Introduction to Philosophy

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Introduction to Philosophy
The aim of this module is to introduce MA students with little or no academic background in philosophy—‘conversion’ students—to some of the most central areas of the discipline. It covers central questions and ideas in four core areas of philosophy: ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics and epistemology. It also includes lessons in study skills and practice in philosophical writing.
Lectures: The lectures will be held in **, on Mondays and Thursdays from 6-7pm in the Autumn Term. The lecturers are Dr. Robert Northcott (, Prof. Susan James (, Dr. Cristian Constantinescu ( and Dr. Stacie Friend (
Seminars: The seminars for this module will be held in **, on Mondays and Thursdays from 7-8pm in the Autumn Term, and will be led by the lecturers and tutors. There will be four seminars for each of the four core areas covered on the module (epistemology, ethics, metaphysics and political philosophy), focused on discussion of a set reading.
Study Skills Sessions: There will be four study skills sessions during the term, on reading philosophy, writing philosophy papers, writing an MA dissertation and preparing for the exam. These sessions will take place on two Mondays and two Thursdays from 7-8pm (instead of seminars), and will be led by the lecturers. The specific weeks for each session are listed in the schedule below.
Readings: Every week there is one key reading that is the focus of the seminar discussion. One of the purposes of the seminar is to help you to understand the reading, so do not worry if you have not fully understood the reading in advance. Nevertheless, it is essential that you attempt the seminar reading each week if you are to follow the lecture and to participate in the seminar discussion. In addition, there is ‘additional reading’ listed that will deepen your understanding and help you to get the most out of the module. These readings are optional for each week, but you are especially advised to cover the additional reading for those topics on which you are planning to write.
Essays: For this module you are required to write two essays, one corresponding to a core area covered in the first half of term (epistemology or ethics) and one corresponding to a core area covered in the second half of term (metaphysics or political philosophy). A selection of questions for each essay is included in this document. Each essay should be 1500-2000 words. The purpose of these essays is to gain practice in philosophical writing, and for this reason they do not form part of the final assessment for the module. Indeed, you will not be given marks for these essays, although you will be given written feedback designed to help you to improve your philosophical writing. Moreover, you must complete the essays in order to pass the module. The first essay is due on Friday of Reading Week, and the second essay is due on the first Friday following the end of term. For further information on essays see the MA Handbook.
Exam: The module is assessed by a three-hour written exam in the Summer Term.
Moodle: Electronic copies of course materials are available through Moodle, at You will need your ITS login name and password to enter.


Mondays, Weeks 1-5

Lecturer: Robert Northcott (
In these five weeks we’ll explore some central and famous issues in epistemology. The first reading each week is the primary reading, the second the supplementary one. All readings will be available either as pdf files on the course Moodle page, freely online as indicated, or via Birkbeck library’s e-journal access. Any reading without a specific citation may also be found in standard anthologies, copies of which are available in Birkbeck library: Sven Bernecker and Fred Dretske (ed.) Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology; and Ernest Sosa et al (eds) Epistemology: An Anthology.
Week 1: Scepticism

Rene Descartes, Meditation I-II, in his Meditations on First Philosophy

GE Moore, 1939, ‘Proof of an External World’, in his Philosophical Papers (Allen & Unwin, 1959).
Study Skills Session: How to Read Philosophy

  • Jim Pryor, ‘On how to read a philosophy article’, available online at:

Week 2: The definition of knowledge

Edmund Gettier, 1963, ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’ Analysis 23: 121-123.

Linda Zagzebski, 1994, ‘The Inescapability of Gettier Problems’, Philosophical Quarterly 44: 65-73.

Week 3: Agreeing to disagree

Jennifer Lackey, “What Should We Do When We Disagree?” Oxford Studies in Epistemology, ed. John Hawthorne and Tamar Gendler (Oxford, 2008).

Thomas Kelly, “The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement,” Oxford Studies in Epistemology, ed. John Hawthorne and Tamar Gendler (Oxford, 2005).

Week 4: Induction

Bertrand Russell, ‘On Induction’

Hans Reichenbach, ‘The Pragmatic Justification of Induction’

Week 5: Epistemology and science

WVO Quine, ‘Epistemology Naturalized’

Jaegwon Kim, ‘What is Naturalized Epistemology?’
Questions for a Formative Essay in Epistemology:

  1. What is the best response to the sceptical challenge?

  2. Do Gettier’s examples show that no analysis of knowledge is possible?

  3. Can it be rational to agree to disagree?

  4. Is inductive knowledge possible?

  5. Is epistemology best seen as a branch of psychology?


Thursdays, Weeks 1-5

Lecturer: Cristian Constantinescu (
During the course of these five weeks we will explore together some central issues in ethics, which have exercised moral philosophers since ancient times. Each week, the required reading will consist of an excerpt from a classic philosopher (Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Mill), whilst supplementary reading will include works by contemporary philosophers who either have been inspired by, or have taken a critical approach to, the classics’ views. We start with perhaps the most pressing question of all: why should we be moral? Sometimes doing the right thing is particularly hard, because it clashes with our selfish interests. Why should we act against our interests and not against morality in such cases? One answer, which goes back to Plato, is that being moral is a particularly significant way of achieving harmony and wellbeing. This answer connects morality with issues of welfare and happiness, which we then explore more fully in week 2. From questions of happiness we then move on to questions questions of duty: what does it mean to act from duty; and is there something objectionable about doing so? In week 4 we explore the idea of virtue, which has recently resurfaced in the works of various moral philosophers inspired by Aristotle. Aside from being interesting in their own right, the topics that we’ll investigate in weeks 1–4 will also serve to introduce four of the most important theories in contemporary normative ethics: contractarianism, consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. In various ways, all of these theories assume that our moral judgments are, or should be, based primarily on reason. In the final week of the course we round up by exploring this assumption itself: Is it correct to assume that moral judgments are derived primarily from reason? And what is the role of emotions and sentiments in moral deliberation?
Preliminary Reading:

  • Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

This collection contains a wide range of contributions to the topics discussed in this course, including most of the set readings.
Week 1: Why be moral?

  • Plato, The Republic, Book II, 357a-367e; reprinted in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 132–7.

Supplementary Reading

  • David Gauthier, ‘Why Contractarianism?’, in P. Vallentyne, ed., Contractarianism and Rational Choice (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 15–30; reprinted in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 571–580.

  • Anita Superson, ‘The Self-Interest Based Contractarian Response to the Why-Be-Moral Skeptic’, Southern Journal of Philosophy 28 (1990), pp. 427–47.

Week 2: What is the value of acting for the sake of pleasure?

  • John Stuart Mill, ‘Hedonism’, excerpts from his Utilitarianism, reprinted in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 258–63.

Study Skills Session: How to write a philosophy paper

  • Jim Pryor, ‘Guidelines on writing a philosophy paper’, available online at:

Supplementary Reading

  • Robert Nozick, ‘The Experience Machine’, in his Anarchy, State and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), pp. 42–5; reprinted in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 264–5.

  • Fred Feldman, ‘The Good Life: A Defence of Attitudinal Hedonism’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 65, pp. 605–27; excerpts reprinted in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 266–76.

Week 3: What is the value of acting from a sense of duty?

  • Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (various editions), Chapter 1; excerpt reprinted in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 485–98. [Also available online at:]

Supplementary Reading

  • Barbara Herman, ‘On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty’, Philosophical Review 90 (1981), pp. 359-382. [Available online at:]

  • Michael Stocker, ‘The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories’, Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976), pp. 453-466. [Available online at:]

Week 4: What is the value of leading a virtuous life?

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, excerpts from Books I, II & X reprinted in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 615–629.

Supplementary Reading

  • Rosalind Hursthouse, ‘Normative Virtue Ethics’, in R. Crisp (ed.), How Should One Live? (Oxford University Press: 1996), pp. 19–33; reprinted in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 645–652.

  • Simon Keller, ‘Virtue Ethics is Self-Effacing’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 85, pp. 221–32. [Available online at:]

Week 5: Is morality based on reason?

  • David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (various editions), ‘Of the Influencing Motives of the Will’ (Book II, Part III, §3) and ‘Moral Distinctions not Derived from Reason’ (Book III, Part I, §1); excerpts reprinted in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 7–15. [Also available online at:]

Supplementary Reading

  • Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (various editions), Chapter 2 [available online at:]

  • Philippa Foot, ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, The Philosophical Review 81 (1972), pp. 305–15; reprinted in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 138–43.

Questions for a Formative Essay in Ethics:

  1. Could we argue a rational egoist into becoming moral? If so, what sort of argument would we have to employ? If not, so what?

  1. What role does pleasurable experience play in a good human life?

  1. Is there anything objectionable about actions performed from the motive of duty?

  1. Is there anything objectionable about actions performed from a virtuous motive?

  1. In what sense, if any, are moral judgments based on reason?


Mondays, Weeks 6-10

Lecturer: Stacie Friend (
In these five weeks we’ll explore some of the central metaphysical questions that have occupied philosophers since ancient times. Each week we will consider a core problem, with our focus primarily on modern and contemporary answers to the questions addressed. We start with questions about causation. What does it mean for an event to be the cause of another? In week 2 we consider the implications of causality for human agency: If all the events in the universe are connected by deterministic cause-and-effect relations, is there any room left for freedom? In weeks 3 and 4 we look more closely at the nature of ourselves. What makes you the particular person you are, and the same person over time? Are you essentially mental, physical or both? How can we explain the possibility of conscious experience in a physical world? We conclude with perhaps the most basic question is: What is there? That is, what exists or is real? We focus on the debate over the nature of properties, also called ‘universals’. Roses, balls and shirts may be red. It seems that they all share a property, redness. Does this mean that there is something – the universal redness – over and above the individual items that are red? If so, what sort of thing is it?
Preliminary Reading:

  • John Carroll and Ned Markosian, An Introduction to Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010) – this textbook provides helpful introductions to the topics we address, and their introductory chapter will be on Moodle

Collection of Papers

  • Jaegwon Kim, Daniel Korman and Ernest Sosa (eds.), Metaphysics: An Anthology, 2d edition (Blackwell 2012)

  • Tim Crane and Katalin Farkas (eds.), Metaphysics: A Guide and Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Week 6: Causation

  • David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section 4 Part I and Section 7 Part II; available online in numerous places

Supplementary Reading:

  • G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Causality and Determination’, in Kim, Korman and Sosa (eds.), Metaphysics: An Anthology (and other collections)

  • J. L. Mackie, ‘Causes and Conditions’, American Philosophical Quarterly 2 (1965): 245-264 – quite technical but highly influential

Week 7: Free will

  • Robert Kane, ‘Libertarianism’, esp. sections 1-4, in Four Views on Free Will, by Fischer, Kane, Pereboom and Vargas (Wiley-Blackwell 2007) – includes the introduction to the book with key terms defined

Supplementary Reading:

  • Adina Roskies, ‘Neuroscientific Challenges to Free Will and Responsibility’, Trends in Cognitive Science 10 (2006): 419-423 – a particularly readable discussion

  • Peter van Inwagen, ‘The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism’, Philosophical Studies 27 (1975): 185-199 – technical but influential

  • Susan Wolf, ‘The Importance of Free Will’, Mind 90 (1981): 386-405

Week 8: Personal identity

  • Marya Schechtman, ‘Personal Identity and the Past’, Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 12 (2005): 9-22

Supplementary Reading:

  • Derek Parfit, ‘Personal Identity’, Philosophical Review 80 (1971): 3-27

  • Eric Olson, ‘Was I Ever a Fetus?’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57 (1997): 95-110

  • For a good discussion of various positions intuitively presented see John Perry, ‘A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality’, (Indianapolis: Hackett 1978); reprinted in John Perry and Michael Bratman (eds.), Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings 3rd Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999)

Study Skills Session: How to Prepare for a Written Exam in Philosophy

  • Nigel Warburton, ‘Preparing for Philosophy Exams’, available online at:

Week 9: Mind and body

  • Thomas Nagel, ‘What is It Like to Be a Bat?’ Philosophical Review 83 (1974): 435-450

Supplementary Reading:

  • Patricia Smith Churchland, ‘The Hornswoggle Problem’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 3 (1996): 402-408

  • Frank Jackson, ‘What Mary Didn’t Know’, Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986): 291-295

Week 10: Universals

  • Bertrand Russell, ‘The World of Universals’, Chapter 9 of Problems of Philosophy (1912); reprinted in various collections and available online at

Supplementary Reading:

  • David Armstrong, Universals: An Opinionated Introduction (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press 1989) – excerpt will be on Moodle

  • Keith Campbell, ‘The Metaphysic of Abstract Particulars’, in Kim, Korman and Sosa (eds.), Metaphysics: An Anthology; originally in Midwest Studies in Philosophy 6 (1981): 477-488

Questions for a Formative Essay in Metaphysics:

  1. In what sense do different particular concrete objects possess the same properties?

  2. Is necessity essential to causation?

  3. Does freedom require indeterminism?

  4. What makes me the same person as I was yesterday?

  5. Does consciousness pose a special problem for scientific explanation?


Thursdays, Weeks 6-10

Lecturer: Susan James (

We usually assume that the inhabitants of a particular piece of territory are citizens of a state. But what is a state? And what is living in a state supposed to achieve? This module will introduce a series of central debates within political philosophy by examining some influential answers to these questions. Each class will be structured around the work of a historical author whose ideas continue to exert a significant influence on contemporary philosophical discussion.

Preliminary Reading

 David Miller, Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction

 Will Kymicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction

 Ian Hampsher Monk, History of Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx

Week 6: What is the State?

 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan [many editions], Introduction and chs. 13-16.

Supplementary Reading:

 Quentin Skinner, ‘Hobbes and the Purely Artificial Person of the State’, Journal of Political Philosophy Philosophy 7(1999). There’s a revised version of this paper in Skinner, Visions of Politics vol. III (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

 Robert Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia, ch. 2, pp. 10-25.
Study Skills Session: How to Write an MA Dissertation in Philosophy

 Jean Jacques Rousseau, Idea of the Method in the Composition of a Book in Rousseau: The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings ed V. Gourevitch (Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 300-304.

Week 7: The State as a Means to Peace and Security

 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan [many editions] Chs. 17-19.

Supplementary Reading:

 Julie Cooper, ‘Vainglory, Modesty, and Political Agency in the Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes’, The Review of Politics 72 (2010), 241–269.

 Samantha Frost, Lessons from a Materialist Thinker: Hobbesian Reflections on Ethics and Politics, Stanford University Press, 2008

 Immanuel Kant, Essay on Perpetual Peace. Available at Online Library of Liberty,

Week 8: The State as a Means to Freedom

 Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract [many editions], Book I, ch. 6 – Book II, ch. 6.

Supplementary Reading:

 Sharon R. Krause, Civil Passions (Princeton University Press, 2008), ch. 5.

 David James, ‘Rousseau on Dependence and the Formation of Political Society’, European Journal of Philosophy, 21.3 (2013), 343-66.

 Charles Griswold, ‘Liberty and Compulsory Civil Religion in Rousseau’s Social ContractJournal of the History of Philosophy, 53.2 (2015), 271-300.

Week 9: The State as a Means to Justice
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Ch. 1, sections 1-4, ch. 2, sections 10-12.
Supplementary reading:

 Chantal Mouffe, ‘Political Philosophy without Politics’, Philosophy and Social Criticism, 13.2 (1987). Available through ‘philpapers’.

 John Rawls, The Law of Peoples

 J. Mandle, Rawls's A Theory of Justice: An Introduction,

 Susan Okin, Justice, Gender and the Family
Week 10: The State as a Means to Profit
 Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Supplementary reading

 Nancy Holmstrom, ‘Exploitation’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7.2 (1977), available through J-Stor.

 Wertheimer and Zwolinski, ‘Exploitation’ in Stamford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ,

 G. A. Cohen,’The Labor Theory of Value and the Concept of Exploitation’ Philosophy and Public Affairs, 8.4, 338–360. Available at JStor.

Questions for a Formative Essay in Political Philosophy:

  1. What is Hobbes’s analysis of the artificial person of the state designed to achieve? How successful is it?

  1. “It’s a grave mistake to think that Hobbes sets out to license tyranny.’ Defend this claim as far as you can.

  1. What are the strengths of Rousseau’s claim that a community which lives in accordance with the general will is free?

  1. Explicate and critically examine the sense of justice on which Rawls’s theory is based.

  1. What is Marx’s main argument for his claim that the modern state contributes to the maintenance of capitalism? How persuasive is it?

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