Course Syllabus

Complete Syllabus posted here.

Instructor: Mathias Risse
Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy 209 Rubenstein, HKS Campus

Office Hour: Tuesday, 3-4

Teaching Fellow: Kerstin Haase

Location: Philosophy E105 is an online course (a video-taped version of Harvard undergraduate course ER38), but local students who wish to attend the lectures where it is taped may do so, at the location and times listed just below.

Location of ER 38: Harvard Hall 104

Class Days and Time: Monday/Wednesday 10-11

Course Description: Many of us have good reasons for doing this or that, making this decision rather than that, choosing this path over another, etc. There is often a point to these choices that we can identify, and sometimes have thought hard about. But is there a point, is there significance to life as a whole? That is the question about the “meaning of life.” Though the question is notoriously hard to make precise, one way or another it has animated much literature and art, and also much philosophy. Some philosophers have provided disheartening answers: life is suffering, and then it ends; life is absurd, and never gains any meaning; life is all about creating hell for each other, and we cannot escape. But other philosophers have provided more uplifting answers to support the quest for personal significance. Both kinds of answers deserve scrutiny. Such scrutiny should be of interest to anybody who wishes to reflect on her/his life as a whole as part of her/his education. After reviewing several pessimistic and more optimistic approaches to the meaning of life we turn to the subject of death. We will all die eventually. We normally encounter death among family and friends before we must deal with our own. These themes too are the subject of philosophical reflection. The class finishes with a discussion of an important set of lectures on the topics of this course by a contemporary philosopher. This class is wide-ranging, and will integrate historical figures, references to art and literature as well as to science as appropriate. But its main focus is on contributions by recent thinkers in the Anglo-American analytical tradition of philosophy. The methodology is philosophical. Some topics may touch you quite personally, and you should take this into account before enrolling. Please do not expect an answer of the sort “The meaning of life is X.” But short of that, there is much exciting material to be encountered here that combines intellectual depth with valuable personal advice.

Prerequisites: None. The course is introductory and open to all. We provide guidance in writing philosophical papers.

For Extension School students, there will be a one-page writing assignment within the first 10 days of class for the instructor and TF to get a sense of who the students are. The regular requirements are then as follows: Three papers of 5-6 pages, double-spaced; the first to be handed out on September 23 (due on Oct 2); the second on October 21 (due on October 30); and the third to be handed out on November 16 (due on November 30). A list of available topics will be provided. The aim of these papers is to help you to focus on the main issues of the course and to give you practice in developing careful, structured arguments. The paper assignments get progressively more complex. In the first paper, the emphasis is on reconstructing somebody else’s argument, allowing you to develop the skill of logical reconstruction rather than narrative summary of a text. The second paper goes beyond mere reconstruction, asking you to both reconstruct and critically evaluate somebody else’s argument. The third paper will give you an opportunity to develop a well-reasoned defense in support of your own view regarding one of the central issues of the class. The paper topics will be those that we also use for the Harvard undergraduates who concurrently take this course as ER38. Extensions on paper-deadlines can only be given by the instructor, and require a very good reason (please cc Kerstin Haase on requests of extensions). There will be a final exam, for which study questions will be given out at the last lecture. This will be an in-class exam that Extension School students who live in the New England area are also expected to attend. Students outside of this area will be given an extended time window in which the exam is to be completed. The exam date will be determined through the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. There will be a participation component to this course, which will take the form of a mandatory weekly online discussion. The purpose of this component of the course is to increase understanding of the material discussed in the lectures, as well as to provide opportunities for students to exchange ideas and views about that material. If space permits, Extension School students are welcome to attend the lectures in person.
Policy on collaboration: All written work must be entirely your own. If you use ideas from written materials or ideas generated by others in conversation you must give proper credit in a footnote. Plagiarism is a serious offense. Please consult with your TF if you are not sure how to give credit, or for what you need to give credit.

Reading will be about 40-80 pages per week, depending on difficulty. Some articles are available through Hollis or the Internet. They will be posted on the course website under "Course documents." The remaining texts have to be purchased in a course packet provided by University Readers (with purchasing instructions posted on the course website). The course reading packet includes articles and book chapters.

In addition, the following books need to be purchased:

E. D. Klemke (ed.), The Meaning of Life, Oxford University Press, 2008 (or 2007, but not the 2000 edition)

Samuel Scheffler, Death and the Afterlife, Oxford University Press, 2013

The one-page assignment (“assignment zero”) within the first 10 days will not be graded. All written assignments (Assignment zero, three papers and a final exam) must be completed for a passing grade. The first graded paper will count for 10% of the final grade, the second and third papers for 20% each. The final exam will count for 35%, and section participation 15%. Late papers will be penalized at the rate of 1/3 of a grade per day, including the first weekend. Any student who is taking this course to meet the General Education Ethical Reasoning requirement must take this course letter-graded. Students who enroll Pass-Fail, must receive passing grades on all three papers and on the final exam.
AEO: Any student needing academic adjustments or accommodations is requested to present their letter from the Accessible Education Office (AEO) and speak with the professor by the end of the second week of the term. Failure to do so may result in the Course Head’s inability to respond in a timely manner. All discussions will remain confidential, although AEO may be consulted to discuss appropriate implementation.


Course Summary:

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