Washington & Lee University

Phil 102
Problems of Philosophy

Prof. Gregory
Fall 2005

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Contact Information:

Professor Gregory
Newcomb 32

Department of Philosophy
Sec: Karen Lyle
Newcomb 6

Office Hours:

Mon 1:15-3:15 & Tue\Thu 2:30-4,
and by appointment.

If you need to reach me outside of office hours please email me or call my office number and leave a voice message—be sure to leave a phone number or email address at which you can be reached.

Course Description:

In this class we will be reading and discussing philosophical texts dating from ancient Greece to the present. Some of the questions to be addressed include: How do/should we form and change our beliefs? What is/should be the role of social and institutional authority in the formation and change of my beliefs? What is/should be the role of doubt? Do we really have any knowledge of the world around us? What is knowledge? Can we have certain knowledge about reality? What is reality? Am I the only thing that exists? Does God exist? Can I prove that God exists? Ought I to try to prove that God exists? What is the role of religion in relation to science? What are the benefits of science and philosophy? Do I have an immaterial, immortal soul, or am I a mass of physical processes? What makes me the person I am? What is free will and do I have it? Does free will matter?

Course Objectives:


Reading. You are expected to read the assigned material before it is presented in class. This does not mean skimming. This means reading critically—making an earnest effort to understand what the author is saying, noting where you have questions, disagreements, confusions, etc. Feel free to write in the margins of your books, or, if you plan on selling them back, keep reading notes. This will help you in understanding the reading, answering reading questions, participating in discussion, and writing papers (see below). If you had difficulty with the reading it would be especially helpful to formulate a question or two (with an attempt at an answer) and hand them in at the start of class. You should always bring the relevant books to class.

Writing. There will be short writing assignments related to nearly every reading (though you will not be required to complete all of them). Often the best way to understand something (e.g.: a philosopher’s ideas, your own ideas) is to try to clearly write it out in your own words. This will prepare you for class discussion, and allows you to demonstrate your understanding of the material and your ability to approach it critically. There will be occasional in-class writing. There will be two longer papers, and the short writings also prepare you to do well on these. See below for more detail.

Discussion Participation. This class will be focused almost entirely around discussion (once in a while I shall lecture, but hopefully not for too long). Discussion will range from small-group activities to general class discussion. Even during the portions of class when I am lecturing, I encourage you to raise a hand, ask a question, and potentially start a class discussion. Occasionally we may split into small groups for discussion. Consistent, thoughtful participation will gain you full credit for this portion of your grade. (Details below.) There are things I can do to ready you for discussion (such as reading questions), but in the end it is up to you to read the material, think about it, and go for it—the more discussion we have, the more fun the class will be.

Critical Thinking. If you are doing well in the above three areas, then you are probably doing well with critical thinking, too. What I mean by ‘critical thinking’ is not just the expression of opinions, likes, and dislikes. Anyone can say what they believe, or react to what another believes. In some cases (hopefully many cases) you will have strong feelings about what we are reading or discussing. These strong reactions are good, but they are only the beginning. We want to do more than just express our reactions. Thinking critically requires: (1) clearly and accurately expressing the relevant claims, (2) examining and questioning (both the reasons for and consequences of) others’ and (especially) one’s own beliefs, (3) developing and being responsive to alternative views, (4) trying to support or reject such views on the basis of evidence and argument, and (5) being willing to accept the outcome of such inquiry.

Attendance. The only way you will do well in the four areas above is by consistently attending class. More than one or two absences will negatively affect your grade, both by impeding success in the areas above, and by negatively impacting my assignment of your participation grade. When you have good reason for being absent from class you should communicate with me as soon as possible concerning your circumstances.

Short Writing Assignments:

Reading Questions:

For most readings you will access from the web a set short-answer reading questions (RQs). You should print out and read through this set of questions before reading the assignment. You should have them next to you while reading. Approximately 2 to 5 questions of the set will be designated as assigned questions (they appear in bold type). You must type up your answers to the assigned questions and e-mail them to me at least 30 minutes prior to the start of the class for which that reading is scheduled. You should print out and keep a copy of your RQ responses and bring them to class with you. RQs will not be accepted late.

The questions will be a mixture of simple exegetical and more challenging critical/evaluative questions. Length of answer will range roughly from a few sentences to a medium paragraph—total length of all answers is not to exceed one single-spaced page. You will also be asked to come up with some of your own questions (and answers) about the readings.

How many of these things do I have to do? There will be approximately 16 RQs. You do not have to do all of them. You must do at least 4 and no more than 5 (as long as you meet the distribution requirement below, your best 4 will count toward your grade). Of the 4 to 5 you do, you must do at least one for each of the following authors/groups: (i) Plato; (ii) Descartes; (iii) Hume, Peirce, or Russell; (iv) Ayer, Chisholm, or Dennett—whether or not you do the one additional RQ is up to you. For instance, suppose you decide to hand in 1 for Plato, 1 for Descartes, 2 for Hume/Peirce/Russell, and 1 Ayer/Chisholm/Dennett. This is a good distribution. You have done at least one for each of the four authors/groups named above, and your total is 5, so your lowest grade is “dropped”. You may not do more than 5.

What is the format of RQs? RQs must be in Word document (or convertible) form, and no more than 1 single-spaced page—no title page, no title, just the name of the work read at upper left, your name at upper right. You must e-mail them to me at least 30 minutes prior to the start of the class for which that reading is scheduled. You should print out and keep a copy of your RQ responses and bring them to class with you. RQs will not be accepted late.

RQs will be graded on a “Check Plus”, “Check”, “Check Minus”, “Zero” basis.

Click here for some notes concerning writing and grading.

In-Class Writings:

These, ICWs, are similar to RQs, except that you will be doing them in class, they are very informal, and they are usually geared more toward working out your own ideas, as opposed to explaining the author’s. Usually you will be writing on your own, though we may have some small-group projects in which you may develop an outline.

You must complete all In-Class Writings. If you are absent the day of an ICW, you will receive a zero for that assignment. Except for extreme circumstances, these cannot be made up. I will usually (but perhaps not always) announce ICWs the meeting before they will occur.


We will have two papers, one due around mid-term, one due during finals week. We will discuss these in detail when the time comes (papers will be assigned at least 1˝ weeks prior to due date). Late papers suffer a 1/3 grade penalty for each day they are late, unless other arrangements have been made.

Logic Quiz:

We will have a brief logic quiz on Friday, September 16, based on “A Brief Introduction to Logic” in the reading packet.


Component % of Final Average
Logic Quiz 5  
Class Participation 20  
Reading Questions 20  
Paper 1 25  
Paper 2 30  

Final Grade will be based your Final Average and factors including attendance and improvement over the semester.

There are no extra credit assignments.

Communication, Etiquette, and Respect:

The ‘What’s the Point?’ Challenge:

It may happen at some time during lecture, discussion, or your reading that you feel lost, or bored, and wonder ‘What’s the point of this reading [discussion, lecture]?’ or ‘What’s it got to do with anything?’ or ‘I don’t get it...’. Whenever this happens please feel free to raise your hand (or send me an e-mail, or come and see me) and ask me ‘What’s the point?’ Indeed I challenge you to do so. You might want to try to work out your worry (or lack thereof) in how you ask your question, but all you really need do is ask me ‘What’s the point?!’ or say ‘I don’t get it!’ (Times like these may produce a good grunt, growl, or screech.)

I do not pose this as a challenge because I have all the answers and will “beat” you by giving you one of them. I don’t have all the answers. Rather, I have found that many of the best discussions—in class and one on one—arise out of just such questions. At the same time, however, students have developed a fear of asking such questions, or a habit of suppressing them when they arise, because they are too focused on results, tangible products (including, but not restricted to, grades). In my class the process of thinking is of greater importance than the product. Do not hesitate to question the point, the importance, the value, of either the process or the product, this is simply more process—more critical thinking. This is what philosophy is about. It is a discipline in which everything is fair game for critical examination, even, and especially, philosophy itself.

Syllabus Confirmation:

You must complete the syllabus confirmation by midnight, Friday, September 16 to be eligible for class participation credit. If you have any questions or concerns about the policies, do not hesitate to contact me.

Click here for the “Notes on Writing and Grading”, and here for “Policies on Quotation, Citation, and Plagiarism”. You must read these before sending your Syllabus Confirmation.

Please copy the italicized statement below, click on the link following it to open an e-mail to me, and paste the statement into your e-mail. Don't forget to click “Send” in your e-mail client! (It may take a while for your e-mail client to open a new message.)

Here is the statement you are confirming (select and copy it):

I hereby confirm that I have read the Course Syllabus including the “Home” page, the “Class Schedule”, the “Notes on Writing and Grading”, and the “Policies on Quotation, Citation, and Plagiarism”, and I understand all policies contained therein.

Syllabus Confirmation