Course syllabus

SEMESTER 1, 2018

15 points

Course Convenor: 

John Bishop

Arts 1, Room 431 3737599, ext. 87611


John Bishop


Robert Wicks

Arts 1, Room 439 373-7599, ext. 88449


Moss Bioletti  


Conor Leisky


Nathan Rew


Class Reps:

Ani Harris

Jackie Lamb




Course delivery format:

Two one-hour lectures and one one-hour tutorial

(Timetable and room details can be viewed on Student Services Online)

Summary of Course Description:              

This course deals with fundamental philosophical problems and puzzles about the nature of the world and human beings. Examples include philosophical questions about the existence of God, the relationship between physical reality and mental life and the nature of identity and the self. The theory of knowledge studies philosophical problems concerning the sources, limits and justification of human knowledge and understanding (particularly, as distinct from mere opinion or belief). The course will introduce students to a selection of such topics and to some of the important philosophical discussions and debates to which they have given rise.

The course is divided into three parts (1) Plato and Descartes, (2) Hume’s Epistemology and Philosophy of Religion, (3) selected problems in metaphysics and epistemology. The first part of the course (4 weeks), taught by Robert Wicks, will discuss Plato’s metaphysical theory of timeless forms, Descartes’s quest for certainty though his “method of doubt,” and the distinction between mind and body. The second part (5 weeks), taught by John Bishop, will discuss Hume’s empiricist theory of knowledge and its application to the question of God’s existence. For the third part of the course (3 weeks) John Bishop will give lectures on Pascal’s Wager (one week) and Robert Wicks will give a 2-week introduction to the philosophy of Hegel. [amended, 30 April]

Course outcomes:

Students who successfully complete this course will, at an introductory level, gain an understanding of epistemology and leading metaphysical ideas in the Western tradition of philosophy, and be motivated to pursue philosophical studies at the advanced undergraduate level. Students should be able to explain and critically assess the theories and arguments of the philosophers discussed in the course in their own words and in a way that shows good familiarity with the prescribed readings. The teaching in the course will aim to encourage students to discover and develop the capacity to exercise their own philosophical imagination, creativity and critical judgment in thinking about the 'big questions' concerning mind, knowledge and reality in response to the works studied. In this introductory course there is an emphasis on reading primary sources rather than secondary literature and commentaries.


There is no prescribed or recommended textbook for this course. The basic required readings for each section of the course will be made available through the course webpage on CANVAS under the heading 'Reading Lists'.

Assessment Summary:

Your assessment will consist of:

(1) Coursework: (40% of final mark) The coursework consists of two essays, each of 1,000 words. Each essay is worth 20%. The first essay is due at the start of Week 5, the second at the start of Week 11.

(2) Final Examination: (60% of final mark) The exam will be a 2-hour essay-style exam, requiring answers on three questions – one from Section A (Plato, Descartes and Hegel), one from Section B (on Hume's Epistemology, Hume's Philosophy of Religion and Pascal's Wager), and the third chosen from either Section A or Section B. (That is, you must answer three questions, with at least one question from each of Sections A and B.)

Essay Topics, due dates and submission procedure

Please submit an electronic copy of your essay via Canvas (this checks for plagiarism and unacknowledged copying), and in addition, a hard copy with a personalised cover sheet to the Arts Assignment Centre (located in the Human Sciences Building [HSB])

Essay One

Due date: 3 p.m., Monday, 26 March

Write a 1,000 word essay on the following question:

Plato’s philosophical outlook is based on the idea that whatever is absolutely true is that which is unchanging. If the ordinary world in which we live – the world in space and time, with all of its stars and galaxies – is always changing because time is always moving on, then this changing ordinary world, as infinite and amazing as it is, cannot consequently be a place where absolute truth resides. Describe and critically discuss Plato’s reasons for locating truth and ultimate reality on a dimension which is outside of space and time.

Essay Two

Due date: 3 p.m., Monday, 14 May [Due date extended to Monday 21 May: see announcement of 30 April]

Consider the following famous passage from David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part X:

And is it possible, Cleanthes, said Philo, that after all these reflections, and infinitely more, which might be suggested, you can still persevere in your Anthropomorphism, and assert the moral attributes of the Deity, his justice, benevolence, mercy, and rectitude, to be of the same nature with these virtues in human creatures? His power we allow is infinite: whatever he wills is executed: but neither man nor any other animal is happy: therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of Nature tends not to human or animal felicity: therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?

Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?

(i) This passage presents a version of ‘the Argument from Evil’. State in your own words what is the conclusion of the argument which Hume’s character Philo is stating here?  (at most 150 words)

(ii) Next, explain how you would express, in your own words, the argument that Philo is suggesting as a good reason to believe that this conclusion is true. (at most 200 words)

(iii) Finally, give your own criticism of this argument. Does the argument succeed in rationally supporting its conclusion? Is there an objection which might be made to the argument? Could a good reply be given to that objection? (650 words, or more if you have spare space after answering (i) and (ii): total word count should not exceed 1,000 words.)

Requests for extensions and late essay penalties:

If your essay is submitted late due to illness or other significant personal circumstances, there will be no penalty if either (a) you attach a supporting medical certificate or letter from the Student Counselling Service to the hard copy of your essay when you submit it, or (b) you have obtained permission for an extension from Robert Wicks (for Essay One) or John Bishop (for Essay Two). Otherwise, late essays will suffer a penalty of minus 5% on the awarded grade for each week that the essay is delayed up to three weeks. No essays will be accepted beyond three weeks after the due date unless there are exceptional circumstances, and an extension has been granted.


Week 1:  Plato (429-347 B.C.E.)

Lecture 1 (Tuesday 27 February): Introduction to the course, and course administration (coursework essays, exam, etc.)

Lecture 2 (Thursday 1 March): Background to Plato: From Mythology to Philosophy

Readings: “Plato – Background and Overview” (in "files" section of website)

Week 2:  Plato (429-347 B.C.E.)

Lecture 3 (6 March): Socrates’ Search for Definitions and Essences

Readings: “Meno,” trans. Benjamin Jowett [1871] (online) at either:

       (a) (Links to an external site.).

       (b) (Links to an external site.)

Lecture 4 (8 March): The Theory of the Forms and the Nature of Knowledge

Readings:  “Republic” (Book VI, 508-511e; Book VII, 514-520d) [divided line analogy and the allegory of the cave] From: The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 743-752.

Recommended: “Plato on Knowledge in the Theatetus,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online): (Links to an external site).

Week 3René Descartes (1596-1650)

Lectures 5 & 6 (13 & 15 March): Descartes’s Quest for Knowledge: The Method of Doubt, the Dream Argument, the Cogito (“I think”)

Readings for Week: Descartes, Meditations I-III [from The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane]

Recommended: “Descartes’s Epistemology,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online): (Links to an external site).


Week 4René Descartes (1596-1650)

Lectures 7 & 8 (20 & 22 March): Mind-Body Dualism, The Existence of God, and the External World 

Readings for Week:   Meditations IV-VI

Recommended: “Descartes and the Pineal Gland,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online): (Links to an external site).


Week 5David Hume (1711-1776) on Human Understanding

Lecture 9 & 10 (27 & 29 March): Ideas and Impressions: an empiricist theory of knowledge; 'relations of ideas' and 'matters of fact'

Readings for Lectures 9-12:   David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Parts II-V, VII (ii) and XII (iii) from Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, reprinted from the 1777 edition with Introduction and Analytical Index by L.A.Selby-Bigge, 3rd edition, with text revised and noted by P.H.Nidditch (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1975).

Note: For weeks 5-10, all readings are available online: click on 'Reading Lists'.


Mid-Semester Break


Week 6:  Hume’s epistemology: causal knowledge and the 'ultimate questions'

Lecture 11 (17 April): Hume on the justifiability of our causal knowledge

Lecture 12 (19 April): Empirical reasoning and its limitations: can it settle religious questions?


Week 7:  Hume’s Philosophy of Religion [Material for Weeks 7 and 8 will now be treated more extensively over Weeks 7, 8 and 9 - for details see announcement of 30 April]

Lecture 13 (24 April): Hume on miracles

Reading: David Hume, ‘Of Miracles’, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Part X. 

Lecture 14 (26 April): Hume on the 'design' argument

Reading for Lectures 14 & 15: David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Parts II, IV-VII, from Dialogues and Natural History of Religion, edited with an introduction and notes by J.C.A.Gaskin, Oxford University Press, 1993, reissued 2008.  


Week 8:  Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

Lecture 15 (1 May): Hume on the 'design' argument (continued)

Lecture 16 (3 May): Hume on the 'Argument from Evil'

(This lecture relates to the topic for Essay 2, due Monday 21 May.)

Reading:   David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part X.


Week 9:  Pascal's Wager  [transferred to Week 10]

Lectures 17 & 18 (8 & 10 May): Is religious belief practically rational?

Reading: Blaise Pascal, “Faith as a Rational wager” in Louis P Pojman (ed.), Introduction to philosophy: classical and contemporary readings, 3rd edn (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Secondary reading: Eliott Sober, “Pascal and Irrationality” in his Core Questions in Philosophy, 6th edn (Pearson Education, 2013); Stephen D. Hales, “Pascal’s Wager” in his This is Philosophy: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013); Nicholas Everitt, “Prudential Arguments” in The Non-Existence of God (Routledge, 2004), 191-212 [also relevant for Week 10]


Week 10:  William James, 'The Will to Believe'  [This topic has been deleted from the course: see announcement of 30 April]

Lectures 19 & 20 (15 & 17 May): Is there a justification for faith?

Reading: William James, 'The Will to Believe' in The Works of William James. Electronic Edition. Volume 6: The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy.


Week 11:  Introduction to G. W. F. Hegel  (1770-1831)

Lecture 21:  Hegel's Life; Self-Consciousness

Readings:     "Hegel's Life and Times" (Simply Hegel, Chapter 1, pp. 7-16) 
                                                               (in the "files" section of course website)
                     "Self-Consciousness"      (Simply Hegel, Chapter 2, pp. 17-23)

Lecture 22:  Hegel's System of Philosophy

Readings:     "Hegel's System:  Logic, Nature, Spirit" (Simply Hegel, Chapter 6, pp. 52-58)


Week 12:  Introduction to Hegel (cont.)

Lecture 23:  Hegel's Philosophy of History

Readings:  G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, pp. 14-24 (in "files" section of course website)

Lecture 24:  Hegel's Influence

Readings:  "Hegel's Influence"  (Simply Hegel, Chapter 8, pp. 67-73)




Course summary:

Date Details