Courses

About the Department's Course Structure

The department's course offerings fall into several different areas:

  1. General Education courses that satisfy designated GenEd distribution requirements
  2. Freshman seminars (discussion based seminars for freshmen—application required)
  3. Philosophy tutorials (required for undergraduate concentrators)
  4. Introductory courses (3-99-level courses), generally for undergraduates
  5. Mid-level courses (100-level courses), for graduates and undergraduates
  6. Graduate seminars (200-level courses), for which enrollment is by permission of the instructor
  7. 3000-level courses, for graduate students only

Faculty in the Department also offer courses in the General Education Curriculum and Core Curriculum, as well as Freshman Seminars.

For Students in all Programs

All students in the department--whether primary concentrators, joint concentrators, or those in the MBB Track--should check the Program Requirements for their particular program and consult with the appropriate faculty members when selecting their courses.

MBB Students

Students in the MBB Track will want to check the Courses of Instruction page for both Philosophy and Mind, Brain, and Behavior offerings.

Course List

General Education courses

CULTBLF 31: Saints, Heretics, and Atheists: An Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion
Professor: Jeffrey McDonough
Meets: MW 12-1
Does God exist? What is the nature of evil and where does it come from? Are humans free? Responsible? Immortal? Does it matter? This course will explore perennial questions in the philosophy of religion through the study of classic works by Plato, Augustine, Al-Ghazali, Maimonides, Aquinas, Pascal, Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche and James. Students will gain a better understanding of how brilliant thinkers of the past approached the deepest questions of religion, and see how their views, arguments, and disagreements continue to resonate today.

Freshman seminars

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
 

 

Philosophy tutorials

PHIL 97 001: Tutorial I: Race and Racism
Instructor: Noel Dominguez
Meets: M 2-4

The topic of this tutorial is on the philosophy of race, of course, but the substantive focus is on three broad sub-questions. First, what are races? Assuming the concept of race is a coherent concept, what is it a concept of? Are races essentially biological categories, semantic terms, normative judgments, or something else? Second, what are the ways in which race affects our concepts of personal identity? How do our ideas about the nature of race affect our understanding of phenomena like intersectionality, ethnicity, and mixed-race identities? Third, what is racism, and what is it be acting in a racist way? Does racism require only acting on the basis of racially-charged beliefs, or does racism require bad attitudes on the part of the racist person as well? Can one be a racist without intending to be? This course will look at how philosophers from the 1980’s to today have investigated these concepts, and the way in which the concept of race affect not just our interactions with one another, but also our image of what we most fundamentally are.

 

PHIL 97 002: Tutorial I: Pleasure and the Good Life
Instructor: Patricia Marechal
Meets: F 1-3

In this tutorial, we will explore Ancient Greek views on pleasure and its role in a good life. Some of the questions we will address in this class are: What is pleasure? Is it a sort of perception, some kind of desire, an emotion, or something else? Does pleasure come in different kinds? What is the relationship between pleasure and the good? What role, if any, does pleasure play in a life well lived?

Plato and Aristotle gave different answers to these questions. We will carefully study and analyze both of these authors' views, and how their ideas relate to the concepts and arguments developed in their psychological and ethical writings. First, we will look at Plato’s discussions of pleasure in the Republic and the Philebus. In these texts, we find a particular account of the nature of pleasure and its ethical implications. Then, we will read portions of Aristotle’s De Anima and Nicomachean Ethics. Our goal will be to understand whether, and how, pleasure fits into Aristotle’s psychology, philosophy of action, and ethics.

 

PHIL 97 003: Tutorial I: Silencing Speech
Instructor: Diana Acosta-Navas
Meets: W 2-4

Freedom of Speech is considered central tenet of democratic societies. Following John Stuart Mill, liberal democratic societies have recognized a right to freedom of speech that, in some cases, has priority over all other rights. However, it is known that certain kinds of speech can be harmful for people, specifically, members of marginalized and vulnerable groups. On certain occasions, protecting the free speech of certain members of society has the effect of silencing the speech of other members. Hence, it seems that some kinds of speech create conflicts within the right to free speech.

Over the past few decades, political philosophers, feminists and philosophers of language have undertaken the task of describing the mechanisms whereby some kinds of speech can silence members of society, specially members of marginalized and vulnerable groups.  In this tutorial we will be exploring two kinds of speech that seem to have this silencing effect: pornography, and hate speech.

The course will consist of two modules, one per area of speech. For each module, we will discuss Supreme Court cases, in which the right to free speech of some members of society has been challenged in the Courts because of its harmful effects. We will also discuss texts in feminist political philosophy that explain the harms that these forms of speech impose on members of society. Finally, we will discuss texts that use tools from philosophy of language to explain the precise dynamics whereby these forms of speech can produce the effect of silencing other forms of speech.

 

PHIL 97 004: Tutorial I: The Philosophy of Social Science
Instructor: Kate Vredenburgh
Meets: T 1-3
The natural sciences view the world as made up of objects governed by laws. This perspective seems to leave out the human subject. Where’s the room for intention, in a world full of causal pushes and pulls? This course will investigate how the social sciences differ, if at all, from the natural sciences. The course is divided into two major units. Our first major unit will focus on the nature of social explanation: Do the social sciences use a different concept of causation? Is interpretation important? We’ll also pose questions about particular paradigms of social explanation, such as structural and functional explanation, thick description, and mathematical modeling. The second major unit will focus on objectivity in the social sciences: Can there be value-free social science, and should there be? We’ll also ask questions about the moral responsibilities of scientists, if any. Finally, we’ll draw on several case studies throughout the course and explore some social scientific models. No background in any of the social sciences is presumed.

 

PHIL 97 005: Tutorial I: Empiricism, Evolution, and Ethics
Instructor: Javier Caride
Meets: Th 1-3
It is not at all uncommon to read news stories about recent scientific insights into the nature of our species. Often times, it is suggested that we can learn moral truths – truths about goodness, value, practical reason, and how we ought to act – from these insights. Can we? In this course, we will explore what conclusions, if any, we can draw about morality from empirical discoveries about the human species. In doing so, we will not only consider the question at a general level (Can empirical facts about humans determine moral facts or normative facts more generally?), but also some specific models for inferring moral truths from empirical findings (attempts to derive moral conclusions from human evolutionary history, attempts to derive moral conclusions from neuroscience, and neo-Aristotelian theories of morality).

 

PHIL 99: Tutorial-Senior Year
Professor: Cheryl Chen and members of the department
 
PHIL 99 is a tutorial for senior philosophy concentrators who are pursuing the honors track, and for joint concentrators for whom philosophy is the "primary field." Students meet individually with members of the faculty to prepare their senior thesis, and collectively to discuss and present their work. Students must submit a prospectus by the first Friday of classes.

Introductory courses

CULTBLF 31: Saints, Heretics, and Atheists: An Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion
Professor: Jeffrey McDonough
Meets: MW 12-1

Does God exist? What is the nature of evil and where does it come from? Are humans free? Responsible? Immortal? Does it matter? This course will explore perennial questions in the philosophy of religion through the study of classic works by Plato, Augustine, Al-Ghazali, Maimonides, Aquinas, Pascal, Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche and James. Students will gain a better understanding of how brilliant thinkers of the past approached the deepest questions of religion, and see how their views, arguments, and disagreements continue to resonate today.

 

PHIL 3x: Appearance and Reality
Professor: John Bengson
Meets: MW 11-12

An introduction to central questions of philosophy and to basic methods of philosophical investigation, focusing on the relation between appearance and reality. Possible topics include the existence (or nonexistence) of material objects, the nature of time, the relation between consciousness and the physical world, the status of moral values, the identity of persons, the possibility of knowledge, and belief (or nonbelief) in God.

 

PHIL 6: Ancient Ethics and Modern Morality
Professor: James Doyle
Meets: MWF 11-12

An examination of systematic thinking about ethics in the West, from the presocratics to now. Readings will include Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, Aquinas, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Sidgwick, and some recent ethicists inspired by these. We will give some attention to the question of how our idea of morality, which is a distinctive way of thinking about ethics, emerged in the modern period.

 

PHIL 7: Ancient Greek Philosophy
Professor: Jacob Rosen
Meets: MWF 12-1

The origins of western philosophy. We will survey the fragmentary evidence remaining for the pre-Socratic philosophers, then spend most of the course examining questions raised and arguments put forward by Socrates (as portrayed by Plato), Plato, and Aristotle. What is it to learn, understand, and explain something? What are the most basic entities? What should be our highest aim in life? What is the difference between ‘philosophy’ and other (literary, political, religious, scientific) endeavors?

 

PHIL 17: Feminist Political Philosophy

Professor: Regina Schouten
Meets: TuTh 11:30-1

Work in feminist political philosophy is extraordinarily diverse. Some projects apply traditional philosophical tools and concepts to questions of particular feminist concern; others reject those tools and ideas altogether and propose alternatives allegedly better suited to theorizing about gender. Many regard “the personal is political” as the unifying insight of contemporary feminist philosophy. This will be the unifying theme of our study as well, as we work to better understand that slogan and explore its implications. We will begin by examining foundational work in contemporary political philosophy before turning to feminist challenges to that work. We'll see that the institution of the family remains widely regarded as the core of gender injustice. Accordingly, we'll pay special attention to the family, reading and thinking about such issues as marriage, parenting, and the gendered division of labor. We'll think about the role the family plays in sustaining gender inequality, consider several proposals for political interventions intended to make society more gender just, and ask whether those proposals constitute legitimate uses of political power. This will raise broader questions about whether and in what ways the institution of the family should enjoy a presumption against state interference. We'll finish up by exploring intersections between feminism and other issues of justice, including social class justice, race justice, and environmental justice.

 

PHIL 92: Topics in Logic

Professor: Warren Goldfarb
Meets: M 2-4

The logic of provability in formal systems of arithmetic, centering on Gödel’s incompleteness results and their further development.

Mid-level courses

PHIL 106: Augustine (Proseminar)
Professor: James Doyle
Meets: W 4-6

An examination of the philosophy of St Augustine of Hippo and its evolution. Topics covered will include the existence and nature of God, the problem of evil, the influence of neoplatonism, the ideas of divine illumination and an 'inner realm', the relation between belief and the will, Augustine's ethical and political thought and his influence on Malebranche and Descartes. Readings will include the Confessions, De utilitate credendi, De libero arbitrio, De trinitate, De doctrina Christiana, and selections from De civitate Dei.

 

PHIL 124: Early Modern Metaphysics and Its Critics (Proseminar)
Professor: Anat Schechtman
Meets: W 2-4

An in-depth investigation of empiricist and skeptical critiques of traditional metaphysical notions of substance, essence, natural kinds, causation, and infinity in the 17th-18th centuries. Special attention will be paid to the writings of Bacon, Locke, Boyle, and Hume. To better understand and assess the debates, we will also take a close look at the texts of those metaphysicians who were the targets of serious criticism (e.g., Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and representative scholastic authors).

 

PHIL 132: Marx and Marxism
Professor: Tommie Shelby
Meets: MW 10-11

Introduces the political philosophy and social theory of Karl Marx. Through primary texts we study his theory of history, his account of human self-alienation, his theory of ideology, his attempt to establish that capitalism is exploitative, his critique of liberalism, and his conception of freedom. Discussion also of some contemporary philosophical writings in the Marxist tradition.

 

PHIL 139x: Heidegger's Being and Time
Professor: Sean Kelly
Meets: TuTh 1-2:30

A close reading of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. Topics from Division I of the book include: In what sense, and on the basis of what, is the world we inhabit intelligible? In what sense do we inhabit such an intelligible world? And what, after all, is the relation between what is and what we understand there to be? Division II of the book addresses existential issues such as: death, guilt, authenticity, history, and temporality. We aim to read the entire book.

 

PHIL 145: Modal Logic
Professor: Mark Richard
Meets: TuTh 10-11:30

An introduction to the semantics and metatheory of modal logic as well as some of its applications in philosophy and linguistics. Topics drawn from the following: Completeness, frames, and incompleteness for propositional modal logic; semantics for quantificational modal logics; provability interpretations of modal logic; intensional semantics for conditionals and other natural language expressions.

 

PHIL 156: Philosophy of Mind
Professor: Cheryl Chen
Meets: TuTh 11-12

An examination of the relation between the mind and the natural world.  Topics include: the mind – body problem and proposed solutions to it, consciousness, and the mind’s representation of the world. Readings will consist mostly of influential papers from the latter half of the 20th Century

 

PHIL 173x: Practical Reasons
Professor: Jeff Behrends
Meets: TuTh 11:30-1

Reasons are considerations  that count for or against something - actions, in the case of practical reasons (as usually distinguished from beliefs, in the case of theoretical reasons). The notion of a practical reason has played a central role in ethical theorizing over the past several decades, and continues to enjoy close philosophical attention today. In this course, we'll first endeavor to get a clear sense of the general structure of practical reasons, and to disentangle them from nearby, but distinct, concepts. We'll then take a close look at several contemporary disputes about practical reasons. Primary among them is a question about how practical reasons are grounded: what makes it the case that something is a reason? Investigating this question will bring us into contact with debates about how reasons are related to desires, motivation, value, and moral requirements. We will also consider error-theoretic approaches to practical normativity, according to which there are no genuine practical reasons of the sort that most ethicists have in mind.

 

PHIL 188: Philosophy and Literature: Proust
Professor: Richard Moran
Meets: MWF 12-1

The course will attempt a sense of Proust's great novel, In Search of Lost Time, as a whole, necessarily in an abbreviated form, but with the aim of tracing the plan that Proust worked out when he began the project.   The bulk of the reading will be in Proust's text, but there will be regular secondary readings in philosophy and in the critical literature on Proust.   Philosophical themes to be emphasized will include:  the nature of subjectivity and the problem of other minds, the strategies of solipsistic desire, freedom and dependence, amour-propre and the desire for approbation, the nature and limits of the will (including 'involuntary memory'), personal identity and artistic vocation, the will to knowledge and self-deception.

 

Graduate seminars

PHIL 202: Aristotle against the Atomists
Professor: Jacob Rosen
Meets: M 2-4

Aristotle opens Book VI of his Physics by announcing the thesis that “nothing that is continuous can be composed of indivisibles.” “Things that are continuous” include bodies, lengths, times and motions, and Aristotle offers a wealth of arguments for the infinite divisibility of all such entities. Our main goals in this seminar will be: (1) understand Aristotle’s often difficult arguments and how they hang together; (2) see what we can learn about the earlier atomistic theories that Aristotle is rejecting, and the motivations for those earlier theories (Democritus, Leucippus, Plato…); (3) consider how atomists after Aristotle understood and responded to his arguments (Epicurus and his followers). We will also try to understand what is at stake in the debate over atomism — from simple questions like what it is for two things to touch, to larger questions like whether anything ever comes into being or perishes, and, if so, how. Since part of the debate seems to center around different responses to Eleatic arguments concerning the oneness of being and the impossibility of motion (Parmenides, Zeno), we will look at those arguments as well.

Primary texts will be made available both in Greek and in English translation. Required secondary readings will be in English, together with a few suggested readings in German for those who can read them. The course will assume philosophical competence but no special knowledge of history or languages.

 

PHIL 242: From Frege to Gödel: Seminar
Professor: Warren Goldfarb
Meets: W 4-6

The rise of modern logic in its formative period. Both technical and philosophical issues will be considered. Primary authors will be Cantor, Dedekind, Peano, Zermelo, Hilbert and his school, Brouwer, Weyl, Skolem, and Herbrand.

 

PHIL 243: Topics in Philosophy of Mathematics: Seminar
Professor: W. Hugh Woodin
Meets: W 2-4
The topic will be the search for axioms that settle the statementsleft unsettled by ZFC. Topics include: The nature of justification inmathematics, axioms of infinity, definable determinacy, the continuumhypothesis, the HOD Conjecture, the search for a 'final' axiom and the candidate V = Ultimate-L.

 

PHIL 249: Explanation: Seminar
Professor: Edward Hall
Meets: M 1-4

This seminar will address questions about the nature and importance of explanation in science and philosophy. We will begin with a quick tour of the main theories of explanation philosophers have proposed over the last 60 years, including Carl Hempel’s DN model of explanation, David Lewis’s causal theory, and James Woodward’s counterfactual theory. We will investigate the connections between explanation and unification, and between explanation and understanding. We will try to figure out what it could be for one explanation to be “deeper” than another. We will look into whether different sciences require different kinds of explanation, in particular, into the extent to which explanations in the social sciences and in mathematics fit theories driven by paradigms from other sciences, especially physics. And we will take up the question of whether and if so how explanation in the various branches of philosophy differs from explanation in the sciences.

Notes: This course will also be offered at MIT with the course number of 24.810.  Class meetings will alternate between the MIT and Harvard campuses.

 

PHIL 259: Method, Essence, and Intuition in Metaethics: Seminar
Professor: John Bengson
Meets: T 2-4

This seminar will investigate methodology, essence, and intuition in metaethics. The focus of the seminar will be a book manuscript, co-authored by Terence Cuneo, Russ Shafer-Landau, and the instructor, that develops a non-naturalist, intuitionist, and essence-based version of moral realism. We will also read works by, among others, Blackburn, Gibbard, Korsgaard, Mackie, Smith, and Street. Specific topics include philosophical methodology and intellectual progress in metaethics (and beyond); the nature and status of data in philosophy (esp. metaethics); the essences of moral concepts and properties; whether some moral truths are conceptual truths; the supervenience of the moral on the non-moral; categorical reasons; the nature and epistemic status of moral intuition; debunking arguments; and moral disagreement. Terence Cuneo and Russ Shafer-Landau will each visit the seminar and discuss parts of the manuscript with participants.

 

PHIL 273L: Topics in Social and Political Philosophy: Seminar
Professor: Mark Richard
Meets: Th 1-3:30
This seminar is jointly taught by Sally Haslanger (MIT), Justin Khoos (MIT), and Mark Richard (Harvard).  We will discuss some of the relations between power and language.  Topics discussed (tentatively) include:  the nature of power and its relation to ideology; linguistic meaning and "social meaning"; generics and stereotypes; slurs; free speech, hate speech, and pornography; bullshit, lying, and deception.

 

PHIL 277: Law and Philosophy: Seminar
Professor: Thomas M. Scanlon
Meets: W 5-7
This seminar course will examine some of the way in which philosophical analysis and discussions of what the law is and ought to be can enrich each other. Students in the seminar will write several short papers focused on weekly readings and a longer final paper. For roughly half of the weeks, the readings will be drafts of works-in-progress by philosophers, political theorists, and law professors who will present their work in the seminar.