Honors and Awards
Honors in Philosophy
We encourage qualified students to undertake the senior thesis, the honors track in philosophy, as 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.
You must be a philosophy major of junior standing, and have a GPA in the major of at least 3.5. It is strongly recommended that students have taken a course at the 300 level in the area of their proposed thesis topic.
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 Betty Chau Nguyen by no later than the Monday prior to the beginning of Winter Quarter Reading Week. 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 member of the permanent faculty of the philosophy department that he or she will supervise 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 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.
The candidate then usually takes 398 in the two successive quarters: spring of the junior year, and fall of the senior year.
It is possible for students to petition the Department of Philosophy in writing for permission to begin the senior thesis sequence in fall quarter of senior year. 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 DUS 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. 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 fall/winter schedule. 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 do the thesis on the fall/winter schedule.
NOTE: Philosophy 398 cannot be used to fulfill the Department's major requirements, including the elective requirement (398 is an extra course, just as seeking honors goes beyond simply completing the major).
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 also participate in an honor thesis writing group for one quarter, 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. 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.
The thesis supervisor alone determines, on the basis of the student's work over the course of the two quarters, the grade for the 398 sequence. The final paper is read by the supervisor and another faculty member. Their evaluative reports are submitted to the departmental Undergraduate Advisory Committee. This committee nominates approved candidates (i.e., those whose work was found excellent by both readers) for honors to the WCAS Committee on Superior Students and Honors.
For more information, please consult the Director of Undergraduate Studies or visit our FAQ page.
Candidates Who Are Studying Abroad
This situation is currently handled on a case-by-case basis. For those students who plan to spend even the spring quarter of their junior year abroad, the following considerations are relevant:
We can sometimes make special arrangements for students who must be away on study abroad programs in spring of their senior year. But, all things being equal, you should try to start your study abroad program early enough, so as to be back for spring quarter. Most students undertake study abroad programs for one quarter or one semester rather than a full year. If you begin in July or September of your junior year, you should be able to return by spring. Students who wish to be away for a full year can sometimes begin a study abroad program in their sophomore year, with special permission of the department and support from the study abroad office.
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 student in an introductory philosophy course (100/200 level)
- the Brentano-prize for the best paper written by a student in an advanced philosophy course (300-level or honors)
- 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.
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."