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Seniors grasp philosophy prize

By Anna Mann on July 25, 2016 02:01 PM

Elise Woodard ’16 won the Garlan Prize for her thesis on a pair of puzzles in moral philosophy.

Two seniors have won the Edwin N. Garlan Memorial Prize, which recognizes outstanding scholarship in the field of philosophy.

Philosophy major Elise Woodard ’16 won the prize for her thesis on a pair of philosophical puzzles. Here’s how she explains her work:

In my thesis, I investigated two puzzles about moral knowledge. The first, a puzzle about moral forgetting, is to explain why it seems absurd to assert, “I used to know the difference between right and wrong, but I’ve forgotten it,” whereas claims to have forgotten facts and skills seem ordinary and unproblematic.

The second, a puzzle about moral deference, is to explain why it seems odd to form morals beliefs exclusively on the basis of other peoples’ testimony.  For instance, it seems odd to believe that slavery is wrong simply because someone else told you so. Both puzzles suggest that there is a fundamental difference between moral knowledge and other types of knowledge.

In my thesis, I offer a unified solution to both puzzles by arguing that moral knowledge is linked to emotions and desires in a way that non-moral knowledge is not.

“I felt both shocked and honored to receive the Garlan prize,” she said. “I am indebted to my thesis advisors, Profs. Steve Arkonovich and Meg Scharle, for their guidance and thoughtful feedback throughout the thesis process, as well as the philosophy department as a whole for their encouragement throughout my time at Reed. I knew that in some possible world I’d win the Garlan prize, but I never expected to win it in this one!”

Ezra Schwartz ’16 also won the prize for his thesis “Donald Davidson's semantic holism,” written with advisor Prof. Mark Hinchliff ’81.

“Semantic holism is the idea that meaning is holistic, which is to say that within a language, the meaning of one word depends on every other word,” Ezra told us. “The noteworthy thing that Davidson does is rejects the traditional idea of language as something that is shared by members of a community and instead makes the idiolect— each individual dialect—the fundamental thing to study. The key to his project is explaining how we can still communicate with one another despite not having identical idiolects.”

Ezra described himself as “pleased and surprised” to learn that he had won the Garlan Prize, and credited Prof. Hinchliff and Prof. Paul Hovda as professors who influenced him. “Philosophy was a good field for me,” he says. “I like the broadness of its scope. You can really apply it to almost any subject. And I like the logic of rigorous argument.”

The prize is not awarded every year, but only when a senior has produced genuinely excellent work. It was established by a group of alumni to honor the iconic Prof. Ed Garlan [philosophy 1946–73] and is awarded to graduating seniors who have “demonstrated an ability to carry out truly outstanding scholarship in philosophy.”

The prize includes a gift certificate for philosophy books.