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Fellowship for Student Research

The Soper Award for Research in Philosophy is an annual award which supports student-initiated work in philosophy. Recipients of the award will typically receive $2,500. Any students active in philosophy classes are invited to apply for the award, though preference will be given to declared Whitman philosophy majors.

The award will be given for thoughtful, rigorous and critically sound projects covering one or more fields of interest to the student that may be an extension or derivative of the student's academic work. Students may apply with a faculty mentor, but the project proposed should be of the student's design.

The project, to be completed over a period of months (which could include some of summer and some of the school year), will culminate in a public presentation organized by the philosophy department. Upon completion of the project, including the presentation, the student will receive the award.

Proposals must be submitted by email to the chair of the philosophy department by the end of March, and the winning project will be selected by the philosophy department by mid-April. Proposals should include:

  • The name of applicant(s) and faculty adviser
  • A brief description of the nature and scope of the project, typically 4-6 pages long, which identifies the main issues or themes to be covered
  • An annotated bibliography, typically 2-3 pages long
  • A project time line (starting with proposal due date and ending with public presentation) detailing what periods will be devoted to the completion of the project and how it will be completed by the end of the award period
  • A budget for expenses associated with the project, if any

Each proposal must also include a letter of recommendation from a member of the philosophy department who agrees to serve as an advisor for the project.

Awardees must complete their projects by the end of the following academic year after their selection.

Alex Pitts '17 describes his Soper Award Project:

"My Soper Project focused on studying ethics in Baruch Spinoza's philosophy. Spinoza's work, Ethics, directly connects a metaphysics of substance monism to an ethics of perfecting one's striving to persist. In my research, I focused on this relation through the limited epistemic capabilities of humans, as finite modes of a single substance, and the ethical perfection of their essence this status demands of them. Contrary to some contemporary interpreters, I argue that because we may not have adequate knowledge of particulars, virtue is unattainable -but we must strive for it anyway. As such, Spinoza's ethical thought focuses on impossible ends, but shows us the conditions for the good through increased understanding of ourselves and the world."

Flora Sheppard '16 describes her Soper Award Project:

"In the paper that emerged from my Soper project, I examine Socrates' use of dialectic with Lysis, a youth who displays great potential for virtue in Plato's Lysis. In opposition to scholars who interpret Socrates' initial conversation with Lysis as primarily consisting of the refutative elenchus, I propose a new reading in which I argue that Socrates briefly practices a gentle form of elenchus but is able to use maieusis and exhortation in much of the conversation because of Lysis' notable responsiveness.

"Having completed my Soper project but not yet ready to move on from my examination of Socrates' dialectic with youth, I used my Soper paper as the first chapter of my honors thesis and expanded the scope of the project in the second chapter. There, I look to Alcibiades' lines in the Symposium as a challenge to my arguments about Socrates' success with Lysis; Alcibiades, who had even greater potential in his youth than Lysis, knows he must change his ways whenever he is with Socrates, but as soon as he leaves Socrates, he reverts to his corrupt ways. With little historical information about Lysis and only one appearance in Plato's dialogues, we face the concern that he too will fail to pursue virtue in the long term, despite apparent success in his conversation with Socrates. To settle this concern, I examine Alcibiades I, arguing that Socrates' pedagogical methods and Alcibiades' responses reveal important character differences between Lysis and Alcibiades that explain why Socrates could have successfully turned Lysis, but not Alcibiades, toward virtue in their brief conversation. In resolving Alcibiades' challenge, I discuss broader implications for understanding Socrates' pedagogical methods with youth."

The William W. Soper Prize in Philosophy was established by friends and family of Professor Soper in 1987. This award is made to the most outstanding senior philosophy major as selected by the faculty in the department.

The Soper Award for Research in Philosophy was established in 2014 to encourage and support student-initiated research in the discipline.

When Whitman graduates talk about the professors who had the most impact on their lives, you'll often hear Dr. Soper's name mentioned as one of them. William Wayne Soper joined the philosophy department at Whitman in 1954 and spent the next several decades challenging, confounding, and cultivating the minds of students. His popularity resulted, in part, from the passion he put into his lectures, but also from the time and energy he gave to supporting students in their non-academic lives. 

Professor Soper reveled in everyday moments, finding in them fertile ground for humor, pleasure and philosophical reflection. He focused his scholarship on the interrelations between the self and the world and especially enjoyed teaching Philosophy of Religion, Ancient Philosophy and Heidegger seminars. In addition to teaching, Soper served as a pre-professional advisor for ministerial study and a chair of the philosophy department.

Soper earned his BA from Colgate University in 1948 before going on to complete an MA at the University of Missouri and a PhD at Boston University. He retired in 1990, with generations of Whitman graduates citing him as an influential and favorite professor.

These alumni joined with family and friends in establishing the William W. Soper Prize in Philosophy in 1987 to honor Professor Soper. Given the funding available from the Soper Endowment, the philosophy department and leadership donors to the award agreed to an additional use of income from the endowment. The newly established Soper Award for Research in Philosophy further honors Professor Soper's legacy.

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