Philosophy 202 (Fall 2017)

Readings in the Western Philosophical Tradition: Modern Philosophy

Prof. Patrick Frierson

Class Meets: Olin 192, Tuesday and Thursday 10:00-11:20

Office Hours (Olin 194): Tuesday 4-5, Wednesday 10-noon, and by appointment.   I am often in the office late, particularly on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, so I’m happy to meet with students in the evenings.


Required Texts:

Roger Ariew, Eric Watkins, eds., Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009).  Page numbers in the timeline refer to the SECOND edition (2009) of this book, which is the edition we will use in this class.

Optional: Margaret Atherton, ed. Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994.

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Ed. Eric Steinberg, Indianapolis: Hackett, ISBN: 978-0915145454

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ed. Mary Gregor and Jens Timmerman, Cambridge University Press, 2012, ISBN: 978-1107401068.


Goals:  With respect to content, this course focuses on central epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical arguments of key European philosophers of the modern period (1600-1800).  The philosophers on whom we will focus are Rene Descartes, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant.  The early modern period was particularly rich in excellent philosophy, however, so there will be additional opportunities to study the thought of other figures in 17th and 18th century European philosophy throughout the course. 


Throughout our study of these philosophers, we will focus on seven key philosophical problems:

(1) To what extent is it possible to have knowledge of anything?

(2) How should we philosophically address the (epistemological) problem of human diversity, that is, that people see the world in different (and incompatible) ways?

(3) What is the ultimate nature of all reality?  (Relatedly, is there a God, and if so, what is God’s nature?)

(4) What is the human being? (In particular: Are human beings free? and What is the connection between the mind and the body?)

(5) What is the nature of causation? How does one thing cause changes in another? (Particularly, how do the mind and body interact?)

(6) What is the good life for human beings?

(7) What is the nature of moral claims/reasoning?


With respect to skills, this course will help you develop as a philosopher in four key respects.


1)      First and most importantly, you will learn to be a better philosopher.  A philosopher is someone who pursues wisdom through careful reflection.  In this course, we use modern philosophers to help our own philosophical reflection, philosophizing with them and through philosophical critique of them. By the end of this course, you will learn how to follow through on philosophical insights in historical and systematic ways.

2)      Second, we will read difficult texts and read them carefully. Reading (and the related skill of listening) to complex arguments expressed in unfamiliar terms will prepare you for engaging with those who hold viewpoints or forms of expression different form your own and thus for thriving in an increasingly diverse world.

3)      Third, you will learn both to explain the ideas of others and to articulate your own ideas orally and in writing.  Everyone is expected to participate in class discussion in a respectful way, and one of the goals of this course is to help all students develop confident, articulate, respectful modes of oral communication.  In addition, everyone will write at least two papers over the course of the semester (see details below on “writing papers in the history of philosophy”).  You will have the opportunity to regularly submit drafts of written work for feedback.

4)      Fourth, through group assignments and class discussions, you will learn to work effectively in group settings and will cultivate practices of respectful, productive, mutually-enriching philosophical interaction with your peers.


These skills will be cultivated through several different kinds of assignments, some of which will also provide the opportunity to learn (or apply) various technical skills, such as designing and printing posters, producing and editing audio recordings, and so on, that are relevant to the communication of your ideas.  You have considerable flexibility about which assignments you complete over the course of the semester.  Some assignments are required of every student, and each student must select other assignments to add up to a “full” load of assignments for the course.  While not required, I particularly encourage students to complete assignments that will push them to develop skills at which they might not think of themselves as particularly excellent.  This course is an opportunity to learn and improve, not primarily an opportunity to show how good you already are. 


With the exception of the final paper or exam and the quizzes, which count for all students, if a student completes more than the required number of assignments, only the best 100% will be counted towards her final grade.[1]  If a student completes both the final exam and the final paper, the better of these (or both) will be included in their final grade.  All of these assignments are described in detail at the end of the syllabus, but here is a brief snapshot of course requirements:


Required of all students (80%):

Careful Reading and Reflection (0%)

Participation, Quizzes & Reading Guides (10%)

Descartes Paper (10%)

Presentation (15%)

Mid-term Exam (20%)

Final Paper or Final Exam (25%)

Choose enough to add up to 20% or more of your final grade:

Group Projects (Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, or/and Hume; 20% each, due dates on timeline below)

Philosophical exegesis paper (10%)

Analytical critique paper (10%)

Final paper AND Final exam[2]



Accommodations: If you are a student with a disability who will need accommodations in this course, please meet with Antonia Keithahn, Assistant Director of Academic Resources: Disability Support (Memorial 326, for assistance in developing a plan to address your academic needs. All information about disabilities is considered private; if I receive notification from Ms. Keithahn that you are eligible to receive an accommodation due to a verified disability, I will provide it in as discreet a manner as possible.


Writing Fellow: This year, Nolan Bishop will serve as a Writing Fellow for this course.  All students will meet with Nolan some time between September 5th and 12th to discuss your Descartes paper.  Students will have the opportunity to meet with him again on the 13th.  Students writing a final paper will be required to meet with him twice during the latter half of the semester to work on that final paper.


Class Time and Rules for Discussion:  This class meets less than three hours a week, and most of the learning for the class occurs outside of our formal class meetings, through your own careful reading and thinking about the material, writing papers, working in groups (both formally and informally), and meetings with me during office hours. 

Lectures. My goal is to use our class periods to accomplish goals that could not easily be accomplished outside of class.  This will include some general lecturing, but I generally do not lecture extensively, for two reasons.  First, extensive empirical (psychological) evidence and my own personal experience confirm that learning happens best through active engagement rather than passive listening.  Thus much of what would normally go into lectures has been built into my “reading guides,” which help guide you through the readings without telling you precisely how to think about them.  Second, lectures from me are not the best way to get expert commentary on the texts we are reading.  Every figure that we read has at least one major entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and most also have Cambridge Companions available in the library.  These reference sources provide high quality commentary on the texts we are reading, and the Stanford Encyclopedia in particular is designed to be used by undergraduates at your level.

Quizzes:  Most class periods will begin with a short quiz on the reading for the day.  The questions on these quizzes will either be taken directly from the reading guide or will be extremely easy to answer for anyone who has completed that reading guide.  If you completed the reading guide and did not ace the quiz, please tell me.  Occasionally, I may orally “cold-call” on students to talk about their responses to various parts of the reading guide.  Responses that show a failure to have read the material attentively will count against a students’ quiz grade. 

Presentations. The period from 1600-1800 in Europe was the most vibrant period in the history of philosophy, and the major philosophers we focus on in this course represent only a small fraction of the philosophers who developed exciting and well-developed philosophies worth taking seriously today.  Thus a portion of most classes will be devoted to a presentation on another major modern philosopher.  This will give each of you a relatively easy way to get a sense for the breadth of philosophy during this period, and it will also give each of you an opportunity to prepare and offer a philosophical presentation to your peers.  (For more details on these presentations, see “Course Assignments” below.)

Discussions.  The main use of our class time will be discussions amongst the entire class.  These discussions provide ways to engage with the material in sustained ways, but they also – even more importantly – provide a context to practice the virtues of excellent participation in intellectual group discussion.  These virtues include the following:

Preparation. You should come to class having read and thought about the material, so that you have an informed perspective on it.

Attentive listening.  You should pay close attention to what I, and your peers, are saying.  Whitman has excellent faculty, but we are the excellent college that we are because of the quality of our students.  Your classmates have insightful things to contribute to our discussion; classmates comments are often more insightful than my own and are usually more directly relevant to your own readings of the texts.

Boldness and patience.  Boldness and patience are both virtues in conversation.  You should participate, even when you are not entirely sure that what you have to say is profound and well-formulated, but you should also be patient, letting your own ideas mature and providing opportunities for others to contribute to the conversation.  Some of you will need to focus on boldness, forcing yourselves to speak even before you are fully comfortable.  (If you are one of these students, one good practice is to prepare some comments and questions before class and to raise these at the first opportunity.  Another good practice is to speak or raise your hand whenever there is more than 3 seconds of “dead time,” even if you don’t think what you have to say is particularly profound.)  Some will need to focus on patience, holding back to practice attentive listening and to give others the opportunity to contribute.  (If you are one of these, one good practice is to count to five before speaking or raising your hand.  Another is to take the time to find textual support for your views before you articulate them.)

Respectful engagement with others’ views.  I expect you to engage with one another’s comments in class.  Discussions should not be public dialogues with me. This engagement will often involve answering or refining another student’s question, taking another student’s point further, providing additional textual support for a point that a classmate makes, and so on.  Engagement also can and often should involve criticism of the views of others, but such criticism should always remain respectful.  Everyone in this room (including myself) is in the process of learning to philosophize well.  When we criticize one another, it should be in the spirit of helping each other to develop as philosophers, not in an attempt to show that one person is better than another.

Growth mindset.  Just as you engage respectfully with others, respect those who engage with your own views.  My assumption in this course is that every comment that everyone makes (including myself) is provisional.  In class, we are trying to benefit from our conversation, not to score points in it.  And that means that when others offer objections or criticisms of your comments in class, these are not evidence of your inadequacy as a philosopher; they are opportunities for you (and your interlocutor) to grow.  You should defend your view as effectively as you can, but you should also change your view when you come to see that it is not defensible.  (This point is also relevant to comments you receive from me on your work. Your primary goal in all the work you do for this class should be growth and development, and I will give comments with that goal in mind.)

“Class participation.  Your participation can have a significant impact on your final grade.  When evaluating participation, however, I am not interested merely in the quantity of comments.  A student who dominates class discussion but fails to show the virtues listed above may have their overall grade lowered due to poor participation.  A student who speaks occasionally but in well-informed, respectful, growing ways may have their grade raised.  (A student who never speaks in class, however, cannot effectively demonstrate the above virtues.)  If you are concerned about your participation, either because you fear participating too much or too little, please ask me about it at any time.

Small Group Work.  Occasionally, we will divide the class into small groups for more focused work.  This provides those who might be timid in a large group setting an opportunity to participate more actively, and it provides a different – and often healthy – dynamic for discussion.   All of the virtues listed above apply to work in small groups.  In addition, it is particularly important in these groups that students remain “on task.”




Timeline of Readings and Assignments



(Except where noted, page numbers refer to the 2009 edition of Ariew and Watkins, Modern Philosophy)

Presentation Option(s)


August 29

Descartes, selections from Discourse and Meditation 1

(AW 25-42)

Consult the Descartes Reading Guide as you read.

Marie de Gournay

(presentation by Patrick Frierson)


Aug. 31

Descartes’s Meditations 1-3 & selected objections and replies

43-54, 69-72, 76-82

Francis Bacon

Michel de Montaigne


Sept 5

Descartes’s Meditations 2-6

& selected objections and replies

47-68, 72-75, 86b (especially “my only remaining concern…”), 92b (especially “finally, as to the fact”)

Malebranche (and possibly Arnauld and/or Gassendi)


Sept. 7

Descartes’s Meditations 5-6


Selections from the correspondence between Descartes and Princess Elizabeth (Atherton volume, pp. 9-21 or this link, pp. 1-8).


Sept. 12

Selections from the Discourse on
Method (Part Three)
, Correspondence with Elizabeth, the Principles of Philosophy, and the Passions of the Soul (links above)

Guillaume du Vair and/or Pierre Nicole and/or the French Cartesiennes (Anne del la Vigne, Marie Dupre, and Catherine Descartes)


Sept. 14

Thomas Hobbes, Objections to the Meditations (pp. 76-82)

AND Leviathan (not all this material is included in Ariew and Watkins)
Introduction and Chapters 1, 2, 5, and 6 (print pages 6-15, 26-40 of the online version)

Use the Hobbes Reading Guide as you read.


Margaret Cavendish

Descartes Paper, Rough Draft Due by 10 AM, Thursday, September 14.  You should email a copy of your paper to me at and also bring a hard copy to class.

Final Draft due Monday, September 18, at 9 AM.

Sept. 19

Hobbes Leviathan, Chapters 1-2, 5-6, 13-16 (pp. 6-15, 26-40, 79-106)



Sept. 21

Hobbes  Leviathan, chapters 13-18 (pp. 79-117)

Machiavelli and/or Hugo Grotius


Sept. 26

Spinoza, Ethics, Part V, Prop. 42 and Part 1, entire.  (Focus on propositions 10, 14, 28, and the Appendix.) (AW 195, 144-164)

You should consult this Spinoza Reading Guide as you read.


Hobbes Project due Wednesday, September 27th, at 9 AM.

Sept. 28

Spinoza, Ethics, Ethics, Pt. 2., entire (focus on Propositions 1, 2, 7, 11-14 (including the scholium to P13), and 40-44.  (AW 144-187)

Anne Conway

(Milo Mincin)


Oct. 3

Spinoza, Ethics, From etext: Part Four, Preface, Definitions, Axiom, and Propositions 8, 11, 14, 19, 24, 28, 36, 37, 50, 53, 54, 64, 66, 67, 68, 72, 73 (with their Notes/Scholiums and the proofs for those in bold)

From your book: Pt. 5, Preface and P21-28, 42 (AW 179-83, 188-95)


(Rose Jones)

Spinoza Project Due Wednesday, October 4, at midnight.


Mid-term handed out in class on October 3.  You can find a review sheet here and last year’s midterm here.  This midterm is closed-book, closed-note.  You may take up to 2 ½ hours to complete the exam.

Oct. 5




Oct. 10

Locke’s Essay Bk I, ch 1-3, Bk II, chs 1-2, 5-12 (especially ch. 8 ¶¶9-23)

Leibniz’s New Essays, selection

AW 316-18, 322-42, 422-425a

Consult the Locke Reading Guide as you read.

Leibniz (and/or possibly Voltaire)

Midterm due at the start of class.

Oct. 12

Locke’s Essay Bk II, chs 21, 28 (chapter 23 optional but recommended if you are interested in substance)

AW 348-367


(Sullivan Friebus)

Oct. 17

Locke’s Essay IV.1-3, 10-15, especially IV.1-3, IV.10; IV.11¶¶8-14; IV.15¶¶1-5

AW 386-99, 405-411, 413-14, 415-17

Damaris Cudworth (aka Lady Masham)

and/or Ralph Cudworth

(Jiayu Zhang)

Oct. 19

Cockburn, Defense of Mr. Locke’s Essay, selections

Damaris Cudworth (Lady Masham),

selections from correspondence

(both are in Atherton, pp. 77-95, 126-146)

Sor Juana de la Cruz (Brewer Castle)


Catherine Cockburn (Paul Milloy)

Oct. 24

John Locke The Second Treatise of Civil Government, Preface and Chapter 1-6.

Also review Essay, Ariew and Watkins, pp. 397-99

Samuel Clarke (Andrew Schwarz) and/or Henry More and/or Ralph Cudworth

(Qingxuan Zhu)


Oct. 26

Locke Second Treatise, Chapters 8-19 (especially 8, 9, 18, and 19)

Samuel Pufendorf and/or Mary Astell and/or Emilie du Chatelet

Locke Project Due on Monday, October 30, at 9 AM.

Oct. 31

Hume’s Enquiry §§ 1-7


Consult the Hume Reading Guide as you read.

Robert Boyle

(Peter Eberle)

Nov. 2

Hume’s Enquiry §§ 6-8, 10

555-575, 577-586


Possible selections from Reid or Rousseau


Optional readings:

Hume’s Enquiry §12

Hume’s Treatise I.v-vi

593-600, 517-32

Isaac Newton

(Ryan Ewell)


Thomas Reid

(Andrew Davis)


Nov. 7

Hume Enquiry on Morals

Joseph Butler

(Sarah Vesneske)

and/or Shaftesbury and/or Hutcheson


Nov 9

Hume Enquiry on Morals

Adam Smith

(Oscar Brown)

Hume Project Due at 9 PM on Sunday, November 12th.

Nov 14

Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

717-737 and also Appendix 1 (pp. 9-10) of the

Kant Reading Guide.

Thomas Reid

Nov. 16

Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

722, 729-37, 768-779

Mary Shepherd

(Ian Gingerich)


Isaac Newton





Nov. 28

Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

724a, 768-779, 798-800, 811-19, handout (from Critique of Practical Reason)


(YJ Wang)

Nov. 30

Kant Groundwork, Preface and Part One

Mary Wollstonecraft

(Joseph Martino) and/or

J.S. Mill

(Nick Rumwell)

and/or  Jeremy Bentham


Dec. 5

Kant Groundwork, Parts One and Two.


(Sam Traylor)



(Sophia Strabo)

and/or Nietzsche


Dec. 7

Last Class Day, Review


Dec. 11











Course Assignments

Reading and Participation:  All students are expected to come to every class having read the assigned material at least twice and to have thought carefully about it. I do not necessarily expect you to have a complete understanding of the material, but you should read carefully and repeatedly until you have a good understanding of much of what is assigned, and for the material that you do not understand, you should come to class with specific questions about what you do not understand. If I call on you to explain a particular passage, you should not respond “I didn’t get that passage.” Instead, you should say, “Well, thought that Spinoza meant such-and-such, but then I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile that understanding with what he said later, when he said this-and-that, since this-and-that seems to conflict with such-and-such in this particular way.”  If your understanding is still at the “I don’t get it” level, then you have more work to do.  If it’s at the “I thought that he meant . . . but . . .,” then I have work to do.


In addition, I have provided Reading Guides for many of the readings we will do in the course.  You should make use of these readings guides as you read and reread.  You need not provide written answers to every question, but you should think about every question, and writing out answers is strongly recommended.  I may check these guides occasionally, I will feel free to call on any student to give their answer to any question in the reading guide, and they will inform my decisions about what to include in quizzes.


Participation in class discussion is an essential part of the class, I may alter final grades either up or down, depending upon your participation over the course of the semester.  Note that your participation grade is based on the quality of participation, not the quantity.  You should contribute thoughtful comments to class discussion in a respectful way.  For some of you, this will mean preparing oral comments before class and making a conscious effort to speak.  For others, it will mean holding yourself back when you find yourself to be dominating discussion.  If you desire an assessment of your participation at any point in the semester, please feel free to ask me about it. 


Deadlines:  All assignments for this course should be turned in at the date and time for which they are due.  I will give a one hour grace period after assignments are due, but after that grace period, assignments that are turned in late will immediately be penalized by one full grade point, and the grade will drop by an addition one point every 24 hours.  (Thus an assignment that is A quality work but 61 minutes late will get a B. The same assignment, 75 hours late, will get an F.)  I highly recommend turning in your assignments – especially group assignments – early, and all members of a team will be held responsible for the failure of any one member to get work done on time.   (The one exception to this policy is the final paper.  Students who have a good reason for needing a later deadline on the final paper, and who ask for that later deadline at least one week before the paper is due, will be granted a later deadline.)


Written assignments:  All written assignments, including your papers and your group assignments, should be submitted to me by email.  To submit work by email, you should email your work in .doc or .docx format to  You must include your first and last name as the first terms in the filename, and the rest of the filename should make clear what assignment you are turning in. (So, for instance, when Jane Doe turns in her Descartes paper, she should save the paper under the filename “jane doe descartes paper.doc”.  Papers saved with the wrong filename will not be read by me.  For group projects, you should save the paper with the last name of every group participant in the filename (e.g. “doe lopez mccarty lee spinoza project.doc”).  More specific information on each assignment is below.


Exams: All exams will be closed book and will involve quotation identification, short (1-3 paragraph) response questions, and at least one longer essay question.  The midterm will be a take-home exam, for which you will be allowed two hours, though it should not take this long.  The final will be in class at our regularly scheduled final exam time (thus you will have 2 hours).  Review sheets are available on the timeline above (where the exam appears).


Group Assignments: This course is organized around a series of philosophers, for each of which (with the exceptions of Descartes and Kant) there are specific projects. I have found these projects to be conducive to learning the material, so I encourage every student to work on every assignment throughout the semester, but you will also have the opportunity to work on some of these assignments for credit.  To get credit for an assignment, you must work on it in a group (of 2-4 students), and you will be graded on the project as a whole.  Each of these projects can be worth up to 20% of your final grade in the course.  Of that, approximately 15% will be a group grade, based on the overall quality of the finished product produced by your group.[3]  The remaining 5% will be an individual grade, based on self- and peer-assessments.  For each group assignment, the group as a whole should send me the finished product, and each member of the group should send me an email with a short assessment of the performance of her/himself and of each of the other members of the group. You should provide a “score” for yourself and your peers, from 1 to 7, along with a short explanation of why you gave that score. In scoring your teammates, you should focus not merely on specific content that group members may have contributed, but also to the effect that the group member had on the dynamics of the group. (A brilliant interpreter of Locke who is hostile and uncooperative may get a 1. A student who struggles to understand very basic arguments in Descartes but is able to ask questions well and get his teammates to cooperate in completing the assignment well might get a 6 or 7.)  I very strongly encourage you to be fair with your assessments, both of yourself and of your teammates, and you should give at most one score above five (and even that, only if truly warranted).  Here is the meaning I intend for you to give to the scores you assign:

1 = Unacceptable performance. This group member did not contribute to the success of the group, and/or may even have slowed us down. 

2 = Very poor. This group member contributed something, but either the quantity or the quality of his/her contributions were very weak. Virtually none of his/her contributions showed up in the final result, or if they did, group members regret not having the time to change these contributions.

3 = Below Average. This group member made real and positive contributions that improved the final product, but not in ways as significant or pervasive as I expect of a typical Whitman student.    

4 = Average/Good. This group member did her/his duty, contributing a reasonable amount of reasonably high quality insight, thought, hard work, and cooperative engagement with the group. Her/his ideas made a significant and positive contribution to the final product. (This should be the standard default score.)

5 = Very good. This group member went above and beyond what one would expect of a typical member of a group. S/he had insights far beyond other members of the group, and/or raised important questions that focused on key issues, and/or explained difficult material to other group members in particularly clear and helpful ways, and/or helped organize or motivate the rest of the group in particularly important ways. (You should give at most one score above 5.)

6 = Excellent. This group member transformed the group in a way that made the final product and the overall experience manifestly better than they would otherwise have been. S/he was a de facto team leader, motivating and organizing us, and s/he contributed in essential and irreplaceable ways to our performance as a team.  (You should give at most one score above 5.)

7 = Extraordinary. I could not have imagined a team member as valuable as this one. S/he should be hired as a Whitman professor, or at least as TA for this class next year. (You should give at most one score of 7 during the course of the semester.)


Presentations: Over the course of the semester, each student should give at least one presentation on an important early modern philosopher we will not emphasize in this course.  If no student signs up for a particular philosopher, we will not discuss that philosopher in this course. If more than 2 students sign up for a particular philosopher, only the first two who sign up will be allowed to present (as a pair) on that philosopher. You must sign up at least 10 days before the scheduled presentation, and I recommend signing up during the first week of class.

For your presentation(s), you will need to read primary sources by this person and secondary sources about them, and then pick a short selection (no more than 10 pages, preferably less than 5 pages) for your classmates to read that will give the main points and at least one major argument of the philosopher. (These selections must be made available to your classmates the class period prior to your presentation. You may either email the class with a link, document, or PDF; or bring 25 copies of the reading to hand out in class.) On the day of the presentation, students will be expected to give a short presentation (no more than 10 minutes) providing an overview of the philosopher on whom they are presenting.  (Powerpoint have often been effective for these presentations, but they should be used well.)  This overview should go substantially beyond the assigned readings; the idea is to give fellow students a sense for the philosopher as a whole. On these days, our class discussion in general may incorporate the readings from these philosophers.


For each presentation, students must prepare a paper (1500-3000 words) outlining the key aspects of the philosopher on whom they presented.  While you may include a brief biography of the thinker, these papers should emphasize the philosophical ideas and arguments of the philosopher.  You should give at least some overview of the philosophical views as a whole, but you may focus your discussion on one or two ideas that you find most interesting and important.  It is also appropriate to make connections with other philosophers in the course, though this should be done in ways that help elucidate the core ideas of the philosopher you presented on. 


For presentations by groups of more than one, each person should also submit a very brief self/peer assessment (as for group assignments).


You can find information about almost all of the figures you are expected to present on in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and on many of them in the in the Cambridge History of Seventeenth Century Philosophy (on reserve).   The Philosopher’s Index, available through Penrose, is also a good way to find recent scholarly articles that deal with your philosopher.  You can also find information on many modern philosophers not mentioned in the syllabus.  If you would like to present on a figure who is not included, you will probably be able to do so if you let me know early in the semester so that I can schedule an appropriate class time for your presentation.  Cambridge Companions are also good places to start in investigating these philosophers (The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes, for instance.) You are expected to make use of both primary and secondary sources in preparing your presentation, and I strongly encourage you to come to me for help in tracking these down. You must make use of at least some non-electronic resources in preparing your presentation. (Incidentally, while very helpful in some respects, Wikipedia does not constitute a legitimate source of information for your presentations.)

Course Papers

One of the main skills that you will learn in this class is the integration of historical-philosophical sources into papers in which you defend your own answer to an important philosophical problem.  For both of the required papers for the class, I will be looking for a clear, complex, interesting, and controversial thesis that is defended with compelling philosophical arguments in precise, elegant, and grammatically correct prose.  Both papers will also involve interaction with historical philosophical arguments, and I am looking for a use of such arguments that goes beyond a mere “compare and contrast” essay and instead engages with well-articulated and textually-defended interpretations of historical philosophers in ways that advance your own philosophical argument.


Descartes Paper (10%):  This assignment is required for all students.  At the end of the first unit of the course (on Descartes), you will write a paper related to one of the seven philosophical problems listed above (knowledge, diversity, reality, human being, causation, good life, or morals).  In this paper, you should articulate a specific question related to your problem, one narrower than the question above.  (For example, instead of “to what extent is it possible to have knowledge of anything?” you might ask, “What is the best response to the ‘dream argument’ for philosophical skepticism?” or “How can we have knowledge of moral claims?”)  You should defend a specific thesis that answers this question, and you should use Descartes (and, if appropriate, Elizabeth) in the course of defending that thesis.  (We will discuss in class ways for using Descartes to defend your own thesis.)  This paper will be a first try at what you will end up doing for your course paper at the end of the semester, so while you will not be bound to use the same topic for the final paper, you are encouraged to choose a topic you will want to think about for the rest of the semester.  This paper should be no less than 800 and no more than 1500 words.


Course Paper (30%): Over the course of the semester, you will write a single, complex paper, answering a question related to one of the seven philosophical problems listed above (knowledge, diversity, reality, human being, causation, good life, morals). By the end of the semester, you will write a paper of no less than 1800 and no more than 2500 words that engages with at least three of the philosophers we study over the course of the semester and defends a clear, complex, interesting, and controversial thesis that answers a question related to (but more specific than) the question listed above.[4] While your final paper is not due until the last day of class, you should work on it throughout the semester. Over the course of the semester, you should update your final paper, refining your topic, question, and thesis; and incorporating arguments from philosophers as we read them.  I strongly encourage you to submit new paper drafts after each major philosopher, incorporating material from that philosopher into your final paper.  Throughout the course of the semester, in addition to adding perspectives of new philosophers, you should refine the question you aim to answer and gradually form your own ideas about how best to answer that question, drawing from your interactions with the philosophers we are studying. Before submitting the final draft, you will also need to decide which figures are the most important to include in the final draft, and you will have to cut material that is less relevant in order to ensure that you do justice to your topic, defend your thesis adequately, and include sufficient treatments of the three philosophers on whom you focus. The final draft of the paper will be due on the last day of class.


Philosophical exegesis paper (10%)  Your final paper and paper on Descartes must offer your own answer to a philosophical problem, drawing from major historical figures.  But historians of philosophy often write papers that purport to elucidate the ideas of a philosopher without necessarily defending those ideas as their own.  Papers in philosophical exegesis generally start with a puzzle of interpretation.  For example, Anne Conway says that there is only one created “substance,” but also that there are infinitely many created things; so what precisely does she mean by “substance”?  Or, for another example, Berkeley does not explicitly talk about the nature of human freedom; given what he does say, what is his likely view on this matter?  The paper then proceeds to answer these questions, considering various possible interpretations and defending one’s own on the basis of specific textual support, plausibility in the light of other claims the philosopher has made, and general philosophical plausibility.  Any student can write a philosophical exegesis paper on any of the philosophers we read in this course.  Such papers are due at the same time as the group project for that philosopher, and they should be 1500-2500 words in length.


Analytical critique paper (10%).  Where the philosophical exegesis paper is more historical than the final paper, the analytical critique paper is less historical.  For this paper, you should take an idea or argument from one of the philosophers we have read and engage with that argument in your own terms.  “Critique” here need not mean criticism of the argument or position; though it often will involve criticism, one might also extend a point made by a philosopher or show that an argument made in one context applies equally well in another.  The distinguishing feature of this paper is that the majority of the paper will be philosophical argument rather than interpretation.  As with all papers, but particularly for these, it is important that the thesis be clearly articulated and that you be able to see how the thesis is controversial and even prima facie implausible.  Thus, arguing that Descartes was wrong to think that an the existence of an evil demon would make our beliefs unreliable could be a worthwhile thesis. Arguing that he was wrong to think that the pineal gland is the physical seat of the soul would not be.  These papers are due at the same time as the group project for that philosopher, and they should be 1500-2500 words in length.

Group Assignment #1: Descartes vs. Hobbes

This assignment is designed to be done in pairs, and I strongly recommend it for all students.  It will help a lot with your final paper.  One purpose of this assignment is to revisit your Descartes paper, looking at the same issue but now from the standpoint of Hobbes.  Another purpose is to teach you how to work with others to improve each others’ writing and to craft philosophical positions together.  The project has several steps.

(1)   Revise your Descartes paper, in the light of my comments and your further reflections.  Make it the strongest Descartes paper it can be.

(2)   Exchange papers with your partner.  Each of you should, independently, craft a Hobbist response to the philosophical thesis advanced in the Descartes paper.  This response should be 1000-1500 words and should advance a clear thesis, something like “While Mary successfully argues against Descartes’s claim that the mind and body are distinct substances, she fails to offer a plausible alternative account of the mind; seeing mind as a faculty implanted by God would significantly improve her argument” or “Tony’s claim that Descartes develops a plausible approach to ethics fails to take into account the role of immortality of the soul.  Once we take an appropriate skepticism towards that immortality, we see that ethics is essentially political.”

(3)   Exchange these responses and then meet with your partner to discuss them.  Revise and improve your Hobbist response to your partner’s Descartes paper.  Repeat step (3) until each of you has a really good paper.

(4)   Then, together, draft a short paper 800-1000 words that defends a philosophical thesis, drawing on Hobbes, Descartes, and each of your short papers.

You will turn in your revised Descartes papers, your first and final drafts of your Hobbes responses, and your short philosophical paper.  The group grade, which will be shared by both students, will be based on the final drafts of the Hobbes responses and on the joint philosophical paper.



Current Groups:

Sam Traylor and Ian Gingerich

Ryan Ewell and Rose Jones

Brewer Castle and Jiayu Zhang

Andrew Schwartz and Qingzuan (Helena) Zhu





Group Assignment #2: Spinoza Worksheet

For each proposition below, work through Spinoza’s whole proof.  I recommend reading through the assigned reading in the order Spinoza presents it, and then working backwards through each key proposition’s proof, tracing back to the axioms and definitions on which it ultimately depends.  If you end up saying that the proof for a given proposition works, you should clearly explain at least one important inference, axiom, or definition that is problematic for the proof; explain the problem; and then show how you respond to that problem in order to vindicate the proof as a whole.  When you finally turn in the worksheet, you should have clearly written answers to each question.  (Answers to part (a) can take the form of a simple “yes” or “no.”  All other questions should be answered with at least one clear and concise paragraph.)


1.  Prop 11: God . . . necessarily exists.

a) Does Spinoza successfully prove proposition 11? 

b) If not, what specific inferences are invalid, what specific axioms are false, and/or what specific definitions are illegitimate?  (In answering this question, be prepared to explain in precisely what sense the inferences are invalid, the axioms are false, or the definitions are illegitimate; and also be sure that you have identified the precise role that such inferences, axioms, or definitions play in Spinoza’s argument.)   

c) Without considering Spinoza’s subsequent argument about the nature of God, what significance would P 11 have for Spinoza’s contemporaries (e.g. Descartes)? 

d) Without considering Spinoza’s subsequent argument about the nature of God, what significance would believing it have for us?

 2. Prop. 14: There can be . . . no other substance but God.

a) Explain P 14 without using any of Spinoza’s technical vocabulary, in a way that would make sense and be interesting to a friend who had never read any philosophy.

b) Given Prop 11, does Spinoza successfully prove proposition 14? 

c) If not, what specific inferences are invalid, what specific axioms are false, and/or what specific definitions are illegitimate?  (In answering this question, be prepared to explain in precisely what sense the inferences are invalid, the axioms are false, or the definitions are illegitimate.)  In particular, are there any invalid inferences between P11 and P14 (or any new axioms or definitions of which Spinoza makes use that are problematic)?  That is, is Spinoza correct that if God necessarily exists, then there can be no substance but God? 

d) What significance would believing P 14 have for Spinoza’s contemporaries (e.g. Descartes)? 

e) What significance would believing it have for us?

 3. Prop. 28: Every individual thing . . ..

a)                Explain P 14 without using any of Spinoza’s technical vocabulary, in a way that would make sense and be interesting to a friend who had never read any philosophy.

b)                Given Props 11 and 14, does Spinoza successfully prove proposition 28?

c)                If not, what specific inferences are invalid, what specific axioms are false, and/or what specific definitions are illegitimate?  (In answering this question, be prepared to explain in precisely what sense the inferences are invalid, the axioms are false, or the definitions are illegitimate.)

d)                What significance would believing P 28 have for Spinoza’s contemporaries (e.g. Descartes)?

e)                What significance would believing it have for us?

4. Book II, Prop. 7: The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.

a) What is the significance of P 7 within Spinoza’s Ethics?  (For example, what significance does it play in understanding the definitions to part I)

b) What significance would believing P 7 have for Spinoza’s contemporaries (e.g. Descartes)?

c) What significance would believing it have for us?

5. Book V, Prop 25.  For analyzing this Proposition, you should use the hypertext edition of Spinoza’s Ethics, available at

a) What do you think would be the most problematic aspects of Spinoza’s proof of proposition 25?

b) What significance would believing it have for us?  (Here take into account, too, Book V, P42.)


6. Is Spinoza a better Cartesian than Descartes?  Keep your response to less than 1000 words.


Current Groups:

Joseph Martino, Paul Milloy, Peter Eberle.


Group Assignment #3: Lockean Poetics



Analyze a poem in terms of Locke's Essay (and, insofar as it’s relevant, his Second Treatise).  While you may present your results in the form of a paper, I encourage you to do a poster or any other format for which you get prior approval from me (e.g. a short play).[5]  YOU MAY ANALYZE ANY POEM THAT YOU CHOOSE.  (For a complete and searchable e-text of Locke’s Essay, click HERE. And HERE is a great site for finding poems.)


The analysis should explain what sorts of ideas are referred to by some representative words in the poem. (Aim to find at least one example each of simple ideas of sensation, simple ideas of reflection, complex ideas of sensation and complex ideas of reflection. If possible, you also should give examples of primary and secondary qualities in the poem.) You should analyze the literal meaning of the poem, discussing whether it provides "knowledge" in Lockean terms, or probable opinion, or both or neither. But you should also discuss what you take the main point of the poem to be, what the poem teaches, what it does to the reader, and so on. As a whole, does the poem provide "knowledge" in Lockean terms? If so, specifically how? If not, is this a problem for the poem (or for Locke's theory of knowledge)? 




Group Assignment #4: "Cross-Disciplinary Conversations with Hume"

(This assignment will be done in pairs.)

For this assignment, you will need to help other people explain the most important aspects of Hume's thought, the relevance of his ideas to their chosen discipline (major), and their opinions about his philosophy. First, you'll need to find two friends or acquaintances who have never taken a philosophy class and who have different majors from each other. Then, you'll need some sort of recording device (a tape recorder, a microphone-computer set up, or something similar). Finally, you'll need a comfortable place for a chat, and the requisite refreshments so that you and your guest are comfortable. (Please avoid intoxicants while you complete the assignment.) Once you are set up, the two of you simply need to explain to your guests the basics of Hume's philosophy, answer questions, clarify Hume’s views, find out what your guests find most interesting about it . . . in other words, you need to have a conversation. During this, you should take the stance of people defending Hume's view. (Aim to be Hume-channelers.)  In addition, you should specifically address – and try to figure out with your interlocutors – the relevance of Hume to their majors.  (This is likely to work best if you focus on one or two key examples from within their discipline, such as a particular scientific or historical claim, or a particular approach to art, or even a particular painting.)  Your conversation should last at least an hour, and you should record the whole conversation.  However, what you will actually turn in is three recordings of no more than 7 minutes each (and no more than 12 minutes total). The first recording should include what you think is the most interesting and important 5-7 minutes of your conversation.  (This can be made up of distinct, shorter sections of conversation, or it can be a single section.) The second recording should be the one in which your guests most clearly explains Hume's thought, apply that thought to their own disciplines, and give their opinions about it.  For this second recording, you will be evaluated on the quality of your guests’ explanation.  If you are doing most of the talking, that is a sign that you have not sufficiently explained Hume’s views to them.  In the final recording (which you can make at a later time), you should explain what was hardest to explain about Hume, and/or any challenges that you encountered in the course of your conversation. (At the start of the conversation, and at the start of the recording that you turn in, you should have each participant in the conversation state their full name, year, and major.)

For help setting up and/or editing these tapes, you may contact Instructional Multimedia Services (see The recordings should all be converted into .mp3 or .wma or some other easily readable digital form, and emailed to me.



[1] There is one other exception to this policy.  Students who choose to do group assignments and get very low peer reviews on those group assignments will have those assignments count towards their final grade, even if they do better on other assignments.

[2] Students must have completed at least 75% of their required assignments before the final exam/paper, so that completing one of these will be sufficient to have met the requirements for the course.  Students who choose to complete both a final exam and final paper, however, can use better grades on those assignments to offset weaker grades on other assignments earlier in the semester.

[3] In special circumstances, I reserve the right to weigh the individual portion of the grade more heavily.  This will be particularly relevant in cases where a particular student makes an extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad contribution to their group.

[4] For example, you may start with “What is the human being?” and end up with a paper that answers the question “Is freedom necessary for moral responsibility?” by using Spinoza, Hume, and Kant to argue something like, “While Kant thinks that he can preserve human freedom as a necessary condition of the possibility of morality, his metaphysics in fact offers decisive reasons to reject freedom. Fortunately, as Spinoza and Hume show in very different ways, a robust conception of moral responsibility is consistent with this rejection of freedom.”

[5] If you do a poster, play, or other non-electronic form of presentation, you should either turn the item in to my office or arrange with me for a means of performing it/turning it in.