PHIL 001: Basic Problems of Philosophy


This is an introductory course focused on questions of metaphysics and epistemology. The main learning objectives for the course are to learn to: identify some of the central questions within the Western Philosophical tradition concerning reality and human knowledge of it; discuss the range of answers that has been provided to each of these questions; practice the skills of critical reading, thinking, and discussion that allow one to develop and justify ones own views on these matters.

Approach to Course

I like to have a good balance of classical historical and more contemporary readings from primary sources. I have used anthologies in previous classes, but I think if I were to teach the course again (or a similar course in another context), I would choose instead to compile a set of open source readings.

I think it is also helpful for students to have them read an accessibly written text that touches on each of the main themes of the course as well.  I have used Simon Blackburn’s Think and Thomas Nagel’s What Does it All Mean in this role. The former tends to irk me more than the latter, which is sometimes useful, but can also lead to situations that are more confusing than edifying for students.

Assessments have generally taken the form of short quizzes on the daily reading and essay exams requiring students to articulate positions discussed, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and synthesize the information covered in original ways. I have not taught the course since I started making regular use of course blogs. My experience with that in other introductory courses (e.g., PHIL 005 Persons, Moral Values, and the Good Life) leads me to believe that I would make some changes in my approach to the design of this course the next time around.

Reflections on Teaching the Course

I never took a philosophy course at this level as an undergraduate and I have spent so many years having particularist sensibilities suggested to me by mentors and colleagues that I have struggled a bit with adopting the generalist approach that this kind of course recommends and repays. My historical sensibilities and my desire to do justice to the text as well as the positions developed in it make me want to try to do too much–i.e., present the ‘standard line’, consider its strengths and weaknesses, look for a more charitable way of presenting the view, explain why it is preferable to the ‘standard line’, but also explain why the ‘standard line’ has come to have the status that it has… I continue to work on bracketing my reservations (and curtailing the parenthetical digressions that I cannot expect students to follow, track, and store away appropriately) so I can present things with the clear edges that allow students to take them in and begin to exercise their own critical powers of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

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