Teaching and Advising
In my teaching and advising, my goal is to help students think more closely, critically, and clearly about things they take for granted. Teaching courses in the history of philosophy is a great way to do that. While some things that historical figures say sound a lot like the things we say, other things they say sound simply bizarre (e.g., Malebranche’s claim that we see all things in God or Cavendish’s claim that even rocks are sentient and rational). In addition to simply learning what people from different cultures and times thought about things, investigating why they thought them helps us to understand the structure of rational argument and the relations among concepts. It also helps us get to know our own assumptions and blind spots. And it’s just plain fun.
I think a lot about what and how I teach. I’ve expanded the “what” of my teaching by venturing into what is, for me, new territory. In my early modern courses, I include women philosophers of the period who have been left out of the canon (see Phil 8 and Phil 125 below); I have team-taught courses that juxtapose European and Indian Philosophy (see FS 33F and Phil 191 below); and I have helped to develop and teach one of Harvard’s signature interdisciplinary courses in the humanities (see Hum 10 below). On the “how” front, I aim to create an inclusive classroom where everyone can contribute in some way and where the aim of the class is clear (see, e.g., my Discussion Norms for an undergrad discussion seminar and Best Practices for a grad student workshop). I also work with the wonderful team at the Bok Center’s Learning Lab to develop innovative assignments and class structures (here is a sample assignment).
In recognition of my teaching, I was awarded a five-year Harvard College Professorship (2011-2016) and the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award in 2014. I received the Star Family Award for Advising in 2016 and the Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award in 2018.
The canonical British Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) take us on a journey from very sensible philosophical starting points to rather extravagant sounding philosophical conclusions. We will explore their influential arguments concerning such things as the self, the external world, mind and body, natural kinds, concepts, language, science, skepticism, and the role of philosophy itself. We will also explore Lady Mary Shephard’s attempt to pull us back from the philosophical brink that the Empiricists lead us to.
PHIL 222: British Empiricism
A companion course to Phil 122 for graduate students, we will explore the same material as Phil 122 but will add to it both interpretive debates in the secondary literature and pedagogical exercises directed to teaching this material.
Sample Undergrad Courses:
2,500 years of essential works, taught by six professors. Humanities 10a includes works by Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sappho, Murasaki, Bernal Díaz, Shakespeare, Douglass, Du Bois, Woolf and García Márquez, as well as the Declaration of Independence and The Federalist Papers. One 75-minute lecture plus a 75-minute discussion seminar led by the professors every week. Students also receive instruction in critical writing one hour a week, in writing labs and individual conferences. Students also have opportunities to visit cultural venues and attend musical and theatrical events in Cambridge or Boston.
FS 33F: Map your Way into Philosophy: Mind, Matter, Me
Humans clearly have minds; we just as clearly have bodies. This raises many puzzles: Are mind and body two things or one? How are they related to each other and the person called me? In this course, we’ll look at a range of arguments about how to understand mind-body-self relations from classic texts in European and Indian Philosophy. Deeply engaging these arguments requires the skills of close reading and argument analysis. To develop these skills, this course will teach Argument Mapping, a technique that involves identifying the essential elements of an argument and constructing a visual map that conveys the argument’s structure at a glance.
An introduction to some of the major topics and figures of 17th- and 18th-century Western philosophy, and to the skills of close reading, argument construction, and clear writing. We will focus on such metaphysical and epistemological topics as the natures of mind, body and self, the equality of the sexes, the existence of the external world and God, the nature and limits of human knowledge, and the changing relationship between science and philosophy. We will read such philosophers as Rene Descartes, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, John Locke, David Hume, Lady Mary Shepard, and Immanuel Kant. No pre-requisites.
Sample Writing Exercise: De-Jargoning Kant
Expected to be offered Spring 2020.
We will explore Descartes' dualism in its historical context. After examining the transformation that Descartes brought about in our conceptions of body and mind (and ourselves), we will consider some of the notorious metaphysical problems his dualism gives rise to and some 17th- and 18th- century attempts to push back against it in the figures of Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, Henry More, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, and Anton Amo.
Expected to be offered Spring 2020.
The canonical British Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) take us on a journey from very sensible philosophical starting points to rather extravagant sounding philosophical conclusions. We will explore their influential arguments concerning such things as the self, the external world, mind and body, natural kinds, concepts, language, science, skepticism, and the role of philosophy itself. We will also explore Lady Mary Shephard's attempt to pull us back from the philosophical brink that the Empiricists lead us to.
PHIL 191: Philosophy Without Border: India and Europe
Indian and Western European traditions of philosophy are rarely studied together, and yet they grapple with many of the same fundamental questions: What am I? What can I know? What really exists? Can a productive philosophical conversation be had between these two philosophical traditions? If so, what would it sound like? We will try to answer these questions by engaging in a close reading of several classic Buddhist texts from the Indian tradition and Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature and Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding from the Western European tradition. We will focus our inquiry on five philosophical topics: language and the contents of mind; causation; the external world; self; and skepticism.
Sample Grad Courses:
PHIL 223: Cartesian Man
Descartes is famous for his mind-body dualism, but what happens to human beings in his dualist metaphysics? Are they just composites of mind and body? Some sort of metaphysical mixture of mind and body? Or is there simply no room for human beings in Descartes’ cosmos, as some have charged? Descartes is equally famous for championing the intellect over the senses and passions in his epistemology. He repeatedly urges us to set aside the senses and passions, whose deliverances he describes as “obscure and confused”, in order to achieve a more God-like (or at least angelic) view of things. All of this seems rather de-humanizing. Is Descartes just down on human beings? In this seminar we’ll have a close look at what Descartes actually has to say about human beings and human nature, focusing in on some of the phenomena central to human life: sensory perception, bodily sensations, passions, and the will. In the end, we’ll find that Descartes has a rather rich conception of the human being, and that we’ve been getting a one-sided view of his metaphysics and epistemology for some time.
PHIL 224: Topics in British Empiricism (with Jeff McDonough)
This course is a graduate research seminar in Classic British Empiricism. As such, it presupposes familiarity with the basic texts and ideas of John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume of the sort students get from taking Phil 122 or its equivalent. If you want to take this course but have not taken Phil 122 (or its equivalent) we strongly urge you to audit Phil 122 this semester alongside the seminar. Each week we will read a recent research article. Your job will be to (a) read it carefully; (b) determine its strengths as an interpretation of Locke, Berkeley, or Hume; and (c) determine the main challenges to the interpretation. In order to do that, you will have to work through the relevant primary texts and, often, some of the opposing secondary literature. In class we will discuss the article with the author, who will join us either in person or via Skype.
Although the articles range in topic, we mean to keep our eye on an overarching question throughout the term: What is the relationship between empiricism and skepticism? While Locke was no skeptic, and seems to have had little patience for skeptical worries, he does emphasize the limit of human understanding, and many have charged that his “way of ideas” invites skepticism. Berkeley is routinely treated as a kind of skeptic, despite his insistence that one of the aims of his philosophical project is precisely to combat skepticism. In spite of his idealism, he maintains that he is in fact a defender of commonsense who sides “in all things with the mob.” Hume is regularly portrayed as a skeptic, and he spends much of Treatise I.iv apparently developing skeptical arguments. But the take away of Hume’s engagement with skeptical arguments remains hotly contested among early modern scholars and many have seen him as a champion of naturalism rather than skepticism.