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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.

Limited to 25 students. In the Fall 10 seats will be reserved for first-year students. Fall semester: Professor Hasan. Spring semester: Professors George and Shah

2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022, Spring 2023
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

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 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
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

218, 229 The Problem of Evil

(Offered as RELI 218 and PHIL 229). Christian religious traditions have assumed that God is omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent.  But attributing these attributes to the creator of the universe makes the existence of evil puzzling.  If God is omnibenevolent, then God would not want any creature to suffer evil; if God is omniscient, then God would know how to prevent any evil from occurring; and if God is omnipotent, then God would be able to prevent any evil from occurring. Does the obvious fact that there is evil in the world, then, give us reason to think that there is no such God? Alternatively: if an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God does exist, then what could possibly motivate such a God to permit the existence of evil? This course will survey classical and recent philosophical discussions of these questions.  Among other topics, we will explore the free-will defense and its recent revisions, skeptical theism, open theism, and the "multiverse theodicy."

Spring semester. Professor A. Dole

2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023

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. Fall semester. Professor Gentzler.

2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

241 Ancient Philosophy in Dialogue: China, India, and Greece

(Offered as PHIL 241 and RELI 241). This course puts into dialogue the ancient philosophical traditions of China, India, and Greece. We will explore their reflections and debates on how to live a good life, how to gain knowledge, and how to understand our place in the universe. Through close readings of texts, we will compare ancient philosophical conceptions, styles of discourse, and intellectual contexts. The course reconsiders the Eurocentric history and ideologies of many modern conceptions of philosophy.

No prerequisites. Limited to 60 students. Spring semester. Professors Gentzler, and Heim, and Harold. 

2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023

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 PHIL or consent of the instructor. Priority is given to Amherst College students. Limited to 25 students. Fall semester. Professor Shah. 

2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

332 Metaphysics

Metaphysics investigates the nature of reality at the most fundamental level. It asks basic questions about the nature of time, space, causation, change, composition, possibility, identity and existence. Among the questions we will encounter are: How does time pass? Is the present like a spotlight shining on events laid out in a fourth dimension? Causation is sometimes called the cement of the universe, but is it anything more than one thing regularly following another? Can there be backward causation? How about time travel? Is a statue identical to the lump of clay from which it is fashioned—after all, the same clay might have taken a different shape? Can things really change over time, or do they last for just a moment (or both)? Can you survive in a new body? Does redness exist independently of red things? Are things any more than bundles of properties? Are there merely possible things, like the symphony I never wrote in college? Or fictional entities, like Hermione Granger? Is there more than one type of existence? Metaphysics has been an especially vibrant area of philosophy in recent years, so we will read mostly contemporary work in the field.

Requisite: One course in PHIL. Limited to 25 students. Fall semester. Professor Moore.

2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

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. Spring semester. Professor Moore.

2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023

359 Kant and the Nineteenth Century

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. The rational autonomy of human beings, Kant somewhat surprisingly suggests, commits them to building a more just and humane world.

We will trace the effects of the Kantian revolution, including 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 rational autonomy, before considering his theory of the state in the Doctrine of Right (1797). Other readings will vary from year to year. Authors may include: Frederick Douglass, J.G. Fichte, G.W.F. Hegel, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Topics discussed may include: property, human rights, gender, capitalism, religion, and racism.

Our goal is to understand and evaluate some of the most exciting (and difficult) philosophical texts of the 18th and 19th centuries, and to write about them in clear and analytical prose.

Requisite: One prior course in Philosophy. Limited to 25 students. Spring Semester. Professor Hasan

2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023

374, 474 Population Ethics

(Offered as ENST 474 and PHIL 374) 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. Spring semester. Professor Moore.

2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023

409 Seminar: Plato's Republic

In his greatest work, the Republic, Plato takes up a challenge that was prevalent in the society in which he lived, namely, why should we be just when the benefits of being unjust seem obvious?  In order to provide a rational defense of a just life against those who would advocate injustice, Plato believes, we must explore and take a stand on most of the major questions in political philosophy, philosophy of education, value theory, philosophy of action, philosophy of mind, practical rationality, metaphysics, and epistemology. This class will be devoted to an assessment of the entirety of Plato's argument in the Republic in defense of a life of justice. 

Prerequisite: Two courses in Philosophy, or permission of the instructor.Limited to 15 students. Omitted Spring 2023. Professor Gentzler. 

2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023

412 Marxist Theories of Racism

What are the relationships between racism and capitalism? What economic changes—in the distribution of income and wealth, in production, and in the division of labor—are necessary to achieve racial justice? Marxist theorists of racism have argued that racism is necessary for the reproduction and expansion of capitalism because it maintains divisions among workers and provides an ideological justification for inequality. In this course we will focus on understanding the relationship between economic exploitation and racial oppression, the nature and functions of racial ideology, and the mechanisms by which racial inequality is reproduced. Then, we will consider how these ideas bear on the theoretical question of what racial justice requires and the practical question of how to pursue it.

Requisite:  One course in Philosophy or Black Studies, or other familiarity with Marxism or theories of racism, is preferred but not required. Limited to 20 students. Fall semester. Professor Lenehan. 

2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

413 Philosophy: Insight or Illusion?

The twentieth century saw powerful attempts to bring a halt to the kind of philosophy that had consumed people for millennia. Key figures included Wittgenstein, Quine, and so-called Ordinary Language Philosophers. They did not seek to provide solutions to philosophical problems, but tried instead to show that the problems are illusions.  We will examine their attempts through several case studies involving language, mind, knowledge, and ethics.

Requisite: two courses in Philosophy. Spring semester. Professors George and Shah. 

2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023

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 PHIL or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Fall semester. Professor Moore.

2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

475 Racial Justice and Injustice: Tommie Shelby’s Dark Ghettos

Does philosophy have anything to contribute to the problem of deeply disadvantaged neighborhoods? Social scientists have long studied concentrations of poverty and racial segregation in the United States. Drawing on this body of literature, Tommie Shelby’s book, Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform (Harvard, 2016), asks: What is racial justice and what does it demand with respect to the urban poor? We will engage Shelby’s arguments as a way of thinking more broadly about racism. Difficult questions of political morality will be central to our discussions. Should governments integrate neighborhoods? Is crime ever justified? Do the oppressed have duties to help overthrow their own oppression?  Alongside Dark Ghettos we will read key sources for Shelby’s thinking, including sociological work on race and racism, as well as classics of political thought in the Black radical, Marxist, and liberal egalitarian traditions. Students will actively participate in discussion with four visiting speakers over the course of the term about their recent work on racial justice and injustice: Myisha Cherry, Erin Kelly, Vanessa Wills, and Tommie Shelby himself.

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

2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023

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. The Department.

2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022, Spring 2023
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

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.

2022-23: Offered in Fall 2022
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

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 (499D).

Admission with consent of the instructor. Spring semester. The Department.

2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023