; empiricists hold that reality is known primarily through sense perception.  Perhaps the most rigorous, unflinching, radical and profound exponents of these opposed positions were Baruch Spinoza and David Hume.  Both Spinoza and Hume are led by powerful arguments to staggering conclusions (e.g., there is only one thing, God, and you and I are ideas in the divine mind–Spinoza; there is no causality in the usual sense, there are no ordinary material objects, and in the end there is no self–Hume).  In this course, we will read carefully Spinoza’s Ethics and Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (Book One), two of the greatest philosophical works ever written. Satisfies the “major figure or movement” requirement of the Philosophy Major.

Requisite: PHIL 218 or consent of the instructor.  Fall semester.  Professor Vogel.

 

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012

461 Seminar: Skepticism

The topics change from year to year. Some of the most interesting and most characteristic work in recent philosophy has been concerned with the problem of skepticism about the external world, i.e., roughly, the problem of how you know that your whole life isn’t merely a dream. We will critically examine various responses to this problem and, possibly, consider some related issues such as relativism and moral skepticism. There will be readings from authors such as Wittgenstein, Moore, and Austin, and philosophers working today such as Dretske and Putnam.

Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Fall semester. Professor Vogel.

2015-16: Offered in Spring 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Spring 2011, Fall 2012

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 Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Spring semester. Professor Moore.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Spring 2011, Spring 2013, Fall 2014

471 Proseminar: Metaphilosophy

The topic for this proseminar (which is one of four similar proseminars offered across the College) changes from year to year.  In 2012-13, the proseminar in Philosophy will be on Metaphilosophy.  Proseminars are designed to give students the knowledge and the intellectual and technical skills necessary to do advanced research and writing in their major.  They are most suitable for junior majors who are considering writing a senior honors thesis, and for senior majors, who are not writing a thesis, but would like to have the experience of writing a significant paper in the discipline.“Metaphilosophy,” as philosopher Nicholas Rescher put it, “is a philosophical investigation of the practice of philosophizing itself.  Its definitive aim is to study the methods of the field in an endeavor to illuminate its promise and prospects.” What is philosophy? What are its methods?  What are its objects of inquiry? Is there progress in philosophy?  If so, then why do philosophers study the history of philosophy in order to gain philosophical insight?  What constitutes progress in philosophy?  Are the discoveries of the natural and social sciences relevant to philosophical investigation?  What are philosophical intuitions, and should we trust them to give us insight into anything interesting?  Why is there so much disagreement in philosophy, and is such disagreement rationally resolvable? In this seminar, we will carefully examine the practice of philosophy as it is done by some of its best practitioners, and we will critically examine philosophical work on the very nature and methods of philosophy.  As a result, we will identify those methods required to do philosophy at the highest level and attempt to determine why these methods are effective.  In addition, through significant practice and feedback over the course of the semester, students will develop and improve their ability to apply these methods to the philosophical problems that most engage them.  This course will satisfy the seminar requirement for the Philosophy Major.Open to juniors and seniors, but priority will be given to junior majors who are considering writing a senior thesis and to senior majors who have opted not to write a thesis. Limited to 15 students.  Spring semester.  Professor Gentzler.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2013, Spring 2014

473 Seminar: Economic Justice

Whether social justice requires some form of economic equality and, if so, to what extent it does are deeply controversial questions. Many contemporary political philosophers have argued that citizens have a demanding duty to support efforts to achieve some form of economic equality in their own political community (Thomas Nagel offers a powerful version of this sort of argument.) These arguments have seemed to some, however, to neglect other crucial considerations: the person's natural rights against interference; what people deserve (and why); the value of community; and, perhaps, the relevance of considerations of need. And, they argue that, once we take these considerations into account, we see that realizing economic equality among one's fellow citizens is not a demanding duty of justice. Others have responded on behalf of the case for economic equality, arguing that each of these considerations, properly understood, actually supports the case for a demanding duty to achieve some form of equality. This course will examine the contemporary debates about whether these several considerations argue against or provide support for the claim that social justice requires economic equality. But there will also be one major theme running throughout the course, to which we will keep returning: What is the nature of the ideal of equality, and what does it require of society?

Requisite:Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Spring semester. Visiting Professor Koltonski.

 

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2013

474 What Happens When Someone Acts?

In a seminal article with the same title, David Velleman poses the question “What Happens When Someone Acts?”. The goal of this seminar will be to answer to this question. It is only once we have answered it that we can tackle some of the most fundamental issues in moral philosophy — including issues concerning moral motivation, the possibility of unconditional moral requirements, the extent of moral responsibility, and the nature of virtue. We shall begin the seminar by examining Velleman's claim that the standard causal theory of action omits agents from the picture. A central issue to be explored is whether the "problem of the disappearing agent" represents a genuine problem or whether it is an artifact of certain assumptions Velleman makes concerning the nature of beliefs, desires, and mental states, more generally. As we shall see, Velleman, like many other contemporary philosophers of action, thinks of beliefs and desires as internal, causally interacting, entities or token states that rationalize the actions they cause. Our task will be to examine this and other assumptions underlying Velleman’s account of what happens when someone acts and to fill in the details of an alternative account based on a different way of understanding beliefs and desires. Anscombe was right: moral philosophy must await an adequate philosophy of psychology (philosophy of action). And, as the seminar will emphasize, an adequate philosophy of action depends on an adequate philosophy of mind.

Other issues we shall discuss include the role of desire versus belief in motivating human action — whether every action must be motivated by a desire, as Hume insists, or whether beliefs (e.g., about what is morally required) are capable of motivating on their own, as Kant maintains; whether it is possible for an agent freely and knowingly to act contrary to what, even at the time, she judges it would be best for her to do; how to understand psychologically compelled action. 

Required reading will include works by Velleman, Davidson, Nagel, Hornsby, Wallace, Watson, and others.

Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Fall semester.  Visiting Professor Boxer.

2015-16: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013

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.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015 and Spring 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2016

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.

2015-16: Offered in Fall 2015
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2016

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.

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

2015-16: Offered in Spring 2016
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015

Related Courses

MATH-385 Mathematical Logic (Course not offered this year.)
RELI-278 Christianity, Philosophy, and History in the Nineteenth Century (Course not offered this year.)
RELI-318 The Problem of Evil (Course not offered this year.)