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. In the Fall 6 seats will be reserved for first-year students. Fall semester: Professors Hasan and Visiting Professor Westphal. Spring semester: Professor Gentzler.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021, Spring 2022
"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 lecture each week and three discussion sections each limited to 15 students; section one of the discussion is restricted to first-years.
Fall semester. Professor A. George.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
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.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
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. Visiting Lecturer Wood.2021-22: Not offered
(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?
Omitted 2017-18. Professor A. Dole.2021-22: Not offered
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. Omitted 2017-18. Professor Gentzler.2021-22: Not offered
(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. Omitted 2017-18. Professor Moore.2021-22: Not offered
States are made up of 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, states 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 in Western political philosophy, we seek to understand what, if anything, could justify states in having this power over us. To this end, we examine two philosophical issues raised by the state. (1) The problem of political obligation. Is there any reason why we ought to obey the law? What are the grounds for legitimate civil disobedience? (2) The question of distributive justice. What reasons are there to tax the rich in order to give to the poor? What is the role of the state in securing economic equality?
Readings include: Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Nozick, Rawls, and G.A. Cohen. We will also think about 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., Tommie Shelby, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Professor Hasan.2021-22: Not offered
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. Omitted 2017-18. Professor Moore.
2021-22: Not offered
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. Professor Shah.2021-22: Offered in Spring 2022
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. Visiting Professor Westphal.
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 2017-18. Professor Moore.2021-22: Not offered
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 2017-18. Professor Vogel.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
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 2017-2018. Professor Shah.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
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. Omitted 2017-18. Professor George.2021-22: Not offered
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. Omitted 2017-18. Professor Hasan.2021-22: Not offered
In modern Western thought, the autonomous individual forms the basic unit of conceptual analysis. We understand ourselves as beings who act based on reasons that we endorse. Our desires constitute the core of our real selves. Reflection on those desires is fundamentally transparent, i.e., we can tell what it is that we want when we want it. Who we are and what we do is the product of our private inner worlds.
Sometimes this form of self-understanding feels obvious and inevitable—nothing more than common sense. At other times, it feels false to the complexities and crises of human experience. Yet it is not so easy to let go of the concept of the autonomous individual, for it is deeply woven into our economic relations, legal institutions, and cultural forms. Nor is it clear what would be gained by wholesale rejection of this concept.
Two of the greatest thinkers of the nineteenth century—Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)—challenge conceptual individualism, without ignoring its potential and promise. Marx focuses on the economy and Freud the unconscious. Read together, they reveal how the modern sense of self is the product of deep structures whose essential nature is necessarily misrecognized by agents governed by those structures. Yet, for both thinkers, we must retain aspects of the modern self in order to create a better future. By reading Marx and Freud, we will gain the vocabulary necessary to submit our common sense self-understanding to the practice of critique.
Requisite: One course in Philosophy. Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2017-18. Professor Hasan2021-22: Not offered
This course will focus on a careful reading of two principal texts by Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy and On the Genealogy of Morals. Our goal is to understand and evaluate Nietzsche’s critique of the idea of morality, based on the concepts of obligation, guilt, and responsibility, and to investigate Nietzsche’s own positive vision of ethics. We will consider sections from Nietzsche’s other works, including Daybreak, Ecce Homo, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as well as important secondary literature, including engagements with Nietzsche from a feminist and philosophy of race perspective.
Requisite: One course in PHIL. Limited to 25 students. Fall semester. Professor Hasan.2021-22: Not offered
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. Omitted 2017-18. Professor Vogel.2021-22: Not offered
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. Omitted 2017-18. Professor Vogel.2021-22: Not offered
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 2017-18. Professor A. George.2021-22: Not offered
(Offered as PHIL 464 and ENST 464) Is our planet overpopulated? And if so, how many of us should live on it? Population raises tricky questions that are both empirical and broadly philosophical: How should we weigh the well-being of future individuals against the lives of those currently living? Should we aim for a future population whose average or whose total level of well-being is maximized—or should we apply some other standard? Even more fundamentally: are we right to think of human life as, on balance, a positive thing? And how might a policy based on answers to such questions be weighed against rights to reproductive choice, and against considerations of justice?
In this seminar, we will explore recent work in the emerging and fascinating field of population ethics. We will chart new areas for research, as well as for practical policy-making. Priority will be given to declared majors in either field, and then by year—senior, then junior, and so on.
Requisite: At least one course in either Environmental Studies or Philosophy. Limited to 15 students. Spring semester. Professor Moore.2021-22: Not offered
Many believe that Socrates walked the streets of ancient Athens; that there are infinitely many prime numbers; that a divine being created the universe; that tomorrow day will follow night; that there are minds other than their own. Are all these beliefs justifiable? If so, in the same way or in radically different ways? Or is it a mistake to seek to justify some of these beliefs, for instance, religious beliefs? And if a belief cannot be justified, is it irrational to believe it? We shall explore these questions through discussions of a handful of classics of philosophy, including works by David Hume, William James, Søren Kierkegaard, John Locke, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Fall semester. Professor George.
2021-22: Not offered
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.2021-22: Not offered
Your friend wrote a tacky song. Should you believe it's a masterpiece? (She is your friend, after all). You’re about to jump across an icy stream. You’re more likely to make it if you believe you can. Should you believe that? Your resolutions to exercise regularly usually fail. Should you believe you will succeed this time? If we say "yes," what is the relevant sense of "should"? Are these beliefs rational, or merely beneficial? These cases suggest that there can be different sorts of considerations in favor of belief and action. This course is about how to understand these different sorts of reasons and how these might conflict or interact.
This course will be co-taught with Professor Katia Vavova from Mount Holyoke. Half the spaces will be reserved for Amherst College students, and half the spaces will be reserved for Mount Holyoke students. The overall enrollment cap will be 24 students. The enrollment cap for Amherst College students will be 12.
Requisites: two courses in philosophy or permission of instructor. Fall semester. Professors Shah and Vavova (Mount Holyoke College).2021-22: Not offered
Open most newspapers today and you will find statistics like the following: in the contemporary United States the share of wealth owned by the top 0.1% is almost the same as the bottom 90%. The six heirs to the Walmart fortune have more assets than the bottom 42% of all Americans combined. Moreover, the popular press has seen a recent spate of books on economic inequality written by economists, politicians, and public intellectuals. Many of these titles—e.g., The Price of Inequality, Inequality: What Can Be Done?, and The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them—suggest that there is something morally problematic about a society in which certain individuals own so much more than others. But is this problematic, and, if so, why? And if too much inequality is morally bad, what vision of equality ought we to strive for?
After beginning with Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, a historical text that helps create the topic of wealth disparity as a meaningful subject of moral evaluation, we will investigate John Rawls’s “Difference Principle,” which is the demanding criterion that a just society redistribute wealth so as to promote the well-being of the worst off; Luck Egalitarianism, which is the view that unjust inequalities are those that stem from undeserved bad luck but not from our own bad choices; and feminist interrogations of inequality in the family. We will also consider critics who maintain that it is not inequality per se that ought to worry us, but rather absolute levels of deprivation. For these critics, it does not matter that some have more than others, just as long as everyone has enough.
Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2017-18. Professor Hasan.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
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. Omitted 2017-18. Professor Moore.2021-22: Not offered
It’s your wedding day. After exchanging heart-felt vows, you and your partner celebrate as the judge says “I now pronounce you a married couple.” Unbeknownst to you, the judge has recently been disbarred. Even though she uttered the right words, the judge didn’t have standing to carry out her pronouncement. Unfortunately, you’re not married.
This linguistic example brings out how successful speech depends not just upon the words that are uttered, or upon the intentions of the speaker, but also upon social conditions that enable speakers to do things with their words. For over half a century, philosophers and linguists have tried to explain the workings of many different types of speech, including irony, jokes, expletives, slurs, and the fictional utterances of actors on a stage.
Very recently, philosophers have asked how harm might arise when speech goes awry. Does, for example, a pornographic culture effectively silence women by undermining their ability to issue restrictive commands (like “stop!”), or even to decline unwanted proposals? Does racist hate speech undermine the status of certain speakers to make genuine assertions, or even to ask questions? If so, exercising free speech requires not merely the freedom to utter words, but also the type of surrounding cultural conditions that enable genuine speech acts. Moreover, some speech that is currently protected as free might actually undermine the free speech of others. All of this raises the difficult question of what limits might justifiably be put on our freedoms of speech.
The seminar will be run in conjunction with a visiting-speaker series. Philosophers working on these issues will discuss with us recent work on speech and harm.
Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor(s). Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2017-18. Professors Moore and Shah.2021-22: Not offered
What is racism? Is it in the heart (a feeling), or in the head (a belief)—or both, or neither? Has it always been around? If not, why is there racism now? What is discrimination, and what is wrong with it? Are acts of discrimination and discriminatory institutions sufficient to explain prevailing forms of racial inequality? By what other mechanisms is racial inequality reproduced? Is the modern liberal state itself an institution of racial domination? What is the relation between racism and capitalism?
Given racial injustice, what program of racial justice ought we to pursue? Are reparations for past injustice a necessary part of that program? How might we achieve the fair political representation of racial minorities? What is the connection between racial justice and other egalitarian ideals?
The seminar will be run in conjunction with a visiting-speaker series. Philosophers working on these issues will discuss with us their recent work on racial justice and injustice.
Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Co-taught by Professor Hasan and Professor Shah.2021-22: Not offered
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. Omitted 2017-18. Professor Shah.
2021-22: Not offered
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.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021, Spring 2022
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.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
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.2021-22: Offered in Spring 2022