Degree Programs

Philosophy

The Department of Philosophy offers a program covering a wide range of fields in systematic philosophy and the history of philosophy. Among the special strengths of the department are moral and political philosophy, aesthetics, epistemology, philosophy of logic, philosophy of language, the history of analytic philosophy, ancient philosophy, Kant, and Wittgenstein.

The department’s graduate program is essentially a PhD program. Because the principal employment for men and women with advanced training in philosophy is in college teaching requiring the PhD, the department ordinarily does not admit applicants who wish to study only for the master’s (AM) degree. The AM may be taken as a step toward the PhD after a minimum of two terms in residence. A candidate for the AM must satisfy the Preliminary, Distribution, and Logic requirements for the PhD; however, the Preliminary Requirement is reduced to ten half-courses, and only seven of the eight distribution units are required for the AM. In addition, the Second-Year Paper requirement must be satisfied. There is no language requirement for the AM.

Doctor of Philosophy

Admission — Substantial previous knowledge of philosophy is normally required. Candidates usually have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in philosophy. Applicants less prepared in philosophy may be admitted under special conditions if they have grounding in mathematics or the natural or social sciences. Applicants are required to take the GRE (general), and to submit a sample of their written work.

Financial Aid — Financial aid is administered by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. (See the GSAS Guide to Admission and Financial Aid for further information.) Teaching fellowships, which are administered by the department, normally are restricted to graduate students who have completed at least two years of work in the department and are making satisfactory progress toward the doctorate.

Preliminary Requirement — Candidates must pass at least 12 approved half-courses or seminars during their first four terms in the department. Courses numbered 301 or above do not count toward this preliminary requirement, but the two required terms of Philosophy 300, the First-Year Colloquium, may be counted as three of the 12. If a letter-graded course record is to be considered satisfactory, the candidate’s grades in these courses must be B or higher.

Courses taken to meet the preliminary requirement must be approved in advance by the department’s director of graduate studies. Students must take and complete Philosophy 300a plus two letter-graded half-courses or seminars during their first term and Philosophy 300b plus three letter-graded half-courses or seminars more in their second term, thus completing five letter-graded half-courses during the first two terms of residence, with grades of B or higher.

These courses, like the rest of the 12, should be among those designated "For Undergraduates and Graduates" or "Primarily for Graduates" in the course catalogue. In addition Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning 17 may be counted if needed for the Logic requirement. At least ten of the courses must be taught by members of the Department of Philosophy (including visiting and emeritus members). This requirement can be modified for students specializing in classical philosophy.

Students who have done graduate work elsewhere may petition to obtain credit for up to three half-courses, which may be counted toward the Preliminary Requirement. If they are in philosophy (as would normally be the case) such courses will be regarded as equivalent to those taught by members of the department.

Distribution Requirement — This requirement, intended to ensure a broad background in philosophy, is met by completing eight distribution units of work before the beginning of the fourth year of graduate study. A distribution unit may be fulfilled (i) by completing an approved half-course or seminar (which may also be counted toward the Preliminary Requirement) or (ii) by writing a paper under the guidance of a faculty member, with the approval of the director of graduate studies. In the latter case the work does not count toward the Preliminary Requirement.

The units are to be distributed as follows:

a. Contemporary Theoretical Philosophy: Three units in core areas of 20th–21st century metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, and the like.

b. Practical Philosophy: Two units in contemporary or historical ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and the like.

c. History of Philosophy: Three units so chosen that one course unit treats primarily Plato or Aristotle and the other two units treat primarily representatives from two of the following: the Rationalists, the Empiricists, Kant, the Idealists. At most one of these three courses may emphasize primarily practical philosophy.

Note: The First-Year Colloquium (Philosophy 300a and 300b) may not be used to fulfill any part of the distribution requirement. Philosophy 299hf, the second-year paper, may be used to fulfill a distribution requirement.

Logic Requirement — Candidates for the Ph.D. are expected to have mastered the fundamentals of logic and to have an understanding of the elements of logic’s metatheory. Normally, this requirement is satisfied by successfully completing one of the Department’s 100-level courses in logic: 140 (Introduction to Mathematical Logic), 144 (Logic and Philosophy), or 145 (Modal Logic). It can also be satisfied by taking an appropriate mathematics course (for example, Mathematics 143, 144a, or 145b). The requirement may also be satisfied by an examination set by the DGS in consultation with appropriate Department members.

Second-Year Paper — Students are required at the end of their second year in residence to submit a paper whose length is between 7500 and 12,000 words including footnotes. 

The expectation is not that the second-year paper should constitute a kind of Master’s Thesis; a better model is that of a journal article – i.e., an essay that sets out a focused philosophical problem, articulates its significance, and makes a significant contribution rather than a mere intervention. Given this goal, the second year paper may under no circumstances be over 12,000 words, and generally will be significantly shorter. Students must annotate the paper with an accurate word count.

By the end of the first year, students need to have a faculty advisor who will supervise the second year paper. Together the advisor and advisee will write a plan of study for the first term, and submit it to the DGS. This plan of study will specify a schedule for submitting work and receiving feedback, and will also specify a benchmark to be met before the beginning of the second semester.

A preliminary draft of the second-year paper is to be submitted by the end of the spring vacation of the second semester, and a final draft is due by June 1st. Under extraordinary circumstances and with the written approval of both advisor and the DGS, the final version of the paper may be submitted after June 1st, but no later than August 1st.

Once the second year paper is submitted to the advisor, the advisor forwards the paper to the DGS, who selects a faculty member to act as the paper’s examiner. The author, advisor, and examiner meet in a timely manner to discuss the paper, after which the examiner in consultation with the advisor awards the paper a grade. This grade will be recorded as the student’s grade for her two semesters of 299hf.

Language or Research Tool Requirement

Ideally, philosophy involves a dialog with other disciplines --philosophy of mind with, for example, psychology and neuroscience; metaphysics with, for example, physics; moral and political philosophy with, for example, the law and social studies. Ideally, philosophy involves a dialog with its history, understanding its insights and mistakes. Ideally, philosophy is done in a way that transcends cultural barriers, with philosophers from one country who work primarily in one language in dialog with philosophers from other countries who speak other languages. 

A philosopher who approached the ideals above would be: conversant with the work of a discipline outside of philosophy that is relevant to her work; able to read historically important work written in a language other than English; able to fluently participate in philosophical conversations in at least two languages. It is too much to expect of graduate students that they have such a range of knowledge and abilities by the time they graduate from Harvard. But the Department does expect and require that graduate students have taken steps towards at least one of the ideals mentioned above before graduating.

To this end, a student for the Ph.D. is required to demonstrate one of the following. 

  1. The ability to read and interpret philosophical work in either ancient Greek, Latin, French, or German. The normal way to demonstrate this ability is to successfully complete a year-long reading course in of these languages conducted by a faculty member in the Philosophy Department. In special cases (for example, a student who comes to the program with a strong academic background in one of these languages) and with the approval of the DGS, this requirement may be satisfied by course work done outside of the Department. 
  2. Advanced knowledge of a discipline outside of philosophy that is relevant to the student’s dissertation. Normally this requirement is to be satisfied in one of the following ways: (1) Taking and passing with a grade of B or better, and with the prior approval of the DGS, at least two advanced courses in a discipline outside of philosophy that is relevant to one’s philosophical work; (2) possessing an advanced degree in such a discipline; (3) with the prior approval of the DGS, certain intensive summer programs may count. Students who expect to work in logic or set theory may satisfy this requirement by taking advanced logic or mathematics courses. Normally this requirement cannot be satisfied by undergraduate course work.
  3. The ability to fluently participate orally and in writing in philosophical debate in at least two modern languages. Graduate students who have completed a B.A. or its equivalent at a school in which instruction is conducted in a primarily in a language other than English are considered to have satisfied this requirement. Other ways to satisfy the requirement are determined on a case by case basis; one route is to provide a satisfactory comparison of translations of a philosophical passage into (or from) English, giving an assessment of their differences and relative advantages and drawbacks.

The Department encourages students to complete this requirement by the end of the third year, and requires that it be completed no later than the end of the semester in which the student takes his topical. 

Dissertation Workshops — Students who have completed their second year paper are required to enroll each semester in one of the two dissertation workshops, Philosophy 311, Workshop in Moral and Political Philosophy, or Philosophy 312, Workshop in Metaphysics and Epistemology. Permission not to enroll in a workshop must be granted by the director of graduate studies.

Teaching Fellowships — Graduate students are urged to take full advantage of opportunities to acquire teaching experience while working for the doctorate. Students in the third and fourth years will ordinarily teach as part of their graduate school funding. Teaching fellowships are restricted to those who have completed at least two years of work in the department (under exceptional circumstances, one year) and are making satisfactory progress toward the doctorate. In addition to a satisfactory grade record, the criteria of normal progress is as follows for each of four years of graduate study. First year: completing five letter-graded half-courses or seminars and Philosophy 300. Second year: satisfying the preliminary requirement, the logic requirement, and the second-year paper requirement. Third year: satisfying the distribution requirement and formulating a dissertation topic. Fourth year: passing the topical examination. Students in their first year of teaching must, and in their second year of teaching may, take Philosophy 315hf, Instructional Styles in Philosophy.

Oral Topical Examination — After completing the second year paper, each candidate will enroll in Philosophy 333 under his or her third-year advisor. In consultation with this advisor, the candidate will develop a dissertation topic and choose a prospective principal dissertation advisor. To receive formal approval of the dissertation topic a candidate must pass the oral topical examination. If the topical examination is not passed, it must be taken again and passed by the beginning of the winter recess in the year immediately following. Although called an examination, approximately 90 minutes in length, it is in fact a conference on the dissertation topic, not an occasion on which the candidate is expected to produce a complete outline of arguments and conclusions. It is intended to determine the acceptability of the topic on which the candidate wishes to write a dissertation, the candidate’s fitness to undertake such a dissertation, and the candidate’s command of relevant issues in related areas of Philosophy. A dissertation on the proposed topic may be submitted only if the topical examination is passed.

Application to take the topical examination must be made to the director of graduate studies at least two weeks in advance. At the same time, the candidate must submit three copies of a dissertation prospectus to the members of the student’s prospective committee. The prospectus should be 25–30 pages long, and should explain the problem the student proposes to address and the methods by which he or she proposes to address it. It should include a tentative chapter breakdown and a bibliography of sources the student expects to use. The examination is conducted by the dissertation committee.

Dissertation — When the topical examination is passed, the examining committee normally becomes the dissertation advisory committee. One member of this committee is designated the candidate’s principal advisor. At least three months before the deadline for formal submission of the dissertation, the candidate must submit to the advisory committee a legible draft of the dissertation or a considerable part of it. With the consent of the committee, the candidate may then go on to prepare a final draft for submission to the department. The dissertation must show a mastery of the field in which it is written; it must demonstrate the candidate’s insight, originality, and power of independent research; and it must add to the sum of human knowledge and understanding. Apart from these general requirements, there are no formal restrictions on the subject or construction of the dissertation, but the candidate is advised to write on a distinct and sharply limited problem. Dissertations of more than 75,000 words ordinarily will not be accepted.

Final Examination — The completed dissertation is read and appraised by a committee of three, usually identical to the candidate’s dissertation advisory committee. This committee, if it finds the dissertation sufficiently promising, conducts the final oral examination, in which the dissertation must be adequately defended before its acceptance by the department. (The examination is public and may be attended by other members of the department if they wish.) The purpose of this last examination, which is normally about two hours in length, is not so much to test the range and detail of the candidate’s information as to judge the candidate’s skill in presenting and discussing matters considered in the dissertation and the candidate’s ability to meet friendly but searching criticism.

Classical Philosophy — The departments of the Classics and of Philosophy collaborate in an interdisciplinary doctoral program in Classical Philosophy for students registered in either department. Candidates whose major field is philosophy are expected to take the Proseminar for graduate students in the Classics, as well as to attend seminars or other courses in classics relevant to their interests. With the approval of the director of graduate studies, students in the Classical Philosophy program may be permitted to count an appropriate course in ancient philosophy toward the distribution requirement in metaphysics and epistemology and one (in addition to the one already required) toward the requirement in history of philosophy.

Language requirements: Candidates who plan to write a dissertation in Classical Philosophy are expected to have learned at least one of the classical languages (Greek or Latin) before they are admitted. Depending on the level of fluency they have reached before entering the program, they may be asked to take additional language or reading courses. If they have not previously studied the second language, they will be required to reach the level of one year of college course work. This can be done either by taking courses or by passing a language examination. In addition, candidates will be expected to have acquired a reading knowledge of German sufficient for reading scholarly literature and to pass a departmental examination on a suitably chosen text.

The rules and procedures for the dissertation will, in general, be those established for candidates in philosophy.

Law and Philosophy — A coordinated JD/PhD in Philosophy and Law is available. Students wishing to obtain the coordinated degrees must be admitted separately to both programs. Students admitted for the coordinated degrees must begin either with the first full year of law school or the first two years of philosophy; after that they may alternate semesters as they choose. The program in Law may be completed in five semesters. The requirements for philosophy are the same as for regular philosophy graduate students.

Application Procedures

1. Further information regarding courses and programs of study may be obtained by writing to the Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Philosophy, Emerson Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138; online at the Department of Philosophy website; or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

2. Applications for admission and financial aid may be obtained by writing to the Admissions Office, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center 350, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138. The application may be submitted online at the GSAS Admissions website.

Selected Recent Dissertation Titles:

  • "Divorcing the Good and the Right"
  • "Giving Reasons: Interpersonal Relationships and Conditions of Autonomy"
  • "Making up One’s Self: Commitments, Agency, and Identity"
  • "The Structure of Thought"
  • "Is Thought Explanatorily Prior to Language?"
  • "Nonsense, Truth, and Ineffability"

Faculty List