Vassar Today

Up and Comer: Assistant Professor of Philosophy Barry Lam

By Samantha Soper

Curriculum Vitae

Ph.D., M.A., philosophy, Princeton University
B.A., philosophy and English, University of California-Irvine

Professor Lam studies and teaches from the analytic side of philosophy, studying problems of philosophy rather than individual thinkers. “For example,” Lam says, “I look at epistemology and study how we can know the world based on our sense perceptions. Many philosophers (historic and present) have commented on this topic, and I take into account all of their work.” This fall he taught “Problems of Philosophy” and “Philosophy of Science.”

On His Teaching Style

Lam considers himself a conversationalist rather than a lecturer. “I make sure to relate issues in philosophy to concrete, specific cases, making philosophy accessible to everyone.”

On Vassar Students

“At Vassar, students exhibit a raw intelligence and intellectual firepower combined with a genuine interest in learning. And they are not afraid to express themselves.”

On Vassar’s Philosophy Department

From the interview process, where he was questioned by a room full of philosophy majors, to performance reviews based on student evaluations, Lam finds “there is a lot of pressure to be really great in the classroom.” It isn’t just faculty and students who keep him on his toes, but alumnae/i as well. “I have had students whose parents told them they must take philosophy at Vassar because of professors like Mitch Miller and Michael McCarthy.”

On What He Brings to Vassar

Lam has committed to team-teaching a new cognitive science course with Associate Professor of Psychology Jan Andrews titled “Language and the Infinite Mind.” “The course will be about our mind’s capacity to generate infinitely many thoughts through the use of language, and how such a capacity of infinity plays out in other areas on cognition. [Andrews’] interest in how language works in the mind complements my study of this within my discipline — how we use language and what it reveals about us.” “In his cutting-edge research, Lam is developing some fascinating objections to the view that the meanings of many of our words vary with the contexts in which they are used, a view that has become a kind of orthodoxy in recent years,” says Lam’s colleague, Associate Professor of Philosophy Douglas Winblad.

VC’s Impression of Him

“Who is this 15-year-old in front of the class, and what did he do with our professor?” was sophomore Jay Leff’s thought on his first class with Lam. Lam’s youthful energy creates a very open, comfortable atmosphere while still creating a dynamic classroom experience. “I think he’s got a gift for challenging students. The first time he presented arguments for skepticism about knowledge of the external world, I had trouble going to sleep that night,” recalls Tracy Rosenthal ’09.


When he’s not in the classroom, Lam enjoys playing guitar, walking his two dogs, and woodworking. Earlier passions included college radio and swing dancing. He was asked by a colleague if he would be interested in teaching swing dancing to students, but he is not ready to be labeled “the swing dancing professor” just yet.