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Graduate Seminars

For an official and real-time list of courses, please see Enrollment Services Course Search feature.

Below, you may find examples of seminars taught in the Department.

 Fall 2020Spring 2020 | Fall 2019Spring 2019 | Fall 2018 | Previous

Fall 2020

Maimonides and Friends

Lenn Goodman | 9010 (H2) | M 3:10

This seminar focuses on Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed and on the Muslim authors Maimonides read in seeking to reconcile scriptural ideas with philosophical thinking as represented by the work of his Muslim predecessors – al-Fārābī, the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-Safā’), Avicenna, al-Ghazālī, Ibn Bājjah, and Ibn Tufayl. We’ll be reading selections from these authors alongside the Guide in the new translation/commentary prepared by Professors Goodman and Phillip Lieberman. Problems to be considered represent ethical and political philosophy; negative theology; the problem of evil; cosmology and philosophy of science (e.g. operationalism vs realism); civil, criminal and ritual law; mystical experience, revelation, poetics and exegesis

Wittgenstein

Michael Hodges | 9010 (H5) | T 3:10

A careful reading of the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations . The aim will be to understand both works for themselves but also to try to understand the transition between the two and how that turn informed what it is to do philosophy in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. As time permits we will also read either On Certainty or Culture and Value . The students will choose.

Philosophical Anthropology

Karen Ng | 9010 (H6) | W 3:10

This course is an intensive introduction to philosophical anthropology, focusing on German thinkers from the eighteenth-century to the present. Although we will consider a number of different approaches to the topic, a definition that helpfully sums up the distinctively philosophical approach to a study of the human life-form is the following: it is an “inquiry into the unchanging preconditions of human changeableness.” Figures to be discussed may include Herder, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Dilthey, Scheler, Plessner, Gehlen, DuBois, Merleau-Ponty, Robinson, and Honneth. We will also take up contemporary debates concerning philosophical concepts of human nature. The aim of the course is to provide students with an overview of a neglected but important philosophical subdiscipline.

Racial Justice Lab: Toward the Third Reconstruction

Paul Taylor | *MZ 3665/5665 (T4) | Th 3:10

*This is a mezzanine course, with combined graduate and undergraduate enrollment. The two student populations will enroll under separate course numbers (3xxx or 5xxx) and will have different (but substantially overlapping) syllabi (with, as a result, different but also overlapping requirements). This course will count toward the 47-credit coursework requirement, and students may petition to have it count toward the 36-credit “regularly scheduled seminar” requirement.

Racial injustice is one of the more pressing challenges of our time. It complicates and partly constitutes other great challenges, like climate change and wealth inequality. In addition, it confounds and undermines the sense of achievement that attaches to ideas like modernity and American democracy. The Racial Justice Lab course invites a sustained and active engagement with the practical and the philosophical dimensions of this challenge.

The Racial Justice Lab course explores the challenges of acting rightly and responsibly in relation to real-world problems of racial injustice. It is a lab course in the sense that it is collaborative, creative, experimental, and problem-centered: after some initial theoretical framing, students will work in teams, on projects of their own design, to address some social problem related to racial injustice. Examples of acceptable student work include films, white papers, draft ordinances, direct actions, and opinion pieces. (Graduate students will, in addition, have to produce a short paper reflecting on their scholarly vocation in light of these real-world challenges. What does it mean to study philosophy, and to practice philosophy professionally, in a world that seems to demand more direct modes of engagement?)

The focus of the lab course will vary with each offering. The fall 2020 course will invite students to engage with the conditions that contributed to, resulted from, and (for some) were laid bare by the murder of George Floyd and the upheavals that followed. Analysts like Manning Marable say that the Reconstruction era (1867-1877) and the heyday of the US black freedom movement (1955-1965) marked the first and second attempts at reconstructing a US society built on white supremacy, racist violence, and racial oppression. This course in essence asks student to consider, in concrete but philosophically-informed terms, what it would take to start toward a third reconstruction.

Spring 2020

Adorno

Idit Dobbs-Weinstein | 9010 (H5) | Th 6:10-8:30

Pragmatism and Value

Diana Heney | 9010 (H6) | W 3:30   

This seminar will consider value and valuation in the tradition of American pragmatism from roughly 1860-1960. While we will be interested in value and valuation in general, we will more specifically investigate the elements of ethics present in pragmatist writings. This will include competing accounts of the summum bonum of human life and competing guiding normative notions. Along the way we will ask what, if anything, makes the family of pragmatist approaches to ethics during this time frame distinctive. In order to achieve that breadth of perspective, we will read widely, engaging with texts from some or all of the following thinkers: Charles Peirce, William James, Jane Addams, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Dewey, Ella Lyman Cabot, George Santayana, Josiah Royce, George Herbert Mead, Alain Locke, and Clarence Irving Lewis. Evaluation: seminar participation, weekly reading notes, final paper (in phases).

Kant’s Ethics

Julian Wuerth | 9010 (H3) | W 6:10-8:30   

In his 1788 Critique of Practical Reason, Kant observes that “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”  But what is this moral law, how do we know it, and what role, if any, is played by feelings, such as those of wonder, in coming to know the moral law or in the undertaking of living in accordance with it?  To answer these questions, this course begins with a brief overview of some vital but neglected context for Kant’s mature ethics: the context of his underlying account of the self, including his account of feelings and desires; and the context of the development of Kant’s view on ethics in the decades leading to his 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals – from a pre-critical allegiance to moral sense theory, to a rejection of this in 1769, partly on the basis of the wonder we feel at the moral law. The course then turns to Kant’s landmark 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Here we examine Kant’s arguments for the categorical imperative and the fascinating manner in which the steps of these arguments recapitulate the stages of Kant’s own development.  Constructivist readings of Kant’s ethics, as presented by John Rawls, Onora O’Neill, and Christine Korsgaard, are then evaluated.  We next focus on Kant’s more detailed account of our various moral obligations as presented in his 1797 Metaphysics of Morals, paying close attention to the important role in this account of feelings, desires, and character.

Epistemology of Disagreement

Scott Aikin | 9020 (T3) | T 3:10-5:30    

Disagreement is a common feature of our social and cognitive lives.  This seminar will be devoted to the epistemic significance of this phenomenon.  We will proceed in three stages.  First, we will assemble the necessary philosophical tools for competent work in this social dimension of epistemology, so an overview of notions of justification, defeat, knowledge, and argument will be in order.  Second, we will address the focused question of the significance of peer disagreement – disagreement between two subjects who are roughly in equally good epistemic position with regard to the issue.  Third, we will address the question of the significance of what is called deep disagreement – disagreement between two subjects with no shared epistemic resources for resolution.  Meta-philosophical questions will also be asked (since there’s plenty of disagreement in philosophy!).  Two short (2-3K) papers, two brief quizzes.

Moral Psychology

Matthew Congdon | 9020 (T2) | M 3:30  

This is an intensive introduction to moral psychology from the mid-twentieth century to the present, engaging with philosophers from Aristotelian, Humean, Kantian, Hegelian, and other traditions. Moral psychology is rooted in the ancient Greek idea that an understanding of the human soul (psyche) is a prerequisite for the study of ethics. The aim of moral psychology is to clarify fundamental ethical concepts by exploring how psychological elements like desire, emotion, habit, and reason interact to produce action. Topics will include the internal/external reasons debate; intention; the role of pain, desire, and other bodily experiences in ethical life; moral perception; reactive attitudes, emotions, and practices of blame; freedom and normative constraint; and akrasia. Towards the latter half of the course we wll expand our discussion to consider some moral psychological dimensions of ideology, oppression, and social movements. We will read a combination of classic texts in twentiweth century ethics (for example, by Anscombe, Williams, Strawson, Murdoch, and Foot), more recent work in moral psychology (Manne, Fricker, McDowell, Korsgaard, Moody-Adams), as well as work in critical social philosophy that intersects with moral psychological issues (Shelby, Haslinger, Gooding-Williams, Mills). Our aim is to develop a sophisticated understanding of this branch of ethics through an appreciation of the connections between diverse perspectives.

Fall 2019

Bioethics

John Lachs | 9020 (T2) | M 3:10-5:30

German Idealism

Karen Ng | 9010 (H4) | M 6:10-8:30

This course explores the philosophical movement known as German idealism. We will consider German idealism from several interconnected perspectives: as a post-Kantian philosophy that sought to resolve and respond to problems that arose in the wake of Kant’s critical project, and in particular, Kant’s  Critique of the Power of Judgment ; as an attempt to construct philosophy as a comprehensive system of science ( Wissenschaft ); as an attempt to reconcile freedom and nature in a philosophy of the “absolute”; and finally, as an attempt to both describe and vindicate the distinctive features of modern, self-conscious subjectivity. We will focus on key texts by Kant, Fichte, Hölderlin, Schelling, and Hegel, with a particular emphasis in the second half of the course on Hegel’s  Science of Logic . Together, these thinkers comprise one of the richest and most productive periods of Western philosophy, representing a modernist philosophical enterprise that is arguably unrivaled in both ambition and scope.

Gaslighting

Kelly Oliver | 9020 (T5) | T 3:10-5:30

The term “Gaslighting” originated with Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play  Gaslight  (known in the United States as  Angel Street ). It was made into a British film in 1940, and the more famous 1944 American film (directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Charles Boyer). Decades later, the term  to gaslight  became a verb, meaning to intentionally manipulate someone to make them think they’re crazy. More recently, feminist philosophers, particularly those working in social epistemology, have analyzed gaslighting in relation to gender norms. Increasingly, gaslighting is being used to describe the ways in which oppressed and marginalized peoples are manipulated into not trusting their own feelings, beliefs, or what they know to be true from their own experience. Beginning with the play and films, we will work our way up to contemporary philosophical literature that analyzes gaslighting, with special attention to psycho-social gaslighting, racial gaslighting, epistemological gaslighting, political gaslighting, medical gaslighting, and affective gaslighting. 

Critiquing 'Philosophy'

Lucius T. Outlaw, Jr. | 9010 (H6) | W 3:10-5:30

Philosophy of Race

Paul C. Taylor | 9020 (T4) | W 6:10-8:30

This class will explore recent work by a few of the outstanding figures in philosophical race theory. The aim of this course will be to give participants an opportunity for deliberate, sustained study of some state-of-the art contributions to the field. 

Teaching & Research Methods

Paul C. Taylor | 8000 | T 11:00-1:00

 Spring 2019

Hellenistic Philosophy 

Scott Aikin | 9010 (H1) | M 3:10-5:30

This seminar will be a survey of the four main schools of thought in the Hellenistic period of Western Philosophy: Cynicism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism. Focus will be on the competing accounts of nature, ethics, and knowledge. Primary readings from: Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus, Lucretius, Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, Marcus Aurelius, Sextus Empiricus, and Cicero. Secondary readings from: Katerina Ierodiakonou, Kristen Kennedy, Martha Nussbaum, Katja Vogt, Julia Annas, Gail Fine, and Miriam Griffin. Two papers (3K words each).

Spinoza

Idit Dobbs-Weinstein | 9010 (H3) | W 6:10-8:30

Few thinkers have suffered the “abuse” of their successors as extensively as has Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza. Fewer still have been as misunderstood and misappropriated against their explicit intentions and injunctions. Accused of being both a dangerous atheist and a “god intoxicated” man, claimed as a predecessor by both Nietzsche, some contemporary reductive materialists, Marxists and Liberals, Spinoza's thought remains enigmatic. Rather than attempt to evaluate Spinoza primarily in the light of subsequent (mis)appropriations, the purpose of the course is a close study of his major works. The course is divided into two uneven parts. The first part will be devoted to Spinoza’s early writings where Cartesian philosophy is directly engaged and critiqued: Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, the preface and a few selected chapters of the commentary on Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy, including the Metaphysical Thoughts, as well as a number of selected letters. The Second, longer part will be devoted to The Ethics, selected letters and selected chapters from the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

Wittgenstein

Michael Hodges | 9010 (H5) | Th 3:10-5:30

A careful reading of the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations. The aim will be to understand both works for themselves but also to try to understand the transition between the two and how that turn informed what it is to do philosophy in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. As time permits we will also read either On Certainty or Culture and Value. The students will choose.

Feminist Epistemology

Hanna Gunn | 9020 (T3) | W 3:10-5:30

We will explore central issues in feminist epistemology concerning the often political and ethical aspects of knowledge. We will look at various positions in feminist epistemology concerning the relationship between gender and knowledge, including, e.g., feminist empiricism and standpoint theory. We will also look at contemporary debates in feminist epistemology that coincide with feminist philosophy of language, and in particular, issues of epistemic oppression, epistemic injustice, and epistemic violence. The goal is to develop and understanding of how feminist philosophy contributes to and modifies traditional theories of knowledge, and to understand the social or applied topics within (broadly) social philosophy from feminist philosophers. Given the nature of these applied debates, we will venture somewhat into other issues of identity such as race, class, and other socially significant interest groups (e.g., fat studies).

Social Equality

Robert Talisse | 9020 (T2) | T 3:10-5:30

Egalitarianism is the thesis that justice requires equality, or perhaps the elimination of inequality. One question instantly emerges: Why think that? Others follow: Equality of what? Among whom? Secured how? Towards what end? We will begin with some problems concerning equality’s value (is inequality wrong or merely bad?), and then move quickly to consider longstanding debates among responsibilist and relationist views of equality. From there, we will explore current issues within relational theories of social equality. Readings from (among others) E. Anderson, G. A. Cohen, R. Dworkin, R. Nath, M. Nussbaum, T. M. Scanlon, A. Sen, K. Tan, and J. Waldron. No prior work in political philosophy will be presumed, though familiarity with the classic texts will prove helpful. Students will write two short papers.

Fall 2018

Maimonides and Friends

Lenn Goodman | 9010 (H2) | Th 3:10-5:30

This seminar focuses on Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed and on the Muslim authors Maimonides read in seeking to reconcile scriptural ideas with philosophical thinking as represented by the work of his Muslim predecessors – al-Fārābī, the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-Safā’), Avicenna, al-Ghazālī, Ibn Bājjah, and Ibn Tufayl. We’ll be reading selections from these authors alongside the Guide in the new translation/commentary in preparation by Professors Goodman and Phillip Lieberman. Problems to be considered represent ethical and political philosophy; negative theology; the problem of evil; cosmology and philosophy of science; civil, criminal and ritual law; mystical experience, revelation, poetics and exegesis.

Critical Theory

Karen Ng | 9020 (T2) | T 6:10-8:30

An intensive introduction to the tradition known as Frankfurt school critical theory, engaging with thinkers associated with its first generation to the present. Rooted in the philosophies of Hegel and Marx, critical theory is a tradition of social philosophy that combines descriptive and normative aims, where social critique has the goal of transforming society to ameliorate the human condition. We will consider texts from the first generation (for example Lukács, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse), exploring the negative approach to critique and ideology; the second generation (Habermas), exploring the problem of securing normative foundations for critique; and the third generation (for example, Honneth and Fraser), discussing theories of recognition and the critique of capitalism.

Julia Kristeva's New Humanism

Kelly Oliver | 9010 (H6) | T 3:10-5:30

The scientific revolution may have displaced the authority of religion, but now the tables are turning with a virulent return to religion, in the forms of new-age and hybrid religions along with dangerous fundamentalisms. Julia Kristeva’s writings not only diagnose this crisis in meaning that results from the inability of science--human or natural--to fill the void left when the scientific revolution displaced the authority of religion, but also suggest ways to feed our hunger for meaning without suicide or murder. She proposes a rebirth through the imagination, through art, literature and psychoanalysis, as a counterweight to fundamentalism. Where others have seen an abyss, she has imagined meaning as an adventurous journey, though not without its dangers and pitfalls. Taking up the question of "Why do we speak?" in all of its ambiguities, her work illuminates alternative paths to pursue the relationship of meaning to language, of language to life, and ultimately of the meaning of life itself. Julia Kristeva’s hope that meaning can be fore-given through dynamic relations with others and passion for life is as important as her warning that the foreclosure of questioning leads to violence and war. If, as she says, “peace is in crisis…because we are lacking a discourse on life at the beginning of this third millennium,” then Julia Kristeva provides the beginnings of such a discourse. 

In this seminar, after covering some of the basics from her earlier work, we will read and discuss Kristeva’s latest writings, including her work on hatred, terrorism, disability, new humanism, and the possibility of peace in our troubling times. Now, there is the question of whether or not she was a communist spy.

Ellison: Literary Artist as Philosopher

Lucius T. Outlaw, Jr. | 9010 (H5) | M 3:10-5:30

Course concerns: First, to engage in close and critical reading of writings by Ralph Waldo Ellison in order to enhance appreciation of him as an intellectual and writer of short stories, novels, essays, and other pieces. This will be in preparation for pursuing a second concern: considering whether it is appropriate to regard Ellison as a philosopher. For example, Ellison regards the novel form as “a moral instrument possessing for us an integrative function…” (“Society, Morality and the Novel,” Going to the Territory, in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison , p. 714). The moral instrumentality of the novel form is all the more significant for Ellison given the dynamic socio-cultural complexities of the United States of America, a nation-state and civilizational experiment in democracy. What can we learn about democracy, and about race, in U.S. America from Ellison’s writings?

Aesthetics 

Paul C. Taylor | 9020 (T2) | W 3:10-5:30

This course will give students the opportunity to work through some state of the art literature in contemporary philosophic aesthetics, and to locate these readings on the wider terrain of the field. Readings will span a wide metaphilosophical range, from prominent analytic texts to influential continental readings to interestingly philosophical texts from other disciplines, like musicology, art history, and literary studies. Students who successfully complete the course should be able to identify and engage the core arguments of these texts, and to locate the texts in the broader possibility space of aesthetic theory.

Teaching & Research Methods

Robert Talisse | 8000.01 | T 11:00-1:00

Previous Graduate Seminars

 View a list of Vanderbilt philosophy department graduate seminars from previous academic years here.