Honors and Awards
Honors in Philosophy
We encourage qualified students to apply to the senior thesis, the honors track in philosophy. It offers a unique opportunity to pursue independent research under supervision, and many students have found this to be an extremely rewarding element of their degree. However, we stress that undertaking the senior thesis is certainly not a guarantee of achieving honors. Moreover, students should understand that the option is demanding. It involves a great deal of preparation and independent work on the part of the student, and the development, also, of skills in synthesis and structure of a longer piece of writing than undergraduates may be used to. It may not be appropriate for students with extensive competing demands.
To be eligible for working towards Honors, students must be philosophy majors of junior standing, and have a GPA in the major of at least 3.5. Satisfying these requirements alone does not qualify a student for Honors, only for approval to seek Honors; the criteria for attaining Honors are described below under "Evaluation". It is strongly recommended that students have taken a course at the 300 level in the area of their proposed thesis topic. Exceptions to these requirements will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
An application is required in order to apply for consideration for Honors. Please note that the application requires a signature from a faculty member, indicating his or her agreement to advise the thesis. If you are unable to obtain the signature in time, you must obtain other, written agreement from that faculty member – for example, an email from that faculty member – in order to apply to pursue the thesis.
The application is due to the Undergraduate Program Assistant by no later than the Monday prior to the beginning of Winter Quarter Reading Week of your Junior Year. It is the responsibility of the student to submit a complete application to the office by this time, including (as noted) the written confirmation from a faculty member that he or she will advise the thesis. Professors from other departments for honors projects will generally not be accepted as philosophy honors-supervisors. Students contemplating this possibility ought to seek special case approval by the Honors Convener, who will submit this petition to the departmental Honors Committee (consisting of the Convener and the acting members of the Undergraduate Advisory Committee) for approval. Approval can only be expected under exceptional circumstances. This presumption of rejection obviously does not apply to interdisciplinary honors projects involving philosophers.
NOTE: The thesis is a challenging project and unlikely to be completed satisfactorily if pursued in addition to a full schedule. Honors candidates are therefore not to take either 398-1 or 398-2 as a fifth course and are expected to expressly commit in their application to taking no more than four classes while taking PHIL 398. Petitions for exceptions to this policy must be formulated in writing to the supervisor and brought before the Honors Convener and the Honors Committee by the Supervisor.
Two-quarter PHIL 398-sequence
The candidate usually takes PHIL 398 in the two successive quarters: spring of the junior year, and fall of the senior year. (“S/F-sequence”)
It is possible for students to petition in writing for permission to begin the senior thesis sequence in fall quarter of senior year (“F/W-sequence”). For this purpose, a statement must be affixed to the application for honors stating the reasons why the applicant will not be able to begin in spring of the junior year. The grounds will then be evaluated by the Honors Convener and supervisor when the application is reviewed. The student's absence from Northwestern in spring due to an international study abroad program is a common reason for the granting of departmental permission, but there may be other grounds. Other reasons might include disruptive competing study or work demands in spring, and may also include an agreement between student and supervisor regarding preference for the fall and winter quarters of the senior year. Any students seeking this arrangement should make their application in winter, so that there is still time to begin in spring if the application for a late start is rejected. Also, students may in very exceptional circumstances undertake honors in non-consecutive quarters (“S/W-sequence”). Permission for this option must be gained at the time honors candidacy is declared.
For students who wish to engage in a longer-term research project, they may enroll in an independent study in a quarter prior to the beginning of honors. This independent study would take place in spring quarter of junior year, and the student then would do the honors sequence proper on the F/W sequence. Any student interested in pursuing this option must discuss this with his or her prospective thesis advisor (who must agree to supervising the thesis for the extra quarter), and must apply to follow the F/W sequence.
NOTE: PHIL 398 cannot be used to fulfill the Department's major requirements, including the elective requirement. PHIL 398 is an extra course, just as seeking honors goes beyond completing the major.
Senior Thesis and Honors activities
The student's supervisor will oversee the research and writing of the paper by meeting with the student, as well as by commenting on drafts to the final version of the thesis.
The student will participate in a senior thesis project discussion group (Honors Colloquium or "HONKOL", for short) for one quarter (usually the Fall), led by the honors convenor, to get feedback concerning the thesis and give feedback on others’ drafts.
If the student encounters difficulties concerning his or her supervision or the honors group, he or she should make an appointment to speak with the DUS or speak to the Honors Convenor.
It is recommended that the student complete a sizable piece of writing (roughly 10 pp. draft) or an equivalent amount of accomplished research, to be determined by the supervisor, by the end of the first quarter of the sequence she or he follows. At the end of the two-quarter sequence, the student must submit a long paper or short thesis; the required length is between 6,000 and 12,000 words, or 20 to 40 pages. This final piece of writing should demonstrate an appropriate level of research or reflection. A general rule of thumb is that the thesis be equal or better in quality to that of A level work in a 300-level course in order for the student to be granted honors.
Early in the Spring quarter, students pursuing honors who have by then already submitted their theses participate in two further meetings of the HONKOL to prepare presentations of their theses at an annual departmental event called PhilFest, where they present their work to a large audience in a way appropriate to communicate research results to expert audiences. This event is aimed at celebrating the accomplishment of the students who worked pursuing honors. It is widely advertised in the university and takes place before the decisions about honors nominations (see below) are made by the Honors Committee.
PHIL 398-1 & PHIL 398-2
The thesis supervisor alone determines, on the basis of the student's work over the course of the two quarters, the grade for the PHIL 398 sequence. The student does not receive a separate letter-grade for PHIL 398-1 before completing PHIL 398-2; instead, PHIL 398-1 is graded as “continuing” upon the student receiving a positive progress report from the supervisor towards the end of her or his work in PHIL 398-1.
The final paper is read by the supervisor and another faculty member (“Second Reader”) in a blind review procedure. Their evaluative reports are submitted to the departmental Honors Committee. The Committee approves directly as warranting nomination for honors contingent on fulfillment of the other criteria those theses that are found excellent by both readers. In case of conflicting reports by both readers, the Honors Committee may decide to ask for a third opinion after having reviewed the records and thesis or produce itself a third report to decide the matter.
Any Honors candidate
- whose thesis work is approved for Honors by the Honors Committee, and
- whose GPA in the major at the time of evaluation is at least 3.5, and
- whose presentation at the annual PhilFest was found satisfactory
will be nominated for Honors to the WCAS Committee on Superior Students and Honors. The latter has the sole authority to make final decisions on Honors.
Awards in Philosophy for Excellent Philosophy Essays
The department offers several awards for outstanding undergraduate work at various levels. The awards recognize papers written for a philosophy department course or senior ("honors") thesis as being of outstanding quality. All of them require nomination by faculty, who will submit the corresponding student papers to the Director of Undergraduate Studies, who appoints two department members (none of whom may be instructors for any of the papers) to decide whether to award the prizes. Currently, the department awards:
- the Herder-prize for the best paper written by a First- or Second-Year student in a philosophy course.
- the Brentano-prize for the best paper written by a Third- or Fourth-Year student in a philosophy course.
- the David Hull-prize for the best senior thesis of the academic year.
- the Stephen Toulmin-prize for the best GPA in philosophy of the academic year for a graduating philosophy major.
- the Lula A. Peterson-prize for exemplary citizenship as a philosophy major.
Short information on the namesakes:
J.G. Herder (1744 – 1803) was a German philosopher and theologian critical of Kant and influential in German Romanticism who was famous for his concern for education, culture and spiritual growth, and for discovering the philosophical relevance of language.
Franz Brentano (1838 – 1917) was a German-Austrian psychologist and philosopher of extremely deep influence in the phenomenological, analytic and logical traditions of philosophy, as well as teacher of some founders of American pragmatism. His son became physics professor at Northwestern and bequeathed his father's furniture and library to the philosophy department here (you might sit on one of his wooden chairs in some office at some point).
David Hull (1935 – 2010) was an extremely influential philosopher of biology who revolutionized the field of philosophy of biology by many decisive discoveries about the Darwinian paradigm's feasibility and scope, who taught at Northwestern between from 1985 until his retirement in 2000. He was also known for his unconditional dedication as a teacher, and nationally recognized for his engagement on behalf of the cause of gay rights.
Stephen Toulmin (1922 - 2009) was an enormously influential British-born philosopher whose 'structure of argument' is still the standard tool in argument-theory and teaching, and whose wide-ranging works in the philosophy of science, ethics and political philosophy became classics. He taught at Northwestern in the 1970's and 80's."
Lula A. Peterson (1922 - 1977) graduated from Northwestern in 1945 with Phi Beta Kappa honors. She was a writer for the Daily Northwestern engaged with campus issues. But most importantly, she was already then (1941-1945) a civil rights activist and one of the leaders of the NU chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the organization which, 15 years later, would be the key civil rights organization to organize the Freedom Rides that protested against segregation in the South, under great personal risk for the participants. In 1949, Lula Peterson married James Farmer, the leader of CORE who would receive the presidential medal of honor from President Clinton in 1998 for the achievements for equality reached in the freedom rides. According to James Farmer's Autobiography Lay Bare the Heart (ch.15), "Lula kept the organization together when no one else knew its direction" throughout the 1950s, only to emerge, as treasurer and budget officer of CORE, as the "soul" of the organization in organizing and coordinating anti-segregationist activities in the 1960's. Her merits as a civil rights leader (who also suffered from Hodgkin's disease, but got two children nonetheless) and her unwavering, courageous citizenship were never acknowledged officially except in her husband's autobiography. The department of philosophy at NU honors her memory as a woman from NU (who also took some philosophy classes) who in her civic work, without ambitions of limelight but also without ever compromising her ethical commitment to equality and freedom, was indispensable at the avantgarde of civil rights.