Philosophy 103: Introduction to Philosophy

Autumn 1999, section H1

Instructor: Jonathan Cohen ( (omit text in caps, which reduces automated spam))
office: (732) 445 6163
home: (718) 499 1213
Office hours: Tuesday, 12:30 to 2:00, in Psychology A132, on Busch Campus.

Class meets Tuesday and Friday, 9:50 to 11:10; in Scott 207 on the College Avenue Campus.

This course is an honors introduction to philosophy. It has no prerequisites, and assumes nothing in the way of previous philosophical exposure.

Organization -- Books -- Discussions -- Written Work -- Grading -- Overview -- Schedule


In general, introductory classes in philosophy tend to divide into two types. They are either historical surveys of the thought of a few important philosophers, or they focus on specific philosophical problems. In this class, I want to try to combine these approaches. We'll do this by dividing our time into five segments, some of which will fall into the historical mold, and some of which will be based on philosophical problems. The segments are as follows. Note that section 5 may be abbreviated (or even skipped), depending on how far behind we get in the material.

Organization -- Books -- Discussions -- Written Work -- Grading -- Overview -- Schedule


There are four required texts for the class. These are Descartes's Meditations, Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic, and R. M. Sainsbury's Paradoxes (second edition). I'm told that these are all available at the bookstore. It's fine with me if you want to use editions of the first three books other than the ones I ordered, but you must use the second edition of the Sainsbury. There will also be a few articles I'll xerox and pass out to the course.

Organization -- Books -- Discussions -- Written Work -- Grading -- Overview -- Schedule


Philosophy is not something that can be learned passively. To get the most out of the course, it is absolutely essential that you read carefully and actively, think hard about what you read, and then challenge the material by finding objections against it. Learning these skills is a difficult enterprise, but it one for which it is well worth setting aside some time. Consequently, I want to spend a significant amount of the time we have together on discussion, rather than lectures.

Therefore, on days designated below as discussion days, we'll spend the class period considering your questions, objections, and arguments. On these days, you must pass in at the beginning of class a short (1 to 2 paragraphs, typed) assignment in which you raise some point about the week's reading. You may comment on anything which grabs you --- anything exciting, boring, right, wrong, fun, stupid, puzzling, or anything else. In short, just show that you've thoughtfully engaged some aspect of the reading. We'll spend the class period sharing these reflections with each other, and then discussing them as a class.

To pass the course, you must hand in six of these discussion pieces on the day on which they are due. They will not be given letter grades.

Organization -- Books -- Discussions -- Written Work -- Grading -- Overview -- Schedule

Written Work

In addition to the discussion pieces and the (mandatory, closed book, open note, in class) final, there is a writing assignment for each segment. These assignments are given here.

However, you only need to complete two of the five writing assignments. If you hand in more than two of them, I'll use your best two in determining your grade.

Although philosophical writing is an essential part of your introduction to philosophy, it is a skill which can be quite difficult to master. I'll be giving extensive feedback on your written work, and you may find it useful to consult some of the tips on philosophical writing at or the resources collected at

On the days when assignments are due, I will collect them at the beginning of class. Anything handed in after the beginning of the class -- be it 5 minutes or 5 days after the beginning of the class -- is late. I don't accept late assignments unless I have given an extension. I only give extensions in advance and only in cases of real need. Of course, do not cause or allow your work to resemble that of anyone else in the class, lest I suspect plagiarism is involved.

Organization -- Books -- Discussions -- Written Work -- Grading -- Overview -- Schedule


I'll determine your grade for the course mostly on the basis of your two papers (or your best two, in case you hand in more than two) and your exam: each paper will be worth 40%, your exam will be worth 20%, and I'll use class participation and your short discussion assignments as a way of deciding borderline cases. Note, however, that you cannot pass the course without handing in six of the seven discussion assignments.

Organization -- Books -- Discussions -- Written Work -- Grading -- Overview -- Schedule


Although it may first appear that these materials treat completely unrelated topics in philosophy, they are in fact related in several important ways. For example, there are the historical connections: e.g., Hume's scepticism as a response to Descartes's rationalism, Ayer's vision of himself as returning to Hume's sober reigning-in of philosophy. There are also connections in subject matter: for example, we'll have occasion to compare the different views of the nature of knowledge which come up in the material on rational belief and Gettier, in Descartes, and in Hume.

However, the most important connection between these materials in my eyes (and the reason I have chosen them) is that they all reflect, in different ways and to different extents, a rejection of prior philosophical work in favor of a new and stronger conception of philosophy. This is directly apparent in Descartes's rejection of the Scholastic tradition and in his choice of radical doubt as the proper starting place for his philosophy. It is found again in the attempt of both Hume and the logical empiricists to restore philosophy to a proper course by rejecting anything which falls afoul of their methodological prescriptions. The sense of reform in the face of crisis comes up in different ways in the last two segments of the course. Here, the realization that innocuous premises apparently lead, by valid reasoning, to shocking conclusions has indicated to many that quite drastic changes are in order. In both of these cases, such realizations have led to radical reformulations in the way we think about what might initially have appeared to be quite simple concepts.

I hope that these sweeping reformations will be intellectually exhilarating to you. By setting up the backgrounds to the problems we shall consider, and then examining the problems and some proposed solutions in detail, I hope to give you a feel for these issues and, thereby, to introduce you to philosophy.

Organization -- Books -- Discussions -- Written Work -- Grading -- Overview -- Schedule

Tentative Schedule

(NB: readings listed on a certain day are TO HAVE BEEN READ on that day.)

3 September --- Organizational meeting; no reading due.

7 September -- Historical background to Descartes.
Reading: (From Descartes's Meditations) Preface to the Reader, Synopsis of the following six Meditations.

10 September -- Cartesian scepticism, nature of mind.
Reading: Meditations 1-2.

14 September -- Discussion day.
Reading: None.
Writing: Short discussion assignment due.

17 September -- Class canceled due to flooding!

21 September -- God, truth and falsity.
Reading: Meditations 3-4.

24 September -- God again, mind and body.
Reading: Meditations 5-6.

28 September -- Discussion day.
Reading: None.
Writing: Short discussion assignment due.

1 October -- Comments on Descartes's system.
Reading: None.
Writing: Descartes assignment due.

5 October -- Background to Hume, Hume's psychology.
Reading: Hume, sections 1-2.

8 October -- Hume's psychology part 2, Hume on causation.
Reading: Hume, sections 3-5.

12 October -- Hume on probability and necessary connection.
Reading: Hume, sections 6-7.

15 October -- Discussion day.
Reading: None.
Writing: Short discussion assignment due.

19 October -- Liberty and necessity, free will, evil.
Reading: Hume, section 8.
Writing: Hume assignment due.

22 October -- Intro to logical empiricism, meaningfulness criterion.
Reading: Ayer, pp. 33-45.

26 October -- Problem of unobservables, confirmation paradoxes.
Reading: Ayer, pp. 46-71.

29 October -- Auxiliary statements, dispositional terms.
Reading: Ayer pp. 71-87.

2 November -- Discussion day.
Reading: None.
Writing: Short discussion assignment due.

5 November -- Quine and analyticity, part I.
Reading: Quine, ``Two Dogmas of Empiricism'' (this is a difficult piece, and is worth reading at least twice).

9 November -- Quine and analyticity, part II.
Reading: Carnap, ``Quine on Analyticity''.
Writing: Logical empiricism assignment due.

12 November -- Discussion day.
Reading: None.
Writing: Short discussion assignment due.

16 November -- Paradoxes, the heap, epistemic solution, supervaluational solution.
Reading: Sainsbury, pp 1-3, 23-36.

19 November -- Objections to supervaluations.
Reading: Sainsbury, pp 36-40.

23 November -- Degrees of truth solution, questions about degrees of truth, vague objects.
Reading: Sainsbury, pp 36-51.
Writing: Heap/vagueness assignment due.

24 November -- Discussion day (NOTE: class meets on Wednesday, not Friday).
Reading: None.
Writing: Short discussion assignment due.

30 November -- Confirmation and its paradoxes.
Reading: Sainsbury, pp 73-81.

3 December -- Goodman's grue.
Reading: Sainsbury, pp 81-91.

7 December -- Gettier on knowledge.
Reading: Gettier, ``Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?''.
Writing: Belief and knowledge assignment due.

10 December -- Discussion day.
Reading: None.
Writing: Short discussion assignment due.

14 December -- Review period.
Reading: None.

21 December (12:00 noon - 3:00 PM) -- Final exam.

Organization -- Books -- Discussions -- Written Work -- Grading -- Overview -- Schedule