Ports of Call  


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 community.

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 implications.

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.