Philosophy

Professor Bernhard Nickel, Head Tutor

Dr. Cheryl Chen, Associate Head Tutor

Philosophy studies many of humanity’s fundamental questions. Some of these questions arise when we reflect on the most basic and most widely shared elements of human experience:

  • what kind of life should we live?
  • what kind of society should we want?
  • what makes one system of belief better than another? Its being more rational?
  • what are the limits of human knowledge?  

Whether in the street, court, classroom, or lab, we often assume implicit answers to these questions. Some of those answers, and even the questions themselves, are the product of a centuries-old philosophical tradition that has shaped and reshaped our society and culture. Philosophy seeks to reflect on these questions and answers in a systematic, explicit, and rigorous way—by studying the tradition, relying on careful argumentation, and drawing from outside fields as diverse as economics, literature, religion, law, mathematics, the physical sciences, and psychology. Those fields raise philosophical questions of their own:

  • does neuroscience show us that we lack free will?
  • how should we interpret quantum mechanics?
  • what is the source of political rights? what are the limits and obligations of the state?
  • when and why is punishment justified? how should a constitution be interpreted?
  • what is beauty? are there “objective” standards for works of art?

Philosophical questions are everywhere. If you find yourself drawn to them, studying philosophy in college is likely the best opportunity in your life to address them.

Whether they take just a course or two or end up concentrating, students find studying philosophy to be among the most rewarding intellectual experiences of their college careers. The department offers a rich array of classes to choose from, and students develop their own responses to the philosophical problems that attract them in conjunction with their study of philosophical writing. The department’s introductory courses help students to develop their reading, writing, and reasoning skills while acquainting them with broad surveys of major areas and historical periods. The department’s more advanced courses focus on more specific topics and allow students to explore their interests in the context of the broad foundation they acquired in the introductory courses.

Harvard philosophy concentrators have gone on to pursue diverse and fulfilling careers in law, finance and consulting, business, internet start-ups, medicine, journalism, the arts, non-profit work, education, and academia. The skills that philosophy teaches students will always be in high demand: the ability to think and write clearly, the ability to bring to light unnoticed presuppositions, to explain complex ideas clearly, to tease out connections and implications, to see things in a broader context, to challenge orthodoxy.  In short, philosophy gives you skills that you can apply to any line of work.

OPTIONS

  • Philosophy
  • Mind, Brain, and Behavior Track
  • Joint Concentrations with Philosophy

REQUIREMENTS
Basic Requirements: 12 courses (48 credits)

  1. Required courses:
    1. One course in each of the following four areas, taken by the end of the first term of senior year and passed with a grade of C– or better:
        1. Logic.
        2. Contemporary metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language.
        3. Ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics.
        4. History of ancient, medieval, or modern pre-20th-century philosophy.
    2. Tutorials: Two courses. See item 2 below. 
    3. Six additional courses in philosophy, up to three of which may be in approved related subjects. Related courses are approved individually by the Head Tutor, in many cases depending on the interests and overall program of the student. They count for concentration credit only if they are needed to reach the minimum number of concentration courses required.
  2. Tutorials:
    1. Tutorial I: Philosophy 97, group tutorials at the introductory level on different philosophical topics, required. Letter-graded. A one-semester course typically taken in the spring of the sophomore year.
    2. Tutorial II: Philosophy 98, group tutorials at the advanced level on different philosophical topics, required. Letter-graded. A one-semester course typically taken fall or spring of the junior year.
  3. Thesis: None.
  4. General Examination: None.
  5. Other information:
    1. Philosophy courses may include courses listed under Philosophy in the course search in courses.my.harvard.edu.
    2. Pass/Fail: All courses counted for the concentration must be letter-graded.
    3. No more than four courses numbered lower than 91 may be counted for the concentration.

Requirements for Honors Eligibility: 13 courses (52 credits)

  1. Required courses:
    1. One course in each of the following five areas, taken by the end of the first term of senior year and passed with a grade of C– or better:
        1. Logic.
        2. Contemporary metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language.
        3. Ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics.
        4. History of ancient or medieval philosophy.
        5. History of modern pre-20th-century philosophy.
    2. Tutorials: Four courses. See item 2 below.
    3. Four additional courses in philosophy, up to two of which may be in approved related subjects. Related courses are approved individually by the Head Tutor, in many cases depending on the interests and overall program of the student. They count for concentration credit only if they are needed to reach the minimum number of concentration courses required.
  2. Tutorials:
    1. Same as Basic Requirements.
    2. Same as Basic Requirements.
    3. Senior Tutorial: Philosophy 99, individual supervision of senior thesis. Permission of the Head Tutor is required for enrollment. Letter-graded. Honors candidates ordinarily enroll in both fall and spring terms. Enrolled students who fail to submit a thesis when due must, to receive a grade above E for the course, submit a substantial paper no later than the beginning of the spring term Reading Period.
  3. Thesis: Required of all senior honors candidates. Due at the Tutorial Office on the Friday after spring recess. No more than 20,000 words (approximately 65 pages). Oral examination on the thesis, by two readers, during the first week of spring Reading Period.
  4. General Examination: None.
  5. Other information: Same as Basic Requirements.

Mind, Brain, and Behavior Track
15 courses (60 credits)

Students interested in studying philosophical questions that arise in connection with the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior may pursue a program of study affiliated with the University-wide Mind/Brain/Behavior (MBB) Initiative, which allows them to participate in a variety of related activities. MBB track programs must be approved on an individual basis by the Philosophy MBB adviser. Further information can be obtained from the Undergraduate Coordinator.

  1. Required courses:
    1. Three basic MBB courses:
        1. Science of Living Systems 20.
        2. Molecular and Cellular Biology 80.
        3. Junior year seminar in Mind, Brain, and Behavior.
    2. Philosophy 156.
    3. One course in logic.
    4. Three further courses in contemporary metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, or philosophy of language.
    5. Two courses covering two of the following three areas: history of ancient philosophy, history of modern philosophy, ethics.
    6. Two further MBB-listed courses from outside the Philosophy department, to be selected in consultation with the MBB adviser.
  2. Tutorials:
    1. Tutorial I: Same as Basic Requirements.
    2. Senior Tutorial: Same as Requirements for Honors Eligibility.
  3. General Examination: None.
  4. Other information: Same as Basic Requirements.

Joint Concentrations: Philosophy as Primary Concentration
8 courses in Philosophy (36 credits)

  1. Required courses:
    1. One course in four of the five areas (see item 1a of Requirements for Honors Eligibility).
    2. Four additional courses in philosophy; tutorials count toward this requirement.
    3. At least four courses in the other field. Many departments require more; consult the Head Tutor of other field.
  2. Tutorial: Tutorial I, Philosophy 97 (usually taken in the sophomore year). Normally a tutorial is also required in the other field.
  3. Thesis: Required as for honors eligibility in Philosophy, but must relate to both fields. Oral examination by two readers, one from each department.
  4. General Examination: None required in Philosophy.
  5. Other information: See Basic Requirements. Joint concentrations: with Classics, Government, History, Mathematics, Religion, and occasionally others by special arrangement.

Another Field as Primary Concentration
6 courses in Philosophy (24 credits)

  1. Required courses:
    1. One course in three of the five areas (see item 1a of Requirements for Honors Eligibility). The introductory course (item 1a) also counts toward this requirement.
    2. Three additional courses in philosophy; tutorial counts toward this requirement.
  2. Tutorial: Tutorial I, (Philosophy 97), usually taken in the junior year.
  3. Thesis: Required. Must relate to both fields. Directed in the primary field; one reader from Philosophy.
  4. General Examination: None required in Philosophy.
  5. Other information: See Basic Requirements. Primary fields: Classics, Government, History, Mathematics, Religion, and occasionally others by special arrangement.

ADVISING

Advising is done by the Head Tutor, Professor Bernhard Nickel, the Associate Head Tutor Dr. Cheryl Chen, and the Assistant Head Tutor. Their office hours are posted on the philosophy department’s website.

For up-to-date information on advising in Philosophy, please see the Advising Programs Office website.

RESOURCES

The Department of Philosophy is housed in Emerson Hall, which contains the department and tutorial offices, the offices of faculty members and teaching fellows, and the Robbins Library of Philosophy.

HOW TO FIND OUT MORE

Further information may be obtained from Ms. Emily Ware Undergraduate Coordinator, in the tutorial office, Room 303 Emerson Hall (617-495-2153); eware@fas.harvard.edu.

ENROLLMENT STATISTICS
Number of Concentrators as of December

Concentrators 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Philosophy 48 61 53 58 45 41 45 52 51
Philosophy + another field 1 4 7 7 7 5 4 6 11
Another field + Philosophy 8 9 9 6 9 9 10 15 17