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 in the fall limited to 18 students. In the Fall 6 seats will be reserved for first-year students. Fall semester: Professor Hasan (both sections). Spring semester, limited to 18 students (both sections): Professor Shah and Leydon-Hardy.2022-23: Not offered
Although film and philosophy appear very different at first glance, a more careful look reveals film to be a medium well-suited to give expression to philosophical ideas. This course will pair films with philosophical texts in order to introduce a wide range of philosophical ideas in such diverse areas of philosophy as ethics and metaphysics, social and political philosophy, and epistemology. The films will be drawn from a variety of cinematic traditions, such as popular narrative film, documentary, and the art film. There will be film screenings.
Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2020-2021.2022-23: Not offered
"All philosophers are wise and Socrates is a philosopher; therefore, Socrates is wise." Our topic is this mysterious "therefore." We shall expose the hidden structure of everyday statements on which the correctness of our reasoning turns. To aid us, we shall develop a logical language that makes this underlying structure more perspicuous. We shall also examine fundamental concepts of logic and use them to explore the logical properties of statements and the logical relations between them. This is a first course in formal logic, the study of correct reasoning; no previous philosophical, mathematical, or logical training needed.
One communal lecture and two small-group practice meetings each week. There will be three practice sections, each limited to 15 students and section 1 being restricted to first-years.
Fall semester. Professor A. George.2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022
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. Omitted 2020-21. Professor Gentzler.2022-23: Not offered
A survey of European philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with emphasis on Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. Reading and discussion of selected works of the period.
Limited to 18 students per section. Fall semester. Assistant Professor Leydon-Hardy.2022-23: Not offered
(Offered as REL 316 and PHIL 219) Philosophy of Religion is philosophical reflection on matters that have traditionally been of religious concern, and on religion itself. Although philosophers have been discussing such topics for thousands of years, the period since the middle of the twentieth century has been particularly vibrant, with philosophers working within the analytic tradition producing a substantial body of literature on a variety of religious themes. This course introduces students to several major areas of discussion within this literature. Over the course of the semester we will discuss whether persons can survive death; God’s relationship to time; the issue of “religious belief” (the role it plays in religion and its rationality); and the significance of religious pluralism for religious adherence.
Spring semester. Professor A. Dole.2022-23: 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. Omitted 2020-2021. Professors Moore.2022-23: Not offered
States are made up of individuals. And yet states have powers that no individuals have. They collect taxes, put us in jail, draft us into the army, tell us what we can and cannot own, etc. In general, states compel us to do things in the name of the ‘common good,’ even when that good conflicts with what we would individually prefer to do. In this course, an introduction to key concepts in Western political philosophy, we seek to understand what, if anything, could justify states’ having this power over us. To this end, we examine two philosophical issues raised by the state. (1) The problem of political obligation. Is there any reason why we ought to obey the law? What are the grounds for legitimate civil disobedience? (2) The question of distributive justice. What reasons are there to tax the rich in order to give to the poor? What is the role of the state in securing economic equality?
Readings include: Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Nozick, and Rawls. We will also think about the legacy of racism in modern political life. We will ask how this legacy should shape our attitude toward the state. Readings here include: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Tommie Shelby, and Shatema Threadcraft.
Limited to 18 students. Priority is given to Amherst College students. Spring semester. Professor Hasan.2022-23: 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 PHIL or consent of the instructor. Priority is given to Amherst College students. Limited to 15 students. Spring semester. Professor Shah.2022-23: Not offered
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 PHIL. Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2020-2021.2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022
(Offered as BLST 195[D] and PHIL 334) During the middle decades of the twentieth century, existentialism dominated the European philosophical and literary scene. Prominent theorists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty put the experience of history, alienation, and the body at the center of philosophical and literary life. It should be no surprise, then, that existentialism appealed to so many Afro-Caribbean and African-American thinkers of the same period and after. This course examines the critical transformation of European existentialist ideas through close readings of black existentialists Aime Césaire, Frantz Fanon, George Lamming, and Wilson Harris, paired with key essays from Sartre, Camus, and Merleau-Ponty. We will engage black existentialism not just as a series of claims, but also as a method, which allows us to read works by African-American writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison in an existentialist frame. Last, we will consider the matter of how and why existentialism continues to function so centrally in contemporary Africana philosophy.
Omitted 2020-21. Professor Drabinski.2022-23: Not offered
This is a course on epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Consider two parallel scenarios. In both cases you ask a passer-by for directions to the store. In the Good Case, the passer-by happens to be an employee of the store. In the Bad Case, they simply take a confident guess. In either case the passer-by gives you identical directions. From your perspective, the testimonies are indistinguishable, and in both cases you form a true belief.
Are you better off in one case than the other? One thought might be that in the Good Case, you acquire knowledge, whereas in the Bad Case you acquire a (fortuitously) true belief. Is there a difference between knowledge and true belief? What is the relationship between our reasons for belief and the status of our beliefs (like whether a belief is somehow justified, or counts as knowledge)? Can we know anything at all? Or does the arguably pervasive possibility of being in a near-miss situation, like the Bad Case, undermine our claim to truly knowing much of anything?
This course will address why we should care about what knowledge is, and what it requires; the relationship between our reasons for belief and the biases that we have and their impact on the credibility we afford to members of marginalized groups; ways that our identities intersect with our ability to both acquire and to disseminate knowledge; and whether we have an obligation to speak out against what is false, or unjustified.
Requisite: One course in PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Spring Semester semester. Assistant Professor Leydon-Hardy.2022-23: Not offered
Are we free? Do we possess the freedom necessary for moral responsibility? What form of freedom is necessary for moral responsibility? Is this freedom compatible with causal determinism? To be morally responsible for an action, must its agent have been able to act otherwise? Must she have chosen her own character? What is it to be morally responsible for an action? These are the main questions we shall address in this course. To address them, we shall read works by Hume, Reid, Chisholm, Ayer, Strawson, Frankfurt, Nagel, and others.
Requisite: One course in PHIL. Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2020-2021. Assistant Professor Leydon-Hardy.2022-23: Not offered
Immanuel Kant's philosophy set off a revolution that reverberated throughout 19th-century Europe. For Kant, it is our own reason, not God or nature, which is the original source of all moral principles, freedom, and even goodness itself. Human beings are autonomous in that we determine what is morally right.
We will trace the effects of the Kantian revolution and several influential responses to it. We begin with Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), which grounds ethical obligations in the idea of autonomy. We then consider Hegel's radicalization of this project in his Philosophy of Right (1820), which seeks to demonstrate that freedom requires a certain form of social and political life. We conclude with an examination of two critiques of the Kantian/Hegelian project in ethical theory: Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) and Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).
Our aim in this course will be to understand and evaluate these four difficult texts, and to write about them in clear and analytical prose.
Requisite: One prior course in Philosophy. Limited to 15 students. Spring Semester. Professor Hasan2022-23: Not offered
Language and the nature of meaning, the search for a philosophical method, and the limits of logic and intelligibility—these are central concerns that drove the pioneers of analytic philosophy. We shall explore these themes through classic readings by some of the seminal figures of the tradition: Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, and W. V. Quine.
Requisite: One course in PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2020-2021. Professor George.2022-23: 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. Omitted 2020-2021. Professor Hasan.2022-23: 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. Limited to 25 students. Omitted 2020-2021.2022-23: Not offered
(Offered as BLST 135 [US] and PHIL 366) What is distinctive about the African-American experience? How does that distinctiveness bear on the theory and practice of philosophy and philosophical thinking? And how does the African-American philosophical tradition alter European and Anglo-American philosophical accounts of subjectivity, knowledge, time, language, history, embodiment, memory, and justice? In this course, we will read a range of African-American thinkers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in order to develop an appreciation of the unique, critical philosophical voice in the Black intellectual tradition. Our readings of works by David Walker, Martin Delany, Maria Stewart, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida Wells, Alain Locke, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Cornel West and others will open up crucial issues that transform philosophy's most central problems: knowing, being, and acting. As well, we will consider the cluster of thinkers with whom those works are critically concerned, including key texts from nineteenth-century German philosophy, American pragmatism, and contemporary existentialism and postmodernism. What emerges from these texts and critical encounters is a sense of philosophy and philosophical practice as embedded in the historical experience—in all of its complexity—of African-Americans in the twentieth century.
Omitted 2020-21. Professor Drabinski.2022-23: 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.
Requisite: One course in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Fall semester. Professor Shah.2022-23: Not offered
What we believe matters tremendously to how we understand ourselves, and to who we are or believe we are. Belief is a normative concept. One ought to believe what one's evidence supports, what reason dictates, etc. And we hold people accountable for what they believe. We say things like, "You ought to believe that p," or "You ought not to believe that p." If one ought not believe that p, presumably one could have believed otherwise. But we do not seem to choose our beliefs in the way that we choose our actions. As we say, belief aims at the truth: to believe that p is just to see the (apparent) truth of p. If we do not have this kind of power or control in the realm of belief, how can we make sense of our practice of normatively appraising belief? What is the connection between what we believe, on the one hand, and who we are, on the other? In this seminar we take up this question: in what way are we agents with respect to our epistemic lives?
Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2020-2021. Professor Leydon-Hardy.2022-23: Not offered
The concept of justice, according to American political philosopher John Rawls, concerns the proper principles for determining who has what rights and what duties with respect to the distribution of “social advantages"—that is, those good things that society has the ability, if it were so inclined, either to grant to or withhold from its members. This seminar is an investigation and evaluation of different conceptions of justice through the lens of human health. Health is an illuminating lens for this inquiry, because nearly everyone agrees that health is a good in itself and is also a precondition for enjoying many other human goods. For this reason, nearly everyone agrees that a just society will prevent its members from harming the health of one another. However, as we now know, whether any individual is healthy is due to many and varied factors, some within and some beyond their own individual control, including access to health care, healthy food, education, loving and respectful relationships, and meaningful work. In a democracy, our collective choices about how to structure our society disadvantage some and advantage others with regard to all of these goods. What do these facts about human health imply about our obligations to, and claims on, others? To what extent does a just society protect, repair, and enhance the health of its current and future members, and at what cost?
Requisite: Two courses in philosophy or the consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2020-2021. Professor Gentzler.2022-23: 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 and 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 PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2020-2021.2022-23: Not offered
Is time real? If so, are the past and the future as real as the present? (How should we even approach such questions?) And what is time, anyway? Does time exist independently of things in time? Could there be time without change? Could time have a beginning or an end? Time seems linear, and also to have an intrinsic direction or “arrow”? But does it have to be this way? It’s often said that time passes, but if so, how fast does it pass? In what sense is time “open” in the future? Is time travel possible? Do causes have to precede their effects? Finally, should we, and can we reconcile our everyday conceptions of time with the sometimes counter-intuitive conceptions of modern physics?
Over the last hundred years, these questions have received a great deal of attention from scientists and philosophers. This seminar will explore these questions and others about the nature of time. It will be run in conjunction with a speaker series in which theorists present and discuss recent work on the philosophy of time.
Required: Two courses in PHIL or consent of the professor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2020-2021. Professor Moore.2022-23: 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.
Requisite: At least one course in either ENST or PHIL. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2020-2021. Professor Moore.2022-23: 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 PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2020-2021. Professor George.2022-23: 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. Omitted 2020-2021. Professor Moore.2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022
Plato famously argued that only philosophers should rule and that only a few, very exceptional intellects would qualify to be philosophers.
In this course, we will reflect on the role of philosophy in public life. Who, if anyone, would benefit—a few, many, or the majority—from being exposed to philosophy? We will then consider the value of blogs, Amherst’s own AskPhilosophers, articles in national and local newspapers and magazines, book reviews, biographical and philosophical profiles of philosophers (both historical and contemporary), pop-up philosophy workshops/dramas at the college or in the community, and any other strategies that might provide a compelling education in philosophy to an appropriate public audience. By the end of semester, each student will have completed at least six different public philosophical writing projects. Class sessions will be conducted as workshops devoted to analyzing and critiquing our public philosophical writing.
This seminar is designed as a capstone course for senior majors in PHIL. Limited to 12 students. Omitted 2020-2021. Professor Gentzler.2022-23: 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 PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 12 students. Omitted 2020-2021. Professors Shah and Vavova (Mount Holyoke College).2022-23: 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 PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2020-2021. Professors Hasan and Shah.2022-23: Not offered
It is widely agreed that the emotions are central to morality. But there is much less agreement about how the relationship between the emotions and morality should be understood. In this seminar, we will investigate the nature of emotion and its role(s) in morality. Some of the topics we will address include: What are emotions? Are they feelings, judgments, perceptions of value, or something else? How do emotions shape our moral talk, thought, and behavior? Are emotions rational or irrational? What does it mean to call a particular emotion "moral" (or immoral), and which emotions count as the distinctively moral (or immoral) ones? Along the way, we'll draw from work in ethical theory and the philosophy of emotion as well as contemporary research in psychology and cognitive science.
Requisite: Two courses in PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2020-2021.2022-23: 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. The Department.2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022, Spring 2023
The senior honors seminar supports the first half of senior thesis work in philosophy. It will provide a hands-on introduction to philosophical research. During the course of the semester, students will fine-tune and develop their initial thesis proposals into detailed thesis plans, and then draft significant chunks of their eventual theses. This will be accomplished through close reading and discussion of central texts, structured writing, and the eventual sharing of student drafts. By the end of the semester, students will be connected with a faculty member who will then direct their research through the second semester of the honors work.
Requisite: Departmental approval of a thesis proposal due the first day of the fall semester. Omitted 2020-2021. Professor Moore.2022-23: Not offered
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.2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022
Required of candidates for Honors in Philosophy. The continuation of PHIL 498. In special cases, subject to approval of the Department, a double course (499D).
Admission with consent of the instructor. Spring semester. The Department.2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023