The Philosophy Major
An education in philosophy conveys a sense of wonder about ourselves and our world. It achieves this partly through exploration of philosophical texts, which comprise some of the most stimulating creations of the human intellect, and partly through direct and personal engagement with philosophical issues. At the same time, an education in philosophy cultivates a critical stance to this elicited puzzlement, which would otherwise merely bewilder us.
The Philosophy Department at Amherst College promotes the following:
- familiarity with the central figures and texts in the history of philosophy, both ancient and modern;
- familiarity with, and thoughtful reflection upon, contemporary philosophical topics and practices;
- the ability to read, analyze, and articulate arguments in primary philosophical texts and in classroom discussion, and to provide a fair and balanced evaluation of them;
- the ability to communicate clearly, precisely, and cogently in speech and writing;
- the ability to offer original arguments in support of philosophical positions; and
- the ability to anticipate and even welcome objections to one’s views, and to respond to these objections reasonably, imaginatively, and respectfully.
Students who complete the philosophy major will reach a high level of mastery in all these areas. In addition, they:
- will acquire a broad understanding of the work of major figures in the the history of philosophy from ancient Greece to the twentieth century;
- will develop a deeper and more detailed understanding of a major historical figure or movement;
- will become conversant with essential questions and ideas in the core areas of philosophy such as: ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language;
- will engage intensively with cutting-edge philosophical investigations; and
- will learn basic formal logic and how to apply logical techniques in philosophy and elsewhere.
The central topics of philosophy include the nature of reality (metaphysics); the ways we represent reality to ourselves and to others (philosophy of mind and philosophy of language); the nature and analysis of inference and reasoning (logic); knowledge and the ways we acquire it (epistemology and philosophy of science); and value and morality (aesthetics, ethics, and political philosophy). Students who major in philosophy at Amherst are encouraged to study broadly in all of these areas of philosophy.
Students new to philosophy should feel comfortable enrolling in any of the entry-level courses numbered 100 through 228. Courses numbered 310 through 337 are somewhat more advanced, typically assuming a previous course in philosophy. Courses numbered 360 through 369 concentrate on philosophical movements or figures. Courses numbered 460-470 are seminars and have restricted enrollments, a two-course prerequisite, and are more narrowly focused. No course may be used to satisfy more than one requirement.
All students are encouraged to participate in the activities of the Philosophy Club.
To satisfy the comprehensive requirement for the major, students must pass nine courses, exclusive of Philosophy 498 and 499. Among these nine courses, majors are required to take:
- (i) three courses in the History of Philosophy: Philosophy 217 and 218, and a course on a Major Figure or Movement (i.e., Philosophy 360 to 369);
- (ii) one course in Logic (Philosophy 213, or Mathematics 385, or the equivalent);
- (iii) one course in Moral Philosophy (Philosophy 310 or 312);
- (iv) one course in Theoretical Philosophy (i.e., Philosophy 332, 333, 335, 336, 337, 350 or 341); and
- (v) one Seminar (i.e., Philosophy 460 to 470).
If a student wishes to replace one of these seven required courses by another taken in a different Five-College department, he or she should petition the Amherst Department by sending a letter to its Chair. (Any course taken in a Five-College philosophy department can count as one of the two electives of the Amherst philosophy major; there is no need to petition the Department.) A maximum of three courses counting toward the satisfaction of the major requirements can be taken outside of the Amherst Department (unless an exception is granted by petition to the Department).