Junior and Senior Electives

Preceptorials offer students the opportunity to follow the work of a particular author more deeply or to pursue a question of philosophy to another level. For seven or eight weeks in the middle of the year, juniors and seniors meet in lieu of seminar in groups of fewer than 10 students. The classes study one book or explore a subject through reading and discussion of several books.

Preceptorial topics range from Program works, such as Plato’s Republic and Machiavelli’s The Prince, to contemporary masterpieces such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. An elective in the truest sense, tutors and juniors and seniors propose topics for the preceptorials.

Recent works studied in preceptorials included:

  • Virginia Woolf The Waves
  • James Joyce Finnegans Wake
  • Kate Chopin The Awakening
  • Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • V.S. Naipaul A House for Mr. Biswas
  • Neuroscience Mathematics and Natural Science
  • William Gaddis The Recognitions
  • Pre-Socratics Philosophers
    We will read and discuss a number of passages in Greek—from Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Anaxagoras, among others.
  • G. H. Hardy A Course of Pure Mathematics
  • Computation
    “Computer science touches on a variety of deep issues,” writes Richard Feynman in his Lectures on Computation. “It has illuminated the nature of language, which we thought we understood: early attempts at machine translation failed because the old-fashioned notions about grammar failed to capture all the essentials of language. It naturally encourages us to ask questions about the limits of computability, about what we can and cannot know about the world around us. Computer science people spend a lot of time talking about whether or not man is merely a machine, whether his brain is just a powerful computer that might one day be copied.” Our readings will help us explore these and other deep issues of computing by considering its elements. Authors will include Feynman, Leibniz, Lovelace, Turing, Peirce, and Searle. Practica will include building and programming a simple mechanical computer, Boolean logic exercises, and testing whether simple algorithms can yield highly complex results. No prior knowledge of computing or programming is needed.
  • Laxness Independent People
  • Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century
  • Computing Technology and Human Society
    What is an electronic computer, and how does it work? In what ways does it drive (and illuminate) the rise of method and rationalization in the present era? What are the ethical and societal consequences of computing technology? We will approach these questions first by studying the fundamentals of computing and then by reading in the philosophy of technology. Texts will include Charles Petzold’s Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, selections from two of philosopher Albert Borgmann’s books (Holding on to Reality and Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life), selections from Joseph Weizenbaum’s landmark text Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, and perhaps a few short additional works. Along the way students will be asked to learn the basics of writing computer code to better understand both the powers and the limitations of computing technology.
  • Spengler The Decline of the West (abridged edition)
  • Schopenhauer The World as Will and Representation
  • The Literature of War
    This precept on the literature of war will focus on two works: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors. We also will read some of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and if time permits, several poems and short stories by American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We may even have time to watch a movie or two, such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Apocalypse Now.
  • Plato Philebus
  • Pessoa The Book of Disquiet
  • Shakespeare’s Othello, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale
  • Interrogating the Wise in Four Greek Dramas
    Greek drama often brings the wise under interrogation, sometimes by torture. In this preceptorial we shall study four dramas that interrogate the wise: Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusai, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, and Aristophanes’ The Clouds. The wise are the god Prometheus, the poet Euripides, the king Oedipus and the philosopher Socrates. The unwise believe that the wise know something useful and the unwise foolishly try to extract that knowledge from the wise. I must say that I approach this preceptorial with what Tocqueville might call a sort of religious dread. Hans Jonas recommends that in order to save the human species we return humankind to the condition where they continually think upon their doom. In short he recommends that we reverse the Promethean gift of “blind hopes.” Was the Promethean project a grand mistake? I suspect the ancients with a reputation for wisdom had an opinion on this question. Yet if they did, they do not disclose these opinions easily, perhaps so that we ordinary mortals may hope to be happy. Hence daring to study these four dramas together, you will put your happiness at risk.
  • Ranier Maria Rilke The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Duino Elegies
  • Aristotle On the Heavens, Eudemian Ethics
  • Spinoza Ethics
  • Keats, Odes and Letters
    The odes of Keats are poems about poetry and its relation to the other arts, to life and to truth. Written in a few months shortly before his early death, this series of six poems is among the greatest poetry written in the English language, and represents Keats’s effort to create a new, particularly modern, type of lyric poetry. We will work through each of the six odes, paying attention to whether and how each should be read in relation to the others. We will supplement our study of the odes by looking at a few of Keats’s letters and some earlier poems.
  • Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations
  • Dostoevsky Demons
  • Mozart The Marriage of Figaro
  • Conrad Outpost of Progress, Lord Jim, The Tale
  • Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Russell An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy
  • Shakespeare Measure for Measure
  • Laozi Daodejing
  • Hegel Philosophy of Nature
  • Melville Moby Dick
  • O’Connor Wise Blood
  • Gibbon The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • Heidegger What is Metaphysics?
  • Proust Remembrance of Things Past, Swann’s Way
  • Nietzsche Gay Science
  • Arendt The Human Condition, The Origins of Totalitarianism
  • James The Portrait of a Lady
  • Dostoevsky The Devils
  • Avicenna Metaphysics
  • Zhuangzi Zhuangzi
  • Flaubert Madame Bovary
  • Bach St. Matthew Passion
  • Feynman QED
  • Camus The Stranger
  • Borges Ficciones
  • Lorenz Studies in Animal and Human Behavior
  • Essays, Poetry, Music, and Art by: Einstein, Manet, Al-Farabi, Dickinson, Al-Razi, Locke, Voltaire, Ibn Majja, Duchamp, Ibn Sina, Hill, Hume, Al-Ghazali, Rousseau, Ibn Tufayl, Montaigne, Ibn Rushd, Herbert, Donne, Hopkins, Stravinsky