Course Goals and Teaching Philosophies

Culture and Belief 55: Enlightenment Creations (Spring, 2015)

Culture and Belief 55:  Enlightenment Creations (Spring, 2015)  
James Engell
Gurney Professor of English Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature

Personal Statement on Teaching
As a professor at Harvard, I consider my primary responsibility teaching. That is how every contract is drawn up between the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and an individual professor: more time is allotted to teaching than to any other single activity.  This is particularly true of professors in the Humanities, who in regular practice teach four courses each academic year, which I and many others do.

What does all this mean?

It means that I consider you my first responsibility.  In a small class or seminar, I will read every word of every paper you submit. I’ll comment on it constructively and always meet with you to discuss your writing if you wish—sometimes asking you to meet even if you don’t request it. I care about your writing and about improving it. In a larger class, even with multiple teaching fellows, I’ll read your work if you ask me to do so. I’ll treat it in the same manner that I would if it were submitted in a seminar.

It means that in class I’ll not simply lecture or repeat old notes. As I expect you to come to class having read and thought, I’ll come to class having read and thought anew.  As I see it, my mission is not to impart some inflexible template of knowledge, but to engage in an interactive conversation in which we discover something new and compelling, a conversation in which I have the opportunity to impart some knowledge that you can’t gain elsewhere, and in which you ask questions and impart knowledge that may be absolutely unique, too. Otherwise, why would individual professors, or individual students, exist? Everything could otherwise be found in books or on the Internet.  Yet what is most valuable in the humanities (and at times in the sciences) is knowledge and sensibility discovered and expressed personally by an individual, active mind, and then applied to experience and life.

It means I’ll very willingly give you my time in and outside class, over meals we can arrange in the Houses, in office hours, by appointment if those hours don’t fit our mutual schedules, and in informal conversation.

It means that I’ll follow up all this by writing letters of recommendation, engaging with your future plans outside the course or courses we share, and offer advice on any matter you’d like to discuss—and I’ll do so without expecting that you’ll take that advice.

Philosophy 122: British Empiricism (Spring, 2015)

Philosophy 122:  British Empiricism (Spring, 2015)
Alison Simmons
Samuel H. Wolcott Professor of Philosophy and Harvard College Professor

Course Goals:

  • You will learn to engage some philosophical views that may sound strange at the start.  By “engage” I mean:  (a) figure out what they mean (and, just as importantly, what they do notmean); (b) understand what the arguments are in favor of them; (c) develop appropriateobjections to them; and (d) sort out for yourself whether the British Empiricists were onto something after all. These skills expand your intellectual imagination, root out preconceived opinions you carry with you, and sharpen your analytical skills.
  • You will learn to read with a level of care you might not be used to but that will come to be exciting, to write with a level of precision you will initially find frustrating but later will find refreshing, and to think with a level of clarity that will come to feel liberating. These are skills well worth developing whatever you go on to do after this course.
  • Another important goal of the course is to learn to have a productive philosophical discussion with people who have different backgrounds, talents, and opinions from you. Philosophical discussion is a team sport.  It requires showing up on time, refraining from conversation and activities that do not contribute to the team discussion, actively listening to each other, and working with each other.  It doesn’t work when everyone aims to be the one scoring the goal.  At all times you need to figure out where the goal is and where the ball is, who is in a position to score, and how to get the ball to the person who is in the best position to score (knowing that sometimes that person is you but often it is not).

Religion 40. Incarnation and Desire: An Introduction to Christianity (Fall, 2014)

Religion 40. Incarnation and Desire: An Introduction to Christianity (Fall, 2014)
Courtney Bickel Lamberth
Lecturer on the Study of Religion and Director of Undergraduate Studies


  1. The emphasis of this course lies with reading and understanding a broad range of primary texts within the traditions of Christianity. The language and rhetorical structure of some of these texts might seem alien at first. The course aims to facilitate a deeper understanding of what is at stake in the sources, and to foster both a close and a critical engagement with them.
  2. Through the reading of a wide range of primary texts – encompassing different historical periods, literary genres, polemical concerns and religious sensibilities – the course aims to demonstrate the vast and rich diversity within Christianity. In so doing, it seeks to cultivate broad historical familiarity with the basic questions and debates in, as well as the central authors of, Christian thought.
  3. The course also teaches students to use and critique secondary literature relevant to the topics of the course, including showing awareness of the historiographic methods and presuppositions in the secondary texts.
  4. Another goal of this course is to cultivate clarity of analysis and argumentation in your reading and writing.
  5. Finally, the course seeks to encourage you to make connections between these texts and ideas and the world around you.  The hope is that close reading of how historical figures have explained and made sense of their beliefs and practices, correlated them with their cultures and clarified them in the context of debate, will help students clarify their own stances on fundamental questions.     

Science of Living Systems 16. Human Evolution and Human Health (Spring, 2015)

Science of Living Systems 16. Human Evolution and Human Health (Spring, 2015)
Daniel E. Lieberman
Edwin M. Lerner II Professor of Biological Sciences

Why is this a Gen Ed course?
The goals of Gen Ed classes are: “to connect in an explicit way what students learn at Harvard to life beyond Harvard, and to help them understand and appreciate the complexities of the world and their role in it.” This class is a Gen Ed class because we will collectively address two important questions:

  1. How and why did we become human?
  2. How and why does evolution matter for preventing illness and improving health?

My goal is to transform your understanding not only of how and why our bodies are they way they are, but also how and why an evolutionary perspective on the human body is essential to improving our ability to prevent illness and promote health

Classroom culture: Let’s make this a collective, interactive and healthy experience.
A. Regular attendance is expected and required
B. Use laptops JUST for taking notes. No social media, multitasking or other non course-related tasks.
C. Please ask questions!
D. Regular standing breaks are encouraged!

Science of Living Systems 20. Psychological Science (Spring, 2015)

Steven Pinker
Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology

Remarks: This course may be used to fulfill part of the General Education requirement at Harvard, and is designed to give you broad education in spheres of knowledge that are relevant to the human mind. Here is what I hope you will take from the course:

  • I hope to put you in the habit of thinking about your own minds as you live your lives and react to the world around you. When you are in the throes of an emotion, or carried away with an enticing idea, or puzzled by an unusual memory or paradox or sight or sound, you should be able to reflect on how these reactions may arise from design features of your own minds, rather than naively taking them at face value. 
  • I hope that you will see how questions about the functioning of the mind connect to other disciplines in biology, the social sciences, and the arts (and hence every other realm of human activity). Politics and history are directed by human motives, decisions, and social interactions. The arts are shaped by human perception, memory, language, and emotion. Biological evolution itself is often led by behavior.
  • You will learn basic facts about your own brains: how perception and learning are implemented in brain circuitry; the different kinds of memory; the basic emotions; the major stages of human development.
  • You will acquire a familiarity with some of the touchstones of literate intellectual culture that come from psychology, including Freud and psychoanalysis, Skinner and behaviorism, Darwin and the emotions, the Turing Test, the Milgram experiment, cognitive dissonance, and the “hard problem of consciousness.”
  • I hope you will develop a feel for how the scientific mindset can be applied to human affairs. You should be able to think about the mind in mechanistic terms (as a product of evolved neural circuitry interacting with the physical, social, and cultural environment), and should appreciate that hypotheses about human nature are claims that can be made precise and submitted to empirical test.

Philosophy 3: The True and the Good (Fall 2015)

Bernard Nickel
Professor of Philosophy

Bernard Nickel
Professor of Philosophy

Teaching Philosophy and Course Expectations

Statement of Teaching Philosophy
Teaching, especially teaching philosophy, is not the transmission of facts, to be broadcast by the professor and passively received by the student. When a student learns, it is because she engages with the material by asking questions, looking for answers that might lie below the surface, and being open to new questions that arise as she develops her ideas. I am here to support you in this process. That means that I will not just rehearse canned lectures; I will ask you to be an active participant in all aspects of the course, and I will give you as much feedback as I can. If you ask me questions in class, I’ll do my best to answer them; if you ask me to read drafts, I will do so to the best of my ability. And our feedback will be structured so that it helps you achieve your intellectual goals.

Our Expectations of You

We expect you to:

  • Read the required reading for each lecture twice prior to attending lecture.
  • Read these readings actively: try to identify the main points, the arguments, and whether you actually believe what they say.
  • Get enough rest to be attentive during class meetings.
  • To the best of your ability, complete assignments on time.
  • Be respectful of each other and of us.
  • Ask for our help as soon as you have any concerns or problems about the class.

Your Expectations of Us

You may expect of us that:

  • We will treat each of you and your ideas with respect.
  • Everything we ask you to do will be in the service of achieving the course goals.
  • We will be well-prepared for class meetings.
  • We will return assignments promptly.
  • We will give you constructive, not destructive feedback.
  • We will make ourselves available to you to address any issues or concerns, both about the subject matter of the class and how the class is run.


Class Meetings: 

This class meets for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Most of these meetings will be lectures, but we’ll also have some guest speakers. There will also be an in-class midterm (see schedule).

In addition, all enrolled students must sign up for one discussion section, led by a teaching fellow (details on that in class).

Course Requirements:

Grading Scheme:

Section/Attendance     20%

Paper 1                         0%

Paper 2                         0%

Paper 3 (first version)  10%

Paper 3 (rewrite)          20%

Paper 4                        20%

Midterm Exam             10%

Final Exam                   20%

Due Dates at a Glance:

Paper 1                                 09/09/15

Paper 2                                 09/14/15

Paper 3 (first version)            10/09/15

Paper 3 (rewrite)                   11/04/15

Paper 4                                 12/02/15

Midterm                                10/21/15


Attendance at all course meetings is required, and we will take attendance at sections and at lectures. Even if you already have a decent grasp of the material after reading it, there’s always more to discover and understand.

Writing Assignments

Please Note: All written work must be completed with a passing grade in order to pass the class.

Papers 1 & 2 

The first two papers contribute 0% to the final grade. This is not a typo. The first two papers give you a chance to engage in some philosophical writing to see where your strengths and weaknesses are. Further, it’s important to me that your final grade be determined as much as possible by what you learn in this class, and as little as possible by what you already knew coming in. This class, like all learning, is about the process, not the end result.

These two papers focus on two separate, but equally important skills. The first paper is a simple argument piece: we’ll ask you to argue for or against a thesis we’ll supply. You take a side and argue it. We won’t ask you to draw on any readings or outside sources. The second is a pure interpretation piece: we’ll ask you to present your understanding of another author’s argument. Both pieces are very short (at most one page), and one of the challenges of these assignments is writing something coherent and successful within the constraints.You’ll also get a sense of what feedback on philosophical writing is like (this will be important for the subsequent papers).  

Paper 3 

Paper 3 will be submitted in two drafts, both of which are graded. This paper will give you a chance to put the skills you practiced in isolation in papers 1 and 2 together in paper 3. You’ll have a choice of topics. For each topic, we’ll ask you to interpret an author’s writing and take a critical stance on it (you’ll learn more about what that means as the semester goes on).

Along with the first draft, we’ll ask you to submit a cover letter describing some of the strengths and weaknesses you identified in writing and receiving feedback on the first two papers, and how you’ve tried to build on your strengths and worked on your weaknesses in this draft.

For the second draft, we’ll ask you to revise the first draft in light of your further thought and our feedback, and to describe to us how you’ve improved the second draft.

Starting with Paper 3, I will offer two versions of the assignment: the standard and the stretch version. The stretch version is more challenging in its approach. There is no penalty to only doing the standard version, and no bonus or extra credit for doing the stretch assignment. But I expect that some of you will welcome the additional challenge.  

Paper 4 

Paper 4 will also come in standard and stretch versions. As before, you’ll have a choice of topics and we’ll ask you to submit a cover letter along with your writing. 

Paper Submissions 

Please submit all papers electronically through the course website. Neither email submissions nor hard- copy submissions will be accepted. Written assignments are due before lecture on the due date.

Due Dates, Late Paper Policy, and Extensions 

Papers are due in the course dropbox prior to the start of lecture on the due date. It’s your responsibility to ensure that the file you submit isn’t corrupted. If possible, please submit a PDF. Please give them titles of the following form: YourName-PaperXX-TopicYY.pdf.

Papers that are late and have not been given an extension will be penalized a third of a grade for every three days the paper is late.

We will grant extensions on reasonable and foreseeable grounds if (but only if) you ask for the extension at least 24 hours before the due date. Such reasonable and foreseeable grounds include having lots of projects due at the same time, a Harvard sanctioned activity, such as a sports tournament right before the due date, religious observances on or just before the due date, etc. Only in absolutely extreme circumstances will we grant an extension after the due date.  

Section Participation

Small group discussion sections (“sections”) are an integral part of the course that support the course goals. They offer a chance to review, clarify, and develop material covered in lecture. They allow you to experience the view points of others, both of the authors you read and the peers you read them with. They give you a chance to practice and develop the skills in the philosopher’s toolkit, particularly by offering you real-time feedback on oral and written philosophical expression. By taking positions in relation to the materials encountered in lectures and the readings, you can actively engage with philosophy: you can come to appreciate the force of arguments, the plausibility or implausibility of positions, and even just how hard philosophical questions and philosophical progress are.The point of a section is to learn cooperatively. Successful section participation contributes to our shared understanding of the material and our relationship to it. We (the teaching staff) will have much more to say about this once sections start.  


We will ask you to sit two exams, a one-hour, in-class midterm and a comprehensive final exam. The exam will be a standard, three-hour written exam. Questions on the midterm will include identifications and short answers. Questions on the final will include identifications, short answers, and essay questions. A set of essay questions will be handed out before reading period begins, and the essay questions on the exam will be drawn from among these distributed questions.  

Reading Quizzes

For each of the main readings, there will be a short reading quiz on the course website. You can take each quiz as many times as you like. Once enrollment is set, reading quizzes are due before the lecture at which the reading will be discussed. Completion of the reading quizzes and scores figure into your participation grade.

Policy On Collaboration 

Discussion and the exchange of ideas are essential to academic work. You are encouraged to discuss your ideas with all participants in this course, including your peers, including your ideas regarding assignments. You are also encouraged to discuss your writing and exchange drafts of papers. However, all of the material you submit must substantially reflect your own approach to the topic.

If someone else suggested a particularly relevant point to you in conversation, or helped you with how to express an important idea, credit them in a footnote. Please cite your sources. We do not require any particular citation format; it is sufficient that we be able to find the source you cite should we wish to follow up. Finally, you need not cite lecture materials.  

Laptop Policy

No laptops are allowed during lecture, nor are smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices. Please have hard copies of the readings with you, and be in a position to take notes by hand. I will of course make allowances for students who need electronic devices as part of an accommodation, arranged in consultation with the AEO.

This no electronics policy helps to create an environment in which you can focus on your learning. I don’t expect you to be able to pay close attention for 53 minutes. It’s entirely normal to zone out once in a while. But it’s important that, once your mind is ready to reengage, its attention isn’t captured by a screen.

The no electronics policy also helps your peers pay attention. Whenever one student looks at a screen for something unrelated to the class, most of the students behind that student look at the screen, too. 

Finally, there’s quite a bit of research that suggests that students who take notes by hand show greater comprehension and retention than students who take notes on a laptop, precisely because taking notes by hand is slower and more cumbersome. Students are forced to actively listen to the material, looking for the most important ideas, and writing those down, rather than taking more mindless dictation. 

Missed Classes and Make-ups 

If you miss any of the classes for official reasons, such as religious observance, a Harvard-sponsored event (athletics, etc.), you may make up the time you’ve missed in a way to be decided on a case by case basis. It’s your responsibility to let us know that you’ll be missing class for any such reason ahead of time so that we can plan how to do the makeup. We’ll do our best to find a way that works for all of us.  


Persons interested in the course materials are welcome to attend lectures; however, only students enrolled in the course for credit, either for a letter grade or Sat/Unsat, are allowed in the sections.

Statement on Course Accessibility 

Students needing academic adjustments or accommodations because of a documented disability must present their Faculty Letter from the Accessible Education Office (AEO) and speak with me by the end of the second week of the term, 9/11/2015. Failure to do so may result in my inability to respond in a timely manner. All discussions will remain confidential, althoughqua faculty, I have been invited by the AEO to contact the AEO to discuss appropriate implementation.  

Your First  Assignment

(If you’ve made it this far through the syllabus, Congrats. Thanks for reading) (Yes,Really, This is an Assignment I’m asking you to do) 

By the next class, please complete the following assignment. Write a short essay describing your two or three most important values (e.g., intellectual excellence, family relationships, friendships, being good at music, your religion), and include a brief description about why these values are important to you. Please do not write more than a page or two. 

Place the essay in a sealed envelope with your name on it (you can write your name across the flap, once you’ve sealed it), and hand it in at the next class meeting.

We won’t read these essays. Instead, we’ll give them back to you at the end of the class, so you can reflect on how the issues addressed in this course have affected, and are affected by, your own values.

Schedule and Reading Assignments 


09/02/2015 (W): Reason, Autonomy, and Philosophical Thought  

Module 1: Epistemology

NB: we’ll announce showtimes for the movie Merchants of Doubt soon.

09/04/2015 (F): The search for a neutral starting point and Descartes’ method of doubt

Descartes, First Meditation

Start reading Descartes, Meditations 2-6

Paper 1 Assignment Distributed

09/07/2015 (M): (No Classes — Labor Day)09/09/2015 (W): Descartes’ Positive Project

Descartes, Meditations 2-6

Paper 1 due

09/11/2015 (F): Russell’s Response—Probability and Explanation 

Russell, The Existence of Matter

Paper 2 Assignment Distributed

09/14/2015 (M): There is no Neutral Starting Point

Longino, Science as Social Knowledge, Excerpts

Paper 2 due

09/16/2015 (W): Testimony, Credibility, and Justice

Jones, The Politics of Credibility

Optional: Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, chp. 7 

Optional: Kadi, Stupidity Deconstructed

Optional: Sotomajor, A Latina Judge’s Voice 

09/18/2015 (F): The Value of Knowledge

Plato, Meno Module 2: Ethics

09/21/2015 (M): An Introduction to Ethics

Plato, EuthyphroMidgley, Trying out one’s new Sword  (Optional) 

Plato, Republic, Book 2(Optional)

09/23/2015 (W): Pleasure as the Measure

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Excerpts

09/25/2015 (F): The Light of Right (Kant, Part I)

Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

Nagel, Moral Luck (Optional)

09/28/2015 (M): The Light of Right (Kant, Part II)

Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

Foot, Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives (Optional)

09/30/2015 (W): Guest Lecture on Fairness in Sport

Paper 3 (first draft) Assignment Distributed

10/02/2015 (F): Writing a Philosophy Paper

Dimensions of Excellence on Course Website 

Two working papers.10/05/2015 (M): The Trolley Problem

Thomson, The Trolley Problem

10/07/2015 (W): Ask me anything about Kant

10/09/2015 (F): Effective Altruism (Guest Session with EA Harvard)

Paper 3 (first draft) due

10/12/2015 (M): (No Classes — Columbus Day) 

 Module 3: Free Will

NB: We’ll schedule a showing of the movie Minority Report.

10/14/2015 (W): The Challenge of Determinism  

Van Inwagen, The Powers of Rational Beings

Wegner, The Mind’s Best Trick (Optional)10/16/2015 (W): Freedom is acting in accord with your values

Frankfurt, Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibilities

Frankfurt, Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person (Optional)

10/19/2015 (M): Separating Morality from Metaphysics

Strawson, Freedom and Resentment

10/21/2015 (W): In-Class Midterm

10/23/2015 (F): Addiction, Freedom, and Support 

Clegg, Ninety Days

Yaffe, Recent Work on Addiction and Responsible Agency (Optional)

Paper 3 (Rewrite) Distributed

Module 4: Philosophy of Mind

10/26/2015 (M): An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind 

Descartes, Second Meditation

Descartes, Sixth Meditation

Smullyen, The Unfortunate Dualist (Optional)

10/28/2015 (W): Functionalism: Foundation of Modern Cognitive Science 

Heil, Functionalism 

Lewis, Psychophysical and Theoretical Identifications, section. 2. 

Carey, The Origin of Concepts, chp. 4 (Optional)

10/30/2015 (F): Implicit Bias

Benaji, Blindspots

11/02/2015 (M): The Explanatory Gap

Levine, Materialism and Qualia: The Explanatory Gap

Nagel, What is it like to be a Bat? (Optional)

11/04/2015 (W): The Knowledge Argument 

Jackson, Ephiphenomenal Qualia

Paper 3 (Rewrite) due

Module 5: Personal Identity

NB: We’ll schedule a showing of the movie The Prestige.

11/06/2015 (F): Personal Identity—The Soul Descartes, Second Meditation

Start reading Parfit, Reasons and Persons

Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, First Night (Optional)

11/09/2015 (M): Personal Identity—The Mind Locke, Of Identity and Diversity 

Keep on reading Parfit, Reasons and Persons

Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, Second Night (Optional)

11/11/2015 (W): Personal Identity—The Body

Williams, The Self and the Future

Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, Third Night (Optional)

11/13/2015 (F): Identity and Morality

 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Excerpts  

Module 6: Rational Theology

11/16/2015 (M): God as the Prime Mover

Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Excerpts

Anscombe, Faith (Optional)

11/18/2015 (W): Anselm’s Ontological Argument
Anselm, The Ontological Argument, In Behalf of the Fool
Paper 4 assignment distributed

11/20/2015 (F): Pascal’s Wager
Pascal, The Wager
Nickel, Basic Decision Theory

Module 7:  Death

11/23/2015 (M): Death is nothing to us

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
Williams, The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality (Optional)

11/25/2015 (W): (No Classes — Thanksgiving)

11/27/2015 (F): (No Classes — Thanksgiving)

12/02/2015 (M): The Harm of Death

Nagel, Death


12/02/2015 (W): The Examined Life
Paper 4 due

Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 57: American Dreams from Scarface to Easy Rider (Fall 2015)

Eric Rentschler
Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures

Submitting a course proposal to the General Education Committee in the spring of 2012, I was asked the following question: "What would you like students to remember from this course five years from now?" Four insights, I responded, are essential to the larger project of the class:

1. Hollywood films are not just escapist vehicles; indeed, they both reflect and influence the society from which they emanate and, as such, have real causes and real effects. If the American dream has had a dramatic impact on this country's self-understanding, Hollywood, as arguably the chief sustainer of the nation's fantasy life, has had a seminal (and often problematic) impact on the shape of this country's myth making.

2. Commercial films are not just made and consumed; they are designed in order that they might resonate and, as such, configured in ways that anticipate popular response and seek to engender communities of consensus. In addressing what appear to be the legitimate needs of American society, Hollywood features in fact often limit, redefine, obscure, or even mystify and misrepresent the real desires of their audiences.

3. Hollywood features, as products of American dream machinery, provide imaginary and often utopian solutions to real problems. Manufactured in studios that are run as businesses, these solutions, however, are products of the same socioeconomic forces that quite often generate these problems. Show business's relationship to capitalism and the status quo is, for this reason, fraught and complex.

4. Our sense of the world in which we live is inextricably bound to mediated sights and sounds which need to be read, studied, and analyzed. Everyone watches movies, but not everyone possesses the skills, much less takes the time, to understand their workings, meanings, and consequences. As I said this course will sustain a dialogue between classical Hollywood films, the THEN in which they arose and resonated, the NOW in which we view and talk about them, the media culture, movie world, and socio-political context that surrounds and informs and perhaps deforms and debilitates us and, in any event, inflects how we think and feel.