Courses from 2022-2023

Fall 2022

PHIL 400/500  Topics in Metaphysics: Fundamentality

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

Wooden chairs are built out of wood, and wood is made up of atoms. Does the world have basic things, themselves unbuilt, from which everything else is made? To ask if there is something basic in the world is to ask about fundamentality. But there are two notions of fundamentality here: on one, the fundamental is that which is itself unbuilt; and on the other, the fundamental is that from which all else is built. It turns out that these two notions are extensionally equivalent – it’s from the unbuilt things that all else is built – provided building has certain features. In this seminar, we will look at these two notions of fundamentality and their history, we will question whether building has the right features to show that the two notions are extensionally equivalent, and we will use the topic as a jumping-off point to examine a wide range of issues and positions in metaphysics.

PHIL 438/594  Topics in Indian Philosophy: Meditation and Mind in Indian Philosophy

Prof. Neil Dalal   Tu-Th 12:30-1:50pm

The modern industries of mindfulness, wellness, and performance enhancement have extracted meditation techniques from Indian philosophical traditions as means to control cognitive flows, induce positive mental states and traits, increase productivity, and alleviate anxiety, depression, and addiction; however modern meditation movements are now far removed from their root traditions. Much has been lost in this process, particularly that most Indian traditions do not isolate meditation from philosophical study, and that the majority of their meditational / contemplative practices have not come under the scientific or popular gaze.

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 method for exploring the structures of our mind, identity, and experience? How might meditation operate as a means of insight by itself or in combination with third person 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, and incorporates our own experimentation with different meditation techniques as a phenomenological inquiry into first-personal consciousness. 

PHIL 442/546 Topics in 17th- and 18th-Century Philosophy: Descartes

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

Cartesian dualism is a familiar topic in philosophy. But Descartes also produced seminal work in mathematics, natural science, general metaphysics, and in the study of the “passions.” This course will offer an overview of Descartes's work, considering his metaphysics, philosophy of mind and method (including some novel mathematical techniques and representations), as well as looking at his physical treatises and his account of the passions. But it will not be your granddaddy’s Descartes! We will pay particular attention to how Descartes's thought developed over time in response to Scholastic-Aristotelian and other late Medieval and Renaissance philosophies. Particular issues to be examined include Descartes’s understanding of the role of focused attention for the discovery of knowledge (and how bodily and extended resources can help) and the structure of the Meditations on First Philosophy, which operates “according to the order of reasons.” To this end, we will devote the middle part of the seminar to reading the Meditations on First Philosophy slowly (although not quite as slowly as Descartes himself recommended.) We will end by looking at Descartes’s work on the “passions,” both through his long correspondence with Elisabeth of Bohemia, and the Passions of the Soul. The main aim throughout will be to get Descartes “right,” and to replace often stereotyped views with an understanding of the character of his thought in context -- a thought that is both more alien and more enlightening than is sometimes appreciated.

PHIL 492/592  Topics in Phenomenology: Critical Phenomenology

Profs. Marie-Eve Morin and Adam Takács   Monday 3:00-5:50pm

Phenomenology, in its most general definition, is the study of appearances. Whether we are investigating physical objects, numbers, artworks, other people, or values and norms, phenomenology’s starting point is always first-person experience. The phenomenologist, however, does not merely examine what appears, but focuses on how what appears comes to show itself meaningfully in experience. We could say that she describes what normally goes unnoticed and contributes to the meaningful appearing of what is.

Critical phenomenology’s wager is that phenomenological descriptions have the power to be socially transformative. Social structures such as heteronormativity, racialization, and colonialism do not generally come into appearance in themselves, even as they shape our lived experiences and the ways we encounter the world. Critical phenomenology not only brings these structures into view, but also critically questions those structures that undergird and inform appearances in order to open a space for their transformation.

Intersecting with feminist, Indigenous, and eco-phenomenologies, as well as critical race theory, queer theory, and critical disability studies, this course will take up critical phenomenological works alongside excerpts from the classical phenomenologists they draw on. No prior knowledge of phenomenology is needed.

Winter 2023

PHIL 412/510  Topics in Philosophy of Science: Science and Values

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

Different kinds of values clearly have an impact on science, however, proponents of the traditional view that science is value-free have maintained a distinction between epistemic values and social-political values, where only the former are a proper part of science. One can likewise claim that science fulfills its social function best by scientists providing reliable knowledge without being guided by social or environmental considerations.

In this seminar on science and values, we will critically discuss different views on how values—including social and environmental values—can play a legitimate role in scientific practice (and without undermining scientific objectivity). The seminar will devote substantial space to feminist analyses of the biological and behavioural sciences, including the question as to whether the best response to sexist and empirically flawed views promoted by past and current science is to work towards an unbiased, value-free science or towards a science that self-consciously endorses such social values as equity. In the context of socially responsible science and socially engaged philosophy of science, we will address how scientists and philosophers can interact with stakeholders and their value perspectives.

PHIL 401/501  Topics in Epistemology: The Epistemology of Groups

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

At the core of issues such as the implementation of the residential school system in Canada lies the question of what the actors of the society known as Canada believed at the time. For example, suppose we were to claim that the problematic belief justifying the system was that Indigenous people were not worthy of the same protections and considerations as white individuals in society. In that case, we could ask whether the problematic belief belonged to some individuals alone or whether such belief belonged to the group known as Canada as a separate entity from the individuals. If properly addressed, answering these questions could lead us to attribute moral and legal responsibility correctly. Answering this question could also give us insight into avoiding something like that in the future, and even some ideas about how to repair some of the damage done. Group beliefs are social phenomena and can be approached in at least two ways. The first one would lead us to consider that the social phenomenon known as a group belief is the addition of individual members’ beliefs and states. The second one raises the possibility of something else beyond the individuals, the group itself, having a set of beliefs and states.   

In this seminar, we will engage with questions of this sort by engaging with Jennifer Lackey’s book The Epistemology of Groups (OUP 2021). Through a close reading of the text, we will discuss the possibility of groups having beliefs, groups having knowledge, the possibility of groups lying, and so on. Due to the focus of this seminar, a basic knowledge of general concepts in Epistemology is strongly recommended.

PHIL 421/522  Modal Logic/Topics in Logic: Modal Logic

Prof. Katalin Bimbo   M-W-F 12:00-12:50pm

Logic is a core area of philosophy.  Modern formal logic, which was initiated by 19th century thinkers including De Morgan, Boole, Peirce and Frege, uses mathematical tools and concentrates on modeling reasoning.  The scientific approach used in logic resulted in an accumulation of knowledge that is unparalleled in any other area of philosophy.  Moreover, nowadays logic overlaps with other disciplines such as mathematics, computing science, informatics and linguistics.

Modal logics originated from attempts to analyze reasoning that may include sentences containing expressions such as "It is possible that ..." and "It is necessary that ...."  These modalities are called alethic.  It turns out that temporal phrases such as "It will be sometime in the future that ...," "It was always in the past that ...," "It was sometimes in the past ...," "It will always be that ..." and "... since ..." may be treated as modal operations.

In tense logics, two modalities interact; multimodal logics can model the epistemic and doxastic states of several agents and those of groups of agents.  Some other multimodal systems can describe reasoning about terminating computations by interpreting modalities as primitive and compound programs.  Modal logics are versatile and they often combine a certain intricacy with mellow properties in their metatheory.

This course will focus on some elements of modal logic, that is, no familiarity with any modal logic is required prior to taking the course.  We will mainly scrutinize propositional modal logics -- which are rich in expressive power -- from the point of view of their syntax as well as from the point of view of their semantics.  (The latter heavily relies on 2-valued quantified logic (FOL) as the metalanguage.  A working knowledge of FOL is a must for this course.)  Time permitting, we might dip into further questions such as quantified S5, filtrations, quick syntactic decision procedures and tableaux, for example. 

PHIL 457/557  Topics in Philosophy of Religion: Religious Faith and Meaning-Making

Prof. Joshua Harris   Wednesday 4:30-7:20 pm

In recent years social scientists have taken an interest in the phenomenon of ‘meaning’—that is, an abiding sense of overall life purpose or value—and its intimate relationship with religious faith and human well-being. Some have suggested that it is because it is a locus or source of meaning (in the relevant sense) that religious faith is often positively correlated with various measures of human well-being. In this course, we will explore classical and contemporary philosophical accounts of this connection between religious faith and meaning-making, posing questions such as the following: Is meaning invented or discovered? What is it about religious faith that invests individual and communal lives with meaning? Does religious faith bestow a “false” or “inauthentic” sense of meaning upon people’s lives? Is the connection between religious faith and meaning-making cognitive and/or affective? We’ll address these philosophical questions and others with an eye towards mutual enrichment with empirical work on the subject.

PHIL 470/570  Topics in Political Philosophy: Environmental Justice, Distributive Justice, and Animal Justice

Prof. Howard Nye   Monday 2:00-4:50pm

Some of our most pressing issues of justice concern how our social and political institutions should respond to the interrelated problems of the climate and ecological emergency, growing inequalities in living standards and health outcomes, and our treatment of farmed and free living non-human animals. Large and growing bodies of philosophical work argue convincingly that our institutions have substantial duties to make systemic changes in order to mitigate and repair the harms of environmental devastation and dispossession, tackle the sources of economic and social inequality, and respect the interests of non-human animals.

At the same time, an enormous body of scientific research supports the conclusion that animal farming and fishing are a leading cause of land and water use, ecosystem destruction, species extinction, the climate emergency, risks of zoonotic infectious diseases, unhealthy diets, and animal exploitation and suffering. The inherent inefficiency of breeding billions of farmed animals and using vast tracts of land to feed them, only to get a small amount of nutrients back from consuming their corpses and secretions, as well as emptying the oceans of trillions of fishes, squanders precious planetary resources and creates enormous amounts of polluting waste and other externalities relative to our consuming plants directly. The farming and fishing industries also concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a small number of corporations, and the ecological destruction and dispossession that they cause, as well as the negative health outcomes that they generate, disproportionately affect the least fortunate across the globe and in marginalized communities. A just transition away from animal farming and fishing and towards a predominantly plant-based food system thus represents a major opportunity to fulfill our duties of justice to the victims of ecological devastation, indigenous communities whose land has been dispossessed, marginalized communities facing food deserts, disadvantaged workers in rural communities and the food and agriculture sectors, and of course the billions of farmed and trillions of free living non-human animals who are exploited and destroyed each year by the present system. But such a transition will only be politically feasible and accomplish its aims if it is attempted through policies that answer to all of these claims of environmental, distributive, and animal justice.

In this course, we will examine the philosophical literatures on environmental justice, distributive justice, and animal justice, and evaluate policies that seek to practically accomplish some of their most pressing aims by facilitating a just transition in the food system.