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Courses

The following information is from the 2016-17 Vassar College Catalogue.

Philosophy: I. Introductory

101a and b. History of Western Philosophy: Ancient 1

a: The course concentrates on the ethical and metaphysical thought of Plato and Aristotle.  We consider their answers to two questions that both see as intimately connected: What is a good life for a human being?  And: what is it for something to exist? Jeffrey Seidman.

a and b: This course provides an introduction to Western philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the Stoics of the Roman Empire, focusing on ancient views of eudaimonia, or happiness--the ultimate goal of a human life. Readings include Plato's Socratic dialogues, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the letters of Epicurus, and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. Christopher Raymond.
 

 

Two 75-minute periods.

102b. History of Western Philosophy: Modern 1

b: Descartes inaugurated modern philosophy by turning philosophical attention away from questions about what the world is like and directing it onto the question: how is it possible for us to know what the world is like? He made this question urgent by offering arguments that suggest that we cannot know what the world is like -- arguments suggesting that there is an unbridgeable gap between the mind and the material world. We carefully examine the ways in which Descartes himself, Hume, and, finally, Kant, seek to answer these arguments and bridge the gap that Descartes' arguments open up. We see how their various approaches to this task shape and are shaped by their conceptions of the human mind, the material world, the relation of the mind to the human body, and the nature of the 'self.' Jeffrey Seidman.

Prerequisite(s): PHIL 101 is not a prerequisite for the course.

Two 75-minute periods.

105a and b. Philosophical Questions 1

a and b: The discipline of philosophy revolves around a set of timeless questions about the fundamental nature of reality and humanity's place in it. In this course, we explore some of those enduring questions using readings from throughout the history of philosophy. Questions under discussion include:  What is truth?  What is knowledge?  How do our minds connect to the world?  What is happiness?  What is the meaning of life?  Is the government's power over us justified, and if so, why?  We study attempts to answer these questions by authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus, Martha Nussbaum, John Searle, and Susan Wolf. Our primary goals for the course are gaining an understanding of the significance of the questions we discuss, and working towards informed judgments about the right answers to those questions. Megan Stotts.

b. This course is an introduction to some major themes in the philosophical tradition. To warm up we start by discussing the existence of God, the problem of evil, and the case for religious belief. We then move on to problems in the study of knowledge. Is there an external world? How do we we know about what there is outside of ourselves? Are there scientific laws? We then talk about what kinds of creatures we are: is my 5-year-old self the same as my adult self? At what point do I cease to be the same person? And - are the kinds of creatures we are imbued with free will? We end by discussing what it means for something to be good for us. The main purpose of the course is to build up philosophical skills, pass on useful philosophical tools, and enable students to tackle difficult topics in writing and group discussion. Emphasis is placed on the reading and interpretation of primary texts and their application to contemporary debates in the field of philosophy. Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa.

Two 75-minute periods.

106 Philosophy and Contemporary Issues 1

a and b: This course introduces students to the philosophical study of moral issues, focusing upon topics such as war, terrorism, our food choices, abortion, and euthanasia. Emphasis throughout is placed upon argumentative rigor, clarity, and precision. Jamie Kelly.

a: Democracy. This course explores democracy in the 21st Century as a philosophical question. We consider recent democratic movements like Nuit debout in France, public spaces like Tahrir Square in Eygpt, and hashtags like #iranelection against the backdrop of the invention of democracy in ancient Athens. We then think about democracy more philosophically as a desire to act and speak in public space, and we question whether modern representative governments allow for a sufficient sense of equal political participation. Finally, we reflect on what it means to be unable to participate in politics or, in more dire cases, to be excluded from any form of political life. Readings include works from Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Rancière, Miguel Abensour, Étienne Balibar, Giorgio Agamben, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others. Travis Holloway.

 

Two 75-minute periods.

110a. Early Chinese Philosophy 1

An introduction to Chinese philosophy in the period between (roughly) 500 and 221 B.C., covering Confucians, Taoists and others. Among the topics discussed by these philosophers are human nature, methods of ethical education and self-cultivation, virtues and vices, and the role of conventions and institutions in human life. Bryan Van Norden.

Open only to freshmen; satisfies the college requirement for a Freshman Writing Seminar.

Two 75-minute periods.

125a and b. Logic 1

An examination of the basic elements of modern logic. Topics include logical paraphrase, truth-functional logic, and quantification theory. Special attention is paid to the adequacy of the methods of logical analysis and assessment studied in the course. Douglas Winblad.

150 The Limits of the Universe and the Limits of Understanding 1

(Same as PHYS 150) This course allows students to combine their interests in physics and in philosophy, recognizing common concerns and actively engaging in joint difficulties. The guiding questions of this course can be formulated as follows: In what ways, and to what extent, do recent developments in physics (e.g. the notion of space that is both infinite and bounded because curved) either solve or bypass traditional philosophical paradoxes concerning space and time, causality, and objectivity? In what ways, and to what extent, do traditional philosophical worries (e.g. worries about incoherence, worries about theories that cannot be falsified, or worries about concepts whose application cannot be imagined) cast doubt on the accuracy or the methodology of current physics? Readings are from physics and philosophy. Jennifer Church, Cindy Schwarz.

May not count towards a physics concentration.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods.

180 Tragedy and Philosophy: Ancient and Modern Perspectives 1

Since Greek antiquity, philosophers have puzzled over the meaning, value, and purpose of tragedy. This course traces their conversation from ancient Athens to German Romanticism to the present, examining classic writings alongside plays that have captured the philosophical imagination. Authors may include: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Schiller, Hegel, Nietzsche, Stanley Cavell and Martha Nussbaum. Students learn to write short, carefully argued analyses of challenging texts, and to reflect on broader issues of interpretation and authorial intent, the moral criticism of art, canonization, and genre. If appropriate, the class will also attend a performance by the Vassar Drama Department, a film screening, or a live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera. Christopher Raymond.

Open only to freshmen; satisfies the college requirement for a Freshman Writing Seminar.

Two 75-minute periods.

Philosophy: II. Intermediate

205b. Nineteenth Century Philosophy 1

After a brief overview of Kant's "critical revolution" and its immediate aftermath, we examine the thought of four major European thinkers: Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Themes include the sense of alienation felt in the wake of the Enlightenment; critiques of capitalism and modern morality; philosophical pessimism; and the hope that art can fill the spiritual void left by the collapse of the Christian worldview. Christopher Raymond.

Prerequisite(s): one 100-level course in Philosophy or permission of the instructor.

Two 75-minute periods.

210b. Neo-Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism 1

Introduction to Neo-Confucianism, one of the most influential intellectual movements in China and all of East Asia. Neo-Confucianism combines a profound metaphysics with a subtle theory of ethical cultivation. There is some discussion of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism whose views of the self and ethics are the primary targets of the Neo-Confucian critique. No familiarity with Chinese culture is assumed, but a previous 100-level course in philosophy is a prerequisite because this course assumes students have the ability to tackle subtle issues in metaphysics, personal identity, and ethics. Bryan Van Norden.

Prerequisite(s): one 100-level course in Philosophy, Chinese-Japanese, or Religious Studies, or permission of the instructor.

215 Phenomenology & Existential Thought 1

When he discovered the "concrete thinking" of phenomenology and existentialism, Sartre wrote, he realized that "truth drags through the streets, in the factories…everything was changed forever." Indeed, for many Continental philosophers, phenomenology and existentialism represent the most significant and foundational philosophical movements of the 20th century. These intertwining approaches analyze our finite human existence as we experience it in what we commonly call a "world." But what does it really mean to exist here and now, and only for a while? Why do we create "worlds" or networks of relationships that seem to offer us great personal, social, and political well-being but also immense anxiety? In this course, we will try to avoid the kind of clichés, posturing, or facades—intellectual pretention, religiosity, scientism, consumerism, etc.—that, as Heidegger said, "cover over" and obfuscate questions about human existence instead of encountering them. Rather, we will mine the most basic of these questions with persistent attention: What sustains or underpins authentic life with others? As we trace the origins of phenomenology and existentialism from the ancient Greeks to today, we will put these methods to work as others have done to discuss issues like gender, sexuality, race, colonialism, politics, and community. Readings will include works by Plato, Aristotle, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, Emmanuel Levinas, Sara Ahmed, and Jean-Luc Nancy. Travis Holloway.

Two 75-minute periods.

220a. Metaphysics 1

This course examines a number of interlocking metaphysical topics, among them the relationship between reality and the mind, the nature of consciousness, the apparent tension between free will and causal necessitation, personal identity, the reality of time, and the problem of why anything at all exists. Questions about the status of metaphysical inquiry itself will also be addressed. Douglas Winblad.

 


 

Prerequisite(s): one 100-level course in Philosophy or permission of the instructor.

Two 75-minute periods.

222b. Philosophy of Language 1

Language is one of humanity's most distinctive and mysterious faculties.  Somehow, many different complex systems of meaningful sounds have arisen around the world, without anyone planning or designing them.  This remarkable phenomenon leads to a wide variety of questions:  How do words refer to objects in the world?  What is meaning?  How does communication work?  How do metaphors work?  In this class we study attempts to answer these and other questions about language by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, Gottlob Frege, H.P. Grice, Ruth Garrett Millikan, John Searle, and Elisabeth Camp.  Students are able to choose from a variety of assignments to explore the course material and demonstrate their understanding. Megan Stotts.

 

Two 75-minute periods.

224 Philosophy of Mind 1

This course is a general introduction to contemporary philosophy of mind, appropriate for those new to philosophy. We start with fundamental ontological questions, such as: What makes something a mind? Are minds separate from bodies? Can computers have minds? The aim of the first part of the course is to give students general tools for use in philosophy, including training in the formulation of arguments, textual interpretation, and conceptual analysis. We then move into the issue of the nature of consciousness: can science account for what it feels like to be a sentient creature? How does the brain contribute to unified experiences? We then tie these questions in with issues in the philosophy of perception: Can we learn about the world through perception? Do our senses deceive us? We end with an investigation of animal minds and animal cognition: can other animals think about thinking? Could collections of creatures have minds? Lectures and readings in the course include exciting contemporary work in psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience. Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa.

Two 75-minute periods.

226 Philosophy of Science 1

(Same as STS 226) This course explores general questions about the nature of scientific inquiry, such as whether science is fully rational, and whether even our best scientific theories really provide us with accurate depictions of the natural order.  The course also treats philosophical issues that arise in relation to specific scientific theories. These include whether life originated in a series of unlikely accidents, whether human cognition may be understood in purely computational terms, and whether we should embrace the existence of multiple universes and abandon the requirement that scientific theories be testable.

Prerequisite(s): one 100-level course in Philosophy.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods.

228b. Epistemology 1

A central task in the field of epistemology is to specify exactly what knowledge is:  what conditions does a belief have to satisfy in order to count as knowledge?  As far back as Plato, many people have thought that knowledge is justified, true belief.  But in the middle of the twentieth century, epistemology experienced a crisis when it became evident that this definition of knowledge was incorrect.  This discovery led to a flurry of attempts to augment or replace the definition.  In this class we explore one strand of that story, leading up to the development of virtue epistemology.  Instead of just trying to specify the conditions a belief must satisfy to count as knowledge, virtue epistemologists have shifted attention toward epistemically valuable traits that people can develop, such as openness to new evidence. Our major goal for the course is to determine whether this turn toward epistemic virtues can solve epistemology's twentieth-century problems. Megan Stotts.

Two 75-minute periods.

233 T.M. Scanlon's What We Owe To Each Other 0.5

T.M. Scanlon's What We Owe To Each Other is a landmark contribution to contemporary moral philosophy. Scanlon's book aims to explain what we are arguing about when we debate whether an action is morally wrong. In the course of answering this question, Scanlon offers original approaches to a number of central philosophical topics, including the nature of reason and rationality, of value, and of individual wellbeing. We engage in a careful reading of this important book, as well as some philosophical responses to it. Jeffrey Seidman.

Prerequisite(s): one 100-level course in Philosophy.

Second six-week course.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods.

234 Ethics 1

Why be moral? What does morality ask of us? What is the relation between morality and self-interest? What is happiness? What is the relation between a happy life and a meaningful life? Are there objective answers to ethical questions? Or are whatever answers we give no more than the expressions of our subjective attitudes? These are some of the questions this course seeks to address. We proceed by reading seminal texts in the Western moral philosophical tradition alongside writings by contemporary moral philosophers. Jeffrey Seidman.

Prerequisite(s): at least one 100-level course in Philosophy.

Not offered in 2016/17.

235 Stephen Darwall's The Second-Person Standpoint 0.5

Stephen Darwall's The Second-Person Standpoint is a landmark contribution to contemporary moral philosophy. Darwall's book aims to explain how moral obligation is possible, by grounding it in the relations between individuals. Darwall argues that fundamental ethical concepts, including the concept of a person itself, along with the concepts of human rights and human dignity, presuppose that we have the authority to make claims on those toward whom we stand in a second-person relation. We engage in a careful reading of this important book, as well as some philosophical responses to it. Jeffrey Seidman.

Prerequisite(s): one 100-level course in Philosophy.

Second six-week course.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods.

236b. Philosophy of Law 1

This course introduces students to the philosophical analysis of law and legal institutions. Topics may include natural law theories, legal positivism, formalism, and realism, as well as questions about constitutional interpretation and the obligation to obey the law. Jamie Kelly.

Prerequisite(s): one 100-level course in Philosophy.

Two 75-minute periods.

238 Social and Political Philosophy 1

This course introduces students to the history of and to contemporary debates within political philosophy. Our focus is on the relationship between justice and equality. Jamie Kelly.
 

Prerequisite(s): one 100-level course in Philosophy.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods.

240b. Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics 1

This course is an introduction to some of the major theories of aesthetics throughout history. Our study of aisthēsis, or perception through the senses, covers four historical movements: the Ancient Greeks' notion of mimetic art and citizenship; the German and English Romantics' turn to beauty and nature; the Modern desire for selfhood and authenticity; and the Postmodern death of art, authorship, and originality. We study these movements from within a contemporary perspective and alongside particular works of art. By the end of this course, we might consider that throughout history art has always been shifting between two tides: interiority and exteriority, reason and sensation, intention and anti-intention, authorship and history, and so on. Travis Holloway.

Prerequisite(s): one 100-level course in Philosophy.

Two 75-minute periods.

242 The Philosophy of Music 1

Music is an important part of our experience -- familiar and yet strange, releasing us from thinking but also revealing new ways of thinking. This course addresses philosophical themes as they appear in music, providing a more visceral sense of alternative perspectives on the world, and expanding our appreciation what music has to offer. We listen to many different types of music -- old and new, classical and popular, with discussion focused around topics such as the difference between music and sound, the 'space' of music, the expression of emotion in music, the significance of repetition, historical versus ahistorical interpretations, time and timelessness.  Readings will be drawn from a variety of philosophers, including Levinson, Scruton, Deleuze, Schopenhauer, Langer, Adorno, Kivy, Nussbaum and Walton. Jennifer Church.

Prerequisite(s): one course in Philosophy or one course on music theory or music culture.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods.

250a and b. Feminist Theory 1

(Same as WMST 250) The central purpose of the course is to understand a variety of theoretical perspectives in feminism - including liberal, radical, socialist, psychoanalytic and postmodern perspectives. We explore how each of these feminist perspectives is indebted to more 'mainstream' theoretical frameworks (for example, to liberal political theory, Marxism, and psychoanalysis). We also examine the ways in which each version of feminist theory raises new questions and challenges for these 'mainstream' theories. We attempt to understand the theoretical resources that each of these perspectives provides the projects of feminism, how they highlight different aspects of women's oppression and offer a variety of different solutions. We look at the ways in which issues of race, class and sexuality figure in various theoretical feminist perspectives and consider the divergent takes that different theoretical perspectives offer on issues such as domestic violence, pornography, housework and childcare, economic equality, and respect for cultural differences. We try to get clearer on a variety of complex concepts important to feminism - such as rights, equality, choice, essentialism, cultural appropriation and intersectionality. Uma Narayan.

Prerequisite(s): one unit of Philosophy or Women's Studies.

Two 75-minute periods.

280a. Moral Psychology: Empirical and Philosophical 1

(Same as PSYC 280) "Moral Psychology" is the name of a sub-discipline crossing the fields of psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience; it is also the name of a sub-discipline within philosophy. Both of these sub-disciplines investigate the psychology behind moral (and immoral) action. Both ask, for instance, why a moral agent acts as she does. What is the role of emotion in moral action?  What are the roles of reasoning and deliberation in moral action?  But these fields approach these questions with very different tools, and also, often, with different assumptions. 

In this course, we ask whether, and how, we can draw philosophical conclusions from experimental results. Has psychology, or evolutionary theory, or neuroscience, shown that all of our actions are fundamentally self-interested? Have experiments in neuroscience shown that free will is an illusion, or that utilitarianism is the only rational ethical view? And we ask whether and how conclusions from philosophy should inform empirical research. Randy Cornelius and Jeff Seidman.

 

Two 75-minute periods.

290a and b. Field Work 0.5 to 1

Supervised by the department faculty.

298a and b. Independent Work 0.5 to 1

Supervised by the department faculty.

Philosophy: III. Advanced

300a. Senior Thesis 0.5

Yearlong development of an extended philosophical essay in consultation with a faculty adviser. Advisors: All Faculty.

Students must register for 300 for (a) term and PHIL 301 for (b) term.

Full year course.

301b. Senior Thesis 0.5

Yearlong development of an extended philosophical essay in consultation with a faculty adviser.

Advisors: All Faculty.

Students must register for PHIL 300 for (a) term and 301 for (b) term.

Full year course.

302a or b. Senior Thesis 1

By special permission only. This one semester course may be substituted for PHIL 300-PHIL 301 after consultation with your advisor.

310 Seminar in Analytic Philosophy 1

Topic for 2016/17a: The Metaphysics of Social Reality. Unlike simple physical things such as mountains and oceans, social reality is deeply dependent on human thought and action for its existence.  Social institutions such as money, governments, and languages may exert a lot of influence on our lives, but they are quite fragile in the sense that they would crumble if we all stopped buying into them. To explore the simultaneous strength and fragility of social reality, we study accounts of social conventions, social norms, and social institutions offered by authors such as John Searle, Seumas Miller, Ruth Garrett Millikan, David Lewis, and Cristina Bicchieri. We consider issues such as whether the existence of a social convention must be common knowledge among its participants, whether social norms can exist even if no one ever conforms to them, and whether social institutions are constituted by conventions and social norms or by speech acts. By the end of the semester we are able to apply theoretical work about social reality to real-world social institutions and to issues that arise in the context of those institutions, such as institutional corruption and institutional oppression.  Students are expected to participate regularly in class discussions, give an oral presentation, and complete substantial writing assignments that demonstrate an ability to apply and evaluate the theories we discuss. Megan Stotts.

One 3-hour period.

320b. Seminar in the History of Philosophy 1

Topic for 2016/17b: Plato's Republic. This seminar is devoted to a close study of Plato's Republic, one of the most influential and challenging texts in the history of philosophy. We approach the dialogue from a variety of angles, with attention to the interplay between theoretical argument, historical context, dramatic irony, poetic allusion, and literary form. One of our goals is to understand how the diverse inquiries pursued in the dialogue--into justice in the city and the individual soul; the proper role of art in education; the complexity of human motivation; and the nature of philosophical insight--fit together into a unified whole. Christopher Raymond.

 

Prerequisite(s): upper level Philosophy courses or permission of the instructor.

One 3-hour period.

330a and b. Seminar in Ethics & Theory of Value 1

A seminar offering an in-depth exploration of a chosen topic in Ethics and Theory of Value. 

Topic for 2016/17a: Capital, Volume One. This seminar conducts an in-depth study of the first volume of Karl Marx's Capital. Jamie Kelly.

Prerequisites: at least three courses in Philosophy.

Topic for 2016/17b: Capitalism, Globalization, Economic Justice and Human Rights. This seminar focuses on questions about capitalism, globalization, and economic justice. A central project of this course is to understand the different ways in which capitalism is conceptualized by various thinkers and philosophical perspectives. We critically evaluate the benefits and problems attributed to capitalism as a global economic system. We address debates on private property and the division of labor, and examine the functions of states, markets, corporations, international institutions like the IMF and WTO, and development agencies in economic globalization and their roles in securing or undermining human rights. We  examine some of the ecological consequences of contemporary capitalism and our own locations as consumers within the system. Readings include the works by figures such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi, Peter Singer, Thomas Pogge, Antonio Negri, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Zygmunt Bauman. Uma Narayan. 

Topic for 2016/17b: Moral Objectivity and Moral Relativism. Can moral judgments be objectively true?  Or are there no standards of moral truth beyond the competing standards of different cultures, or perhaps of different individuals?  We read works by contemporary philosophers arguing for different answers to this question: objectivist, subjectivist, relativist.  Likely authors include: Gilbert Harman, Judith Thomson, Russ Shafer-Landua, Mark Schroeder, David Enoch. Jeffrey Seidman.

Prerequisites: two, 200-level courses in Philosophy.

One 3-hour period.

340 Seminar in Contintental Philosophy 1

Topic for 2016/17a: Neoliberalism and the Future of Citizenship. In recent months, newly published works by Judith Butler, Étienne Balibar, Wendy Brown, Sadri Khiari, and others have sought to critique a "neoliberal" vision of the human being as homo oeconomicus, or "economic man", and offer an alternative vision of what constitutes social, political, and individual life. This shared critical project is not only giving a name and a theory to that which attempts to privatize and monetize every facet of contemporary life; it is also exploring new forms of community and public assembly based on the philosophical claim, from Aristotle to Arendt, that we are by nature political animals who desire to gather in different kinds of public space. From Butler's work on gender and performative assembly to Balibar's book on citizenship to the recent collaborative book What Is a People?, some of today's leading Continental philosophers are inviting us to critique an era of "neoliberalism" and rethink the meaning of citizenship. Readings include new texts by Badiou, Balibar, Brown, Butler, Khiari, Rancière, and Santos as well as earlier work by Rousseau, Arendt, Hayek, Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari.

One 3-hour period.

350b. Seminar in Modernism, Postmodernism, and Hermeneutics 1

The Modernism/Postmodernism/Hermeneutic divide stretches across many different disciplines, including philosophy, literary theory, history, religious studies, political science, anthropology and others. Roughly, these approaches argue over whether rationality, truth, and ethics are culturally and historically universal (Modernism), incommensurable (Postmodernism) or dialogical (Hermeneutics). This course explores these approaches with an emphasis on how they apply in the context of one culture trying to understand another. Requirements include regular class participation that shows familiarity with the readings and many brief essays. Bryan Van Norden.

Prerequisite(s): at least one course in Philosophy, Chinese-Japanese, or Religious Studies at the 200-level, or permission of the instructor.

One 2-hour period.

399a or b. Senior Independent Work 0.5 to 1

The department.