Philosophy is self-reflective inquiry into the fundamental questions that we confront when making sense of our lives. In a broad sense, philosophy studies core features of the human condition, such as morality, knowledge, nature, society, happiness, justice, beauty, selfhood, and friendship. Philosophers search for knowledge that preserves and transforms human self-understanding. Philosophy is a rational, systematic, and self-critical inquiry committed to grounding its own claim to knowledge. Contemporary philosophy examines the principles that guide our thought and action, our pursuit of knowledge, and our desire to live well. Because philosophy adopts a self-critical orientation towards itself, philosophers can disagree about what genuinely counts as ‘philosophy’ and what exactly makes it different from other disciplines. Such disagreements are vital to the type of radical questioning that characterizes philosophy.
Philosophy challenges students to (1) reflect upon taken for granted patterns of thought, action, speech, and perception; (2) identify how practices, institutions, and perceptions are shaped by prior philosophical traditions; (3) critically examine and assess the fundamental assumptions that inform social practices and institutions; and (4) do all of this through open and critical communication that is committed to mutual understanding and respect for differences. In philosophy students learn the basic skills of identifying and analyzing arguments. The department actively fosters an environment committed to the vigorous, respectful exchange of ideas in order to protect both commonalities and differences. Philosophy also cultivates ethical responsibility by balancing the articulation, justification, and application of normative principles with the deepening of moral imagination and sensibility.
The department offers eight “History and Traditions” courses that represent important periods and traditions of Western philosophy:
These historical courses reconstruct the debates, issues, concerns, questions, and concepts that define a historical period. They also offer linkages among historical periods, allowing students to appreciate the larger, “paradigmatic” shifts in philosophy. Students gain an awareness of how canonical philosophers characteristically address their own historical precedents and shape their views in response to predecessors. Students engage in close textual interpretation and careful evaluation of original texts. Instructors connect traditional schools of thought to contemporary movements and illustrations in order to underscore the historical effects of prior philosophies. Students learn to write detailed, textually supported essays that are both expository and persuasive. Students learn to write in a way that balances interpretive charity with critical acuity. The department seeks to cultivate a student’s ability to reconstruct the historical debates among canonical philosophers so that they can then critically evaluate how those debates link up with contemporary concerns. Many of the Department’s history courses have interdisciplinary units of instruction that connect historical debates to either contemporary research within the natural and social sciences or to interpretive approaches in the Humanities.
The department also offers courses in the classic subfields of philosophy: logic, ethics, metaphysics, and aesthetics. These courses explicate the fundamental conceptual tools we need to systematically address particular types of contemporary issues:
In these courses students identify, reflect on, and use the key concepts, theories, and viewpoints that allow us to address ethical, epistemological, logical, metaphysical, and aesthetic issues. Subfield courses cultivate a student’s ability to systematically, self-consciously, and flexibly manage a repertoire of conceptual tools to discern, analyze, and deliberate about contemporary problems. By gaining a sensitivity for different ways of perceiving and thinking about a single issue, students develop an appreciation for the complexity of problem solving.
The department also offers specialized subfield courses under the following three categories:
In these courses, emphasis is placed upon problem solving in contemporary circumstances. The applied ethics courses introduce students to the systematic analysis of contemporary problems encountered in jurisprudence, political legitimation, healthcare practices, and environmental stewardship. Students learn to unravel the factual, conceptual, and normative threads interwoven in current crises. They also develop the ability to adopt different theoretical perspectives towards a single, multifaceted problem. The applied epistemology courses examine fundamental questions concerning the logic and practices of the natural and social sciences. The philosophical linguistics courses analyze language competencies (semantics and pragmatics) and literary discourse (narratology).
The philosophy program is committed to five overarching outcomes for students in our classes and in our major:
Philosophy is a sound choice for those seeking a broad liberal arts education and for those who value the skills and outlook of our discipline. The major program prepares students for graduate studies in disciplines such as philosophy, law, social policy, and political theory. Students preparing for graduate studies in philosophy are strongly advised to follow a more structured majors program with additional course recommendations.
The Philosophy Department’s transfer policies are as follows. All transfer courses in Philosophy must be approved by the Philosophy faculty. Faculty will review a course catalog description and syllabus for the course (to be provided by the student). If the course is taken during a student’s enrollment at Kalamazoo College (for instance, on study abroad or during the summer), then the approval must be obtained before the course is taken. The Department will only consider courses taught by instructors with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, or who are “ABD” (all but dissertation) in Philosophy.
Minimum of 8 total units are required, which may include the SIP.
Minimum of 10 total units are recommended, which may include the SIP.
Six units are required.
Ethics is a sub-field of philosophy with lofty goals. Among its objects of study, it investigates what is valuable, what people have practical reason to do, and what is right and wrong. This course is only an introduction to part of this rich subfield: normative ethics. At the end we may have time for a small taste of applied ethics. We start by engaging with standard attempts to question ethics (amoral-ism, relativism, egoism, etc). We then survey the main ethical frameworks: virtue ethics, utilitarianism and deontology. We will read a variety of classical texts in these traditions as well as some more contemporary authors. The course is designed to demonstrate why ethics matters, to expose students to a variety of ethical frameworks, and to equip them with the conceptual resources to think critically about each framework.
Logic and Reasoning
An introduction to methods for evaluating the validity and strength of reasoning. The course will investigate (1) the theory and practice of constructing and analyzing arguments as they occur in ordinary, informal contexts (reasoning), and (2) the concepts and techniques of elementary formal logic: the art of symbolizing English-language statements and arguments in terms of formalized languages, and then applying logical principles to them. Topics explored include informal fallacies, critical thinking, evaluating evidence, deciding between hypotheses, propositional logic, natural deduction, and predicate logic. Recommended for computer science, psychology, and pre-law students.
This course investigates the question of our understanding of, and ethical responsibility to, animals, plants, microorganisms, ecosystems, and "nature" as a whole. The first part of the course critically assesses whether traditional ethical theories adequately capture our ethical responsibilities to the environment. The second part surveys traditional conceptualizations of nature, reason, body, and space, which ecologists severely criticize as detrimental to developing an ecological ethic. Special emphasis will be placed upon developing a philosophical conception of life (bios) that is appropriate for both evolutionary biology and the development of a normative theory of environmental care. Contemporary positions such as anthropocentrism, deep ecology, radical ecology, ecofeminism, and social environmentalism will be studied. Recommended for environmental studies and biology students.
Existentialism examines the writings of thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, de Beauvoir, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. These philosophers critique traditional teleological conceptions of human subjectivity as defined by a constitutive goal, end, or purpose: e.g., rationality, happiness, ethical life, contemplation, etc. Against this teleological view of human life rooted in our Greco-Hellenic tradition, existentialists emphasize another strand of Western civilization: namely, our "Judeo-Christian" inheritance. Accordingly, they emphasize the role of choice, decision, or "volition" in human life as playing a crucial role in self-actualization. For the existentialists, the drama of human life is less a matter of conforming to rational truths than creatively attuning oneself in the passionate exercise of volition. Accordingly, they view desire, emotion, choice, chance, and creativity in a decidedly more favorable light than traditional teleological philosophers. We will examine their associated critiques of modernity and its various practices, mentalities, and institutions - all of which arose in the wake of the various revolutions of the Enlightenment. Special emphasis will be placed upon how existentialist doctrines contributed to contemporary gender theories, in particular on issues of embodiment, identity, and desire.
Knowledge & Reality: An Introduction
How much do you really know? Do you know that you are not dreaming right now? Do you know that an intelligent evil spirit is not deceiving you right now? Do you know that your senses are not deceiving you right now? Do you know that a world separate from you even exists? How about God; do you know that God exists? Do you even know that you exist? And even if you do, can you make "free" choices? Can you freely decide to take this class, or it already predetermined? Readings will include classics from such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Rene Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, as well as more contemporary works from such philosophers as Bertrand Russell, W. V. O. Quine, Susan Wolf, John Searle, and Jennifer Lackey.
A study of ancient views on nature, knowledge, soul, the self, morality, and the good life. This is a history of philosophy course rather than a history course; we will be studying the ideas, arguments, and theories put forth by ancient philosophers, rather than biographical, cultural, anthropological, or historical issues about them or their time period. We will largely be trying to understand what these thinkers were trying to say, and why they thought what they did. In addition, we will be discussing the merits of the various positions and reasons offered. Readings will focus on selections from Plato and Aristotle, but will also include readings from the pre-Socratic and Hellenistic philosophers, all major sources of the Western philosophical tradition. Recommended for classics students. (This is a designated Greek literature or culture course in Classics.)
Early Modern Philosophy
Historical study of the "Early Modern" period in Western philosophy (17th and 18th century). The course will explore the profoundly influential development of rationalist and empiricist approaches to philosophical thinking; topics may include the connection between mind and body, skepticism and the possibility of knowledge, the existence of God, knowledge of the external world, the nature of minds and their ideas, and the proper method of philosophical method. Readings from Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, Locke, Hume, and others. Recommended for computer science and psychology students. Sophomore standing recommended.
This course examines how 19th-century European philosophers inherit and develop Kant's radical claims that (1) human agents are radically free, (2) knowledge is constructed, and (3) hope in moral progress is rational. We will examine how Fichte, Schiller, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche work out how humans can genuinely be "free," "autonomous," or "self-determining" while remaining "natural" animals and socially-situated subjects. Films such as Memento, American Beauty, Waterland, Babette's Feast, The Hairdresser's Husband, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape are shown. This is a lecture and discussion course with three paper assignments. First-year students with strong writing skills welcome. Recommended for psychology, English, and political science students.
Philosophy of Science
A philosophical examination of scientific methods and reasoning. Topics may include the analysis of explanation, the nature of scientific truth, instrumentalist and realist interpretations of science, confirmation and falsification, observational and theoretical terms, inter-theoretic reduction, the relation among various sciences, scientific revolutions, and the possibility of scientific progress. Recommended for science majors. Sophomore standing required.
Classical & Contemporary Social Contract Theory
The social contract tradition is a foundational pillar of modern political philosophy. Authors in this tradition hold that life without any government (the hypothetical "state of nature") would be so problematic that it motivates people to set up a kind of "contract" with one another that institutes a system of government. This account of the move from the state of nature to government supposedly explains why we have an obligation to obey existing governments. According to this tradition, government and laws of some kind are prerequisites to any minimally just society. This is how the tradition differs from philosophical anarchism. Although the social contract tradition is an overarching framework authors within it have very different views on topics such as just and unjust systems of government, consent to governance, the sources and limits of political obligation, property rights, and the supposed "right to revolt". We will study this tradition by reading excerpts from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. We end the course by reading a few contemporary authors who critique the social contract tradition based on what it neglected to account for in terms of gender and race, and how this impacts the notion of consent to governance.
Philosophy of Law
Historical examination of the two opposing paradigms in the study of legal systems: namely, factual ("positivist") and normative ("natural law") models of law. Selected topics may include (1) the relation between law and morality, (2) the nature of legitimation and authority; (3) the nature of juridical interpretation and legal reasoning; (4) the role of the legal system within ethical traditions, market forces, and political institutions; and (5) the Critical Legal Studies challenge to liberal jurisprudence. Readings from Aquinas, Austin, Holmes, Hart, Fuller, Coleman, Murphy, Dworkin, Scalia, Unger, Raz, and others. Seminar format with an emphasis upon discussion and structured debate. Suggested for pre-law and political science students.
Philosophy of Social Science
Introduction to classical and contemporary issues in the logic of the social sciences. Topics include (1) the distinction between the natural and social sciences; (2) historicist and relativist challenges to the objectivity and value neutrality of social inquiry; (3) causal, interpretive, rational, and critical models of practically oriented social research; and (4) behaviorist, structuralist, individualist, reductionist, and holist methods of inquiry. Recent debates about ethnocentrism, gender biases, and epistemological constructivism will be reviewed. We will examine a cluster of important conceptual issues regarding life-narrative psychology as a special case study of social scientific research. Suggested for psychology, sociology/anthropology, and history students.
Philosophy of Art
This course introduces students to a variety of traditional and contemporary philosophical theories of art: namely, Platonic, Aristotelian, rationalist, empiricist, idealist, Marxist, phenomenological, hermeneutic, existentialist, feminist, psychoanalytic, semiotic, deconstructivist, and more contemporary "postmodernist" aesthetic theories. Such theoretical positions inform, but are also tested by, critical and interpretive articles about particular artworks: for example, painting, sculpture, film, architecture, and handcraft. We will focus our attention upon the visual arts -- as opposed to literary, musical, theatrical and the dance media. Students will gain an appreciation of the difficulties philosophers have encountered in framing a theory of "aesthetic perception" and, more importantly, of the remarkable variety of visual art forms.
Human Rights & International Law
People often invoke human rights and international law in the course of debate. However, these are highly contested concepts. This course introduces some theoretical clarity with respect to their conceptual grounding, history, and contemporary practice. Our primary focus will be on different philosophical theories of human rights, with secondary attention to international human rights law. We start with an orientation on human rights practice and try to move past some of the so-called "challenges" to human rights. This is followed by a look at the main contemporary approaches for conceptualizing human rights: the basic human-interest approach, the capabilities approach, and the newer "political" approach (among others). We will spend a few weeks on various debates within the human rights literature as well: Whether there is such a thing as "group rights", whether and how there is a distinction between civil and political human rights versus social and economic human rights, when human rights violations might trigger external intervention, etc.
Analytic Philosophy & Science
Historical introduction to analytic philosophers who studied the foundations of logic, mathematics, science, and linguistics as a critique of traditional philosophy. Recommended for students of the natural sciences, mathematics, cognitive science, and neuroscience interested in the analysis of scientific change and revolution. We examine (1) Frege and Russell's development of formal logic and the foundations of mathematics, (2) Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle, and logical positivism, (3) ordinary language philosophy, (4) Quine's and Putnam's destruction of logical positivism and the "analytic" conception of language, and (5) formal developments such as Goedel's incompleteness theorem, Tarski's truth schema, Chomsky's generative grammar, modal logic, and direct-reference theories of meaning.
Special Topics offerings focus upon topics not addressed in the department's regular offerings. The course can be repeated with a different topic. Check the course schedule to see when Special Topics courses are being offered.
Special Topic: Philosophy of Religion
An examination of the most important philosophical questions regarding religion, including questions such as the following: can the existence of God be proven or disproven? Is religious faith rational? Does morality require a divine moral lawgiver? Should we hope for a life after death? What is the appropriate response to religious diversity? We will ask and attempt to answer such questions by examining our own beliefs and the beliefs of others as well as by looking to the examples provided by the major world religions and the various personal, social, and political values and goals expressed by these traditions.
This course focuses on a variety of ethical issues brought about by modern medical technology and practice. We start by surveying the normative frameworks used by contemporary medical ethicists, paying particular emphasis to the main principles of medical ethics and the special nature of the relationship between doctors and patients. We then apply the principles of medical ethics and our insights about the doctor-patient relationship to controversial contemporary issues such as abortion, physician assisted death/suicide, euthanasia, the limits of doctor-patient confidentiality, the determination of organ transplant recipients, the determination of patient competence, and surrogacy contracts (among other issues). The class will often use short narrative case studies and longer court cases in order to highlight the complex nature of these issues. The course aims to emphasize that these issues are controversial precisely because very good arguments can often be made on either side, and to give students the analytical and evaluative frameworks to make judgments on their own. Readings will include contemporary philosophical articles, court decisions, statements by medical and governmental organizations, and textbook material on ethical theories and tools. Suggested for health sciences students and recommended for science students. No prerequisites, but junior- or senior-level reading and writing skills are recommended.
Philosophy of Language
Study of 20th-century philosophy of language. Introduction to traditional semantics (e.g. reference, truth, and meaning) will be followed by a detailed examination of speech-act theory or pragmatics. The course will focus on the complexity of speech acts and the various dimensions of understanding involved in successful communication. Using speech act theory, students are asked to analyze cinematographic artworks such as Twelfth Night, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Oleanna, etc. to examine how language and social power work together. Topics include theories of speaker meaning and reference, indexicals, direct and indirect speech acts, conversational implication, presupposition, anaphora, non-literal language use, translation, rule-following, and the relation between language and thought. Readings from Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, Austin, Dummett, Putnam, Searle, Davidson, Habermas, and Recanati. Lecture and discussion format with three essay assignments. Recommended for foreign language, theatre arts, and English students.
Metaphysics and Mind
Examination of topics in metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and their intersection. Metaphysics is concerned with the structure of reality; philosophy of mind is the branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of minds. The topics studied could include the "mind/body problem," consciousness, personal identity, and free will versus determinism. Is the mind a nonphysical soul-like entity, or is the mind the brain, or is it the software that runs on the brain's hardware, or is it something else? Can the qualitative part of our experience -- the part involving what it feels like to be in various states -- be captured in purely physical terms, or is it inescapably nonphysical? What makes you the same person over time? Does modern scientific knowledge entail that none of our actions are really free? What is it for an action to be free, anyway? The readings for this course will consist mostly of primary scholarly articles by contemporary philosophers. Suggested for psychology students. Some background in philosophy recommended.
Critical Social Theory: the Dialectic of Enlightenment
Introduction to the Frankfurt School of Social Criticism and its legacy as "Critical Social Theory." We begin by examining the "first generation" of the Frankfurt School, from its founding in the 1920s and '30s by Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, Fromm, and Marcuse to Habermas's early writings in the '60s & '70s. We then examine the "second-generation" of critical theory as embodied in Jürgen Habermas's "Theory of Communicative Action" and his distinctive ideal of "undistorted communication" as the measure of social rationality. Finally, we explore Axel Honneth's alternative, "third generation" of critical theory, which involves a Neo-Hegelian model of social development and an ideal of both "undamaged identities" and the "struggle for mutual recognition" as the critical measures of social pathologies. Throughout the course we will refer to examples of green, feminist, queer, race-based, & post-colonial social movements to assess the relative strengths of these competing diagnostic models of social crisis. Suggested for political science, anthropology/sociology, economics, and environmental studies students. Recommended for students with some background in philosophy, in particular students who have taken 19th-Century Philosophy. We recommend 19th-Century Philosophy as a prerequisite.
Postmodern Critical Theory: The Critique of Modernity
Introduction to contemporary French philosophy, with special emphasis on the themes of language, desire, embodiment, and sexual difference. We examine the early debate between Merleau-Ponty and Lacan on the acquisition of language, formation of desire, and development of body images. We then turn to two key post-structuralists: Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. We focus upon Foucault's transition from his "archaeology of knowledge" to his mature "genealogy of desire," contrasting his account of embodiment and social power to Pierre Bourdieu's. After reviewing Derrida's deconstructionist analysis of language, we turn to one of the following figures: Kristeva, Deleuze, Irigary, Butler, or Zizek. Films are shown throughout the course on Wednesday evenings. Media Studies concentrators are encouraged to write final essays linking philosophy and cinematography. Suggested for media studies, psychology, English, French, and political science students. Some background in philosophy recommended.
Philosophy Junior Seminar
Two-term collaborative Workshop for Juniors to develop their independent research and thesis composition and presentation skills.
Must be a junior Philosophy major or minor, or with instructor permission.
Intensive study of contemporary research on a major philosophical issue. The seminar is devoted to the critical reading of significant contemporary publications and a subsequent examination of the philosophical debates they have spawned. Advanced seminar-style discussion-centered course, with participants writing and presenting scholarly papers for the group. The seminar may meet over the course of either one or two quarters.
Senior Philosophy Majors only
Senior Integrated Project
Each program or department sets its own requirements for Senior Integrated Projects done in that department, including the range of acceptable projects, the required background of students doing projects, the format of the SIP, and the expected scope and depth of projects. See the Kalamazoo Curriculum -> Senior Integrated Project section of the Academic Catalog for more details.
Permission of department and SIP supervisor required.