Recent undergraduate courses

Phil 1101. Problems of Philosophy

This course is an introduction to some of the main questions considered by philosophers; most readings will be drawn from Western philosophy from ancient Greece through the present.  The course’s main objective 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 2211Q. Symbolic Logic I

This course is an introduction to propositional and quantificational logic. Logic is the study of good and bad arguments (pieces of reasoning).  In a deductively good argument, the conclusion follows from the premises: if all premises are true, the conclusion is guaranteed to be true as well.  The deductive goodness of an important class of arguments rests on patterns in the way these arguments use notions such as notand, or, and if (in propositional logic), and  all and some (in quantificational logic). We’ll represent such patterns sym­bolically, and give a precise theory of which patterns ensure deductive goodness.  If time permits, we’ll look at some rivals to this “classical” logic.

Phil 2221. Ancient Greek 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. Early Modern European 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 writings by René Descartes (1596-1650), Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618-80), Anne Conway (1631-79), John Locke (1632-1704), George Berkeley (1685-1753), David Hume (1711-76), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Phil 3241. Philosophy of Language

This course is an introduction to some of the core issues in the philosophy of language, approached through a study 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 meaning, truth and reference?  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? How should we understand harmful uses of language, such as slurs and propaganda?


Recent graduate seminars

Phil 5320. Topics in the History of Philosophy: Descartes

The seminar will be centered around a close study of the Meditations, paying attention to their argumentative and non-argumentative structure.  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, Principles and Passions, and by taking into account 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

The writings of Wilfrid Sellars (1912–89) present a deeply systematic worldview, worked out in dialectical engagement with opposed tendencies of thought (with a keen sensitivity to their history).  Several Sellarsian catchphrases and distinctions have become ubiquitous: the “Myth of the Given,” the “manifest” and “scientific images,” the “logical space of reasons,” and meaning and conceptual thought as “fraught with ought.”  Sellars pioneered conceptual role semantics and functionalism in the philosophy of mind, and served as an inspiration for the ‘theory theory’ of psychological concepts.  His contributions can illuminate current debates over expressivism, representationalism, foundationalism/coherentism and internalism/externalism in epistemology, deflationary approaches to commitment to abstract entities, and pluralism and relativism about truth.  In the first part of the seminar, well read a few of Sellars’s key papers dating from 1949 to 1963: on language, mind, epistemology, and metaphysics.  Then, in a second pass, we’ll consider some of Sellars’s later elaborations and revisions of his views.  Depending on interest, we may expand our focus to include (always closely related!) topics such as Sellars’s practical philosophy, his theory of sensory consciousness, and his philosophy of science.

Phil 5342. Seminar in the Philosophy of Language: Force and Content

Our topic will be the distinction between the “force” and the “content” of speech acts and mental acts.  This is widely regarded as one of Frege’s great innovations, but both the historical claim and the evaluative one have recently become the subject of debate. After a look at some of the history, we’ll examine arguments for and against a force-content distinction. Among the issues to be discussed will be the role and nature of propositional contents; judgment and assertion; negation and denial; the so-called “Frege-Geach problem” as a challenge to versions of expressivism; and the relation between content and self-consciousness.  Contemporary readings will be drawn from the “analytic” philosophy of language as well as the German idealist tradition.

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.

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.