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Recent undergraduate courses

Phil 1101. Problems of Philosophy

This course is an introduction to some of the main questions considered by Western philosophy from ancient Greece through the present era.  The main objective of the course is to introduce you to the characteristic methods of philosophical inquiry: the systematic clarification of puzzles that arise when we reflect on the most general features of the world and our place in it, and the critical evaluation of the reasons for and against particular resolutions to these puzzles.  Questions will include: What reasons can you have for your beliefs?  Is there a God and (if so) what is God like?  Do you have free will, or is this just an illusion? What changes could or couldn’t you survive?  What is the basis of morality?

Phil 1103. Philosophical Classics

This course is an introduction to characteristic questions and methods of the Western philosophical tradition, based on a close reading of three of its central texts: Plato’s Republic (4th century BC), René Descartes’s Meditations (1641), and George Berkeley’s Three Dialogues (1713).  Topics will include what makes for a good life, how we can achieve knowledge, and whether such knowledge will reveal to us a world radically different from the one common sense presents.

Phil 2221. Ancient Philosophy

This course serves as an introduction to some of the major ideas, arguments and methods of ancient Greek philosophy, based on a close study of selected works by Plato (427-347 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC).  We will focus on topics in ethics (especially virtue and its relation to knowledge) and metaphysics (especially views of causal explanation). The emphasis will be on understanding the reasoning behind what may be very unfamiliar positions on issues that remain central to philosophical reflection. Where the issues are ethical, we will need to take account of the influence of Socrates (469-399 BC). Where the issues are metaphysical, we will need to consider some of the pre-Socratic background.

Phil 2222. 17th and 18th Century Philosophy

Around the beginning of the 17th century, European philosophy entered a period of creative upheaval during which central features of previous thinkers’ views of the world were widely rejected.  The aim of this class is to investigate some of the most prominent alternative views of nature and our place in it that came to be defended by “modern” philosophers.  What kinds of things exist?  How do minds relate to physical things?  What is the nature of causation?  What capacities do we have for knowledge?  We will examine approaches to these questions in key texts by Descartes (1596-1650), Locke (1632-1704), Berkeley (1685-1753), Hume (1711-1776), and Kant (1724-1804).

Phil 3241. Language: Meaning and Truth

This course is an introduction to some of the core issues in the philosophy of language, approached through careful reading of influential texts from the “analytic” tradition inaugurated by the work of Gottlob Frege in the late 19th century.  Among the many questions we will address are the following:  How does language allow us to communicate and gain knowledge?  What role does the relation between language and thought play in answering that question?  Are there such things as “meanings,” and if so, what are they?  Is what our words mean determined in part by our surroundings, or is meaning “in the head”?  What are the relations between meaningtruth and reference?  How can language-users understand an indefinite number of novel sentences?  Can understanding a language be a source of a priori knowledge?  What is the relation between understanding a language and knowledge about what’s necessary?


Recent graduate seminars

Phil 5344. Seminar in Philosophical Logic: Curry’s Paradox (co-taught with Jc Beall) 

We will examine how best to characterize Curry’s paradox, and ask what lessons we should take from it, drawing largely on recent work.

Phil 5320. Topics in the History of Philosophy: Descartes

The seminar will be centered around a close study of the Meditations, paying attention to the (argumentative and non-argumentative) structure of this unusual text.  But we’ll also try to work out aspects of the world view Descartes hopes his reader will come away with, by drawing on writings including the Replies and Principles and by taking into account some recent debates.  Among the topics I hope we can focus on: the theory of ideas, including sensory representation; the metaphysics of substance, essence, eternal truths, causation and mind-body union; skepticism and the issue of circularity.

Phil 5320. Topics in the History of Philosophy: Locke

We will undertake a close study of much of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Throughout, we will try to keep in mind the Essay‘s epistemological aims, and the various traditions Locke is responding to (Scholastic, Cartesian, and corpuscularian).  Topics to be discussed include: Locke’s theory of “ideas” and their role in knowledge, his distinction between primary and secondary qualities, his position on substance, the role of mechanism in his philosophy, his account of kinds and their essences, his view of the functioning and philosophical significance of language, and his account of personal identity and moral agency.  In recent decades, each of these topics has generated controversy, often informed by different views of Locke’s aims and continuing relevance.  As time allows, we will explore some of this literature.

Phil 5320. Topics in the History of Philosophy: Wilfrid Sellars (co-taught with Austen Clark)

For many of us Sellars is one of the heroes of twentieth century philosophy, combining scholarly expertise in the history of philosophy with new and compelling analyses in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of perception.  Our goal is to focus on some specific topics that run through his writings from 1949 to 1981. The course fairly easily divides into a “first pass” (papers 1949-1963) and a “second pass”, when Sellars revisited and gave fuller formulations of his views on topics in the early papers.  Our goal is to understand the positions and the arguments at the end of the second pass.  To do this one must understand his first take on the topic.  The topics are: Language, Perceptual experience and Knowledge, Thought, Sense-impressions, and Signifying and Picturing.  Depending on student interests, we may also include Ontological Discourse, Modal discourse, and Scientific Realism.

Phil 5342. Seminar in the Philosophy of Language: Relativism and Pragmatism

The seminar will be largely devoted to examining recent debates concerning whether, and in what sense, certain kinds of discourse might require a “relativistic” semantics (the most-discussed examples involve predicates of personal taste, epistemic modals, and future contingents).  Our focus will be on understanding the explanatory work said to be performed by “relative truth,” and (in particular) how relativistic semantics might offer an otherwise unavailable account of the functions the discourse in question serves.  We will then discuss the approaches of two philosophers who pursue related questions without appeal to truth-conditional semantics: Robert Brandom’s inferentialism and Huw Price’s version of pragmatism.  Themes common to the relativism literature, Brandom, and Price include the natures of assertion and of agreement/disagreement.