Courses from 2021-2022

Fall 2021

Topics in Philosophy of Science:  Biological and Social Kind
Prof. Ingo Brigandt

In this seminar on biological and social kinds, we will take a look at different concrete kinds from the biological, biomedical, and social sciences. We will especially address kinds that include a mutual influence of biological and social factors, which one therefore could call ‘biosocial kinds’ or ‘human kinds,’ when they classify humans. Examples to be covered include sex/gender, race, emotions, and mental disorders. The general philosophical issues we will address are natural vs. nominal kinds, realism vs. social constructivism, essentialism about kinds, different types of kinds, how kinds and classification in the social sciences differ from the biological sciences, and whether a scientific account of something as a kind is dependent on human aims and values.

PHIL 426/526 Topics in Philosophy of Language: Meaning, Truth, and Communication
Dr. Hassan Masoud

This course will introduce you to some core topics in the philosophy of language through the original writings of prominent philosophers in the field, including Frege, Russell, Strawson, Austin, Tarski, Davidson, Grice, and Searle.

We will study theories of meaning (e.g., referential and use theories) as well as theories of reference (e.g., description and causal-historical theories) and, in passing, review some basic theories of truth (e.g., correspondence and coherence theories). Finally, we will also look at the field of philosophical pragmatics and examine two influential theories in the area: speech act theory, and the theory of conversational implicature.

Some of the questions we will address include:

  • How do we understand the sounds or symbols that are considered to be the components of our natural language?
  • In what way are the components of language connected to the external world?
  • How do we determine whether a sentence or proposition is true or not?
  • How do we communicate our intentions, beliefs, and desires through the expressions of language?
PHIL 438/594

Topics in Indian Philosophy: Meditation and Mind in Indian Philosophy
Prof. Neil Dalal

The modern wellness industry extracts meditation techniques from Indian philosophical traditions as means to control cognitive flows, induce mental states, increase productivity, and alleviate anxiety; but what is lost in this process? This course examines the rich philosophical contexts in which Indian philosophers rooted these practices. We will study classical Indian approaches (Buddhist, Yogic, and Vedāntic) to mind and meditation, and explore topics such as introspection, reflexivity, metacognition, and memory. 

Students will critically question how the first-personal stance of meditation may or may not function as a philosophical method. Do meditation practices successfully provide a phenomenological method for exploring the structures of our experience? How might meditation operate as a means of insight by itself or in combination with third-personal methods? How might we apply meditation towards moral philosophy and the cultivation of moral virtues or happiness? This course explores primary and secondary texts on Indian philosophy as well as some clinical psychology and neuroscience of meditation. In this course, students will experiment with different meditation techniques as a reflexive inquiry into first-personal consciousness. 

Course Requirements and Grade Distribution:

  • Participation and Attendance: 20%
  • Response Paper 1: 20%
  • Response Paper 2: 20% 
  • Final Research Paper: 40%

Watch this video to learn more about this course.

PHIL 450/550

Topics in Ethics: Collective Action and Individual Responsibility 
Prof. Howard Nye

There are many cases in which our actions collectively make an enormous moral difference, but our individual actions seem likely to make no important difference. Pressing examples of this include our emitting greenhouse gasses, our purchasing animal products and other harmfully produced products, and our voting or failing to vote for policies or candidates that promise to address important issues like economic justice and the climate and ecological emergency. In all of these cases the decisions of consumers or citizens taken collectively determine whether our environment is destroyed and whether billions of human and non-human animals suffer and lose their lives prematurely. But the decisions of any one consumer or citizen in purchasing animal products instead of vegan alternatives, living a higher rather than lower carbon lifestyle, or failing to vote for a given candidate can seem almost certain to make no important difference to these outcomes.

In this course we will examine the main accounts that philosophers have given of our moral responsibilities in collective action cases of this kind, and their bearing on how best to act in our current context of an acute climate and ecological emergency and rising and pervasive economic inequality. Particular attention will be paid to arguments for and against the expected consequences approach, according to which our actions in collective action cases do in fact have a chance (often small) of making an ethically important difference (often large), and that we can understand our responsibilities in these cases in terms of the reasons provided by these chances of harming or benefiting others. 

In examining the application of these philosophical accounts, we will also consider theories and evidence from the social sciences concerning how our actions can be most effective. These will include theories and evidence about the effects of such actions as individual consumer purchases and voting. But particular attention will also be paid to the potential effectiveness of individual actions that seek to bring about systemic change beyond voting, such as activism and participation in social movements aimed at changing political institutions.

PHIL 492/592

Topics in Phenomenology: Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger: The Development and Transformations of Transcendental Phenomenology
Prof. Marie-Eve Morin

This course is an introduction to phenomenology. Since phenomenology is a broad and complex field, we will focus mainly on the 'confrontation' between Husserl and Heidegger. We will study each philosopher’s understanding of the phenomenological method and its field as well as their respective interpretation of intentionality. We will start by studying Husserl’s development of transcendental phenomenology and its method (the phenomenological-transcendental reduction) from the Logical Investigations (1900-1901) to Ideas I (1913). Then we will turn to Sartre’s Transcendence of the Ego (1936), where Sartre questions Husserl’s positing of a transcendental ego. (Husserl had himself denied the existence of such an ego at the heart of intentional consciousness in the Logical Investigations so that Sartre’s criticism is very much a criticism of a development within Husserl’s thought itself.) Then we will look at Heidegger’s 1925 lecture course, Prolegomena to a History of the Concept of Time, in which he directly addresses Husserl’s phenomenology and shows how it fails to raise the question of being (the lecture course is more or less a proto-Being and Time). We will focus on how Heidegger’s criticism of Husserl leads him to transform phenomenological research from a study of consciousness to a study of ‘being’ and to propose a different conception of the ego (as Dasein rather than consciousness). While we want to take Heidegger’s criticisms of Husserlian phenomenology seriously, we also want to look at the issues Husserl had with Heidegger’s own approach. To do so, we will read some of Husserl’s later writings (probably an essay titled ‘Phenomenology and Anthropology’ as well as some of Husserl’s marginalia in his own copy of Heidegger’s Being and Time).

Winter 2022
PHIL 400/500

Topics in Metaphysics: Metaphysical Explanation
Prof. Philip Corkum

Consider these explanations: the human body is made up of its organic parts; some philosophers believe that facts about feeling pain are nothing over and above physical facts; and Plato claims that an act is loveable to the gods in virtue of its being pious. Call these metaphysical explanations. The relation between an act being pious and its being god-loved, for example, is explanatory but it’s not one of a variety of common kinds of explanations. For example, the relation is not causal: an act being pious does not cause it to be loveable to the gods. And metaphysical explanation, unlike epistemic explanation, is held by many to be insensitive to our interests, purposes and background beliefs: the facts about what acts are pious objectively determine the facts about what acts are loveable to the gods, independently of our epistemic situation and so without variation from one context to another. Jonathan Schaffer has recently drawn an analogy between causal explanation and metaphysical explanation which questions whether metaphysical explanations are indeed insensitive to context. In this seminar we’ll study the main views of causation (such as regularity, counterfactualist and contrastivist views), a veritable plethora of problem cases for these views, and assess the analogy between causation and metaphysical explanation. Students will gain both greater facility with the techniques of contemporary philosophy and exposure to a broad range of issues in metaphysics.

PHIL 436/536

Topics in Medieval Philosophy: The Medieval Plato
Prof. Jack Zupko

The history of philosophy, it is said, has been shaped as much by accident as by design.  The fortunes of Plato in western philosophy are certainly a case in point.  Everyone acknowledged Plato’s importance, but for almost a thousand years in the west between the Fall of Rome and the beginnings of the Renaissance, the only work by Plato available for study was the first half of the Timaeus, in a 4th-century Latin translation by Calcidius.  What sort of picture of Plato would you form if your Plato Reader contained only half of one dialogue, and Plato’s most obscure and philosophically challenging dialogue at that?  We’ll begin by looking at the physical and cosmological doctrines of the Timaeus itself, then explore the development of Plato’s ‘system of the world’ from late antiquity to the high Middle Ages, during which time it stood virtually unchallenged as the scientific image of the universe.  Finally, we’ll look at the sudden demise of the Platonic worldview (and then, strangely enough, its literary rebirth) following the recovery of Aristotle’s Physics and On the Heavens in the mid-12th century.

Required Texts:
Plato, Timaeus and Critias, tr. Robin Waterfield (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008)
Calcidius, On Plato’s Timaeus, ed. & tr. John Magee (Harvard University Press, 2016)
William of Conches, A Dialogue on Natural Philosophy, tr. Italo Ronca and Matthew Curr (Notre Dame University Press, 1997)
Bernardus Silvestris, Cosmographia, tr. Winthrop Wetherbee (Columbia University Press, 1973)
Alan of Lille, The Plaint of Nature, tr. James J. Sheridan (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies/University of Toronto Press, 1980)

Seminar Requirements: A research paper submitted in two drafts (60%), and a seminar presentation (40%).

PHIL 442/546

Topics in 17th- and 18th-Century Philosophy: Passions & Sentiments Among the British Moralists
Prof. Amy Schmitter

This course will cover different theories of the emotions and their place in philosophy of mind, practical reason, ethics, political theory and aesthetics in British early modern philosophy. Our main focus will be on the 18th century, but we will begin with some earlier authors as background, particularly Thomas Hobbes, as well as selections from Juan Luis Vives, Henry More, John Norris, and Mary Astell (and some 17th century translations from René Descartes and Nicholas Malebranche). We will then turn to the influential writings of Lord Shaftesbury (particularly the “Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit”) and Bernard Mandeville (The Fable of the Bees, selections from 2 vols.), which help prepare the ground for the “sentimentalists” Francis Hutcheson (Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions) and David Hume (the Treatise and various essays), as well as Samuel Clarke and Joseph Butler (selected sermons). Then we will examine selections from Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments and Lord Kames’s Elements of Criticism. We will finish with Edmund Burke (A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful) and selections from Mary Wollstonecraft that show her criticism of “sentiments.” Besides trying to figure out the place of the passions and sentiments in the philosophical psychology of distinct authors, we will consider how the various authors respond to their predecessors, why the new category of “sentiments” grew in popularity, the importance of particular passions and sentiments (such as benevolence), and whether thinking on the topic becomes increasingly secular (as some historians of philosophy have argued). There will be a lot of primary reading, but much of it is both readily accessible and charming. In some cases, we will look at facsimiles of early modern editions of the primary texts, since no modern editions exist. (Fortunately, they are all available electronically.)

Requirements for credit: two short papers, and a longer final paper (a bit longer for graduate credit than for undergraduate credit). Those taking the course for graduate credit are also required to give a short presentation (subject to negotiation).

PHIL 480/580

Topics in Aesthetics:  Aesthetics and Nature
Prof. Jennifer Welchman

How is our appreciation of nature related to our appreciation of art?  Unlike art works, natural objects lack intentionality, i.e. they are not bearers of meaning, a feature so often central to our experience of art. What methods of appreciating art remain relevant for appreciating nature?  Can we use these to critically evaluate products of nature? (Can natural objects be ugly?) And are the reasons we have for preserving works of art also applicable to natural objects? If so, in what sorts of cases?

Watch this video to learn more about this course.