philosophy honors program

The Honors Program in Philosophy is a two-year program which begins in a student's third year. It is modeled after the tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The main part of each student's curriculum consists of weekly meetings with a member of the faculty in a one-on-one tutorial at which the student presents a paper based on assigned reading material. The paper is subjected to a searching examination during the tutorial, the aim being to get the student to think and write clearly, accurately and cogently about inherently difficult topics and to encourage him or her to develop and defend his or her own ideas about these topics. These intensive tutorials are the heart of the Program, but students are required to audit and to do the work in some regular philosophy courses in logic and the history of philosophy and are encouraged to audit other classes both within and outside the department.

Making up the first three semesters of the Program are tutorials in ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. In the final semester students normally write a thesis under the supervision of a member of the faculty. At the end of this semester students take a three-day set of written examinations, prepared by external examiners. These examinations together with the thesis are evaluated by the examiners, who, after an oral examination on both the thesis and examinations, determine the student's degree: B.A. with Highest Honors, B.A. with High Honors, B.A. with Honors or, if the work is not of Honors quality, a regular B.A. Examiners are distinguished philosophers from prominent University departments.

Since each Honors student occupies a disproportionate amount of faculty time compared to a regular major, the standards for admission are set very high. Applicants are accepted only if they have a high grade point average, have demonstrated an exceptional aptitude for philosophy and give evidence of being sufficiently self-motivated to handle the freedom from quizzes, examinations and grades the Program gives them. Normally no more than four students are admitted each year. Most students admitted thrive on the freedom and intellectual independence allowed them and in the close contact with faculty. Those who do not thrive are dropped from the Program.

Although no grades are given either on tutorial papers or for the semester's work, the tutor will make it clear by means of comments, criticisms and suggestions how the student is progressing. Once a year there is a more formal evaluation at which each student meets with the entire faculty to hear reports from his or her tutors and to deal with any problems that may have arisen. Teaching and grading are kept separate in the Program so that the teacher, instead of being a judge, is working with the student to prepare him or her for the examinations to be set and evaluated by others. This makes teaching and learning a more cooperative enterprise than is normally the case.

The absence of grades can create a problem for graduate and professional schools which must decide on admission before the results of the final examinations are available and without the "objective" data of grades for the applicant's third and fourth years. This difficulty is more than compensated for by the facts a) that the students in the Program are already a carefully chosen few, b) that they must be doing work that would earn them A's or A-'s in regular courses in order to remain in the Program, and c) that the tutors, who know their work and abilities much more intimately than they can know the abilities of classroom students, can usually write a more accurate and helpful letter of recommendation about them than they can about regular students.

Graduates of the Honors Program in Philosophy have done outstandingly well in Law, Medicine and Business School, as well as in graduate programs in philosophy.

Any questions about the Program or about the students in it should be directed to:

Professor Daniel Devereux
Department of Philosophy
120 Cocke Hall
University of Virginia
P.O. Box 400780
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4780
Phone: (434) 924-6917