Philosophy Syllabi

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Below are sample syllabi for Philosophy courses and are subject to change. If you would like a copy of an actual syllabus for a specific course and/or year, please complete the Syllabus Request Form.

PHIL 105 Ethics

Course Description:

We will mostly be engaged in two separate but related projects. For the first project, we will consider the difficult question “How should we live our lives?” To do this, we will explore many of the most important problems in moral philosophy and many of the most important solutions that have been offered to those problems. For the second project, we will learn and practice distinctly philosophical skills, which include understanding, criticizing, developing and presenting arguments. To do this, we will think hard about our own beliefs and the beliefs of others, engage in open debate, and develop arguments to support our own views.

PHIL 107 Logic and Reasoning

Objectives and Content:

In this course, we will ask the difficult question “What is good reasoning?” We all use reasoning at almost every moment in our waking lives, but some of us are better at it than others. So what does it take to be good at reasoning? This course will be dedicated to discovering and practicing the principles of good reasoning so we can be as good at reasoning as we can. The course will be divided into two main parts. The first part of the course will be devoted to what is known as semantics, which focuses on the relationship between reasoning and the meanings of linguistic expressions. The second part of the course will be devoted to what is known as syntax, which is more abstract and focuses on the underlying structure of language and thought. The main goal of the course will be to improve our reasoning skills, but along the way we will encounter questions about the applicability of logic and reasoning to basically every field of inquiry, including mathematics, linguistics, music, art, natural science, social science, computer science, cognitive science, and of course philosophy.

PHIL 108 Ecological Philosophy

Course Goals:

The earliest courses in “environmental ethics” examined how western philosophy’s ethical theories might help us understand our responsibilities for the environment, whether “custodial,” based upon sentiment (empiricism), or rights (rationalism), communal among species, caring, maternal, etc. Traditional ethical theories such as virtue ethics (Aristotle), utilitarianism (Hume), natural law theory, deontology (Kant), care-ethics (Gilligan), Gaia hypothesis, feminism (Griffin, Daily), animal rights theories, etc. were put on display and assessed, negatively in the end as comprehensive doctrines, leaving both professor and student in limbo regarding the appropriate orientation to, and understanding of, the contemporary ecological crisis. Ecofeminism and deep ecology emerged as successor orientations, framing the ecological crisis more comprehensively as the neglect of, respectively, women or nature, the first owing to the patriarchal parasitism, the second owing to the anthropocentric instrumentalization of nature. Courses in “Ecological Philosophy” emerged that framed the issue more widely, in an interdisciplinary fashion, more multiculturally, in providing surveys of different cultural conceptions of nature, and more historically, in a critique of western rationality. Eco-phenemonology responds to these traditional schools of environmental thinking by decrying the implicit conception of nature underlying them: namely, either empiricist, rationalist, or constructivist accounts of nature, all of which presuppose a largely modern scientific account of nature. Our modern scientific account of nature as a functionally defined (cybernetic) physical system is “correct” for the purposes of controlled study, experimentation, and manipulation, but it neglects a more radical inquiry into how humans are situated as natural beings in the world…

PHIL 109 Existentialism

Course Goals:

The primary goal of this course is to introduce students to existentialism as a philosophical movement critical of the predominance of Graeco-Hellenic philosophy within the Western tradition (See detailed course description after Reading Schedule). Films are used as cinematographic artworks that raise important issues associated with particular existentialist figures. Paper assignments allow students to offer philosophical interpretations of such artworks.

PHIL 195 Knowledge & Reality: An Introduction

Course Description:

How much do you really know? Do you know if you are not dreaming right now? Do you know if an intelligent evil spirit is not deceiving you right now? Do you know if your senses are not deceiving you right now as they have so many times in the past? Do you know if a world separate from you even exists? How about God; do you know if God exists? Come to think of it, do you even know if you exist? And even if you do exist, can you make free choices? Can you freely decide to take this class, or is it already predetermined? Readings will include classics from such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, as well as more contemporary works from such philosophers as Bertrand Russell, W. V. O. Quine, Susan Wolf, John Searle, and Jennifer Lackey.

PHIL 205 Ancient Philosophy

Cross-listed with Classics 205

Course Description and Goals:

This course will study the development of wisdom traditions and philosophical thought in ancient Greece and Rome, from its beginnings in the 6th century BCE through the 2nd century CE. It will examine the development of philosophy within its cultural contexts and its influence upon the history of philosophy and intellectual thought.

The aims of this course are:

  1. To obtain a basic understanding of the development of philosophy in the Classical World and its foundational importance for Western culture.
  2. To become conversant with the core concepts of the major schools of Greco-Roman philosophy.
  3. To produce plausible philosophical readings of ancient texts.
  4. To perceive and communicate effectively about the influence of Greco-Roman philosophy upon the modern philosophy and the modern world.
  5. To develop and enhance students’ skills in critical thinking, reading comprehension, and philosophical and literary analysis.
  6. To develop and enhance students’ oral and written communication in the coherent and meaningful articulation of a central idea, the identification and synthesis of suitable evidence (textual and otherwise) and logical support for such an idea, and the proper use of idiomatic English according to the traditional guidelines of grammar, style, tone, diction, and elegance.

PHIL 206 Early Modern Philosophy

About the Course:

The period referred to as “Early Modern,” roughly the period between the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, was an age of considerable transformation of human thinking and activity. The impact of thinkers such as Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza led to radical shifts in metaphysical, epistemological, religious, and political thought. These shifts in philosophical understanding find a reflection in the scientific work of Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Copernicus, as well as in religious controversies and political upheavals. The reorientation of the place and power of human knowledge became expressed through the insights of a mechanistic worldview, the development of modern subjectivity, and through the promises of the human capacity to construct a social-political order. Whether or not one is consciously aware of the influence of this period upon our thinking and social organization, the impact of the Early Modern period of philosophical writing still reverberates upon our thinking and social-political activity. In this class, we will look to some of the most influential thinkers of this period to examine the ways the influence of these thinkers persist to this day.

PHIL 207 18th-Century Philosophy

Course Goals:

As the subtitle indicates, this course is devoted to two of the most famous 18th-century philosophers: Hume and Kant. Hume is arguably the most sophisticated proponent of the English empiricist tradition he inherits and reinterprets from Shaftesbury, Locke, and Berkeley. We will study Hume as the arch skeptic of the rationalist tradition of modern philosophy (1600-1800). Rationalists modeled philosophy upon mathematical knowledge, which was, according to them, grounded in reason alone. According to the rationalists, if something is known on the basis of reason alone, it is known prior to sensory experience; it was knowledge a priori. Against the very idea of a priori knowledge, Hume launched a devastating skeptical attack. In its stead, Hume proposed to study humans just as Sir Isaac Newton had proposed to study nature: namely, through the observation and experimentation with human nature. We will study Hume, then, as a distinctively modern thinker committed to the idea humans are natural beings that should be studied by the “experimental method”: i.e. as natural beings subject to causal scientific explanation. A central goal of the course is to examine Hume’s contribution to contemporary scientific or “naturalistic” approaches in the study of human life.

Another goal of the course is to examine Kant’s remarkable inheritance and critical re-deployment of both rationalist and empiricist traditions. Like Hume, Kant has both a negative program of criticizing the traditions he inherits and a positive program of placing the study of humans and nature on a secure footing. Accordingly, we will study Kant as a critic of “metaphysics” in all of its forms, whether rationalist, empiricist, or classical. More specifically, we will study Kant’s famous first “critiques” as an orchestrated, positive response to Hume’s skepticism regarding mathematical and causal knowledge as well as human freedom. We will examine Kant’s contribution, then, to contemporary criticism of “naturalistic” approaches to the study of knowledge and morality. Although we will discuss Hume’s and Kant’s moral theories and, indeed, their systematic approach to philosophy as such, we will focus in this course upon their epistemological theories.

PHIL 208 19th-Century Philosophy

Course Goals:

This course introduces students to 19th-century, Continental-European philosophy by reading representative works by Kant, Schiller, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The central theme of the course is the concept of human freedom. We begin by examining Immanuel Kant’s famous “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy, in which he limited human knowledge to a “mechanically conceived” nature in order to introduce a radical conception of human freedom. We will then examine, in chronological order, how the major figures of the 19th-century tradition interpret, criticize, and develop Kant’s radically new conception of human freedom, particularly in light of its sharp contrast to natural causality. A central question raised by post-Kantian philosophers is how such a radical conception of human freedom could account for how human actually develop and shape their identities in social settings. What would count as a “free” or “autonomous” self-determination of one’s own life with others. As we will see, each subsequent philosopher offers a different account of how such self-shaping is possible.

PHIL 209 Philosophy of Science

Crosslisted with SEMN 212: Sophomore Seminar

Course Description:

The course sets out three tasks. Our first task is to acquire and develop distinctly philosophical skills: e.g. reading persuasive essays, analyzing concepts, understanding arguments, criticizing our own views and the views of others, and writing persuasively in a clear and concise manner. Our second task is to examine the most important philosophical questions asked about science: e.g. What is science? (as opposed to art, religion, or mythology); How does theory function in science? What is a scientific explanation? and, do the objects referred to in scientific theories (like quarks and bosons) really exist? Our third task is to critically evaluate science as a distinctive type of culture; a culture that demands participants to move from being mere consumers of knowledge to being producers and developers of knowledge: e.g. the distinction between scientific culture and other types of culture; the political aspects of scientific investigation; the discipline required of the practitioners of science; and the values and goals of scientific culture.

PHIL 210: Classical & Contemporary Social Contract Theory

Course Description:

The social contract tradition is a foundational pillar of modern political philosophy. Authors in this tradition hold life without any government (the supposed “state of nature”) would be so problematic in it motivates people to set up a “contract” of sorts with one another which institutes a system of government. [Most of the theorists we read do not think of the state of nature as a literal period, but as a thought experiment as it clarifies the grounding of the obligations we have towards those who share our society and political community.] This account of the move from the state of nature to government supposedly explains why we have an obligation to obey existing governments. According to this tradition, government and laws of some kind are a prerequisite to any minimally just society. This is how the tradition differs from philosophical anarchism (another class). Although the social contract tradition is an overarching framework authors within it have very different views on topics such as just and unjust systems of government, consent to governance, the sources and limits of political obligation, property rights, and the supposed “right to revolt”. We will study this tradition by reading excerpts from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. We end the course by reading a few contemporary authors. We will read a piece by an author who defends our duty to obey the law and uphold legitimate states. We will also read two contemporary authors who critique the social contract tradition based on what it neglected to account for in terms of gender and race, and how this impacts the notion of tacit voluntary consent to governance.

General Learning Objectives:

By the end of PHIL 210, all students are expected to be able to:

  • Identify and articulate the fundamentals of and differences between the four classic social contract models.
  • Understand the arguments of each author in detail as well as the assumptions they rely upon.
  • Identify and articulate errors or oversights in both individual authors and the social contract framework itself—particularly contemporary critiques from the perspective of structural inequalities along race and gender lines.

We will meet these learning objectives through a combination of readings, pre-class questions accompany readings, lectures, in-class discussion, and individual assignments.

PHIL 211: Philosophy of Law

Course Description:

This course introduces students to basic issues in the philosophy of law. In the first half of the course we review the main schools of thought regarding the origin, justification, and binding force of legal systems: Natural law theory, legal positivism, legal realism, etc. During this time we will also focus on issues such as the relation between law and morality, the nature and main functions of the law, how law impacts political legitimacy, and so on. We then spend a week on the debate between originalist and non-originalist schools of constitutional interpretation, as well as a week on the debate between classical liberalism and Critical Legal Studies (CLS), as these debates can clarify what is at stake in many other debates between competing approaches within the philosophy of law. We conclude with three weeks dedicated to essential topics in the philosophy of law: punishment, rights, and liberty.

General Learning Objectives:

By the end of PHIL 211, all students are expected to be able to:

  • Articulate the core claims and frameworks of the main schools of thought within the philosophy of law.
  • Explain core concepts within the philosophy of law.
  • Articulate their own position regarding the main schools of thought and core concepts in the philosophy of law.
  • Identify key theoretical and practical challenges regarding the production, enforcement and justification of law.

We will meet these learning objectives through a combination of readings, pre-class reading questions with accompanying readings, lectures, in-class discussion, and individual assignments.

PHIL 212: Philosophy of Social Science

Course Description:

By surveying classical and contemporary debates on the logic of the social sciences, this course introduces students to the philosophical examination of basic epistemological and normative presuppositions that underwrite contemporary empirical social scientific inquiry. Case studies of classical debates raise the following questions: What distinguishes the social sciences from both the Humanities and the sciences of nature? In studying human beings, do social researchers look at the micro-level for the causes, reasons, motives, meanings, or rules of individual actions or, at the macro-level for social functions, institutions, structures, practices and fields? How do micro-individual and macro-social levels of explanation connect up? Do social scientists explain or interpret human affairs? Are the social sciences “descriptive,” “prescriptive” or both? Contemporary case studies raise the following questions: How has the critique of Western Logocentrism altered traditional conceptions of individual and social development? Do the Western social sciences offer universal standards of rationality or merely one, among many, ethical value systems? Are radical ethnomethodology and multiculturalism alternatives to, or merely critical realignments of, the Western social sciences? By addressing such questions, the course offers a historical and critical introduction to contemporary debates about the social scientific study of difference. The last portion of the course is devoted to an emerging approach to social research called praxeology, the study of the social as networks of bodily-centered social practices.

PHIL 214: Philosophy of Art

Course Goals:

This course introduces students to a subfield of philosophy known as “Aesthetics,” the study of the experience of beauty and the sublime, and to its associated field known as the “philosophy of art,” the study of human artifice in the fine arts and their successors’ artifacts on the contemporary art scene. This course neither presents a comprehensive survey of what philosophers have said about art, nor a historical survey of theories or “schools” of artistic interpretation, nor even a history of different styles and genres of art in the Western tradition. Instead, the course focuses upon basic conceptual issues of how artworks are distinguished from other types of things and how different types of experience and involvement are required to gain access to artworks and natural beauty. Moreover, we will focus on one key question, i.e. Do artworks raise claims to truth? By examining Lambert Zuidervaart’s defense of artistic truth and Seel’s hermeneutic alternative to the idea artworks raise claims to truth…

…Finally, we will examine Zuidervaart’s detailed and complex defense of artistic truth and explore how the enterprise of art, i.e. its practices and institutionalizations, functions as a critical leverage vis-a-vis society, culture, and politics. According to Zuidervaart, artworks are “true with respect to” to the artist (authenticity), to the art-receptive public (significance), and to the artistic medium (integrity). Artworks function as imaginative explorations of the artist, imaginative interpretations by a public, and imaginative presentations within the artistic medium/media. Zuidervaart’s account of the creation, reception, and historical development of art focuses upon art as a complex, social, and cultural mode of communication that is distinct from, but connected with, other ways of attaining truths about ourselves and the world in which we live.

PHIL 218: Analytic Philosophy & Science

Objectives and Content:

The analytic movement developed around the turn of the 20th-century as a result of increasing dissatisfaction among some philosophers with the dominant philosophical tradition of the time. New developments in logic and linguistic analysis allowed this group of philosophers to engage in a new style of critique of the old regime. Out of this critique, analytic philosophy was born. Although analytic philosophy lives on in our own time, in this course, we will study analytic philosophy as an historical movement. We will begin with the early years of analytic philosophy, and we will study its development up until around 1970. We will be especially interested in the ways analytic philosophy has affected and been affected by advances in science and technology. We will accomplish this by focusing our attention on some of the great thinkers of the early analytic movement, and we will test our own ideas against them with open in-class debates and writing exercises.

PHIL 295: Special Topics

Special Topics offerings focus upon topics not addressed in the department’s regular offerings. The course can be repeated with a different topic. Check the course schedule to see when Special Topics courses are being offered.

PHIL 295: Special Topic: Philosophy of Religion

Crosslisted with Sophomore Seminar: SEMN 295

Course Description:

The course will set out three tasks. Our first task will be to acquire and develop distinctly philosophical skills: e.g. reading persuasive essays, analyzing concepts, understanding arguments, criticizing our own views and the views of others, and writing persuasively in a clear and concise manner. Our second task will be to examine the most important philosophical questions asked about religion: e.g.: Can the existence of God be proven or disproven? Is religious faith rational? Does morality require a divine moral-lawgiver? Should we hope for a life after death? And, what is the appropriate response to religious diversity? Our third task will be to evaluate religion critically as a distinctive type of culture: one which establishes specific beliefs and practices, and which involves various personal, social, and political values and goals. To accomplish this, we will ground our discussions in the examples provided by the major religions of the world while we consider the various philosophical issues presented by a critical evaluation of religion.

PHIL 305: Biomedical Ethics

Course Description:

This course focuses on a variety of ethical issues brought about by modern medical technology and practice. We start by surveying the normative frameworks used by contemporary medical ethicists, paying particular emphasis to the main principles of medical ethics and the special nature of the relationship between doctors and patients. We then attempt to apply the principles of medical ethics and insights about the doctor-patient relationship to controversial contemporary issues such as abortion, physician assisted death/suicide, euthanasia, the limits of doctor-patient confidentiality, the determination of organ transplant recipients, the determination of patient competence, and surrogacy contracts (among other issues). The class will often use short narrative case studies and longer court cases to highlight the complex nature of these issues. The course aims to emphasize these issues are controversial precisely because good arguments can be made on either side, and to give students the analytical and evaluative frameworks to make their own judgments.

Course Objectives:

By the end of this course students should be able to:

  1. Charitably summarize the main arguments for and against a particular bioethical issues and medical practices.
  2. Analyze issues within bioethics using the traditional frameworks and principles of bioethics.
  3. Articulate their own carefully considered, logically sound arguments on bioethical issues & medical practices.
  4. Respectfully and charitably engage with views far different than their own.

PHIL 306: Philosophy of Language

Course Description:

This course provides students with a basic and yet intensive introduction to a special branch of linguistics called “speech act theory” or “pragmatics”: the study of what we do with words. This focus upon pragmatics, the study of utterance acts is, however, linked to semantics, the study of sentences by a substantial claim on the part of the instructor: namely, the two are inextricable interlinked: semantics and pragmatics are two sides of the same study of linguistic meaning. We will then examine the semantics/pragmatics divide with a special emphasis upon formal pragmatics (study of speech acts) instead of formal semantics (study of sentences). More specifically, we will be interested in the basic question of a theory of meaning: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of understanding the meaning of a speech act? First, we will examine John Searle’s classic formulation of a theory of meaning in his inaugural speech act theory, which he developed in the later ‘60s and 70s after study with John Austin and Paul Grice at Oxford. We then turn our attention to a far-reaching, if ultimately untenable, theory of meaning offered by Jurgen Habermas in the 1980s and 1990s…

…Finally, we will familiarize ourselves with the most sophisticated and emphatic pragmatic theory of meaning on the contemporary scene, namely, Fracois Recanati’s truth-conditional pragmatics which allows us to stabilize the intuitions and insights of Habermas’s formal pragmatics and Bakhtin’s empirical pragmatics.

Objectives and Outcomes:

Students will be able to define and to use terminology formal semantics and informal pragmatic theory to describe, analyze, and diagnose actual language use.

PHIL 308: Metaphysics and Mind

Objectives and Content:

Our primary concern in this course will be philosophical issues of personhood. We will ask questions about personal identity, the possibility of making free choices in a deterministic world, and the many mysteries of thought and consciousness. We will begin from a broad metaphysical perspective, but then quickly zoom in on more specific issues in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. For each issue, we will read essays written as part of a specific debate between contemporary philosophers, and we will test our own ideas against them with open in-class debates and writing exercises.

PHIL 310: Critical Social Theory: The Dialect of Enlightenment

Critical Social Theory Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Actions: The Foundations of Sociological Theory

Course Goals:

The primary goal of this course is to introduce students to Habermas’ magnum opus: the two-volume Theory of Communicative Action (1981) [hereafter TCA]. TCA is devoted to articulating the basic concepts of social theory, which should be of keen interest to any student of the social sciences and/or Humanities. The central goal of the course is to familiarize students with the theoretical and conceptual complexities involved in making any informed pronouncement about “modernity,” “Western rationality,” “Eurocentrism,” “Occidental development,” “capitalist growth,” “technological reason,” “Westernization,” etc. Habermas intervenes in the “discourse of modernity”: i.e. the debate whether Occidental modernization is just one specific cultural world among a multiplicity of others, with no claim to universality or rationality. If the current Philosophical Discourse of Modernity is defined by the total relativity of standards of rationality to various different and incompatible cultural worldviews, then Habermas is, without doubt, the most staunch critic of this form of cultural studies.

PHIL 311: Postmodern Critical Theory: The Critique of Modernity

Phenomenology, post-structuralism, and psychoanalysis: sexual division as body, language, desire, and political agency.

Course Description:

This course examines the themes of sexual division, feminist politics, and the socio-linguistic geography of the desiring body in contemporary Postmodern Critical Theory, more specifically, the psychoanalytic turn in poststructuralist conceptions of social power. The central issue of the course is a novel theory of sexual division worked out by contemporary post-structural critical theorists who reject both (biological or teleological) essentialism and cultural constructivism as capturing sexual difference, which, they argue, requires psychoanalytic theorizing. Theorists such as Jean Laplanche, Julia Kristeva, Jean Copjec, Ellie Ragland, Slavoj Zizek, and Alenka Zupancic locate sexual division in our ontological condition as speaking beings (parle-e-etre) who desire, enjoy, and agonistically inhabit the political arena. Such theorists offer a novel theoretical approach to feminism as located at the intersection of issues of embodiment, desire, language, geography, and political power, an intersection missed by the current fixation on the sex/gender, nature/culture duality. The core of their account of sexual division is the acquisition of language is the embodiment of language, the sexualized incarnation of speech, as such, casting political struggle as an ontological antagonism located, not only at the level of semantic content, but also and more fundamentally at the level how the social-symbolic discursive field shows up and gets talked out: i.e. the differential sexual logic of the signifying process. In short, sexual difference is a difference in how language becomes embodied, where differential modes of embodiment stage politics as an ontological antagonism of radical difference, and correspondingly, language becomes sexualized. Such critical theorists argue politics conceived exclusively in terms of culturally constructed identities, the current orthodoxy of identity politics, actually de-sexualizes and therein de-politicizes feminism. Alenka Zupancic’s question, “What is Sex?” locates the core issue of the course…

PHIL 395: Philosophy Junior Seminar

Conducting Independent Research in Philosophy

Two-term collaborative Workshop for Juniors to develop their independent research and thesis composition and presentation skills.
Prerequisite: Must be a junior Philosophy major or minor, or with instructor permission.

Course Description:

The Philosophy Department Junior Seminar spans two terms, fall and winter, earning .5 units per term, so a full unit upon completion at the end of winter term. This seminar is devoted to cultivating a student’s ability to conduct independent research over a sustained period of time under close supervision by the instructor, as one type of pedagogical support, and in close collaboration with seminar participants, as another type of support. Seminar participants are responsible for drafting a largely expository manuscript at the end of fall term – i.e. a charitable and detailed presentation of the views of relevant thinkers and artists – and a 25 to 40 page independent research manuscript that presents a concerted argument at the end of winter term: i.e. an essay that presents the student’s own critical response to a self-legislated philosophical question. During spring term, seminar participants will present a precis of their argument in a Philosophy Department Symposium, perhaps with both a guest speaker and participants from surrounding institutions…

PHIL 490: Philosophy Senior Seminar

Contemporary Interpretations of Hegel’s Conception of Agency: Robert Pippin and Slavoj Zizek on Agency, Identity, and Modern Liberal Politics

This is a two-quarter course taken in the Fall and Winter quarters, one night per week.

Course Description:

This year’s Senior Seminar examines late 20th and early 21st century interpretation of Hegel phenomenological account of human agency, freedom, and identity, particularly in connection with social recognition and political agency. More specifically, we will examine Robert Pippin’s and Slavoj Zizek’s distinctive and apparently incompatible interpretations and defenses of Hegel’s account of human agency. While Pippin appropriates Hegel as defending the various institutions of modern political liberalism, family, civil society, and state, Slavoj Zizek appropriates Hegel as advocating a radical form of political agency that shatters liberal institutions and free-market capitalism. It’s startling to face two such contradictory interpretations of a single figure, and we will critically examine their differing conceptions of agency…