Course Goals and Activities
The first goal of the course is
to introduce you to some of the stars and marvels
of 17th and 18th century philosophy. One
particular kind of great voyage, typical of this era, was a voyage of
discovery. It is possible to come across something for the first time --
like being the first man on the moon, or in this case the first European
to see Venezuela. Or it can be seeing something which many people have
seen before, but which you are seeing for the first time. This is a kind
of personal discovery, perhaps less spectacular, but possibly just as
meaningful. So, it may be that you will get the pleasure of encountering
Descartes' Meditations for the first time, or Spinoza's
Ethics, or Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government.
This effort to encounter the primary texts of these philosophers and get
some kind of understanding and insight from them is the primary goal of
this course. This is the treasure we are seeking. So, these texts are the
focus around which everything we do revolves.
The second chief goal of the course is to
improve your philosophical skills. One of the most basic of
these is reading analytically. I think you will rapidly find that the
material you are reading is genuinely interesting. In fact, it becomes
more and more interesting as you come to understand it. I rather expect
that you will also begin to find the reading difficult, especially reading
in the analytical way which philosophy requires. Debate about which
interpretation of the text is the most plausible or best is a regular part
of the practice of the history of philosophy. This means that texts can
often be read in a number of ways, and even really good philosophers often
get it wrong. Misinterpreting a text may well mean that you miss the
treasure, or miss seeing what is really going wrong. You cannot accurately
evaluate the value of ideas that you do not accurately understand. So, you
may very well come to realize that you would like help understanding some
of the more difficult passages we are reading, or even works as a whole.
And especially so, since I just announced that this is the most important
goal in the class.
The other reason to try to develop one's reading skills is because
these skills are intimately linked to other important philosophical
skills. Suppose we take accurately understanding a philosophical text as a
primary reading skill. When you come to have a verbal dialogue, the same
kind of skills of understanding prove useful. If dialogue is one of the
primary genres of philosophy, we can see that developing good reading
skills can help you in understanding what other people are telling
you.Reading skills are also intimately connected with writing skills. If
you can recognize and understand how arguments, definitions, explanations,
hypotheses, case studies and so on fit into a work so that you can
determine if it comes to some conclusion or solves some problems, and what
the evidence for the conclusion is and whether the solution to the problem
is genuine, then you are much more likely to be able to produce a work
which has some of these characteristics than someone who cannot read
analytically. Actually, these two kinds of skill nourish each other.
Knowing how to recognize and solve problems, using arguments, definitions,
hypotheses and so forth are the reasoning skills which are close to the
core of any philosophical activity. To come to have them and use them on
philosophical subjects is to become a philosopher.So, to read these works,
and to develop a taste for thinking about these kinds of problems and
exercising the kinds of analytical skills required to understand these
works naturally makes you part of the activity of the wider philosophical
community. You are, in effect, learning to do what philosophers and
historians of philosophy do, and in doing so coming to be able to
participate in the ongoing philosophical dialogue of the philosophical
Involving you in the activity of the greater
philosophical community is the third goal of the course.
Achieving these goals:
To achieve these goals you need to read the
great works of some of the philosophers from the era we are
studying. Reading great works by great philosophers is
one of the chief sources of pleasure in philosophy. There is nothing like
a good book! On the other hand, this course is a survey covering several
centuries of intense philosophical activity. So, for the most part we
cannot linger too long over any one philosopher. These philosophers were
often builders of great systems of philosophy. This often required long
books. For that reason, for the most part, we read portions of texts, and
try to get at some of the more important ideas. Nevertheless, we will
probably be examining these works in more detail than you might expect.
This is because understanding comes from a grasp of how parts fit
together. So, the more clearly you can see the parts, and how they relate
to one another, the better off you will be.
Besides reading you are going to be doing a
variety of activities, discussions and assignments. Since this
class is on line, most, if not all, of our discussions will be written.
They will either come by e-mail or by using the threaded discussion tool
available on this web site. Part of what you will be doing is raising and
answering questions about the texts we are reading, and part of the
discussion will be about the broader philosophical questions involved.
Rather clearly, we need to have a good understanding of the texts we are
studying before we can accurately assess or discuss their wider
There will also be formal assignments where
you will be asked to write essays which will test and exercise your
understanding of the texts we are studying, and various other activities
as well, like quizzes, and interactions with other students.
The better you become at these activities the more you can participate
in the wider world of philosophical conversations.
Let us go over the various features available on the web site.
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