Courses for 2023-2024

Fall 2023

PHIL 400/500 Topics in Metaphysics: Values in Metaphysics

Prof. Philip Corkum   Tuesdays 2:00-4:50pm

Scientists sometimes have to choose among rival theories that make equally good predictions about the world. These choices often appeal to a range of epistemic, cognitive and societal values. All else being equal, the theory that requires fewer kinds of entities or fewer basic concepts is preferable to the theory that has more; the theory that allows easier assessment of results is preferable to the theory that requires more difficult assessments; and the theory that promises salutary political benefits is preferable to the theory that perpetuates social injustices. Metaphysicians also have to choose among rival theories about how the world works. Have values a role in metaphysics that is similar to their role in science? In this course, we will look at several classic debates in metaphysics, such as the metaphysics of properties and the philosophy of time, and several current debates in metaphysics, such as debates over extended simples (could something be stretched out but lack parts?) aniority monism (does the universe as a whole explain its parts, or do the parts explain the whole?). We’ll consider the role of values such as parsimony, salience, and novelty within these debates. Students will gain familiarity with a wide range of issues in metaphysics, and have the opportunity to study a few of these topics in depth.

PHIL 438/594 Topics in Indian Philosophy: Non-Duality in Classical Indian Philosophy

Prof. Neil Dalal   Tu-Th 12:30-1:50pm

This seminar explores the philosophical understanding of non-duality in classical Indian philosophy. We fill focus on the Advaita Vedānta tradition, the most influential philosophical school of non-duality, and the views of Śaṅkara, its earliest and most important systematizer. Advaita Vedāntins argue that, contrary to appearances, the metaphysical reality of one’s self and the world is an unqualified unity, and claim that liberation and freedom from suffering is only possible by recognizing this reality. During the course we will explore Advaita’s philosophical positions on consciousness and self-identity, non-dual theories of metaphysical grounding, the nature of being, levels of reality, theories of liberation and enlightenment, and the contemplative methods designed to gain immediate knowledge of non-duality. We will incorporate primary texts in translation, such as the Upaniṣads, as well as contemporary philosophical approaches to Advaita.

PHIL 442/546 Topics in 17th- and 18th-Century Continental Philosophy: Hume’s Ethics and Aesthetics

Prof. Amy Schmitter   Wednesdays 2:00-4:50pm

The last several decades has seen increasing interest in philosophical accounts of the emotions, including those offered by David Hume (1711-1776). This course will explore aspects of Hume’s work that build on what he calls the “passions” and “sentiments,” particularly his moral philosophy and his aesthetics. In doing so, we will follow part of the plan announced in the 1739 advertisement to the first two books of his early, major work A Treatise of Human Nature, where Hume proposes subsequent studies “of morals, politics, and criticism . . . [to] compleat this Treatise of human nature.” Disappointed with the reception of the Treatise, Hume stopped after the third book on morals. But the plan makes sense as a way of extending the account of the passions offered in the Treatise to all the areas of human life founded on the passions and sentiments. We will start with Book Two of the Treatise, which introduces the “passions,” then consider the terminology of “passions,” “taste” and “sentiments,” after which we will move on the moral “sentiments” of Book Three of the Treatise. We will then compare this early account of the moral sentiments with the work Hume declared “incomparably the best,” his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Hume frequently conceives of our moral judgments as aesthetic in character – as involving appreciation of beauties of characters. So, we will also look at his account of our aesthetic emotions in various essays. (If time permits, we may also glance at how Hume uses the passions and sentiments in his approach to history and the social sciences. But time may not permit.) To set Hume’s thought in context, we will also examine the accounts of some of his predecessors and contemporaries, particularly Lord Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson.

Prerequisites: At least two previous courses in philosophy (preferably including Phil 240 or the equivalent). Since we will begin with Book II of the Treatise, students should already have read most of Book I (or most of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) before the start of the seminar, or be prepared to go over it on their own, in order to be familiar with the conceptual framework Hume uses. Some general knowledge of early modern philosophy (particularly of British early modern philosophy) will be helpful, although we will also cover some background in class.

Readings: Primary readings will mostly be drawn from the Treatise of Human Nature, the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals and Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, all available at (Other primary readings and various secondary sources will be available through eClass.) Students are encouraged to familiarize themselves with appropriate secondary sources; graduate students are expected to read at least some of the suggested secondary literature for each class.

1. Read, come to class, raise questions and discuss things.
2. Written requirements: two short papers and one (long-ish) final paper, and a presentation for those taking the classes at the 546-level (optional for those registered in 442).

PHIL 470/570 Topics in Political Philosophy: Political Polarization, Misinformation, and Propaganda

Prof. Howard Nye   Mondays 2:00-4:50pm

Citizens are increasingly able to live in their own information and media ecosystems, leading to increased political polarization, a breakdown of informed democratic deliberation, and an inability to adequately address vitally important global challenges. This raises a number of important questions about what citizens should do that are at the intersection of political philosophy, epistemology, and ethics, which we will explore in this course. These questions include:

  • How confident should citizens be in various claims, and what strategies should they employ for coming to maximally reliable expectations?
  • What should citizens do in their capacities as advocates and activists to address the problematic epistemic environment? What are the most effective strategies for breaking through in this polarized political environment with important information and epistemically strong arguments, and what crosses the line into problematic manipulation?
  • To what extent can questions about acceptable strategies for convincing others of a claim be separated from the epistemic case in favour of the substantive position being advocated (including that in favour of its ethical and political philosophical content)?
  • To what extent can the best strategies that citizens can employ to evaluate claims converge on an assessment of the epistemic case in favour of substantive positions?
Important cases that will be explored with these questions in mind include polarized views about economic policies, health policies, and environmental policies in the context of the energy and agriculture sectors.

Winter 2024

PHIL 401/501 Topics in Epistemology: Indigenous Epistemologies

Prof. Jorge Sanchez Perez   Wednesdays 2:00-4:50pm

In this seminar, we will discuss the idea of Indigenous Epistemologies. This seminar will consider methodological and comparative issues in each class. In addition, the seminar will address questions such as can there be epistemologies in plural? What makes Indigenous and Western epistemologies different from each other? And Is the term Indigenous epistemologies always useful for theoretical analysis? The seminar will discuss papers and manuscripts from Indigenous researchers, authors, and scholars from different parts of the world. As an upper lever seminar, students will be expected to guide the discussion via weekly presentations.

PHIL 415/510 Topics in the Philosophy of Biology: The Neuroscience of Human Diversity

Prof. Ingo Brigandt   Tu-Th 12:30-1:50pm

This seminar takes a look at different scientific approaches to the study of human difference and diversity. Given our focus on neuroscientific, psychological, and behavioural research, we address issues at the intersection of nature and nurture. Although research on alleged cognitive differences between different races has fortunately been largely abandoned, research on sex and gender based neuroscientific and cognitive differences is thriving. We will also take a brief look at research on sexual orientation. A major focus of the seminar will be on different methodological and explanatory approaches, some of which are more after finding essential or binary differences, while others are open to understanding human diversity. For example, there are mainstream approaches in biology, including evolutionary biology, that have gone beyond any nature-nurture dichotomy (or the idea of human nature) and view neuroscientific diversity as also being due to socialization. But there is also evolutionary psychology as well as pop science books on gender differences being hard-wired into our brains. We will also discuss whether social-political values such as equity can have a legitimate role to play in the design of research, the formulation of explanatory frameworks, and the communication of scientific results.

PHIL 422/522 Topics in Advanced Symbolic Logic: Computability and Gödel Theorems

Prof. Katalin Bimbo   MWF 12:00-12:50pm

The incompleteness theorems of Gödel are two of the many theorems that he proved; and they are, perhaps, the most widely known (or at least, the most often talked about) theorems of symbolic logic from the 20th century. First-order Peano arithmetic (PA) is a prime example of an incomplete mathematical theory: there is a sentence in the language of PA that is neither provable nor refutable (i.e., the negation of the sentence is not provable), if PA is consistent. R. Robinson's arithmetic (Q) is similarly incomplete and so is ZFC (the Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice). (The incompleteness theorems apply to PA and ZFC, which are widely known formal theories in mathematics, but it is worth noting that not all formal mathematical theories are incomplete.) The goal of this course is to introduce a couple of notions of computability such as recursive functions (combinators, elementary formal systems, abacus machines, etc.), and then state and prove the incompleteness theorems rigorously. Gödel proved the incompleteness theorems while he was attempting to further Hilbert's program; alas, the theorems are frequently seen to have demonstrated that Hilbert's program cannot be carried out. Depending on time, we might look at variations on the proof itself and on the underlying logic, as well as on formal theories that are subject to incompleteness, etc.

PHIL 444/546 Topics in 17th- and 18th-Century Continental Philosophy: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

Prof. Robert Burch   Mondays 2:00-4:50pm

In this course we will read and discuss the major parts of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Our overarching aim will be to understand this text as providing a solution to what Kant calls the “peculiar fate” of human reason, so as for the first time in the history of philosophy to have human reason provide itself with “complete satisfaction” in its desire for philosophical knowledge and complete answers to all the questions of metaphysics, which have hitherto preoccupied philosophers, albeit in vain. Our central concern will be to get clear about the basic elements of Kantian doctrine, from which we can then venture to determine and assess the case that Kant makes for the truth of transcendental idealism. However, the underlying theme will be to consider how Kant's treatment of this “peculiar fate” serves to transform the very meaning of philosophy itself. The implicit presupposition of this reading is that Kant's philosophy is not just one position among others but marks a radically new 'event' in the history of philosophy.

Text: Critique of Pure Reason. trans. & ed. Paul Guyer & Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

PHIL 450/550 Topics in Ethics/Moral Philosophy: Virtue Ethics Old and New

Professor Jennifer Welchman   Tuesdays 2:00-4:50 p.m.

In this seminar we will begin by examining three classic theories of good character and how they apply to the challenges of moral life. We will then consider contemporary proposals for updating these theories and whether and how they improve upon their originals.