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Instructor: Shanna Slank. This course meets TR 12:30 – 1:45 p.m. in PE 3018.

Philosophy of Action: On Trying, Persisting, and Quitting

There is a wide range of things that you and I do. In everything from flipping light switches to getting college degrees to going to the moon, we make things happen by way of our own agency. Impressive!

In this course, we will consider philosophical questions that arise in the context of complex agency—that is, the sort of agency that we use to get college degrees and to get to the moon (but not necessarily when we flip light switches or satiate our hunger by making a sandwich). Understanding this kind of agency is important since it is behind the parts of our lives that we often care most about: making art, having romantic partnerships, raising children, nurturing communities, pursuing justice. Here are the questions we’ll address: What does it mean to try? What does it mean to fail? Is it possible to rationally choose to do things that you should be quite confident will be difficult to do? What about things that we should think we are extremely unlikely to succeed at—can we rationally choose to do these things? How can we keep going when, in the middle of doing something, it gets really hard? And importantly: When should we quit?

We’ll begin with some canonical texts in the philosophy of action and then move on to more contemporary work on (for example) trying, grit, and hope. We will also look at work in psychology,  sociology, and mainstream media as we contemplate how we as a culture do value trying, persisting, and quitting as well as how we ought to value these things.


Prerequisite: 1 PHIL course.