Paradoxes, Personhood and More: Philosophy Theses

Colgate provides many opportunities for students to go above and beyond in their undergraduate degree, with the philosophy department offering an honors degree to those who choose to write a thesis in the department. For such theses, students typically begin the process the first semester of their senior year before enrolling in an independent study in their final semester. Each student must find an advisor to guide them through the process and eventually approve their thesis. 

Once students have approval from their advisor, they are allowed to stand for honors by defending their thesis to a board containing three Colgate philosophy professors of their choosing. Following this evaluation, their draft must be submitted the week of final exams.

Senior Rivka Dai, whose thesis relates to the concept of self-deception, explains that her topic was inspired by an article she read in her Philosophy of Mind class, “Paradoxes of Irrationality” by Donald Davidson. 

“I found it intriguing because it involves a lot of paradox and our interpretations of others,” said Dai. “Then, when we are interpreting other irrationalities, it’s natural to think of them in relation to myself, so I found self-deception quite interesting. From that passage, I took to doing some research on this topic.”

Typically, philosophy honors candidates are encouraged to derive the basis of their thesis from a paper written previously in an upper-level class. Dai, however, took an alternate approach, as she does not have a past paper as a basis for her thesis, which presents potential challenges.

“If I had [a previous paper as] a foundation, I could probably skip a lot of work at the initial stage,” Dai said. “But I think after the initial stages, building an individual argument is probably as difficult in my situation as any other. In the process, I found out that even if I have a paper as a foundation, doing a thesis is just so much more difficult than a final paper for a class.”

For Isaiah Schwarz, finding a starting point in his thesis process was similarly challenging, but he sought the input of Professor Hibi Pendleton, which helped inform his path.

“When I started my thesis, I knew I wanted to focus on philosophy of law, but I didn’t have a specific question in mind. That’s where my advisor, Prof[essor] Pendleton, came in. We had a lot of great discussions based on the topics discussed in her philosophy of law class last [fall] semester, and she helped me narrow down my interests and develop a question that would be both challenging and manageable. However, it was important to me to have final say over what the question would be, and Prof[essor] Pendleton respected that.

Though the final stage of writing a thesis involves receiving an honors degree in philosophy, senior Maddy Hettler, who is writing her thesis about freedom in relation to personhood, does not describe this as her primary motivation. Inspired by an article by Baruch Spinoza she read in her Modern Philosophy class, Hettler sought to explore a topic she found interesting.

“I wanted to develop this idea more because I think Spinoza is someone that has a really interesting and compelling philosophy,” said Hettler. “I wanted to investigate him more because in the Modern Philosophy class, we just do a short section on him and we don’t really go into his metaphysics as much as I wanted to explore. I saw [writing a thesis] as a specialized class on something that I really was interested in.”

Dai, on the other hand, sees writing her thesis as an opportunity to practice for future graduate programs. 

“As I’m applying to some master’s programs in philosophy, I want to get some practice,” said Dai. “This is my first real independent research in philosophy, so I’m thinking, even if I cannot get honors, I feel either way that I’ve benefited from this process.”

Despite the stress that comes with independently managing the deadlines involved with a thesis, Hettler cites her advisor, Professor Edward Witherspoon, as a valuable resource throughout the writing process.

“I know a lot of people who have trouble kind of holding themselves accountable and I’ve experienced that a lot,” Hettler said. “My advisor helps a lot with that because I have weekly meetings with him. In those meetings, we set up research goals for that week involving what I should investigate further and what I should develop further. Then I really have to just work into my schedule and make work plans. It’s been nice to have an advisor that can give me benchmarks.”

Hettler explains that aside from the possibility of attaining an honors degree, she has undergone personal growth as a result of writing her thesis.

“I think [the process has] really strengthened my philosophical thinking and made me question my arguments,” said Hettler. “It’s made me push myself a little more by considering objections to my own arguments in a way that only makes me strengthen my own regiment even more. I think it’s a really good way to develop yourself individually.”