Early Modern Philosophy

PHIL 301-01





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EARLY MODERN PHILOSOPHY  301-01  (Course ID# 000218)


Winona State University   Fall 2017

T H 12:30-1:50 PM   Minne 102


Instructor: Ed Slowik                                                                   email: eslowik@winona.edu

Office: 325 Minne Hall                                                     Phone: 457-5663

Office hours: T, H 2:30-3:30 PM, and by appointment.


Required Texts:

R. Ariew & E. Watkins, eds., Modern Philosophy, 2nd edition (Hackett)

G. Thomson, Bacon to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy (Waveland)


Course Description:

The Early Modern period of philosophy has its origins in the 16th and 17th centuries, and extends until the late 18th-century. We will examine seminal works of the key figures from this period: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz; Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. Our aim will be not only to understand the specific points these philosophers were trying to make, but also to see how their views have profoundly influenced ours on a variety of issues, particularly those problems concerning the nature of reality, mind and matter, and science and knowledge.



Two short papers (5-7 pages, double-spaced) on a topic provided by the instructor (20% each), a term paper (30%), an in-class midterm (20%), and participation and attendance (10%). The paper is 10-15 pages double-spaced, on a topic checked with the instructor. The due dates of the exams and paper are provided below. Although not required, I strongly encourage that you give me rough drafts of your paper, since it will greatly increase the chances of getting a good grade. People who don't show up for class will fair poorly on that 10% of the overall grade devoted to class attendance and participation. The mid-term will be of the short-answer and essay type, and their will be a review on the day before the exam.


Web Page:

Class notes, syllabus, term paper assignments, and tips for writing a philosophy paper, will be posted on a web page. The address is:  http://course1.winona.edu/eslowik


 Class Schedule:

The primary readings will be fairly extensive, and the material difficult, but the Thomson book should help greatly. The class notes/discussion will be a great resource for helping to elucidate this material. (Below, "A&W" refers to Ariew and Watkins.)




Week 1: (Aug. 22, 24)—Introduction (T), overview of philosophy before the Early Modern period. (H) A&W, chap. 1, Bacon, Galileo; Thomson, chap. 10.  


Week 2: (Aug. 29, 31)—finish Bacon, Galileo; begin Descartes, A&W, chap. 1, Meditations; Thomson, chap. 1-3.


Week 3: (Sept. 5, 7)—Descartes continued. First paper handed out (H, Sep. &). No Class, T, Sept. 5.


Week 4: (Sept. 12, 14)—Descartes continued; start Spinoza, A&W, chap. 2, Ethics; Thomson, chap. 4-6.


Week 5: (Sept. 19, 21)—Spinoza continued; start Leibniz, A&W, chap. 3, Discourse on Metaphysics; Thomson, chap. 7-9 


Week 6: (Sep. 26, 28)—Leibniz continued. First paper assignment due (T, Sep. 26).


Week 7: (Oct. 3, 5)—Midterm, and begin Locke, A&W, chap. 4, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. I, Bk. II (chap. 1, 2, 8, 11, 12, 23), Bk. IV (chap. 3, 4, 10, 11, 15); Thomson, chap. 13-15. Mid-term: T, Oct. 3.


Week 8: (Oct. 10, 12)—Locke continued. No Class (WSU non-class day), T, Oct. 10.


Week 9: (Oct. 17, 19)—No Classes this week, T & H, Oct. 17 & 19.


Week 10: (Oct. 24, 26)—Locke continued, and begin Berkeley, A&W, chap. 5, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous; Thompson, chap. 16-17. Second paper handed out (T, Oct. 24).


Week 11: (Oct. 31, Nov. 2)—finish Berkeley, begin Hume, A&W, chap. 6, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sections I-IV; Thompson, chap. 18-20.


Week 12: (Nov. 7, 9)—Hume continued, Inquiry, Sections V-VII.


Week 13: (Nov. 14, 16)—Kant, A&W, chap. 7, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, various sections; Thompson, chap. 21-24. Second paper due (T, Nov. 14).


Week 14: (Nov. 21) No Class: T, Nov. 21.


Week 15: (Nov. 28, 30)—Kant continued, and the aftermath (class-handout).


Papers are due at the scheduled time of final exams: Monday, Dec. 4, 10:30 AM-12:30 PM






Paper Assignment #1



Early Modern Philosophy  Phil 301  WSU, Fall 2017


Paper Assignment #1   (2-4 pages, due Tuesday, Sept. 26)


Answer both questions:


1) What is the "Principle of the Indiscernibility of the Identicals" (PII), and how does Descartes use it to argue for his brand of Dualism (i.e., that mind and matter are two independent, separate substances)? What is wrong with his argument, and with the PII, in general? Thomson (chapter 3), and the web-page notes, will be of significant help in answering this question.


2) Compare Descartes and Spinoza on the relationship between the mind (soul) and the body (matter). In what ways are they similar, and in what ways are they different. Is there any aspect of Spinoza’s philosophy that seems more consistent or more successful than Descartes’ (or worse than Descartes’)?


You can go over the page limit set above, so take as much space as you need to answer these questions. Also, make sure you engage in a philosophical exploration of the topics raised by these questions.





Paper Assignment #2


Early Modern Philosophy  Phil 301  WSU, Fall 2017

Paper Assignment #2   (2-4 pages, due Tuesday, Nov. 14)


Pick two of the following:


1) In Locke's Essay..., Book II, chapter 27, Locke gives his account of the identity of objects, and the personal identity of humans. Critically analyze these theories—but particularly focus upon his account of human personal identity. Does it work? Why/why not?


2) In Locke's Essay..., Book III, chapter 3, Locke gives his account of general terms. Critically analyze his views, and bring in Berkeley's criticisms from the Principles.... (Introduction section) if you like. Does Locke's theory work? Why/why not?


3) What is the problem of free will and determinism with respect to Leibniz' theory? Critically analyze his views as regards these issues in the Discourse, especially articles 30-37 (although feel free to examine the other Leibniz works in the text book in examining these issues). Does Leibniz' theory work? Why/why not?


4) What is the problem of the existence of God, and other minds, in Berkeley? How does he try to account for our alleged knowledge of these entities? What role do they play in his overall philosophy? Critically analyze Berkeley's theory. How would a rationalist, like Descartes or Leibniz, respond to Berkeley's theories, and how could Berkeley try to defend his views?


5) How does Leibniz respond to Locke in his New Essays? Evaluate Leibniz’s criticisms: Do they work?


6) Evaluate the concept of “substance” in Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Locke. How would the Rationalists respond to Locke’s analysis of substance?


7) Evaluate the philosophy of Malebranche in his Search after Truth: of the philosophers we have explored, whom does his philosophy most resemble? What are the strengths and weaknesses of his system?


8) Do-it-yourself question: Pick an issue that we have not covered in much depth in class (of which there are many!) and provide your analysis of the pros and cons of the issue. I highly recommend picking one of the many associated writings included in each chapter. However, do not write on Descartes, since your last paper was devoted to this philosopher's work.    


You can go over the page limit set above, so take as much space as you need to answer these questions. Also, make sure you engage in a philosophical exploration of the topics raised by these questions. Use the Thomson book to help you with the issues and/or as one of the philosophical positions that you critique in your paper.




Term Paper


Early Modern Philosophy/PHIL 301/WSU

The papers should be typed, double spaced, and from 10 to 15 pages in length (10 pages minimum, no maximum length). The papers are due on the day of the final exam.

There are many ways to write a philosophy paper. But, you will need to accomplish the following: (1) Choose a specific philosophical problem or issue; (2) discuss in great detail both sides of the debate (what they believe and why); (3) offer any problems or criticisms that you can think of (or have researched) for both sides of this debate--this is important: you must spend time critically examining both sides of the dispute; (4) you may want to offer your own views (that is, which side you favor), but this is not required; however, make sure you explain why you favor a particular theory or viewpoint, if you do say what you personally believe. People are free to write on most subjects. Yet, I want all students to check their topics with me. Also, I encourage all students to submit rough drafts of their papers for critical comments. Students who work with me on their papers usually receive the best grades.

1) Pick an issue from the material that we are not going to cover in class and examine both sides of the issue (or as many viewpoints as are represented). That is, you will need to critically examine the issue in detail and offer any problems and counter-replies that you can think of during your discussion.

2) You can pick an issue from the material that we have already discussed in class, but did not have time to cover in depth. However, only pick this option if you have something original to say. I don't want people merely repeating what they have in their notes or what Thompson states in his books--I want you to examine aspects of the debate that we haven't discussed, or have barely discussed, and from your personal perspective.

3) You can pick a topic of interest that relates to the early modern philosophers that we are covering, but which involves a comparison of one of our early modern thinkers with a thinker, or school of thought, from a different era (e.g., compare and contrast Descartes and twentieth century positivism, etc.). Also, you can show how the work of the early modern thinkers influenced, relates to, etc., the work of other philosophers or areas of human endeavor (arts, sciences, etc.).


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Tips for Writing a Philosophy Paper

The main point of most undergraduate philosophy papers is to present positions backed by reasons and arguments. Even if you are simply giving a philosopher's views on an issue, you need to be able to present the arguments he or she relied on. Indeed, mere opinions, whether your own or those of a well-known philosopher, are worthy of a serious hearing only when backed by reasons.

Thus a philosophy paper is not just a series of opinions spouted by its author, nor a straightforward reporting of events, nor a “book report” or capsule summary of some famous person's views. It involves giving, and weighing, arguments. If this seems intimidating, you should know that there are some easily understood tips and techniques for writing philosophy papers. They do not eliminate the work involved in writing the paper—nothing will do that for you—but they can help you systematically approach your topic. And with enough practice, you will find yourself applying them almost automatically. (Incidentally, the plain fact is that most people who are good at this kind of thing were not born that way, but got that way by practice.)

Getting started.

A common mistake made by undergraduates is choosing a very large topic, one that calls for much more discussion than can be provided in a paper of six, eight, or even twelve pages. In general, it is better to say a lot about a narrow topic, than to say a little about each aspect of a broad topic. (Thus, for example, it is more productive to discuss in detail a single argument for the existence of God, like the Argument from Design, than to run quickly but superficially over the many different arguments for the existence of God.)

Once you have found a suitable topic, formulate to yourself a claim about it that you wish to defend. For example, if your topic is the Argument from Design, then your claim might be that this argument does not succeed in establishing God's existence. Or, if your topic is the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, your claim might be that Locke was right about this distinction, and that Berkeley, who disagreed with Locke, was wrong.

Once you have formulated your claim, try to think of arguments that support it, and also arguments that seem to undercut it. This sounds hard, but recall that, if your topic was discussed in your philosophy class in the first place, then probably there was also some discussion of arguments for it or against it. Moreover, it is perfectly acceptable to use arguments drawn from other philosophers. You must, however, show that you understand these arguments and are not just “parroting” someone, and you must acknowledge your source for the argument. Failure to credit sources properly is plagiarism, and will result in a failing grade for the course.

One of the most impressive things you can do in a paper, besides giving good arguments in support of your claim, is to anticipate objections (the “arguments that seem to undercut it,” mentioned above), and to show that they do not succeed. Moreover, it is a grave error to ignore or overlook undercutting arguments that have actually been presented in your class or in assigned readings. If you disagree with them, you should say why; but to simply omit them is to ask for a bad grade.

As for evaluating such supporting and undercutting arguments, that is a skill that cannot be imparted here in a paragraph or two. The way to learn it is to see how others do it (particularly in class, but also in philosophy books and articles), and to try to do it yourself. Some of the appropriate techniques are: (1) to assess whether the argument uses key terms properly; (2) to see whether the argument rests on one or more premises that are questionable; and (3) to see whether the argument, if accepted, leads to consequences which do not square with known facts or credible theories.

Showing understanding.

How do you show that you are not just “parroting” someone? The main way is to put things in your own words. It is all too easy to think that you understand something just because you can regurgitate some buzzwords. Real understanding typically goes hand in hand with formulating things for yourself, in your own words. Several rules of thumb are helpful here. One is to avoid jargon where possible; if you must use it, be sure to give a definition. Jargon, for our purposes, is wording that rarely or never arises in ordinary conversation, or that is being used in some non-ordinary way. Another rule of thumb is to write as if you were explaining something to someone who is intelligent, but is not a specialist in the subject, e.g. a favorite grandparent. Do not, in particular, write with jargon in the hope that your professor will like it better or will understand it better (even if you don't).

Another key technique for achieving, and showing, understanding is to come up with your own examples to illustrate key points. Many philosophical positions, though highly abstract and general, readily lend themselves to concrete illustrations. For example, Hume's ethical claim that no `ought' can be derived from an `is', comes alive when fleshed out as the claim that nowhere among the facts about what happens when I cut off Joe's head is there anything that tells me whether I ought not to cut off his head. (Hume himself knew this, of course; indeed, he gives even more hair-raising examples.)

Note, however, that examples illustrate and hence clarify, but that they do not take the place of arguments. Thus you still need to be able to explain the underlying principles in words—you still need to be able to explain why the example is an example.

Finally, do not leave things unclear or make sloppy statements and then say to the professor, “Aw, c'mon, you know what I meant!” Your professor can't read your mind, and will probably assume from previous experience with other students that you yourself do not know what you mean. The safest course is, naturally enough, to say just what you mean.

Writing with clarity.

It is crucial, not just to have something to say, but to say it effectively. The most effective presentation usually follows the old saying: “Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em; tell 'em; then tell 'em what you told 'em.” That is, begin with an introductory paragraph in which you say what you take yourself to be doing in the paper; then, after you have presented your case, close with a conclusion which says what you have done. If you do not say up front, in the introduction, what you will be doing in the body of the paper, your reader will probably conclude that you do not know what you are up to in your paper. (This is an all-too-frequent situation, especially for students who put off papers until the last minute.)

This does not mean that you must write your introduction first. On the contrary, it is typically better to launch into writing the body of the paper first, since the writing process often brings insights and changes of opinion that you didn't expect. So it is prudent to wait until you are happy with the body of the paper, and then go back and write an introduction that spells out in a nutshell what you are doing in the body. The same goes for the conclusion, of course.

You may be tempted to avoid “tipping your hand” at the beginning of your paper, so that your reader is led suspensefully and dramatically to the eventual unveiling of your key points. Avoid this temptation. It is much more difficult to pull off than you might imagine, and your reader will appreciate much more the up-front approach, pedestrian as it may seem.

A final point about introductions and conclusions is that they should not include grandiloquent phrases. Avoid saying things like, “Throughout history, people have struggled with the question of what makes an action good,” or “Aristotle was the greatest philosopher who ever lived, and his influence is still being felt today.” Your reader, far from being impressed, will be thinking, “Cut to the chase.” Remember, you're not actually writing for your grandparent; you should merely put things as clearly and simply as if you were.

Structure and grammar.

Proper structure at all levels of your paper will help immensely in getting your points across. Choose words in a way that avoids ambiguity. For example, if you use the word “it”, be sure that it is clear to which “it” you are referring. It can help to have a friend read your paper, looking for ambiguities that you might have overlooked. Likewise, you should avoid run-on sentences or incomplete sentences, which can be very confusing to read.