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.

Each section limited to 25 students.  Fall semester: Professor Hasan.  Spring semester: Professors George and Shah.

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

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 main lecture each week and four breakout sections each limited to 15 students.  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

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, Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Stoics. 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 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 30 students. Spring semester. Professor Vogel.

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 and 12 will be enrolled in the course as a Writing Intensive course with an extra section. Spring semester. Professor Gentzler.

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

225 Environmental Philosophy

(Offered as PHIL 225 and ENST 228.)  Our impact on the environment has been significant, and in recent decades the pace of change has clearly accelerated. Many species face extinction, forests are disappearing, and toxic wastes and emissions accumulate. The prospect of a general environmental calamity seems all too real.

This sense of crisis has spurred intense and wide-ranging debate over what our proper relationship to nature should be. This is the focus of the course. Among the questions we shall explore will be: What obligations, if any, do we have to non-human animals, to living organisms like trees, to ecosystems as a whole, and to future generations of humans? Do animals have rights we ought to respect? Is nature intrinsically valuable or merely a bundle of utilities for our benefit? Is there even a stable notion of “what is natural” that can be deployed in a workable environmental ethic? Do our answers to these questions result in some way from a culturally contingent “image” we have of nature and our place within it? How might we best go about changing the ways we inhabit the planet?

 Limited to 25 students.  Priority will be given first to declared Philosophy and Environmental Studies majors. Next priority will be given to students with previous experience in one of these areas.  Spring semester.  Professor Moore.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2014, Spring 2016, Fall 2018

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. Omitted 2015-16. Professor Moore.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2015

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 Philosophy or consent of the instructor.  Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Professors Shah and Hasan.

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

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 2015-16. Professor Moore

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

335 Theory of Knowledge

A 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. Omitted 2015-16.  Professor Vogel.

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 Philosophy. Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2015-16.  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

350 Philosophy of Mathematics

Mathematics 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. Omitted 2015-16. Professors A. George and Velleman.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2011, Fall 2013

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. Spring semester. Professor George.

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

361 Continental Philosophy and the Critique of Autonomy

In ordinary usage, an individual is autonomous if she makes up her own mind about how to lead her life. In a more specialized usage developed by Immanuel Kant, autonomy refers to the idea that an individual governs herself through her own capacity for reason, the very same capacity which accounts for her moral duties to others. In both the ordinary and Kantian sense, autonomy is an attractive ideal. After all, it makes the individual, rather than anyone else, the guide to her own life. Yet much Continental philosophy after Kant criticizes this ideal. After briefly orienting ourselves to the Kantian understanding through a reading of selections from his moral writings, we take up the charges that the ideal of autonomy is: (1) alienating, in that it blinds us to important ways in which we are shaped by other people; (2) empty, in that without historical context it can tell us nothing about how we should act; (3) contingent, in that it represents a value that arose through concrete power struggles; and (4) patriarchal, in that it is a product of gender-based domination that denies the importance of other values. Along the way, we consider alternative ways of thinking about ethics and the self. Readings will be from Kant, Schiller, Hegel, Nietzsche, and de Beauvoir.

Requisite: One course in Philosophy or consent of the instructor.  Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Professor Hasan.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2016

363 Nineteenth-Century European Philosophy

This 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. Omitted 2015-16.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2017

364 Kant

An 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 offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2011, Fall 2013, Fall 2015, Fall 2019

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. Spring semester. Professor Vogel.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Spring 2011, Fall 2012, Spring 2016, Fall 2019

463 The Later Wittgenstein

In 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 2015-16.  Professor A. George.

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

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. Omitted 2015-16. Professor Moore.

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

477 Seminar: The Problem of Political Authority and Obligation

The problem of political authority and obligation is arguably the central problem in political philosophy, at least in the Western liberal tradition. Arthur Ripstein captures this problem well in his Force and Freedom (2009): “States claim powers that no private person could have. Not only can they collect taxes and imprison wrongdoers; they can impose binding resolutions on private disputes, restrict agents on grounds of public health, and regulate other aspects of social life. Defenders of limited government insist that the state’s power to do these things must be subject to fundamental restrictions. Prior to any question of what factors properly limit the exercise of those powers, however, is the more basic question of the justification of those powers themselves: how can an institution, whose offices are filled with ordinary fallible human beings, be entitled to do things to people, or demand things of them, that none of those same human beings are entitled to do or demand on their own [as private persons]?” (145)

This seminar will consider the main contemporary accounts of the state’s authority over its citizens and the citizen’s political obligations to her state or fellow citizens, as well as the important criticisms of these accounts.

Requisite:  Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor.  Limited to 15 students.  Omitted 2015-16.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2015

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.

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

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.

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

219 Philosophy of Religion

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2013, Spring 2016, Spring 2021, Spring 2023, Fall 2024

226 Political Philosophy: Justice, Freedom, and the State

States are made by collections 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, they compel us to do things in the name of a "common good," even when that good conflicts with what we would individually prefer to do. In this course, an introduction to key concepts of Western political philosophy, we seek to understand what, if anything, could justify states having this power over us. To this end, we examine three 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? And what else beyond income ought the state to redistribute? (3) The paradox of political freedom. If freedom is naturally thought of as the ability to do whatever one wants, how could being a citizen of the state (with all the constraints that involves) possibly make us free?

Readings will be both classical and contemporary, including Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Berlin, Nozick, Rawls, and G.A. Cohen. As part of our investigation of these three key topics we will also consider one grim aspect of current political reality: systematic racism and racial exclusion. We will ask how the fact of racism ought to shape our orientation to the state and to the project of political philosophy more generally. Readings here include: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as well as Tommy Shelby, Charles Mills, and Elizabeth Anderson.

Limited to 25 students. Fall semester. Professor Hasan.

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

229 The Problem of Evil

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2015, Fall 2018, Spring 2023

230 Markets, Ethics, and Law

In this course, we will examine the extent to which markets and market forces, in a broadly capitalist economy, shape not only our economic relations but also our social and political relations and even our self-conceptions.  The course will be divided into three sections:

(1) As a decentralized system of voluntary exchange, usually among strangers, a market is constituted by certain rules, ones that must be generally enforced among market participants. One set of rules governs the making of contracts between economic actors, and these rules are defined by law and interpreted and enforced by the legal system.  In this section, we will examine contract law—both the legal theory and relevant case law—in order to get a sense of the role laws (and the courts) play in shaping and enabling markets.

(2) Classical political economy was very concerned not only with the economic benefits of markets and the market economy but also with their social and political effects, both good and bad.  In this section, we will read two of the more important classical political economists—Adam Smith and Karl Marx—as well as two social theorists—Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thorsten Veblen—whose texts also address these issues.

(3) Are there moral limits to markets? Are there things that should not be for sale? Several philosophers have recently taken up these questions. They argue against allowing for markets in women’s sexual and reproductive labor, in children’s labor, and in human organs, and they argue against market-oriented solutions to other public and political problems. These arguments are not only worth exploring in themselves but also because they take up many of the themes and concerns of classical political economy.  At the end, we will consider the worries that Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have raised about the Western market in mass cultural products (what they call "the culture industry").

Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2015-16

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2015

231 Philosophy of Sport

Most people participate in some form of sporting activity, and many of us also pay close attention to the sporting accomplishments of others. Sport plays a significant role in education, in culture, and even in politics. It’s also a multi-billion dollar international business. Yet sport has received scant attention within philosophy. And this is odd, since it raises many interesting philosophical questions.

What makes something a “sport”? Does cheer-leading or beer-pong count? Competition is central to sport, but is competition clearly a good thing? And what about the connection between sport and violence? Why do so many of us value watching other people engage in sporting activity? Is sport a form of art or does it have its own aesthetics? Why do we care if the Red Sox win? Does sport have any intrinsic connections with issues of race, class, nationality or gender? What’s wrong with doping and the use of other enhancements in sport? Is it right to regard star athletes as role models? What is the proper role of athletics in society and in education—particularly higher-education? Should major college athletes be paid? And do we strike the right balance at Amherst College? Finally, what is the proper place of sport in one’s own life?

Over the course of the semester, we will explore these and other questions about the nature of sport.

Limited to 25 students. Fall semester. Professor Moore

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

311 Philosophy of Law

What is law? Is law a branch of morality discoverable by ethical reflection? Is it nothing more than the commands issued by whoever happens to have the most power? Or, is neither of these positions quite right? When judges interpret laws in order to decide cases, is this a process of discovery or of invention? Are there any objective standards for determining whether a law has been correctly interpreted? 

This course provides an in-depth introduction to several central issues in the philosophy of law. In the first half of the course, we will address the fundamental questions about law listed above. Those topics will be: (1) the nature of, and difficulties in, legal reasoning; (2) several competing conceptions of the nature of law and its connection, if any, to morality; and (3) the ideal of the rule of law and its value.  In the second half of the course, we will consider one important problem area in each of criminal law, civil law, and constitutional law: (4) the rights of defendants in criminal law; (5) the law of contract in civil law; and (6) the right to privacy in constitutional law.  And, if time permits, we will end the course by considering (7) the debate about whether judicial review—i.e., judges’ power to strike down laws as unconstitutional—is compatible with democratic governance.

Requisite: One course in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2015-16.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Fall 2014

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. Fall semester. Professor Vogel.

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

339 Moral Blindnesses

Since 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.  Omitted 2015-16.  Professor Gentzler

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2014

366 Marx and Critical Theory

A "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.  Omitted 2015-16.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2019

471 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. Omitted 2015-16.  Professor Gentzler.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2013, Spring 2014

472 Seminar: Identity

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 Stefani 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.

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

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

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 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. Omitted 2015-16. 

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013

475 The Moral Significance of National Borders

Despite 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. Omitted 2015-16. 

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

476 Seminar: Ordinary Language Philosophy

What 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.  Omitted 2015-16.  Professor George.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2014

478 Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy

We will engage in a close reading of Bernard Williams’ modern classic, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. In this book Williams delivers a sustained indictment of philosophical reflection on morality from Kant onward. He argues that philosophy cannot answer many of the questions that reflection on our moral practices raises, and that we would be better off without some of the moral concepts we assume to be indispensable. In the course of these arguments, Williams offers provocative new ideas about relativism, objectivity, and the possibility of ethical knowledge. 

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

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015

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