Timothy Shanahan, Ph.D.
Term Paper Topic Assignment
Directions: Submit a one-paragraph summary of your term paper
topic. For example:
I propose to write a paper on Benedict Spinoza's view of human
freedom. According to a common philosophical conception of human freedom,
persons are truly "free" (in the metaphysical sense) only if they could
have done otherwise. If persons could in certain circumstances have done
otherwise than then did, they would be free according to this account in
these circumstances. According to Spinoza, however, this view of freedom
is false and moreover leads to serious philosophical problems. In Spinoza's
view, to be free is to be self-caused. Thus in his view, God is truly free
(and the only truly free being) whereas humans are not. I propose to analyze
and critically evaluate Spinoza's view of human freedom by examining both
his own writings and those of scholars writing on this topic.
Needless to say, you should not necessarily select this
paper topic. To help you get started in thinking about a paper topic
of your own, you might reflect upon the following sample topics:
• In what ways does geometry provide for Descartes a set of
ideals applicable to philosophy? What are the strengths of this approach?
Its weaknesses? How (or to what extent) is this ideal actually exemplified
in Descartes' works? In what ways does he abandon (or go beyond) this ideal?
Be sure to consider the special Geometrical presentation included in our text.
• According to Descartes, what is the human mind, what is the human
body, and how are the two related to one another? What arguments does he
provide in support of his view? What are the major strengths of his view?
What are its major weaknesses? In the end, is it a tenable position? If not,
what is your alternative?
• At times Descartes writes as if the mind is completely transparent to
itself, i.e., that its contents and inner workings are immediately accessible
to the reflective self. How does he express this view, what reasons does he
give in support of it, and how might this view be critiqued?
• Just before the end of his life, Descartes was interviewed by a young
Dutch theological student named Frans Burman. This interview is now known
as the Conversation with Burman. To what extent does this document
help to clarify Descartes' views concerning various issues discussed in his
• In the "Objections" to the Meditations, Antoine Arnauld and others
point out that Descartes seems to be guilty of circular reasoning. What
precisely is the "Cartesian Circle" objection? How does Descartes respond
to this objection? To what extent does Descartes provide a satisfactory
response to this criticism?
• Compare and critically evaluate Descartes' arguments for the existence
of God in the Meditations, taking into account both Objections to
these arguments and Descartes' Replies.
• In both the Meditations and the Discourse
Descartes makes it clear that he considers (non-human) animals to
be fundamentally different from humans. How does Descartes distinguish humans
from animals? How does he justify this distinction? What sort of sensory
and/or intellectual acts are animals capable of? In the end, is Descartes'
view of animals cogent?
• In the Fourth Meditation Descartes explains the relationship between
human judgment, error, and freedom. Explain and critically evaluate Descartes'
• What does it mean to classify Descartes as a "Rationalist"? What distinguishes
Rationalism from other approaches to philosophy? To what extent is Descartes
indeed a Rationalist, and to what extent does his philosophy depart from
strict Rationalism? (Be sure to consult parts of the Discourse on Method
that were not assigned in this course.)
• Get Louis Loeb's book From Descartes to Hume: Continental Metaphysics
and the Development of Modern Philosophy and critically evaluate
his non-standard interpretation of the history of early modern philosophy.
Include as well considerations drawn from critical reviews of his book.
• In many ways Descartes' views are just too easy to critique. Few have
been persuaded by his proofs for the existence of God, and his claim that
animals are "mere machines" seems almost deliberately intended to arouse
the ire of animal lovers (to say nothing of animal rights activists). What
it is perhaps too easy to overlook in our haste to criticize is that Descartes
inaugurated a new way of doing philosophy, that he was a sincere, brilliant,
reflective, and innovative genius. Philosophy has never been the same since
he wrote. What's more, in reading Descartes' writings one is encountering
a philosopher who is deeply concerned with the attainment of wisdom. This
is the man who wrote: "[I]t was always my most earnest desire to learn to
distinguish the true from the false in order to see clearly into my own
actions and proceed with confidence in this life". So what do we learn from
Descartes, of a positive nature? What is his significance? What can he teach
us about being thinkers, and about being human? What nuggets of bona fide
wisdom do you find his writings? What impresses you the most about this
important philosopher? Wherein lies Descartes' greatest value for us as
reflective beings trying to make our way in the world?
The foregoing is just a (nonexhaustive) sampling of possible
paper topics on Descartes. You may instead choose to broaden your knowledge
of 17th century continental philosophy by writing a paper on the thought
of Spinoza, Leibniz, Malebranche, Gassendi, Pascal, etc. For example:
• Spinoza's dual-aspect theory of mind-body
• Spinoza's metaphysical monism (Deus sive Natura)
• Spinoza on the nature of human freedom
• Leibniz's theory of monads
• Leibniz on the pre-established harmony between body and mind
• Leibniz's claim that this is the "best of all possible worlds"
• Malebranche on God's relationship to nature (occasionalism)
• Gassendi on atomism and its compatibility with Christian theology
• Trace the issue of "innate ideas" as it appears in the philosophies of
Locke, Berkeley, and Hume (all of whom have something to say about it).
How do each of these philosophers treat innate ideas? Why is each concerned
with this issue? Why might this issue matter for our understanding of the
nature and scope of human understanding?
• Berkeley sometimes suggests that his philosophy, although apparently
radical, is in fact perfectly amenable to a common sense outlook on the
world; that is, that apart from getting rid of "matter" (which he thinks
no one will miss anyway), it leaves things pretty much as they were. Critically
assess this claim.
• In what sense(s) are Locke, Berkeley, and Hume "empiricists"? Explain,
using an example for each, the central role of "experience" in their philosophical
methodologies and principles. In what way(s) do one or more of these philosophers
depart from strict empiricist principles? To what extent is a "pure" empiricist
philosophy possible (or desirable)?
• One of the most interesting areas of contemporary philosophy is the "philosophy
of science": an inquiry into the nature of science, of scientific methodology,
scientific explanation, the justification of scientific theories, the question
of whether successful scientific theories provide insight into the structure
of reality, etc. Just about every philosopher of the early modern period
either addressed issues of science directly, or else their philosophical
views had a direct bearing on questions in the philosophy of science. For
example, Descartes' entire philosophy can be viewed as proposing a certain
view of science and how one makes progress in science. On the other hand,
empiricist views like those of Berkeley and Hume have important implications
for how science should be done and for what sorts of "knowledge" science
can attain. (E.g., how can there be a science of nature for Berkeley if there
are no material substances, only ideas that exist in minds?) Write a paper
on the philosophy of science of a major philosopher in the early modern period
(e.g., Descartes's philosophy of science, or Berkeley's philosophy of science,
• In the Principles of Philosophy, Descartes develops a natural
philosophy of the universe, which includes his views on the nature of space
and time. In the Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge
, Berkeley has a lot to say about the nature of space, especially whether
Newton's notion of "absolute space" is coherent. In his Treatise
of Human Nature, Hume discusses space and time. Write a paper on the
"philosophy of space and time" of an important early modern philosopher.
• In the Objections and Replies to the Meditations, Descartes
has some interesting things to say about the nature and properties of mathematical
objects (e.g., triangles). In the Principles, Berkeley discusses at
length various issues in mathematics (e.g., whether lines are infinitely
divisible). Write a paper on the "philosophy of mathematics" of an early
• Explain clearly Locke's distinction between "primary" and "secondary"
qualities. Critically assess the implications of this distinction for our
ability to know the world, drawing upon the views of Berkeley and Hume, where
• Explain clearly and critically evaluate Hume's distinction between
relations of ideas and matters of fact ("Hume's Fork"). What implications
does he draw from this distinction? How does he apply it (or fail to apply
it) elsewhere in the Enquiry? Critically evaluate both Hume's formulation
of this distinction and its broader usefulness for resolving philosophical
• Hume's analysis of causation can be seen as undermining many of the claims
of previous philosophers (and indeed of common sense) to be able to know
reality. Explain clearly and critically evaluate Hume's analysis of causation
(and related issues, e.g., the problem of induction).
• Hume's philosophy seems to end in skepticism. Explain clearly how Hume
arrives at (or is driven to) his skeptical conclusions and why, ultimately,
he is not very much disturbed by them. Critically evaluate Hume's "mitigated
skepticism". Is Hume's skepticism ultimately self-consistent?
• In his A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge
, Berkeley is keen to raise and respond to a range of arguments against
his immaterialist philosophy. Does he succeed? Identify what you take to
be the three strongest arguments against Berkeley's immaterialism, and critically
evaluate each, drawing out the implications for the status of Berkeley's
• On a number of occasions, Berkeley and Hume record their debts to, but
disagreements with, the views of John Locke. Trace out the connections between
Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, identifying points of agreement and of disagreement.
On matters of disagreement, explain (and defend) your view of who has the
more reasonable position.
• In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume (in the guise
of Philo) offers what many have seen as the definitive refutation of natural
theology. Explain and critically evaluate Hume's attack on natural theology
in this work. In your view, in what ways (if any) is natural theology undermined
by this critique? In what ways (if any) does it survive this critique?
• At various points in the Treatise of Human Nature and in the
Enquiry, Hume comments on how the issues he is discussing bear on our
understanding of (non-human) animals. Explain clearly how Hume sees his
philosophical views to be relevant to our understanding of (non-human) animals.
Critically evaluate his treatment of these issues.
• One of the most (in-)famous sections of Hume's Enquiry
is the section "On Miracles". Critics of religion proclaim Hume's critique
of belief in miracles there to be the last word on the subject. Critics
of Hume's critique find flaws and egregious errors in his arguments. Explain
clearly and critically evaluate Hume's treatment of belief in miracles in
this section of the Enquiry.
• Section 8 of Hume's Enquiry is the locus classicus
for contemporary discussions of "compatibilism" in the philosophy
of action. Explain clearly and critically evaluate Hume's compatibilist
solution to the problem "of liberty and necessity".
• In the Treatise of Human Nature Hume has some extremely
provocative things to say about the nature of "the self". His view has often
been likened to that of Buddhism. Contemporary philosophers of "personal
identity" (e.g., Derek Parfit; Daniel Dennett) acknowledge their debt to
Hume on this issue. Explain clearly and critically evaluate Hume's analysis
of "the self".
• According to M.A. Stewart, "The first Enquiry is an
exposition and defence of scepticism as the only philosophy compatible with
a true knowledge of the human mind" (M.A. Stewart, "Two Species of Philosophy:
The Historical Significance of the first Enquiry," in
Reading Hume on Human Understanding, edited by Peter Millican
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 67-95; p. 95). What does Stewart
mean by this? Is it true? How could it be true, if "scepticism"
and "true knowledge" would seem to be mutually exclusive?
• According to Peter Millican, "Section IV of Hume's first Enquiry
, entitled 'Sceptical Doubts concerning the Operations of the Understanding',
contains the ... most extensive presentation of his massively influential
argument concerning induction, the foundation stone of his philosophical
system. However, despite being one of the best known and most widely read
texts in the entire canon of Western philosophy, the interpretation of this
argument has been much debated, and there is still no established consensus
even on the question of what exactly Hume is attempting to prove with it,
much less on the philosophical merits of his attempt" (Peter Millican, "Hume's
Sceptical Doubts Concerning Induction," in Reading Hume on Human
Understanding , edited by Peter Millican (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2002), pp. 107-173; p. 107). Explain clearly the different interpretations
of Section IV of the Enquiry that Millican discusses. What are
the interpretive difficulties involved? How does Millican propose to resolve
these difficulties? Evaluate his interpretation.
• Critically evaluate Hume's chief argument(s) in his essay "Of Suicide"
(included in our edition of Hume's Dialogues).
• Critically evaluate Hume's chief argument(s) in his essay "Of the Immortality
of the Soul" (included in our edition of Hume's Dialogues ).
The foregoing is just a small (nonexhaustive) sampling
of possible paper topics appropriate for this assignment. You are welcome
to create your own paper topic for this assignment. Regardless of your topic,
papers should demonstrate a careful reading of relevant primary texts as
well as selective use of relevant secondary sources (i.e., from the scholarly
literature). If you choose to write a paper on some aspect of the philosophy
of Descartes, for instance, your paper must demonstrate familiarity with
whatever works by Descartes are relevant to it. If you choose to write on
Descartes' geometrical ideal, you must make explicit use of the
Regulae in addition to the Meditations. If you choose
to write on Descartes' conception of the relationship between mind and body,
your paper must make explicit use of the Passions of the Soul
in addition to the Meditations. If you write on
a topic that only appears in the Meditations, then your
paper must make significant use of the relevant sections of the "Objections
and Replies," including perhaps those not included in the Cottingham
edition; and so on. In addition, you must make appropriate use of secondary
literature relevant to the topic you've chosen (e.g., scholarly articles
on your topic in The Journal of the History of Philosophy, etc.).
All paper topics must be approved by the Instructor. The Instructor reserves
the right to limit the number of papers on any given topic.