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2022 Spring


Ivan Gutierrez
For information about registration please contact our admissions.

In this course students will be introduced to the key philosophical debates and to the thought of the greatest minds within the Western philosophical tradition. The unique feature of this course is that students will have an opportunity at once to (a) explore the most fundamental philosophical questions (concerning the nature of reality, the limits of human knowledge, the basis of morality, etc.), (b) to acquaint themselves with the ideas of history’s greatest philosophers (such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, etc.), and (c) to read and analyze fragments of the most famous philosophical works (such as Plato’s Republic, Descartes’ Meditations, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, etc).

Here is the course outline:

1. Knowledge

Feb 10

What Do I Know? Philosophy has always aimed to go beyond our ordinary, unreflective awareness of things. The philosopher typically subjects our everyday convictions to careful logical scrutiny, exposing inconsistencies and misconceptions, and attempting to arrive at a critical standpoint that will enable us to discard what is confused, and to supply a solid rational justification for what is retained. Using the tools of reason, of logical analysis and conceptual clarification, philosophy tries to replace what is doubtful and uncertain with something more coherent and stable. The goal, in short, is to move beyond mere belief, towards systematic knowledge and understanding. We all realize, in our reflective moments, that many of our beliefs are liable to be mistaken. And even when our beliefs happen to be true, we can often appreciate that this is not much more than a lucky accident—we could equally well have been wrong. But what is the difference between mere belief, and the more stable and reliable kind of cognition that is entitled to be called knowledge, or true understanding? What do we mean by such understanding: how can it be defined, what are its origins, and how is it to be achieved? This fundamental set of questions forms the subject matter of that branch of philosophy known as the theory of knowledge, or epistemology (from the Greek word episteme, meaning “knowledge” or “understanding”). From the seventeenth century onwards, epistemology has been at or near the center of philosophical inquiry. But, as with so many other areas

2. Selfhood and Freedom

Feb 24

One crucial feature that sets human beings apart from other living creatures is that we are, or believe we are, responsible for our actions. The concept of responsibility presupposes at least two things. First, almost all the judgments we pass on our own past actions and those of others seem to require the notion of selfhood, of a single enduring subject who continues through time. For Smith to be answerable for a crime committed last year, he must be the selfsame person who did it. Secondly, responsibility seems to imply freedom—that human beings, unlike other animals, have a certain power to make choices, to implement decisions and to control at least some aspects of their lives. Selfhood and freedom are thus basic ingredients in our conception of what it is to be a human agent. The extracts that follow deal with various philosophical attempts to understand these two notions, both of which may initially seem straightforward, but which turn out to be highly problematic. Although the issues involved here are sufficiently distinctive to merit special treatment, the materials found below connect closely with topics covered in other parts of our reader, notably with accounts of the mind and its relation to the body and many issues in moral philosophy which we will examine later in the course.

3. Ethics

Apr 7

Although philosophy is sometimes represented as a purely theoretical subject, concerned with abstract contemplation, philosophers have from earliest times seen it as part of their task to discover how human beings can live fulfilled and worthwhile lives. All of us acquire directly from parents and teachers, and more indirectly from the general social ethos in which we grow up, certain guidelines on how to live; the term “morality” comes from the Latin mores, meaning a network of social customs and institutions. But, true to its characteristically critical function, philosophy never rests content with an acceptance of prevailing norms it seeks to scrutinize those norms, to examine whether they are consistent and coherent, and so see how far they can be rationally justified. What is the ultimate source of our ideas of good and evil, right and wrong? Are there objective, rationally defensible standards of right action? What is the relationship between the ethical principles we are encouraged to adopt and individual self-interest? What connection is there, if any, between how we ought to behave, and how we can achieve happy and contented lives? These are some of the fundamental issues with which moral philosophers have been characteristically concerned; the materials presented in this part of the course uncover some of the principal landmarks in the long tradition of Western moral philosophy.

4. Politics

Apr 28

The human being, Aristotle famously observed, is a “political animal.” By this meant that our nature is to live in a polis, or state. Our well-being as humans depends in large part on those goods which can only be achieved by association and cooperation with others: “the state came into being as a means to secure life; it continues in existence in order to secure a good life.” Our relationship to the state, however, is problematic in many respects. Though it provides many benefits, it sometimes demands sacrifices, and invariably requires some measure of conformity or obedience. So what is the basis of our obligation (if it exists) to the state? Are state institutions merely a matter of convenience—more or less efficient mechanisms for individuals to secure what they want in life? Or does the state have some higher moral status which entitles it to command our allegiance? What indeed is “the state”—some kind of entity in its own right, or simply a convenient shorthand for talking about our relationships with our fellow citizens? And what are the proper limits to the authority which the state, or a majority of our fellow citizens, may exercise over each of us? These are among the central questions in political theory which have occupied the great philosophers, and the readings presented in this part of the course indicate some of their most influential answers.

5. The Meaning of Life ... ?

May 12

When people ask about the meaning of life, they are asking about the purpose and significance of life or existence in general. They are asking questions like: Why are we here? What is life all about? What is the meaning of it all? The question of the meaning of life has been the subject of much philosophical, scientific, and theological speculation throughout history. There have been a large number of answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. We will examine a few in the following section.

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