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COURSE NAME: "Introduction to Philosophical Thinking "
SEMESTER & YEAR: Fall 2019

EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: TTH 6:00-7:15 PM

We all have opinions about what is true and false, right and wrong, what is just, divine, and beautiful, what the self, mind, and soul are, or what makes us free. But can we justify our opinions about such things? Have we given rational and open-minded consideration to criticisms and alternatives, or are our opinions perhaps based only on prejudices and assumptions? In this course you will learn to use philosophical thinking to test and improve your opinions and your ability to evaluate the claims of important philosophers. Through the study and discussion of philosophical texts, classic or contemporary, you will grapple with issues of fundamental human importance and develop your capacities for careful reading, clear writing and speaking, and logical argumentation.

The proposition of this course is that philosophy can awaken us to a richer and deeper understanding of the world and of ourselves.  To test this proposition, we will study carefully a selection of texts, classic and contemporary, on the following topics:

·         What is philosophy and why does it matter? (Selections from Spinoza and Nietzsche.)

·         People often assert that opinions about right and wrong, good and bad, and even true and false, are "subjective" or "relative."  What does this assertion mean, and should we accept it?  (Selections from Aristotle, Pascal, Descartes, and others.)

·         What is happiness?  Does it consist primarily in wealth, in honor or prestige, in pleasure, or in something else?  (Selections from Aquinas, Aristotle, and Hobbes.)

·         Is civil society a contractual arrangement designed to protect private, individual rights, or is it something more?  Does justice mean equality, or can inequality sometimes be more just than equality?  (Selections from Hobbes and Aristotle.)

·         Whether women and men are naturally different and if so, in what ways, is a much-discussed question.  We will examine two contrasting philosophical viewpoints, that of a feminist and that of a critic of feminism.  (Selections from Beauvoir and Mansfield.)

·         We sometimes speak of "true love", implying that it is superior to its less genuine versions.   But in what does true love consist?  What should we be looking for, and how do we know when we have found it?  (Selections from Plato's Symposium)

Classes will consist of a mixture of discussion and lecture, as well as oral presentations by students on the assigned readings.  Much of our time will be spent in close analysis of texts and arguments; we will also consider how these arguments might bear on current moral and political controversies and more generally, on how we live or ought to live our lives.


1. Gain experience in the careful reading of difficult and complex texts.

2. Learn how to evaluate an argument (that is, a set of reasons supporting a claim) and how to make one.  

3. Improve your capacity for clear and logical thinking, speaking, and writing.

4. Gain a basic understanding of some of the major philosophical problems and of the alternative solutions to them.


Book TitleAuthorPublisherISBN numberLibrary Call NumberComments
Discourse on MethodDescartesFocus978-1-58510-259-4B1848.E5 K35 2007  
Introduction to Thomas AquinasThomas AquinasModern Library978-0075536536BX890.T62 E6 1948 
PenseesPascalOxford978-0199540365B1900.E5 P413 2008  
class participation(1) Class discussions help us test our opinions, improve our speaking and reasoning skills, and learn from each other. In order to participate in such discussions productively, we must do the assigned readings carefully and thoughtfully. Be ready to ask questions or offer opinions about the reading and the issues it concerns. (2) You are required to bring to each class a paper copy of the assigned reading for that day (electronic devices may not be used in class). (3) A short written comment or question (minimum two sentences; handwritten is OK; please double-space and leave margins) on the assigned readings is due every class, except for five times during the semester at your discretion. In addition, no comment is required on the day you turn in a paper or give an oral presentation. If you are absent from a class, you may turn in two comments the following class. Each comment should be tightly focused on the assigned reading for that day. Comments are not graded individually. (4) Once during the semester, each student, in lieu of a written comment, will present orally to the class a 5-minute outline/analysis of that day's reading. (You will need to turn in to me any written notes that you prepare for this presentation.) (5) You are permitted two absences without an excuse. Additional unexcused absences will negatively affect your grade. Examples of excusable absences are those due to illness or travel. Requests for an excused absence should be made in advance whenever possible. (6) Please make every effort to be punctual to class; consistent lack of punctuality will negatively affect your grade. (7) The instructor may require students to attend one or more evening lectures or lunchtime events that are relevant to this course or the study of philosophy.20
3 papersTypically 1000-1400 words. Late papers will be assessed a penalty unless an extension has been granted in advance. Papers that refer to translated texts must be based on the translation(s) specified in the syllabus; failure to use these translations will negatively affect your grade.60
final examEssay questions on the assigned readings. 20

A Work of this quality provides a coherent, orderly argument based on a very careful reading of the relevant texts and a solid understanding of the relevant issues. The student displays superior reasoning skills and has done a good deal of original thinking about the material. He or she knows how to raise important questions about the text and to evaluate possible answers to them. The student writes very clearly and has a near-perfect command of English usage and grammar. (Appropriate allowances are made for those for whom English is not a first language.)
BThis is a good level of performance. The student displays a capacity for careful reading and good reasoning. The work reflects some original thinking and is not simply a repetition of lecture material and readings. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions. The student writes clearly and has a good command of English usage and grammar.
CThis is an acceptable, or fair, level of performance. The student provides answers that are clear but limited, consisting mainly in a repetition of the text or lectures. The student has some ability to write clearly and correctly.
DThe student fails to demonstrate a coherent grasp of the material. Important information is omitted and/or irrelevant points included. The paper is poorly organized, and the student shows limited ability to write clearly and correctly.
FThis work fails to show any significant knowledge of the texts and the issues. Most of the material is irrelevant or inaccurate. There is no coherent argument and the student shows little ability to write clearly and correctly. This grade is also given for an act of plagiarism or other form of academic dishonesty.

You cannot make-up a major exam (midterm or final) without the permission of the Dean’s Office. The Dean’s Office will grant such permission only when the absence was caused by a serious impediment, such as a documented illness, hospitalization or death in the immediate family (in which you must attend the funeral) or other situations of similar gravity. Absences due to other meaningful conflicts, such as job interviews, family celebrations, travel difficulties, student misunderstandings or personal convenience, will not be excused. Students who will be absent from a major exam must notify the Dean’s Office prior to that exam. Absences from class due to the observance of a religious holiday will normally be excused. Individual students who will have to miss class to observe a religious holiday should notify the instructor by the end of the Add/Drop period to make prior arrangements for making up any work that will be missed. The final exam period runs until ____________
As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.



Note: you must download each reading from MyJCU, print it out, and bring it to class.  (No electronic devices may be used in the classroom.)

Also please note our three Friday make-up classes, all at 10:00 am (not 6:00 p.m.!).

Sept. 3: Introduction.

Sept. 5: What is philosophy?  Why philosophy?  Nietzsche excerpt and Spinoza excerpt (Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, pp. 3-6)

Unit 1: Relativism, skepticism, and truth

A)    Moral relativism

Sept. 10: (a) Does relativism or non-relativism better promote freedom and tolerance?  Readings: "Relativism and truth." (b) relativism, an ancient debate: Excerpts from Plato's Theaetetus.

Sept. 12: Moral norms are conventional (culturally determined): Ruth Benedict, "The Concept of the Normal," pp. 591-598.

Sept. 17: There exists a natural standard for moral norms: Martin Luther King, "Letter from Birmingham Jail," pp. 1-8.  (Read till the end of the second paragraph on p. 8.  The rest of the Letter is recommended but not required.)

B)    What and how can we know?

Sept. 19: NO CLASS

Sept. 20: NO CLASS

Sept. 24: Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, Book 1, chapters 1-3.  Receive assignment for first paper.

Sept. 26: Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, Book 2, chapter 19.

Friday, Sept. 27 at 10:00 a.m. (make-up class): Geometry as the model for knowing: Descartes, Discourse on Method

Oct. 1: Inadequacy of the geometrical model: Pascal (Pascal excerpt plus Pascal study questions).

Unit 2: Happiness

A)    Aquinas and Aristotle

Oct. 3: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: Question 1, Article 7; Question 2, Articles 1 and 2 (optional: Article 3).  First paper due.

Oct. 8: NO CLASS

Oct. 10: Aquinas: Question 2, Articles 4-6 (optional: Articles 7-8)

Oct. 15: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1 ch. 7

B)    Hobbes

Oct. 17: Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 6

Friday, Oct. 18 at 10 a.m.  (make-up class): Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 11

Unit 3: Politics

A)    Hobbes on the origin of society and on justice

Oct. 22: Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 13

Oct. 24: Hobbes, Leviathan, chs. 14-15

B)    Aristotle on the origin of society, on regimes, and on justice

Friday, Oct. 25 at 10 a.m. (make-up class): Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, chapters 1-2.  (Note that the chapter titles and the headings in italics are by the translator, not Aristotle.)

Oct. 29: Aristotle, Politics, Book 3, ch. 6 ("Definition and Division of Regime") and ch. 7

Oct. 31 Aristotle, Politics, Book 3, chs. 8-9.  Receive assignment for second paper.

Unit 4: Women and Men

A)    Feminism: Simone de Beauvoir

Nov. 5: Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Introduction

Nov. 7: Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Part 2, ch. 1.  Second paper due.

B)    Manliness: Harvey Mansfield

Nov. 12: Harvey Mansfield, "What has happened to manliness?" pp. 5-11

Nov. 14: Harvey Mansfield, "What has happened to manliness?" pp. 12-17

Unit 5: Plato on Love

Nov. 19: Plato, Symposium, 189C-193D (pp. 21-25), with relevant parts of the Symposium Study Guide.  Receive assignment for third paper.

Nov. 21: Symposium, 199C-201C (pp. 32-34), with Study Guide

Nov. 26: Symposium, 201D-207A, with Study Guide.  Third paper due.

Dec. 3: Symposium, 207A-212C, with Study Guide

Dec. 5: Wrap up Symposium, prep for final exam.