Timothy Shanahan, Ph.D.                                                                    Modern Philosophy I

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 works? 

• 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' account.

• 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, etc.).

• 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 modern philosopher.

• 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 appropriate.

• 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 problems.

• 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 philosophy.

• 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.