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.
Each section limited to 25 students. Fall semester: Professor Shah and Visiting Professors Boxer and Koltonski. Spring semester: Professor George and Professor Emeritus Kearns.
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2013, Fall 2022, Spring 2023, Fall 2023, Spring 2025"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.
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 2024An 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.
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2023A 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. Visiting Lecturer Wood.
Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Spring 2025This 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.
Other years: Offered in Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2022(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.
2023-24: Not offeredThe 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. Omitted 2013-14. Professor Moore.
2023-24: Not offeredWe 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. Spring semester. Professor Shah.
Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2014, Fall 2022, Spring 2025An 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 2013 -14. Professor Moore
2023-24: Not offeredA consideration of some basic questions about the nature and scope of our knowledge. What is knowledge? Does knowledge have a structure? What is perception? Can we really know anything at all about the world?
Requisite: One course in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 25 students. Fall semester. Professor Vogel.
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2013, Spring 2017, Fall 2019, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, Fall 2024The 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. Omitted 2013-14. Professor A. George.
2023-24: Not offeredAre 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.
2023-24: Not offeredMathematics is often thought to be the paragon of clarity and certainty. However, vexing problems arise almost immediately upon asking such seemingly straightforward questions as: “What is the number 1?” “Why can proofs be trusted?” “What is infinity?” “What is mathematics about?” During the first decades of the twentieth century, philosophers and mathematicians mounted a sustained effort to clarify the nature of mathematics. The result was three original and finely articulated programs that seek to view mathematics in the proper light: logicism, intuitionism, and finitism. The mathematical and philosophical work in these areas complement one another and indeed are, to an important extent, intertwined. For this reason, our exploration of these philosophies of mathematics will examine both the philosophical vision that animated them and the mathematical work that gave them content. In discussing logicism, we will focus primarily on the writings of Gottlob Frege. Some indication of how the goal of logicism--the reduction of mathematics to logic--was imagined to be achievable will also be given: introduction to the concepts and axioms of set theory, the set-theoretic definition of “natural number,” the Peano axioms and their derivation in set theory, reduction of the concepts of analysis to those in set theory, etc. Some of the set-theoretic paradoxes will be discussed as well as philosophical and mathematical responses to them. In the section on intuitionism, we will read papers by L.E.J. Brouwer and Michael Dummett, who argue that doing mathematics is more an act of creation than of discovery. This will proceed in tandem with an introduction to intuitionistic logic, which stands in contrast to the more commonly used classical logic. Finally, we will discuss finitism, as articulated in the writings of David Hilbert, who sought to reconcile logicism and intuitionism. Students will then be taken carefully through Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems and their proofs. The course will conclude with an examination of the impact of Gödel’s work on Hilbert’s attempted reconciliation, as well as on more general philosophical questions about mathematics and mind.
Requisite: PHIL 213 or MATH 385 or consent of the instructors. Fall semester. Professors A. George and Velleman.
2023-24: Not offeredGottlob 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. Omitted 2013-14. Professor George.
2023-24: Not offeredThis course will guide the student through a selection of philosophical writings from the nineteenth century: Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals; Fichte’s Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre; Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of Right; Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript; and Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality. The focus of this course is on philosophical views concerning the nature of things like morality, subjectivity, and self-knowledge.
Requisite: One course in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 25 students. Fall semester. Visiting Lecturer Wood.
2023-24: Not offeredAn examination of the central metaphysical and epistemological doctrines of the Critique of Pure Reason, including both the historical significance of Kant’s work and its implications for contemporary philosophy.
Requisite: PHIL 218 or consent of the instructor. Fall semester. Professor Vogel.
2023-24: Not offeredWe have various ways of knowing: reason, perception, and introspection. When we perceive, things around us seem to be directly present to our minds. Is this picture compatible with the fact that perception involves a complicated causal process? And if perception is the immediate grasp of objects in the world, how can we be subject to illusion and hallucination? We say that seeing is believing. Is it really? Or, if not, what is the relation between perception and belief? Can the contents of perceptual experience be captured completely by conceptual thought?
Reason is the source of our knowledge of logic and mathematics. But what is reason, and how does it work? Is it something like perception? Do we somehow “see” that there is no greatest number, or that the conclusion of a proof follows from its premises? Is reason subject to illusion and error? How could we ever tell? What do reason and understanding language have to do with each other?
Finally, we have some way of knowing what we’re thinking and feeling, which can be called introspection or reflection. Should we think of introspection as some sort of inward perception? What else could it be? What is the relation between having an experience and knowing that you have that experience? To what extent do we know our own minds better than anyone else can?
These questions are the subject of great interest and intense controversy in contemporary philosophy. We will try to get clear about them by reading some of the best work in field, from authors such as Grice, McDowell, Quine, BonJour, Peacocke, Burge, and Shoemaker.
Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2013-14. Professor Vogel.
2023-24: Not offeredThe 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. Omitted 2013-14. Professor Vogel.
2023-24: Not offeredIn 1933, shortly after he returned to philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein began to dictate to his students at Cambridge 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.” They were never published during his lifetime but were circulated privately, eventually becoming known as The Blue Book. This course will primarily be a slow reading and discussion of this seminal and suggestive work.
Requisite: Two courses in philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2013-14. Professor A. George.
2023-24: Not offeredAlmost all human adults believe that:
(1) The fact that an action would promote one’s survival is a reason to do it.
(2) The fact that an action would promote the interests of a family member is a reason to do it.
(3) We have greater obligations to help our own children than we do to help complete strangers.
(4) The fact that someone has treated one well is a reason to treat that person well in return.
(5) The fact that someone is altruistic is a reason to admire, praise, and reward him or her.
(6) The fact that someone has done one deliberate harm is a reason to shun that person or seek his or her punishment.
Why do we accept these claims? Is it because they accurately describe a moral reality that we are able to perceive? (By what means do we perceive it? Do we have moral antennae?) Or is it because, as evolutionary biology leads many to believe, these beliefs tended to promote survival and reproduction? If the evolutionary explanation is correct, does this mean that these moral judgments are merely useful fictions that we would cease to accept if we were fully clear-eyed and rational? We will pursue these and related questions.
Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2013-14. Professor Shah.
2023-24: Not offeredMusic 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. Omitted 2013-14. Professor Moore.
2023-24: Not offeredIndependent 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.
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 2023Required 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 2023Required 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.
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 2025This 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. Omitted 2013-14. Visiting Professor Koltonski.
2023-24: Not offeredMetaphysics 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. Omitted 2013-14. Professor Vogel.
2023-24: Not offeredSince the sixteenth century, justice has often been represented in art as a woman wearing a blindfold. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, various social institutions in the United States have attempted to make moral progress by adopting policies that are race-, gender-, age-, sexuality-, religion-, disability-, etc. “blind.” Twentieth-century American philosopher John Rawls has famously suggested that we would best understand what justice demands if we imagine ourselves deciding on the basic structure of society “behind a veil of ignorance.” And eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that genuine friendship demands that we not pursue certain types of knowledge of one another. But blindness is not always a moral advantage. Certain types of ignorance lead to damaging stereotyping and biases against various groups of individuals. Ignorance of the lives that others must live and of the effects of past biases leads not inevitably to moral respect, but just as often to moral indifference.
When does morality require ignorance and when does it require knowledge? In a world in which blind and blinding biases against certain groups of individuals lead to great moral wrongs, is justice really best served by remaining blind? Or should justice full-sightedly compensate for past and present wrongs to members of groups who were wronged by past or present blindnesses? Do different forms of social and economic relations foster different sorts of moral blindness and insight? Does occupying different social standpoints within social organizations foster different sorts of moral blindness or insight? To what extent are we responsible for the quality of our own moral vision and that of others?
Requisite: One course in Philosophy or permission of the instructors. Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Professor Gentzler and Visiting Professor Koltonski.
2023-24: Not offeredA "critical theory" has a distinctive aim: to unmask the ideology falsely justifying some form of social or economic oppression—to reveal it as ideology—and, in so doing, to contribute to the task of ending that oppression. And so, a critical theory aims to provide a kind of enlightenment about social and economic life that is itself emancipatory: persons come to recognize the oppression they are suffering as oppression and are thereby partly freed from it.
Marx's critique of capitalist economic relations is arguably just this kind of critical theory. As participants in a capitalist market economy, we fall into thinking of the economy in terms of private property rights, free exchange, the laws of supply and demand, etc., and, in so doing, we fall into thinking of capitalist economic relations as justified, as how things should be. Marx argues that this way of thinking is nothing but ideology: it obscures, even from those persons who suffer them, the pervasive and destructive forms of alienation, powerlessness, and exploitation that, in Marx's view, define capitalist economic relations. Any prospects for change, reform, or for Marx, revolution requires first that people come to see capitalism for what it is, for they must first see the ways in which they themselves are alienated, powerless and exploited before they can try to free themselves from it. Later social theorists in what came to be called the Frankfurt School—Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas—develop and refine this Marxian project of providing a critical theory of capitalist economic and social relations. In particular, they argue that the forms of oppression distinctive of "late" capitalism are importantly different than the forms Marx found in the early capitalism of the Industrial Revolution, and so a critical theory about them must also be different.
Readings will be made up mostly of (somewhat difficult but very rich) primary sources, with some secondary readings 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. Visiting Professor Koltonski.
2023-24: Not offeredA 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. Omitted 2013-14. Professor Vogel.
2023-24: Not offeredThe 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.
Identity is the relation a thing bears to itself and to no other thing. It is so basic to our thought, and so fundamental to the world we think about, that philosophers have despaired of saying much more about it. Some have even suggested that we should dispense with talk of “identity.” Yet, issues of identity are at the center of many important philosophical issues, for example, the relation between mind and body, the constitution of persons, and the nature of scientific discovery. And recent philosophers have done much to illuminate the nature of identity by studying its logic and grammar, and by asking how it interacts with other fundamental phenomena.
In the first part of this seminar, we will explore some puzzles revealed by these recent investigations. Identity and meaning: why exactly is it more informative to say that Lady Gaga is Stafani Germanotta than it is to say that Lady Gaga is identical to herself? Relative Identity: Should we say that one thing is identical to another, such as Barack Obama and the President of the United States, only relative to a functional role or a sortal concept? Contingent identity: could one thing, such as Water/H20, have been two, or two things one? Vague identity: is it coherent to hold that two things, such as the mountain(s) that rise to connected and nearby peaks, neither stand, nor fail to stand in the identity relation to one another? Identity and composition: is my reading lamp identical to the swarm of microphysical particles that compose it? Identity and change: how can a thing, such as a river, undergo change while retaining its identity?
In the second part of the course, we will use our general understanding of identity to explore the individuation of such entities as psychological states, musical works, events, and persons. The topic of personal identity will consume the final month of the seminar.
Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2013-14. Professor Moore.
2023-24: Not offeredWhether 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. Omitted 2013-14. Visiting Professor Koltonski.
2023-24: Not offeredIn 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.
2023-24: Not offeredDespite some movement towards increasing political integration (particularly in Europe) in recent years, the world is still generally organized into separate political territories with precise borders between them. These political territories—"states"—organize in important ways the lives of those who reside within those borders, including their interactions both with one another and with those outside the borders. And they usually claim that the vast majority of these people—"citizens"—owe them allegiance.
In this seminar, we will consider several moral questions that arise in this sort of global situation: Do people in developed countries owe the poor in developing countries a demanding duty of aid, a duty that holds regardless of state borders? Or do they owe it to them because of the harms to citizens of developing countries that the system of separate states does or allows? Or do features of the political community protected by national borders justify compatriot priority with regard to distributive justice? Does the domineering power of the contemporary American state over other developing countries give America particular (and particularly demanding) duties towards citizens of developing countries? What might be the value of nationality—to individuals and/or to the community—and what steps, if any, may states take to protect that value? Is military invasion across borders objectionable because it violates communal autonomy, and, if so, how might that affect the permissibility of humanitarian intervention? We will read a variety of contemporary answers to these and other questions, and, though the course is organized into sections, many of the issues are interrelated and so themes from one section regarding the moral significance of borders will reappear in later ones.
Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Fall semester. Visiting Professor Koltonski.
2023-24: Not offeredWhat kinds of problems are philosophical problems and how should we solve them? Most philosophers assume that philosophy has a subject matter (the nature of mind, morality, and freedom, for instance) that presents us with substantive questions which we can only answer by articulating general principles that explain the puzzling phenomena. In the mid-twentieth century, however, some philosophers, working primarily in Britain, argued that philosophical problems are by and large the products of confusion that could be dissolved by attending to the ways in which we ordinarily talk. The approach promised an exhilarating release from millennia of miasma, but it was roundly condemned by many and now taken seriously by few. We shall examine some of the seminal writings in this tradition.
Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Spring semester. Professor George.
2023-24: Not offered