Welcome to the Department of Philosophy!
Whether you are considering an undergraduate concentration in philosophy or exploring a personal interest in the subject, perhaps through a secondary, we hope you will find the department a welcoming and stimulating place.
What Is Philosophy?
Philosophy studies many of humanity's fundamental questions: how should we live, what kind of society should we strive towards, what are the limits of human knowledge? What is truth? Justice? Beauty? These questions are central to our lives, because in much of what we do, we at least implicitly assume answers to them. Philosophy seeks to reflect on these questions and answer them in a systematic, explicit, and rigorous way relying on careful argumentation, and drawing from outside fields as diverse as economics, literature, religion, law, mathematics, the physical sciences, and psychology. And while most of the tradition of philosophy is Western, we seek to connect with non-Western traditions like Islam and Buddhism, as well. Philosophy doesn't just operate at this most abstract of planes. We often investigate more specific issues in our classes.
- What is race, and what does justice require when it comes to race?
- What is gender?
- What are the ethical issues raised by technology in society?
- When and why is punishment justified?
- How should we interpret quantum mechanics?
- How does language play into the constitution of our selves and our society?
- In what sense are various kinds of facts, like natural and social facts, objective?
- Is the mind best thought of as a computer?
- What are the ethical challenges of climate change?
Philosophical questions are everywhere. If you find yourself drawn to them, studying philosophy in college is likely the best opportunity in your life to deeply engage with them. In fact, many concentrators find their way into philosophy from other disciplines, where they encounter interdisciplinary or foundational questions that can only be addressed through philosophical reflection. And given the small size of the department, concentrators have the rare opportunity to closely engage with dedicated faculty at the top of their fields.
Philosophy Courses and Course Numbering
Very few of our courses have explicit pre-requisites, so students can take courses in whatever order makes sense to them, given their intellectual goals and interests. A full listing of courses is available in the Course Catalog my.harvard.edu. That listing also includes all of our cross-listed courses.
Our introductory courses (numbered between 1 and 90) are designed to introduce students both to the topic of the course and the skills of writing philosophy papers and reading philosophical texts. Most of the students in our classes have never taken a formal philosophy class before coming to Harvard, and our introductory courses help students make the transition. Especially writing philosophy papers is, for many, a very different kind of writing from what they may be used to in English classes. We also offer writing support through our Department Writing Fellow. These classes aren't easy. The problems we study are just as hard as the ones in upper-level classes. The classes are introductory because they place heavier emphasis on the initial phases of skill development than our intermediate level classes. Because philosophical writing is so distinctive, students do not need to complete an Expos class before taking our classes. We will teach you philosophical writing in class.
Our intermediate courses (numbered between 100 and 199) are often more focused on specific topics. Even so, they usually do not presuppose any particular content knowledge. They differ from our introductory courses primarily in that we assume some amount of experience in reading philosophy and writing about it. Students can expect to get a lot of feedback on their work in these classes, but the assignments and feedback are designed to build on the foundations the students bring to class, rather than laying the foundations themselves.
Our intermediate courses either meet in a lecture/section format, with lectures usually meeting twice a week and sections once, or as proseminars which meet once a week for two hours. Proseminars are open to all undergraduates and do not have any special prerequisites. They simply offer a different instructional format.
Our graduate courses (numbered betweene 200 and 299) are primarily for graduate students. They presuppose a broad acquaintance with philosophical texts and debates, as well as significant experience in doing philosophy. They are open to undergraduates by permission of instructor.
Course numbering: Within each level of course---introductory, intermediate, and graduate---course numbers indicate content areas, not difficulty. For example, PHIL 3 ("The True and the Good") is neither more nor less difficult than PHIL 34 ("Existentialism in Literature and Film"). They are simply on different topics.
Philosophy and Careers after College
Concentrating in philosophy does not mean that you can only go on to graduate school and become an academic. The vast majority of our concentrators go on to careers in a wide variety of fields outside the academy. Philosophy prepares you for any career in which you have to think through a problem, formulate strategies for solving it that may not be obvious from the start, and communicate them precisely to an audience. Here are some links to follow up:
- Philosophy Is a Great Major
- "Teaching kids philosophy makes them smarter in math and English"
- "Philosophy's popularity soars"
- "Why philosophy majors rule"
- National Association of Colleges and Employers Report on salaries of philosophy graduates
Undergraduate concentrators have a variety of ways to participate in and contribute to the life of the department, whether through work on the Harvard Review of Philosophy, peer advising, or by attending any of the department's many lectures or social events, such as our monthly Lunch in the Library. In addition, concentrators are encouraged to submit their written work in consideration for the department's annual prizes.