Up ]



Philosophy 11001/14067, section 002

Summer II, 2009; MW 7:00-9:30; Bowman 220, Jeffrey Wattles, instructor


Could we construct a philosophy of living in truth, beauty, and goodness?  If so, how shall we begin?  This course considers different approaches—and responses to the assumptions involved in the project—in dialogue with Plato, Descartes, various Latin American philosophers, and with one another.  As with some other philosophy LER courses, the student is introduced to some philosophy's major questions, highlights of the history of philosophy, and philosophy’s logical skills.

            Diversity element: Regarding diversity it is suggested that we affirm our common humanity, seek to understand relevant differences, and appreciate the unique personality of each individual we meet.  Philosophy specializes in intellectual diversity—no matter to what extent that diversity is a function of gender, race, class, culture, or other variables in the human family.  Attention will be given to religious and non-religious philosophy; and one of the texts focuses on Latin American philosophy. This course satisfies Kent State University's diversity requirement.

            Texts: (1) Great Dialogues of Plato, Plato, ISBN: 0-451-5282745-3; (2) Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, Rene Descartes, ISBN: 0-87220-502-9; (3) Latin American Philosophy for the 21st Century, Jorge Gracia, ed., ISBN: 1573929786.         

Evaluation.  Evaluation is based on participation (10 points): We are a community of inquiry, and our interaction has a life of its own; so you are expected to attend regularly, be on time (including after the break), have the reading done, and be ready to participate.  Good attendance is the threshold that gets you a C.  Beyond that threshold, participation largely means taking initiative to make contributions—questions and comments.  More than four absences may affect the grade.  If you miss seven classes, how can I pass you?  Second, there are written assignments leading up to a term paper (60 points total).  The projects facilitate growth by nudging you to let your study illuminate your experience and vice-versa.  If you feel you have a reason to request an alternative to any of the projects, please speak with the instructor.  One more thing about the papers.  Writing is so important for your future role; English well used is important for our world, especially when so much communicating is mediated by machines; and it is a vital skill that school sometimes fails to teach.  If I don’t fuss about writing, you should see what some folks hand in!  So I fuss, and I generally get quite decent writing.  Thus papers must be well written to receive a C or above.  It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Writing Center’s services and its website: http://dept.kent.edu/english/WritingCent/writngcenter.htm .  Speaking of communication, the University obliges you to check your Flashline e-mail address.  If I have messages to send to the whole class, e.g., about changing a syllabus assignment, or keeping in touch in the case of an emergency, I will use those addresses.  Third, there are three quizzes (including the final--10 points each), mostly multiple-choice; later quizzes will touch on material covered in earlier quizzes.

            My office hours are MTWR, 6:00 - 7:00 and 9:30-9:45 (Bowman 320H) and by appointment (330-672-0276; e-mail: jwattles@kent.edu ).  The course website: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/whatphil.htm  Additional materials: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/classes.htmFor web links try http://www.searchedu.com/ and http://plato.stanford.edu/.

In accordance with University policy, if you have a documented disability and require accommodations to obtain equal access in this course, please contact the instructor at the beginning of the semester or when given an assignment for which an accommodation is required.  Students with disabilities must verify their eligibility through the Office of Student Disability Services (SDS) in the Michael Schwartz Student Services Center (672-2972).

The Philosophy Department Grievance Procedure for handling student grievances is in conformity with the Student Academic Complaint Policy and Procedures set down as University Policy 3342-4-16 in the University Policy Register.  For information concerning the details of the grievance procedure, please see the Departmental Chairperson.

Schedule of Activities

June 15.  A brief introduction to philosophy/ The Apology of Socrates/ three attitudes in philosophy: dogmatism, radical skepticism, adventuresome thinking/ sample approaches to truth, beauty, and goodness today.

17  Read the web document on the Apology to which you find a link in the Plato section of the classes page: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/classes.htm .  Study Plato’s Crito as carefully as you can, and hand in the brief, written exercise on that dialogue (see the same section of the classes page.  Introduction to project one.

22  Read part of Plato’s Symposium, pp. 95-106 in Rouse very carefully; find the link from the classes page for the document on that dialogue, and read it in preparation for discussion.

24  Read pp. 303-317 in Rouse from the Republic, plus the document on that dialogue found through the classes page (as on the two previous days).

29 Paper 1 due.  The meaning of my life in the light of the meaning of the most significant facts of my situation and the meaning of my highest concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness.  Lecture on Whitehead and Berdiaev.

July 1.  Quiz 1.  Lecture on Descartes and the methodical quest for a higher quality of thinking.

 6  Introduction to Descartes.  Read the Rules for the Direction of the Mind–all the rules in bold italics (pp. 2-28), plus the paragraphs accompanying rule #3.  In addition, read the Discourse on Method pp. 46ff.) and the web notes on Descartes.

 8  Read the first three of Descartes’ Meditations.

13  Read the selections to be assigned from the last three Meditations, plus a selection on the relation of mind and body: Passions of the Soul §§30-35, pp. 307-309 [AT 351-56].  See also the web document on a feminist critique of Descartes on the classes page.

15  Paper 2, on method in thinking.  Quiz 2.

20  In the text of Latin American philosophers, please read the selections by Bartolomé de las Casas and Risieri Frondizi.

22  Selections by Quesada and Deustua.

27  Selections by Zea and Bondy.

29 Read and prepare to discuss the selection by Linda Martín Alcoff.

August 3.  Last paper due.   How one’s conception of what it means to be a human being relates to one’s interpretation of the meaning of the facts of one’s situation and the meaning of the supreme values one recognizes.

 5 Final quiz.


First Paper: Connecting the meaning of values and the meaning of facts

in a philosophical decision—like Socrates in the Crito


            In addition to all the unusual challenges that arise from time to time, there are typical challenges that persons face during the stages of life from early childhood to old age.  How we meet those challenges determines the attitudes we develop, and those attitudes, those responses to reality as a whole, reflect our commitment to values.  Each person, thoughtfully or not, makes decisions about what values matter most.  To live out those value commitments takes particular attention to the facts of one’s circumstances.

            In the Crito, we find Socrates facing a significant question.  He looks back and reviews the supreme value commitments that have guided his life.  Then he interprets the meaning of the value of justice and the meaning of the fact of his political imprisonment and brings those reflections together in his philosophical decision.

This paper asks you for several things—and be sure to contact the instructor if you find yourself bogging down with difficulties!  I want a one-page statement next Monday, June 22, expressing the challenge you’ve chosen and your initial interpretation of the meanings of truth, beauty, and goodness as they relate to that challenge.  We will take time every class for exercises related to this project, so that you will be ready to write the paper when it comes due.

Here’s how I am asking you to proceed.  First, you are to review the handout summarizing Erik Erikson’s stages of life—and make adjustments and additions as you like to express your own view as it may differ from Erikson.  He emphasizes psychological themes, while we may well want to create a different list for ourselves.  In any case, we can think of human living in terms of the development of an excellent character (which Plato regarded as essential to the psyche).  Then select a present challenge to work on after consulting http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/papers.htm.

Next, determine, as you would interpret it at the present time, what is the meaning of life—for human beings in general and for yourself in particular.  Do not struggle for philosophical excellence in this huge topic, which would take a long time, but rather approach the question by trying to put into words your present idea and to evolve that idea a bit as you reflect.  You can also express questions as well as an answer; you answer may be partial and tentative, as well as confident on certain themes.  Your response will address features of the meaning of life that apply to people generally, but it will also include particular aspects of meaning that apply to you as an individual.

Please organize your paper in the following way.

In about a page, write down the most important facts about life, first facts that pertain to human beings generally, and then facts that pertain to your own personal circumstances as a member of a particular society in history and as a unique personality.  Include uncertainties as well as established facts.  Obviously you will need to be selective to distill all you might have to say into a couple of pages.  Include reflections on the meaning of these facts and what they imply for your handling of the challenge on which you have chosen to focus.

Next, in two pages set forth the facts describing the challenge you have selected and how truth, beauty, and goodness illumine your response to that challenge.  In other words, interpret the meaning of truth, beauty, and goodness as they relate to your challenge.  If you prefer a different set of values, you may go ahead after speaking with the instructor.

In another two pages, tell what progress you have been able to make during the project period with this challenge.  (You are welcome to add, as a preface, some background about your history of dealing with this challenge, but be sure to give two pages reporting your experience during the project period.)

Then, write two pages expressing how Socrates and Plato might respond to what you have written.  Use brief quotations from our text, and comment on how the meaning of these passages relates to your ideas.

Finally, write a one page response, respectfully expressing one disagreement with Socrates or Plato and giving reasons why you disagree and also expressing appreciation for one point that you constructed from Socrates or Plato and building on what Socrates or Plato said, expanding the point, adding truth.


Stages of growth: Erikson and beyond


For Erik Erikson, life sets a typical sequence of challenges, and the mature individual acquires a constellation of ego strengths, or virtues, by meeting these challenges successfully.  Each virtue lays the ideal foundation for acquiring the next one. 

1.      In response to the experiences of the first year of life, trust should come to predominate over distrust.

2.      During the second and third years, the issue is whether autonomy, confidence in one's ability to assert oneself, will prevail over shame (being exposed before one is ready, revealing a vulnerability or deficiency felt to be intrinsic to the self).

3.      At age 4-5, the issue is initiative (manifested differently by boys and girls) vs. guilt (a reprimand may be overpowering in the child's mind).

4.      Next, in later childhood, one is challenged to acquire the virtue of industry: the "I can" attitude, a sense of competence about doing and learning and making a contribution, rather than developing a sense of inferiority by despairing of one's skills and status.

5.      Then, during the teenage years, one must struggle with a sense of identity versus role confusion.  When identity is firm, one is able to commit oneself in fidelity to a friendship, a religion, a community.

6.      Next, sustained intimacy implies mutuality in sexual satisfaction and the virtue of love.

7.      The crisis of middle age is between generativity versus stagnation.  Is one willing to invest oneself caring for the next generation (in child rearing and contribution to society) or will one be captured by self-centeredness?

8.      In later adult life one faces the challenge of ego integrity versus despair.  After triumphs and disappointments, there arises a new love of self as part of a world order grounded in spiritual depth.  The final virtue is wisdom, which refreshes courage, renews earlier visions of wholeness, and whose fearlessness toward death encourages children.


For each of these stages, revise them if you like, not pretending that you have a psychologist’s authority to do so, but rather to give voice to such generalizations as you may feel better express what you observe about life’s stages. Feel free to add, if you like, a stage representing life after death, in which there may be a possibility to continue the pursuit of divine perfection.  The point is to sketch the widest framework of growth in order to give perspective on present choices and decisions.


Project 2: Intuition, Reason, Wisdom


If your philosophy includes belief in God or the reality of an indwelling divine spirit, probe the intuition of God (cf. Descartes, Meditation III) as best you can.  See the notes below.  I’ll treat this as the default focus for the purpose of stating the assignment below.  There are alternatives: nature or the universe (for those whose philosophy is science-centered)—see Discourse, part V) or mind (for those whose philosophy is humanistic choice—see Meditation II).  (If anyone is super ambitious, have a look at Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, the next to last chapter on dynamic religion.)  In any case, be sure to read the discussion of intuition in “Philosophical Living,” pp. 165-76.

What to do?  First, focus on your chosen theme and, in some rhythm of give-and-take, receptive openness and active probing, allow your intuition to deepen.  Take a generous amount of time for that process to unfold (see Descartes’ Rule 9). (20%)

            After each step in the series of steps in this assignment (which you should probably repeat a number of times), write an account of what you did, what you experienced.  Your final account of each step, to be included in your paper, should take account of highlights of the adventures with that particular step.

As always, do not expect miracles.  We are beginners, our time is limited, and what is required is simply sincerity and persistence.  Wholeheartedness brings results which will be appropriate for this project period.

Second, draw on reason, if you can, to sharpen your intuition as Descartes does in Meditation II, p. 108 (24-25 AT).  Then, use reason to draw an inference and come up with some conclusion from a proposition that expresses something of the intuition you achieved.  Try to draw a further conclusion on the basis of the conclusion you have already reached.  Try to draw multiple conclusions from your intuitive observations.  Write up your experience (1 page). (15%)

Third, make explicit to yourself something of your background idea of God.  When Descartes lists characteristics that he attributes to God (e.g., in Meditation III, p. 118, second full paragraph (45 AT) he brings ideas to mind on which he can meditate or reflect to deepen his realization of the idea of God.  Your background idea represents something of your previous wisdom synthesis that you will be updating through your inquiry.  Notice new angles through which to focus intuition to deepen your realization of your chosen theme.  Write up your experience with this step (1 page). (15%)

Fourth, construct a commentary on your report of the preceding steps from the perspective of Descartes (2 pages). (30%)

Fifth, write your own wisdom synthesis reflecting on the entire process (2 pp.) (10%)

            Evaluation is based on the writing (10%, with the standard qualification as before) plus the evidence of sincere and persistent effort in accord with the assignment in the sections weighted as indicated above.



            Each of the three themes that can be chosen for focus—God, the universe, and the mind—are vast beyond our power to plumb their depths.  So you will need to make peace with an adventure into something that is impossible to complete.  Try to see more and express more than you have realized before, and do not aim for completeness or to pronounce the definitive word.

            To focus, now, on the default choice—deepening one’s intuition of God—I generally begin by mentioning one of my favorite quotations: “Man attains divine union by progressive reciprocal spiritual communion, by personality intercourse with the personal God, by increasingly attaining the divine nature through wholehearted and intelligent conformity to the divine will.”  This points to a simple, social, interactive befriending, perhaps speaking in a most normal and natural way.

Next, for those who find the first suggestion unhelpful, I refer students to the practice of centering, described here: http://fp.dl.kent.edu/jwattles/Mphenomenology.htm .  The practice of centering is based on the idea that at the center of the mind, so to speak, may be found the presence of God.  Obviously you cannot normally expect to have an intuition of divine spirit that would match Descartes’ standard of clarity and distinctness (as illustrated in his discussion of Rule 3).  No practice is a guaranteed straight path to a vivid experience, and success demands relaxing any expectation of a dramatic result to be delivered in a given twenty-minute mediation, for example, or even in any two-week period.  The results may be faint—and that’s just fine for this project.  The important thing is to do something in the direction of enhancing your intuition, your experience, and to note whatever seems noteworthy that happens along the way.  Observe that for the practice of centering, you do not need to subscribe to any particular religion.  The only essential is to “consent to the presence and activity” of the indwelling divine spirit—something recognized in every major religion.

Finally, some students do best with the practice of conscious breathing, the last practice discussed in the web document just mentioned.  This practice is even simpler, and is particular beneficial for those who are in need of rest and relaxation as well as enhanced intuition of what Thich Nhat Hahn calls “your true self” (a Buddhist way to refer to the same reality that other traditions speak of with their own terms).

            There will be more to say about these things as we discuss early results and problems.

            P.S.  Here's a favorite quote related to intuition/focus/meditation in a practical context: It's about a person who "possessed the ability effectively to mobilize all his powers of mind, soul, and body on the task immediately in hand. He could concentrate his deep-thinking mind on the one problem which he wished to solve, and this, in connection with his untiring patience, enabled him serenely to endure the trials of a difficult mortal existence--to live as if he were "seeing Him who is invisible."


Project 3: Philosophical Anthropology


            For this project, similar to the previous two, you will draw on your own ideas, our previous work this semester, and especially the readings and discussions in the Latin American philosophy unit in order to clarify and develop your concept of what it means to be a human being.  The experiential dimension of the project is to put into practice particular emphases on aspects of our humanity that you find helpful in the authors in present text.

            Part I.  The first three to four pages of your paper will tell of your experiences putting into practice and of what you learned in so doing.  Include a statement of your own concept of what it means to be a human being. (40%)

            In the next three pages you will construct a commentary on your Part I experience report from the perspective of at least two of our Latin American philosophers.  Again: give brief quotes (with pages numbers in parentheses in the text), and then comment on their meaning and on their relevance to Part I. (40%)

            In a final page or two, give your own reply to the Part II commentaries, giving reasons for your disagreement and adding reasons for your agreement. (10%)

            Writing, again, will count 10% unless there is a severe problem.

            As usual, following instructions with sincerity (wholeheartedness) and persistence is the key to success.  This project has to do with how you do the rest of your life, and it does not require time away from your busy schedule to undertake a separate course of experience.  During the time of focus on this project you will be living as a fully human person, perhaps to a greater than may be customary for you.  Please be in touch with the instructor promptly if you have questions about, or problems with, the project.



What is philosophy?

The word "philosophy" comes from two Greek words, meaning “the love of wisdom.” The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus remarked that wisdom is not the same as knowledge, since one can be full of knowledge and also be foolish about the most important things.  Some philosophers have thought that there is a certain kind or level of knowledge that philosophy studies.  These observations open the question of philosophy's relations with the sciences.  What assumptions are operative in what a scientist says?  What higher meanings are implicit in a well-established scientific fact or set of facts?  These are philosophic questions about science.

Philosophy explores truth, beauty, and goodness, and most of philosophy's subdivisions are in the first area.

Branches of philosophy

Truth (aletheics, to use a rare term)

Beauty (aesthetics)

Goodness (ethics and political theory)

Here are some of philosophy's subdisciplines in the realm of truth:


A few facts

            Of the most prominent philosophers of ancient Greece, the first two were Athenian.  Socrates (469-399 BCE) engaged others in discussion but wrote nothing.  Plato (427-347) wrote dialogues in which Socrates is often the main character.  Aristotle (384-322) was born in Macedonia but studied 20 years in Plato's Academy then founded a school of his own school Athens.

            French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) sought the perfection of scientific knowledge connecting mechanistic cosmology with philosophically demonstrated affirmations of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.


Three attitudes of thinking

Thinkers may be said to show (mostly) one of three basic attitudes in thinking. 

Where shall we seek for wisdom?  In the ancient proverbs and teachings of the world’s traditions?  In religion?  “The fear (awe) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (the Hebrew Book of Proverbs).  “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask” (New Testament).  The ancient Greeks, drawing on the rich cultures of the Mediterranean world, including Egypt and the Middle East, including influences from Persia and India, developed a new discipline, they called philosophy, discussing questions in quest of knowledge and insight beyond the realm of simple matters of fact.  Stimulated by progress in science and by the lack of an advanced religion, the philosophers probed the depths of thought.


Fact, meaning, and value

             Reading a text philosophically, we ask: When is the writer making a claim about some matter of fact?  What does the writer mean by what he or she says?  What is logically implied by the meaning of certain statements?  When is an evaluative statement being made?  The concepts of fact, meaning, and value are important philosophic themes.  As a beginning, you might think of fact as about what we can perceive and about what can be empirically, scientifically verified . One can have heaps of information yet lack wisdom.  Meanings are discerned by wise interpretation of the truth of facts, meanings, and values.  Values, in the supreme sense, are experienced in a spiritual realization of truth, beauty, and goodness.


A note on diversity

            Inquiries into human diversity flourish when three phases of affirmation, inquiry, and appreciation are balanced.


Method in Philosophy

1.  One model of philosophic method is the medieval quaestio, or question, whose roots go back to ancient Greek philosophy.  In some of his dialogues, Plato would probe a topic in conversation with various objections coming from a particular view or school of philosophy.  For example, the Phaedo develops responses to problems arising for Pythagoreans.  Obviously, one might wish to have responses to objections from every point of view.  It would also seem nice for complex questions to be broken down into simpler ones, and put in order.  This is what we see in the practice of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  He would organize sequences of topics, set forth precise questions on each topic, and discuss each particular question in the following way.

            1.  State the precise question to be answered.

            2.  List all the (major) objections opposed to his answer that can be drawn from on the scriptures and the writings of ancient Greek, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian philosophers and theologians.

            3.  Quote a brief indication in favor of his own view.

            4.  Explain his own answer and  give reasons for it usually in a couple of paragraphs.

            5.  Show, whenever it was not obvious, how his answer supplied the key to an adequate response to the objections.


2.  René Descartes (1596-1650), hoping to dispense with the ill-founded opinions of the ancients, set forth a method centered on intuition and deduction.  His standard of insight for intuition was so high that only simple mathematical truths and a few philosophical propositions such as “I think” and “I exist” would qualify.  See the readings and webnotes on Descartes for more.


                                                        Argument Analysis


One of the hallmarks of much philosophic writing is that there is some attempt to give reasons in support of a thesis.  Even though this class does not presuppose any training in logic, the student may well begin to consider some ideas about how to examine reasoning. 

Philosophy involves asking questions, considering alternative perspectives, reasoning, and articulating our experience/understanding.  One of philosophy's methods is analytic philosophy.  This tradition asks persistently, "What does this mean?"  "Why do you believe it?"  Analytic philosophy emphasizes precise formulation of a question, involvement with the best contemporary philosophy on a given topic, lucid organization of ideas, keen analysis, construction of persuasive arguments, and clear writing.

One commonly suggested sequence of questions to develop your response to reading is: Describe, Interpret, Evaluate. For example, What does the author say? What does the author mean by what s/he says? Is it true?

When considering a piece of reasoning, you may find leverage in asking the following questions.

1.  What is my purpose in working with this piece of text (or our purpose, insofar as the inquiry is a team project)?  If there are multiple purposes, which purpose is dominant?

2.  What does the author's purpose seem to be?

3.  Are there any empirical claims or assumptions which can be confirmed or disconfirmed in daily experience or science?

4.  Are there claims or assumptions--positive or negative--about religion or spiritual realities?

5.  What words or phrases convey key concepts?  (Do not overlook articles, prepositions, verb forms, etc.)  Is there any term, phrase, or sentence that is ambiguous?  What interpretations are possible?  What interpretation is most plausible?  Or is it the case that more than one meaning is involved (whether or not the ambiguity is deliberate)?  Note that what one finds to be clear depends partly upon the categories one is accustomed to using.  Is there any problem with the concepts being used?

6.  In the sentences where key affirmations are made (assuming, for the moment, that they are not questions, exclamations, commands, or invocations) is the grammar clear?  Are the subject and predicate presented as possibly linked, actually linked, or necessarily linked?  Does a sentence express a necessary condition or a sufficient condition?  What other possible relationships might obtain between subject and predicate?  Do not overlook the interesting structures of paragraphs and groups of paragraphs.

7.  Examine the arguments.  The term "argument," as used in philosophy, does not connote an angry dispute between persons; it simply means that a conclusion is being proposed on the basis of one or more reasons or premises.  In reasoning it is common to use words called inference markers.  "Therefore" indicates a conclusion.  "Because" indicates a reason for a conclusion.  Other conclusion indicators include "thus" and "hence."  Other reason indicators include "since," and (in some uses) "for."

Argument is not the only way to achieve a strategic sequence in writing.  Authors also use descriptions, accounts, and narratives.

8.  Identify the conclusion(s), stated and unstated.  What is the text driving at?  What is the main point?  There may be several arguments in the text.  Having summarized the text as a whole, you may focus on just one line of argument.

9.  Identify the reason(s) or premise(s) for each conclusion.  Are the premises true?

10.  Identify any unstated assumptions.  Attribute to the author only those assumptions that you may reasonably expect him or her to be assuming (on the basis of the text).  These are not necessarily the same as the assumptions that are logically required in order for the argument to be valid.  Are the assumptions true?

11.  Construct a diagram of the argument. 

12.  Do the premises and unstated assumptions, IF TRUE, constitute strong evidence for the conclusion?

13.  Consider other arguments that are relevant but not mentioned in the argument you are examining.

14.  Give the argument an overall evaluation.  It's easy to pick flaws.  Were your criticisms significant or minor?  Could the author easily fix the argument and make it strong?

15.  What can you do constructively with your analysis that goes beyond the immediate assignment in class?