Suggested Humanities Courses

Introduction

Although all courses offered by the Department of Philosophy count as humanities offerings, what follows is a list of courses that are recommended to students who wish to explore and deepen their interest in the humanities.

FRSEMR 30Q: Death and Immortality
Professor: Cheryl Chen
Meets: Fall W 1-3
In this seminar, we will discuss philosophical questions about death and immortality. What is death? Is there a moral difference between "brain death" and the irreversible loss of consciousness? Is the classification of a person as dead a moral judgment, or is it an entirely scientific matter? Is death a misfortune to the person who dies? How can death be a misfortune if you are no longer around to experience that misfortune? Is it possible to survive after death? What does it mean for you to survive after your death? Is there such a thing as an immaterial soul distinct from your body? Is immortality something you should want in the first place? Even if you do not live forever, is it nevertheless important that humanity continues to exist after your death? By discussing these questions about death, we will hopefully gain insight about the importance and meaning of life.

 

FRSEMR 31D: Nietzsche
Professor: Mathias Risse
Meets: Fall W 7-9
Friedrich Nietzsche addresses some of the big questions of human existence in a profoundly searching but often disturbing manner that continues to resonate with many. Hardly any philosopher (except Karl Marx) has exercised such a far-reaching and penetrating impact on intellectual life in the last 150 years or so. He has influenced thinkers and activists across the political spectrum. Nietzsche has always been of special interest to young people who have often appreciated the irreverence and freshness of his thought, as well as the often very high literary quality of his writing. In this course, we explore Nietzsche's moral and political philosophy with emphasis on the themes he develops in his best-known and most accessible work, The Genealogy of Morality.  The best-known themes from this book include the slave rebellion in morality, ressentiment, bad conscience, and ascetic ideals. However, we also read several other of Nietzsche’s works, and do so chronologically (except that we begin with his auto-biography, Ecce Homo, which Nietzsche wrote briefly before his mental collapse in 1889).  The others works include The Birth of Tragedy, The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Antichrist. We do not read any secondary literature, though the instructor will recommend such literature as appropriate. The point is to become familiar with Nietzsche’s writings themselves and to engage with his thought.

 

FRSEMR 61D: Trying Socrates in the Age of Trump
Professor: Russell Jones
Meets: Spring TBA
We find ourselves in the middle of fierce political debates.  Should the common folk have political power, or should it be concentrated in the hands of an elite?  Is our national interest best served by looking inward and directing our resources toward local concerns, or by thinking globally about both threats and opportunities?  How do we balance concerns for economic growth, humanistic understanding, religious freedom, and scientific advancement?  Our answers to such questions are enormously consequential, and even people of good will can find themselves in heated disagreement, labeling opponents as the enemy and striving to drive them and their ideas from the public square. The Athenians of 2400 years ago didn’t conduct their political battles with tweets and hacks and super PACs, but they would easily recognize our battles as versions of their own, fought over much the same ground.  At a particularly heated time, they used the lethal power of the courts to silence Socrates, one of their own.  Our task is forensic.  We’ll assemble the available evidence to determine why the Athenians killed Socrates.  His views were complex – certainly he doesn’t align neatly with any of our own major political parties, and he’s difficult to categorize even in the context of ancient Athens.  So what was so offensive or threatening about him as to provoke such extreme measures?  Once we’ve assembled our evidence, we’ll formally try Socrates in absentia for ourselves.  Was he guilty?  And what should be done with people who spread dangerous ideas?

 

FRSEMR 61N: Language and Politics: Ideology and Society
Professor: Mark Richard
Meets: Fall W 1-3
We will apply tools and techniques from philosophy to analyze the use and abuse of speech in politics and social interactions.  Some of the work we will do involves analysis (what, exactly, is the difference between lying to someone and simply misleading her?), work that is worth doing in part because it will help us in thinking about normative questions (is lying worse than merely misleading in some morally significant way?)  Some of the work we will do involves recovering and analyzing arguments in philosophy and elsewhere about issues concerning speech—for example, arguments for and against the claim that certain sorts of speech (hate speech, pornography) ought to be restricted because of various harms.  And some of the work we'll do will require that we engage important but fairly hairy philosophical questions whether—for example, the (putative) fact that we see the world through one or another ideology makes knowledge impossible, or whether there are (interesting) absolute normative truths.  The course as a whole is an introduction to philosophy that emphasizes philosophy's ability to help us understand and criticize our social situation.

 

FRSEMR 61S: Baseball as Philosophy: God, Beauty, and Morality
Professor: Jeffrey Behrends
Meets: Fall W 3-5
Even seemingly commonplace features of the world offer us a route to inquiring into complex ideas and phenomena. You can think of this seminar as, in part, a sort of existence proof of that claim. Using baseball as a focusing lens, we will endeavor to cover a fairly large swath of philosophical terrain, including a more focused investigation of issues in ethics. We will consider, among other things, how baseball can help us understand: God’s relationship to morality; why a loving God would allow evil; indeterminate concepts; what makes something beautiful, or aesthetically valuable; social justice and income distributions; the moral permissibility of violating rules within a game; and the moral permissibility of biomedical enhancements to humans. Our investigation will put us in close contact with both contemporary scholarly writing on baseball, and canonical philosophical thinkers, starting with Plato. In addition to being the greatest game ever created, baseball offers surprisingly fertile ground for thinking about some of the deepest issues across philosophy.

 

FRSEMR 61T: Emptiness, Non-attachment, and the Problem of Suffering
Professor: Andrew Graham
Meets: Spring TBA

Some philosophers, considering the suffering that we all naturally face, have recommended non-attachment as a way of overcoming that suffering and living a better life.  Often they defend this stance by appealing to ideas concerning the nature of the world, the nature of ourselves, and the relationship between ourselves and the world. In particular, they emphasize the "emptiness" of these phenomena, and argue that grasping this emptiness can help us eliminate attachments and understand why such elimination is sensible.  In this seminar, we explore these themes, drawing on perspectives found in both the Eastern philosophical tradition and the Western philosophical tradition.  We will begin with a general overview of ideas along these lines from the Eastern tradition, starting with ancient Buddhist philosophy and some of its later developments, including work by Nāgārjuna and other Eastern philosophers.  We will then shift to the Western tradition and consider points of contact with the ideas already discussed.  In particular, we will look at philosophical work on the nature of the ordinary objects that make up the world around us, work on what we can know and should believe about that world, and finally work on our selves, our agency, and our freedom to act in that world.  Our aim in these explorations will be to understand these philosophical notions of emptiness and non-attachment and their application to the problem of suffering.

 

HUMAN 10A: A Humanities Colloquium: From Homer to Garcia Marquez
Professor: Alison Simmons
Meets: T 10-11:30; Section TBA

2,500 years of essential works, taught by six professors. Humanities 10a includes works by Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Descartes, Austen, Douglass, and Garcia Marquez, as well as the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Declaration of Independence. One 90-minute lecture plus a 90-minute discussion seminar led by the professors every week. Students also receive instruction in critical writing one hour a week, in writing labs and individual conferences. Students also have opportunities to visit cultural venues and attend musical and theatrical events in Cambridge or Boston.

The course is open only to freshmen. Students who complete Humanities 10a meet the General Education requirement in Aesthetics and Culture. Students who take both semesters of Humanities 10 fulfill the College Writing Requirement. This is the only course outside of Expository Writing that satisfies that requirement. No auditors. The course may not be taken Pass/Fail.

 

PHIL 3: The True and the Good
Professor: Bernhard Nickel
Meets: Fall MWF 11-12

The course introduces students to philosophical argumentation and writing. It is organized around a range of central philosophical questions, concerning the nature of right and wrong, free will and responsibility, the relation between self, mind, and nature, and god and death. We'll pay particular attention to how answers to one question interact with answers to the others. No previous experience with philosophy is required.

 

PHIL 8: Early Modern Philosophy: Self and World
Professor: Alison Simmons
Meets: Spring MWF 12-1

An introduction to some of the major topics and figures of 17th- and 18th-century Western philosophy, and to the skills of close reading, argument construction, and clear writing.  We will focus on such metaphysical and epistemological topics as the natures of mind, body and self, the equality of the sexes, the existence of the external world and God, the nature and limits of human knowledge, and the changing relationship between science and philosophy.  We will read such philosophers as René Descartes, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, Thomas Reid, Nicolas Malebranche, David Hume, Lady Mary Shepard, and Immanuel Kant.  No pre-requisites. 

 

PHIL 14: Morality and the Good Life: An Introduction to Ethics
Professor: Jeffrey Behrends
Meets: Spring TTh 1-2:30

You probably want to live the best life for yourself. But what would that look like? Feeling pleasure, and avoiding pain? Having your desires satisfied? Maybe achieving knowledge, or securing fulfilling relationships? You might also care about living a moral life. But what would that look like? What actions are morally right or wrong, and what makes them that way? In this introduction to ethics, we'll begin by looking at three important theories of the good life: the pleasure theory, the desire-satisfaction theory, and the pluralist theory. We'll then turn to moral theories, investigating the relative strengths and weaknesses of those views that focus only on our actions' consequences, and those that reject this approach. In closing, we'll consider questions about the status of morality. What kind of judgment are we making when we say, for example, that something is morally wrong? Are there moral facts awaiting our discovery? If there are, how did they come to be - are they determined by humans and varying across cultures, like facts about the law or etiquette? Or perhaps determined by God? Or could they somehow have not been determined by anyone, standing as fundamental facts about reality?

 

PHIL 17: Feminist Political Philosophy

Professor: Regina Schouten
Meets: Spring TTh 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 34: Existentialism in Literature and Film

Professor: Sean Kelly
Meets: Fall TTh 11:30-1

What is it to be a human being? How can human beings live meaningful lives? These questions guide our discussion of theistic and atheistic existentialism and their manifestations in literature and film. Material includes philosophical texts from Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre; literature from Dostoevsky, Kafka, Beckett; films from Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Carol Reed.

 

PHIL 117: Medieval Philosophy
Professor: Jeffrey McDonough
Meets: Fall TTh 10-11:30

This course will examine three great traditions in medieval philosophy (Neoplatonism, Scholastic-Aristotelianism, and Nominalism) through each tradition’s greatest proponent (Augustine, Aquinas, and William of Ockham). Specific topics will include skepticism, knowledge, human nature, divine nature, language, realism, conceptualism, and happiness. Students in the course will acquire a firm understanding of the major currents in one of the most important – if still neglected – periods in western philosophy.

 

PHIL 125: Beyond Dualism: Descartes and His Critics
Professor: Alison Simmons
Meets: Spring T 2-4

We will explore Descartes' dualism in its historical context.  After examining the transformation that Descartes brought about in our conceptions of body and mind (and ourselves), we will consider some of the notorious metaphysical problems his dualism gives rise to and some 17th- and 18th- century attempts to push back against it in the figures of Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, Henry More, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, and Anton Amo.

 

PHIL 158a: MBB Proseminar: Memory
Professor: Susanna Siegel
Meets: Fall W 4-6

An examination of philosophical theories of the structure and format of episodic memory.

 

PHIL 168: Kant's Ethical Theory
Professor: Christine Korsgaard
Meets: Fall MWF 12-1

A study of Kant's moral philosophy, based primarily on the Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals, the Critique of Practical Reason, and The Metaphysics of Morals.

 

PHIL 171: Well-Being (Proseminar)
Professor: Jeffrey Behrends
Meets: Spring W 1-3

Well-being, or welfare, is a kind of personal value – it is a value for some individual. We say that someone enjoys a high level of well-being when the life that they lead is a good one for them, and that when someone’s life goes poorly for them, their level of well-being is low. We can all probably point to certain kinds of lives that are paradigmatically high or low in well-being. But it is harder to identify what makes it the case that someone has a particular level of well-being, primarily because it is not obvious what things fundamentally contribute to or detract from the value of one’s life. In this seminar, we will consider contemporary approaches to welfare, including recent defenses of monistic theories like hedonism and the desire-satisfaction theory, as well as pluralistic theories. Though it will not be the primary focus of the course, we will also consider attempts to measure well-being in the social sciences, with special attention paid to what, if anything, value theorists and social scientists have to learn from one another.

 

PHIL 174a: Animals and Ethics
Professor: Christine Korsgaard
Meets: Fall MWF 2-3

Do human beings have moral obligations to the other animals? If so, what are they, and why?  Should or could non-human animals have legal rights? Should we treat wild and domestic animals differently? Do human beings have the right to eat the other animals, raise them for that purpose on factory farms, use them in experiments, display them in zoos and circuses, make them race or fight for our entertainment, make them work for us, and keep them as pets? We will examine the work of utilitarian, Kantian, and Aristotelian philosophers, and others who have tried to answer these questions.

 

PHIL 177: Educational Justice (Proseminar)
Professor: Regina Schouten
Meets: Fall T 2-4
We subject children to around 18,000 hours of compulsory schooling. This course will explore the kinds of experiences children should have in schools and how those experiences should be distributed. We'll proceed by examining key topics pertaining to educational justice, including competing principles of justice in the distribution of education (egalitarian principles, sufficientarian principles, prioritarian principles, etc.); competing reform agendas; the justifiability and relative priority of different educational aims (education for citizenship, education for career preparation, education for social justice, etc.); the family and its role in educational inequality; and higher education access. In addition to the philosophical contributions to these conversations, we'll read enough of the relevant empirical literature to provide a working understanding of the structure and consequences of schooling in the US. Finally, we'll explore some case studies that look at specific choices that arise in real time for educational decision-makers. These case studies highlight the moral dimensions of decisions about discipline, charter schools, special education, and school districting.