Introduction to Philosophy

One kind of introductory philosophy class proceeds historically. One reads the major works of the main historical figures, in each case quickly and superficially learning about who said what when. The advantage of this method is that one learns some intellectual history, and perhaps gets a bit of a sense about what philosophy is all about.

But philosophy isn't about memorizing who said what when. It's about thinking hard and carefully about important topics. So I'm going to proceed topically instead. We'll go through three topics -- free will and determinism, the existence of god, and the philosophy of mind -- with the focus being on philosophy rather than history. I hope you will gain a real sense of what philosophy is all about, and learn how to do it yourself.

Perhaps you think of philosophy as involving dreamy contemplation of the "big intellectual questions": What is the nature of existence? Is there a god? Do we have free choices? How should a moral person act? There is some truth in this common perception, as well as some untruth. Philosophers do indeed ask some very deep questions about highly abstract topics such as these that are, and crucial to human experience. But philosophers do not engage in whimsical free thinking about vaguely defined issues. Philosophy is a rigorous discipline, with established standards of what counts as good and bad philosophy. (Interestingly, these standards themselves are sometimes the subject of philosophical dispute! Nevertheless, they do exist.) What is exciting about philosophy, for me, is that it consists largely of an attempt to bring some of the same analytical rigor of the sciences and mathematics to bear on broad, abstract, important, and very human questions.


The anthology Reason and Responsibility, edited by Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau, is on sale at the SU Bookstore. Some supplementary readings may be placed on reserve in Bird library.

An outline of the course is included in this syllabus. For each class, you should do the assigned reading before you come to class. Although philosophy readings are typically not very long, they are often extremely dense, so it is usually a good idea to read them more than once.


There will be an (in-class) exam on each topic. These will be worth 60% of the class grade. In addition there will be two papers, one very short (about 3 pages) for 10% of the grade, and another not quite so short (around 6 pages), for 20% of the grade. Paper topics will be distributed in class. The final 10% of the grade will be based on class participation. Exam dates and paper due dates will be announced during the semester in class.

Tentative Course Outline

Note: readings may be added or changed as the semester progresses.

  1. Introduction to philosophy
  2. The existence of God. Introduction, in R&R, pp. 2-6.
    1. Preliminaries - logic, faith, etc.
    2. Some popular arguments
    3. Cosmological arguments. Saint Thomas Aquinas, "The Five Ways"; Samuel Clarke, "A Modern Formulation of the Cosmological Argument"; William Rowe, "The Cosmological Argument".
    4. The argument from design. William Paley, "The Argument from Design".
    5. The ontological argument. Saint Anselm, "The Ontological Argument, from Proslogium"; William Rowe, "The Ontological Argument".
    6. The problem of evil. J. L. Mackie, "Evil and Omnipotence".
    7. Pascal's wager. Blaise Pascal, "The Wager"
  3. Free will and determinism. Introduction, in R&R, pp. 410-416.
    1. The problem of free will and determinism
    2. Hard determinism. Paul Holbach, "The Illusion of Free Will"
    3. Indeterminism. Roderick Chisholm, "Human Freedom and the Self"
    4. Soft determinism. Walter T. Stace: "The Problem of Free Will"
    5. Incompatibilism. Peter van Inwagen, "The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism" (on reserve)
  4. Philosophy of Mind. Introduction, in R&R, pp. 298-302.
    1. Dualism. Jerome Shaffer, "The Subject of Consciousness".
    2. Materialist theories. Paul Churchland, "Behaviorism, Materialism and Functionalism".
    3. Artificial intelligence. John Searle, "Minds, Brains, and Programs"