400/500 level

Courses at the 400 level (often taught in conjunction with 500 level graduate courses) are smaller topics seminars. They allow students to engage in sustained conversations around more specialized topics and pursue original avenues of research. Most 400 and 500-level topics courses may be taken more than once if the course content is different from year to year, or section to section.

To enroll in a course at the 400 level, you must have complete 6 credits in philosophy, 3 of which must be at the 200 level or higher.

Here is a list of the topics courses offered in Fall/Winter 2020-2021

All Philosophy courses in Fall 2020 will be offered remotely using a combination of asynchronous activities and online synchronous meetings during scheduled class time. Specific information will be added to each course's description as it becomes available.

Fall 2020


Topics in Metaphysics: Causation
Prof. Philip Corkum

Little could be more familiar in our day to day lives than causation. We are continuously bumping into things, trying to avoid bumping into things, praising our friends for their influence on us, blaming our friends for their influence on us, and so on. But causation is weird. Case in point: I say that my not watering the plants caused them to die – but if my not watering the plants is an event at all, it’s nowhere near the plants. A second example: Caesar’s birth and his assassination are both parts of the same causal chain of Caesar’s life leading to his death – but while we might say that Brutus’ stabbing caused Caesar’s death, we don’t say that Caesar’s birth caused his death. This is a seminar on causation. We’ll begin by quickly surveying the historical background and contemporary theories of causation. We’ll then study a host of problem cases for these theories. Finally, we’ll discuss some of my work in progress. Students will gain both greater facility with the techniques of contemporary philosophy and exposure to a broad range of issues in metaphysics.

PHIL 405/505 Topics in Philosophy of Mind: Intuitions, Conceptual Engineering, and Experimental Philosophy
Prof. Ingo Brigandt

This seminar is on metaphilosophy, where in addition to looking at conflicting philosophical methods we will also encounter different visions of the primary aims of philosophy. One philosophical method is to rely on intuitions. In the specific context of conceptual analysis and the 'method of cases,' we will scrutinize accounts of concepts that promise to support philosophy as armchair practice using intuitions. In contrast, experimental philosophy uses psychology-style methods. Apart from experimental philosophy results that challenge the reliance on intuitions, we also discuss what positive role experimental philosophical may have. Whereas traditional conceptual analysis aims at articulating the concepts we happen to possess, the rising philosophical approach of 'conceptual engineering' intends to put forward the most effective philosophical concepts, which may include discarding or modifying current concepts. The examples of conceptual engineering we will look at include the concepts of gender and race.
PHIL 436/536

Topics in Medieval Philosophy: Metaphysics Unified and Ruptured
Prof. Matthew Kostelecky

In this seminar, we examine the historical constitution of 'metaphysics' as a sub-discipline of philosophy. The story of metaphysics is one of continuity and rupture, of confusion and conflation, and, importantly, of the attempted unification and eventual fragmentation of this so-called 'theoretical science'. We will be looking into a range of texts, from antiquity to early modernity, with a particular focus on the Islamic and Latin medieval contexts, in order to understand the emergence of what has become a fundamental part of philosophy as a discipline and whether anything (and if so, what?) holds the enterprise together. While the seminar is clearly oriented toward figures and contexts from the past, it will also raise questions about how to do historical philosophy, and it will deal with contemporary systematic issues today usually classified as 'meta-metaphysics'.
We will be reading a range of figures (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, some of the peripatetic commentators of antiquity, Al-Farabi, Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), Dominicus Gudassalinus, Aquinas, Scotus, some post-Scotist-yet-not-quite-modern thinkers, and Christian Wolfe) and within these many thinkers, we'll be looking to understand persistent attempts made in different contexts to unify metaphysics. These contexts sometimes operate in isolation from each other, but more often build one upon the other in critical ways. The attempted unifications of metaphysics (note the plural: it is not one attempt to unify the discipline, but several) will fail, or, at most, lead to moments of historically transient successes. We will try to understand why there are, clearly, multiple attempts to unify metaphysics, what character and shape these attempts to unify take, and what - perhaps insuperable - problems attend to the project of unifying metaphysics.

PHIL 492/592

Topics in Phenomenology: Self and Other
Prof. Marie-Eve Morin

The course consists in an introduction to phenomenology and some of its critiques through the problem of otherness. It focuses on the question of alterity, that is, whether it is possible to have an experience of otherness and how such an experience, if possible, is structured. The problem of otherness is central to phenomenology because phenomenology begins with the presupposition that all sense arises in first-person experience. Yet, if it is I who experience the other, if the other is a correlate of my experience, can I really say that it is the other in his or her radical alterity that I experience in this way? Is true otherness not condemned to remain senseless for the phenomenologist? Thinkers studied include Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida. At the end of the course, you should not only know how each author "resolves" the problem of otherness and how each stand in relation to the other, but you should also have some general knowledge of the phenomenological method and of deconstruction.
Evaluation based on Weekly Questions, Glossary Entries, Term Paper, and Oral Examination.

Winter 2021

PHIL 401/501

Topics in Epistemology: Epistemology
Prof. Philip Corkum

I know that I have hands. But many philosophers, from at least Descartes on, give reasons to think that I do not know that I am not a handless brain in a vat, being stimulated to believe that I have hands. Philosophers respond to this tension in different ways. Sceptics reject that I really know I have hands. Dogmatists reject that there are reasons to think that I do not know that I am not a handless brain in a vat. And contextualists hold that the truth of knowledge attributions can vary from one context to another, so it can be both true that I know I have hands and true that I do not know that I am not a handless brain in a vat. Getting clear on what varies from one knowledge attribution to another has become a central concern in epistemology. We will survey the positions, looking at scepticism (Unger), contextualism (DeRose), dogmatism (Stanley), minimalism (Cappelen and Lepore) and contrastivism (Schaffer). Students will gain both greater facility with the techniques of contemporary philosophy and exposure to a broad range of issues in epistemology.

PHIL 420/522

Topics in Logic: Metalogic
Prof. Katalin Bimbo

Logic has been a center piece of philosophy since the time of Aristotle. In the last 200 years or so, logic underwent a tremendous development, which expanded its scope and applicability. (Nowadays, parts of logic are parts of other disciplines beyond philosophy, such as computer science, mathematics, informatics and linguistics.) A characteristic feature of this progress is an increase in rigor and precision, which is in harmony with the analytic tradition in philosophy.
Two-valued logic with quantification (often abbreviated as FOL) is arguably one of the simplest systems of logic, yet it is rich enough to have interesting properties. (Some of the basics of FOL are taught in the philosophy courses "Symbolic Logic 1" and "Symbolic Logic 2.") The ability to formalize simple English sentences and to check the correctness of inferences is indispensable in the work of a philosopher (especially, in exact philosophy). However, a deeper understanding of FOL is needed to appreciate the role of FOL in mathematics and other sciences, and to philosophize about those areas of knowledge.
This course will focus on establishing some properties of FOL that are well-known by their label; we will fill those labels with substance. Instead of a natural deduction or an analytic tableaux formulation of FOL, we will work with an axiomatic proof system, which is more amenable to extensions and which permits simpler reasoning about the system itself. To prove key theorems such as the "soundness and completeness theorem," we will work with a precise definition of interpretations for first-order languages. As an easy consequence, we will obtain compactness. The theorems named after L. Loewenheim and T. Skolem are some of the most impactful for philosophy; we will prove these too. We might touch upon further methods and theorems such as the ultrapower construction (that can bring infinitesimals back to life), the quantifier elimination method (that can help to prove certain theories decidable) and Beth's definability theorem (that has implications for the philosophy of sciences). We will conclude the course by sampling the ideas that led to the development of formal logic into several new directions well beyond FOL.

PHIL 440/540

Topics in Ancient Philosophy: Roman Philosophy/Philosophia Togata
Prof. Jack Zupko

The study of ancient philosophy has always focused on ancient Greek philosophers, but this seminar will consider the less familiar and certainly less appreciated Roman contribution to western philosophy. We will look at what made Roman thought distinct and explore its more subtle impact on posterity. Topics will include: the Roman idea of the philosopher; Pythagoreanism as a founding myth; the meaning of eclecticism and the 'Romanizing' of popular Greek philosophies such as Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism; the transformation of ethics by early Christian thinkers. We will read works by famous authors such as Cicero, Lucretius, Seneca, and Epictetus, as well as selections from lesser-known thinkers such as Porphyry and Apuleius.

PHIL 442/546

17th & 18th C Continental Philosophy: Spinoza & Leibniz
Prof. Amy Schmitter

This course is devoted to two of the most important European philosophers in the generation after Descartes, and perhaps the two most systematic philosophers in the history of philosophy: Baruch (or Benedict de) Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. We will pay particular attention to their metaphysics in close comparison with each other and as responses to the groundwork laid by Descartes. To this end, we will examine their (similar, yet contrasting) views on substance, on the relations between mind and body, on explanation, and on the notions of necessity, possibility, contingency and freedom. Further topics will include the source of truth and its various modalities, the (in)commensurability of God's intellect and will with the human, and their understandings of ideas, knowledge and imagination. Our main sources will be Spinoza's Ethics (a somewhat misnamed book), and numerous short works of Leibniz, including the Discourse on Metaphysics and Monadology.
Note: Since both Spinoza and Leibniz were well acquainted with Descartes, some previous acquaintance with Descartes's work would be helpful for this class. Anybody looking for further background might want to read Part I of Descartes's Principles of Philosophy (or even Spinoza's early work Descartes's Principles of Philosophy, which was a kind of reading course Spinoza designed and the only work he published in his lifetime). Electronic editions of these works are available in the "Past Masters" series, accessible through the University of Alberta library:https://search.library.ualberta.ca/catalog/7148949.
Basis for Grading: several short papers during the term; final paper due at the end of term. Graduate students will give an in-class presentation; undergraduate students are invited to do so. Graduate students are expected to make regular use of secondary sources; undergraduates should make at least occasional use of them.
Books: Most of the translations of works we will be using are available in electronic editions through the university library. Hard copies are available as either A Spinoza Reader, ed. E. Curley (Princeton U. Press) or The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. I, ed. E. Curley (PUP); Leibniz, Philosophical Essays, ed. Ariew & Garber (Hackett Press). We will supplement the collection of Leibniz's essays with Philosophical Papers and Letters, ed. L.Loemker (Kluwer) (available electronically, but scarce and expensive in physical form) and New Essays on Human Understanding, ed. Remnant and Bennett (Cambridge) (may not be available electronically through the library). Various secondary sources will be made available through e-Class.

PHIL 450/550

Topics in Ethics/Moral Philosophy: Social Justice and the Environment
Prof. Jennifer Welchman

What do theories of social justice have to say about whether we ought to live sustainably, restore damaged ecosystems, reverse biodiversity loss and/or mitigate the effects of climate change? If social justice does require this, to what counts as a just distribution (egalitarian, prioritarian, sufficientarian)? To whom do we owe it (other existing people, future people, and/or non-human beings)? And is our own (or our community's) historical responsibility for ecological degradation relevant to the duties of social justice we may have?