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July 11, 2007 6:19 AM   Subscribe

I need help putting together reading material for a philosophy course.

I will be teaching an Intro to Philosophy course at my university this fall. I've decided to introduce philosophy to my students by way of some of the fields more interesting and famous problems.

More specifically I want to cover:
The problem of evil and arguments for the existence of God.
The mind-body problem.
Skepticism and responses.
Basic ontology.
The problem of knowledge (i.e. what does it mean to know X).

I've also decided to eschew requiring the purchase of particular books in favor of having them read articles and excerpts provided by me in PDF form.

So here is my question: Can you suggest any specific articles or passages (I don't mind difficult material) that you feel do a good job of addressing any of the topics mentioned above?

I'll give you two examples.
For the skepticism section I think I'll have them read Descartes's first meditation, "A Defence of Common Sense" by Moore, and perhaps a passage by Hume.

For the problem of knowledge section I think I'll have them read Plato's "Meno," Gettier's "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge," and Searle's "Minds, Brains and Programs."
posted by oddman to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Thomas Nagel's "What is it like to be a bat?"
posted by cardamine at 6:32 AM on July 11, 2007

For the mind-body problem, I want to suggest Dennett, Chalmers, and Hofstadter. But I don't know where you'd find them in article/pdf form. Sorry.
posted by DarkForest at 6:50 AM on July 11, 2007

Best answer: Nothing at all on Ethics in your intro course? I think it would be really helpful to at least touch on Kant, Mill, and Aristotle. This opens up a huge can of worms, of course, but I can't see any intro philosophy course being complete without at least some smidgen of Ethics.
posted by Rallon at 6:51 AM on July 11, 2007

Identity and metaphysics: Peter Unger, "I Do Not Exist."
God: Anselm, bits of the Proslogion that deal with the ontological argument--and Gaunilo, "On Behalf of the Fool."
Mind/body problem: That Coke machine article about functionalism (I believe it was Lycan?)
Skepticism: Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism
posted by nasreddin at 7:02 AM on July 11, 2007

Oh, and:
Ontology: Parmenides' poem; some fragments of Heraclitus.
posted by nasreddin at 7:07 AM on July 11, 2007

I recommend looking through some of the essays in the anthology Metaphyiscs: The Big Questions by Van Inwagen and Zimmerman, especially since it seems like you are teaching more of a "Metaphysics" course than an "Introduction to Philosophy" course. I believe this book includes the aforementioned Coke machine essay, and it also includes some good essays on the existence of God.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:18 AM on July 11, 2007

Best answer: Obviously, Anselm (with Kant's response) and Aquinas are big in the arguments for the existence of God.

It's been a while since my Philosophy of Religion course, but I think the more recent philosophers Swinburne(?) and Plantinga have interesting arguments about whether or not it is rational to believe in a God. (They think it is.)

And I've always found Augustine's argument for Evil as non-being interesting.

And then there's things like Berkeley and Leibniz that try to use God as a way out of the epistemology problem.

Are you sticking to exclusively Western philosophy? Chuang-tzu immediately comes to mind with regard to identity as well as some of the "no-self" and codependent origination arguments in Buddhism.

My own personal peeve is that some biography of the philosophers needs to be included--just a tad. And maybe something from Philosophy in the Flesh so your students don't think of philosophy as something completely disembodied and a-cultural. This also touches the mind-body problem.
posted by MasonDixon at 7:27 AM on July 11, 2007

Response by poster: Some quick follow-ups.

Yes, I am sticking to western philosophy.

Feel free to suggest any article, I have access to just about any journal or book and I'm willing to prep the article for electronic distribution myself.

I do, want to cover some ethics (and even aesthetics) but time may not permit. If you have a particularly article or passage on ethics (parts of Plato and Spinoza come to mind) please make a suggestion.

I do plan to give biographical sketches and cultural contexts in lecture. I also plan to engage them with relevant, concrete (as possible) scenarios during discussion.
posted by oddman at 7:55 AM on July 11, 2007

Sartre's The Wall could be interpretted for either ethics or the problem of knowledge.
posted by goml at 8:50 AM on July 11, 2007

Best answer: Pascal's Wager, Section III of his Pensees.
posted by ewiar at 9:01 AM on July 11, 2007

Best answer: Also... Singer's Famine, Affluence and Morality would be fun in an intro to Ethics session.
posted by ewiar at 9:03 AM on July 11, 2007

I don't know if you can find a way to get copies to your students, but the absolute best resource on identity for an intro class is Perry's Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. And if you can't make copies of it.. It's only 6 bucks. And it is worth it. It is interesting to read and easy to understand.

While you've already said you may not have time for any ethics, I still suggest Euthyphro. Maybe I just have a crush on Socrates, but I think Euthyphro is good for intro classes.

So far as ontology goes... To what extent do you want to freak your students out? I can imagine that getting into David Lewis could perhaps be fun... but it might be a wee bit too advanced for intro students. But the whole "Yeah, this theory may seem crazy, but just look at how many problems it solves!" angle could be an interesting matter for a beginner's course.

I'm afraid I am horrible at remembering titles, but Paley's piece of intelligent design is pretty good.

You may also want to consider some work from Churchland on eliminative materialism. It's not too hard to understand, I think, and it offers an interesting approach to questions of mind.

Also, have you considered any positivism? Specifically, Ayer. He may not be the best example of a positivist, but, again, he's not too hard to understand, and studying him offers a good chance to discuss the relationship between metaphysics and science and all that fun stuff.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:12 AM on July 11, 2007

Best answer: I think every intro Phil class should have some applied ethics. I think the best way to hook students into caring about philosophical issues is to see how those issues relate to their lives, and topics in applied ethics have the clearest connections. I'd stick in that Singer paper above and Judy Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" in place of your basic ontology section. You might also have them read that Russell paper on the purpose and importance of philosophy.

I think you should definitely read Hume on skepticism, in place of Moore if you have to cut.
posted by Kwine at 9:31 AM on July 11, 2007

Best answer: A certain professor in our department, yes "our" as in yours and mine, oddman, used a great article by J.L Mackie called “Evil and Omnipotence” in the phil writing course on the problem of evil. It's very clear and accessible to the students.

Jubien's book includes a nice intro to metaphysics, if he'd let you use that.

Since Frank Jackson is actually going to be here in the fall, you could have them read "What Mary Didn't Know" and then encourage them to attend the conference!
posted by inconsequentialist at 10:23 AM on July 11, 2007

Re: Existence of God, Alvin Plantiga's God and Other Minds is helpful. Last I checked he had a bunch of articles that were easy to find online, too.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:34 AM on July 11, 2007

Oh, and John Searle's Mind is a good intro to the mind-body problem.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:36 AM on July 11, 2007

There are great passages on identity in Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons.
posted by jayder at 11:37 AM on July 11, 2007

You'd have to put it in an historical context, but Montaigne's essays are a great example of how someone from that period wrestled with many of the issues you've named. (I guess the same historical thing is true with Augustine, although he didn't really go through the transition that makes some of the later essays seem like they're written by a totally different person.)
posted by LairBob at 8:11 PM on July 11, 2007

Best answer: St. Augustine's City of God, chapters 19 & 20 talk about theodicy, if I remember correctly.

Genesis (the fall, in particular) for the existence and nature of evil. It's not a philosophy, of course, but it's a great starting point for thinking about things in that way.

Excerpts from Schopenhauer, the World as Will and Idea, maybe. If you have time (you shouldn't).

The Greeks! How can you teach western philosophy without the Greeks? Plato is too long to PDF, but maybe something from the Symposium?
posted by bluenausea at 7:34 AM on July 12, 2007

Response by poster: Quick response #2:

I've decided that you all are right that I need to make room for ethics. So, I've taken those suggested articles under consideration.

I've already marked some answers as best because it looks like I'll be using articles or passages mentioned in them.

Please feel free to continue adding more suggestions. As my students will find out, I reserve the right to modify the readings at any time. ;)
posted by oddman at 7:52 AM on July 12, 2007

Response by poster: How rude of me, I forgot to thank you all.

Thanks, for all of the excellent suggestions. You've really helped a lot.
posted by oddman at 7:54 AM on July 12, 2007

All you really need is Aristotle.
posted by Viomeda at 9:27 PM on July 12, 2007

If philosophy is about knowing the truth about things (rather than just the history of ideas) then you might want to include some more modern writers. Science has mad some inroads into the search for truth in the past few years...
posted by DarkForest at 7:06 AM on July 13, 2007

mad = made
damn those spelling checkers that don't interpret english meanings
posted by DarkForest at 7:11 AM on July 13, 2007

Response by poster: DarkForest, "the search for truth" is a phrase that I'm uncomfortable with. So, I'm not sure what kinds of things you are thinking about. Could you give me an example of a the kind of scientific-philosophy you're thinking of?

I certainly do want to include some contemporary philosophers. I think that philosophers like Nagel, Searle, and Wittmer fit the bill. However, I'm certainly happy to take others into consideration, thanks.
posted by oddman at 10:42 AM on July 13, 2007

oddman, I'm in no way a philosopher of any sort, so excuse my naivete, bit I'd always thought of philosophy specifically as the search for truth, even if final conclusive truth is not always obtainable. If this is not the case, then what is philosophy?

Neurophysiology certainly plays into the mind-body problem. I'd suggest you balance searle and nagel's mind-is-not-of-the-body stance with a bit of dennett or hofstadter or crick. I've just finished hofstadter's "i am a strange loop" which might be good to include, though it's probably too long given all the material to be covered. Ramachandran's work (like "a brief tour of human conscienceness") is about how the body relates to the mind.

Neurophysiology certainly plays into ethics and ethesthetics. Game theory plays into ethics. Psychology and sociology certainly play into the belief in God. Certainly there must be writers who have these modern revelations into account in revising/reworking/updating the positions of the classic writers.

While science itself has nothing to say in favor of the existence of God, and God can't be disproven scientifically (since God and his acts can always be redefined and reinterpreted whenever science intrudes), certainly science will have touched on the arguments that have been used in the past to defend (or attack) the existence of God. Modern writers could take new knowledge (cosmology, evolution, geology) into account. There's been a spate of recent books such as "breaking the spell" by dennett specifically attacking the idea of God and religion. But I imagine (not having looked) that there must be more modern, open-ended and open-minded inquiries into the existence of God taking modern scientific knowledge into account.

I also just wonder about the romanticism involved in reading only classic authors. Certainly native english writers might express their ideas more clearly and concisely than ancient writers of another language. Modern writers might also be somewhat less encumbered with superstitions and beliefs that have since been shown untrue. To study only aristotle and other classic authors would indicate to me that philosophy is a dead study, if no progress had been made in a thousand years. Not to say that there's no value there, there certainly is and it should be paid due homage (especially in a history of ideas type course).

However, I understand you're going to be covering a lot of ground in an intro course, so there are probably a limited number of viewpoints and readings you can include.
posted by DarkForest at 4:34 PM on July 13, 2007

please excuse my egregious typos above. it's not easy to write a philosophical essay with kids playing in your lap.
posted by DarkForest at 6:57 PM on July 13, 2007

DarkForest: "I also just wonder about the romanticism involved in reading only classic authors. Certainly native english writers might express their ideas more clearly and concisely than ancient writers of another language. Modern writers might also be somewhat less encumbered with superstitions and beliefs that have since been shown untrue. To study only aristotle and other classic authors would indicate to me that philosophy is a dead study, if no progress had been made in a thousand years. Not to say that there's no value there, there certainly is and it should be paid due homage (especially in a history of ideas type course)."

It doesn't sound like you know much about Aristotle.

Most of the misunderstandings and confusions of Descartes that parade around under the banner of "thoughts on the mind-body problem" are easily laid to rest by a single careful reading of Aristotle's On The Soul. Every brick of the foundation of modern science was laid by Aristotle; it has only been build in a new and less certain direction since he laid it. Searle is useful as a modern perspective, but this is because he's one of the few who sees a number of the limitations of this stilted age.

Finally, while it might very well be true that certain (presumably very modern) English writers are more clear and concise than their ancient counterparts, it is incumbent upon us as careful and thoughtful scholars to attempt to understand the thought of those who came before us, no matter how much our delicate and well-refined sensibilities may be offended by having to read authors who wrote in different languages and came from circumstances so foreign to our own. The silly superstition of the scientist that any talk of anything not experientially verifiable by repeatable experiment is "illogical" or "irrational" must be resisted.
posted by koeselitz at 12:53 AM on July 14, 2007

Best answer: I see now that both Searle's "Minds, Brains, and Programs" as well as Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat" are both included in Hofstadter and Dennett's collection "The Mind's I", which also includes Hofstadter's responses to both. If you use these as readings, then it might be good to include Hofstadter's responses to them. Hofstadter also critiques Searle, Chalmers and Parfit in "I Am A Strange Loop"
posted by DarkForest at 2:03 AM on July 14, 2007

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