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A Major by Any Other Name


By Siddhartha Mazumdar

More than 50 years ago, Alfred Whitehead and William James wrote the papers and delivered the lectures than put an indelible stamp on the pattern of Western philosophy--and established Harvard's Philosophy Department as one of the finest in the world. Although the small concentration today barely has the staff to cover Eastern and modern philosophy and requires the unpopular logic course, Philosophy 140, its reputation among scholars is unaltered. Only the opportunities to study philosophy at Harvard have changed and they, many concentrators and professors believe, have probably increased and improved since the days of Whitehead and James.

Maintaining its small size, the Philosophy Department is able to offer a real intellectual community--professors, graduate students and undergraduates working closely with one another. Yet the size may also be the department's largest drawback. With only ten Faculty members, each specializing in his field of expertise, the department cannot provide courses covering the range of the world's philosophies. According to Warren D. Goldfarb '69, head tutor of the concentration, the almost complete abscence of courses in modern continental and Eastern philosophy reflects the conscious decision of the department to sacrifice breadth in the coverage of diverse philosophies. Instead the department attempts to focus with more intensity and rigor on the central issues that preoccupy philosophers today: the modern analytic branches of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics.

Substituting depth for breadth, the concentration's requirements, Goldfard argues, are the department's effort to systematically and rigorously confront common human beliefs and perceptions without the limitation of forcing these ideas into distinct periods. While the actual requirements are not excessive--only six courses--many concentrators resent the required logic course because the material is too technical. "It was mathematics, not humanities. We just learned to work with mathematical systems and equations," James L. Matory '82, who switched from Philosophy to Social Anthropology after one semester, says. Although he readily admits that students experienced in math tend to do better in the course, Goldfarb explains that the material is not inaccessible to those who approach the course with an open mind: "The goal of the course is to introduce many studnets to a new form of thinking," he says.

Many concentrators feel the tutorials provide the best part of their experience with the department; the majority manage to get Faculty tutors for at least two of the four semester-long tutorials all concentrators must take in their sophomore and junior years.

Usually less than half of the concentrators write honors theses. Perhaps part of the reason is that Faculty members in the department actively discourage students from writing theses unless they are extremely enthusiastic and possess cogent proposals for their very specific topic. Goldfarb explains that Faculty members expect Philosophy theses to be especially probing--like the concentration itself.

Because the department provides no chronological framework, stressing only the staff's individual fields of speciality, some students decry a lack of continuity in the concentration. Others feel the department fails to bridge the cross-currents of different philosophical streams. Last year's Senior Tutor Thomas Ricketts said last fall that many concentrators experience a prolonged period of frustration and confusion concerning their studies in the department, but he added that most manage to sort out their problems and questions by senior year. A sizeable minority leave the concentration, Goldfarb says, although a larger number of sophomores and juniors enter as well.

A Kirkland House senior describes the frustration she felt her sophomore year while she was studying epistemology in the course, "Theory of Knowledge": "It destroyed all notions I had about the certainty of knowledge," she says, "It was scary. I can't take things for granted anymore."

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