Steven G. Smith (smithsg)
Christian Center 11, 601-974-1334
— Office hours posted —
Home: 1611 Edgewood St., 601-354‑2290
In a wide variety of situations, people wish to assert or deny that something is real, or find themselves perplexed as to how or whether something can be considered real. They may seek assurance that something valuable but intangible, like “mind” or “freedom” or “goodness” or “beauty,” is real somehow, or that something threatening, like ghosts or “evil,” is not. In thinking about some relatively abstract element of experience like “meaning” or “possibility” or “time” they may be unsure how to relate the reality status of such an item to the reality status of other things.
What is going on? Can we find insightful, justified ways of making the metaphysical move of construing, validating, or invalidating realness? Can we determine that there are erroneous ways of making the move? Is the fundamental issue here tangibility, or are there others?
Why can’t we just follow our ordinary descriptions of the world? They serve us well enough for most practical purposes, don’t they? So why push our luck? Why should we ask radical questions and form radical theses about the basic structure of reality?
(1) Our ordinary life is pierced by exceptional questions. For example: “When I make a choice and act, am I contributing something original to the world for which I alone am responsible? Or is ‘my’ act strictly an effect of historical and/or natural causes (biological, sociological, etc.) belonging to a complex of things much larger than ‘me’?” “It’s been said that a divine being rules space and time, providing ultimate rewards for virtue and punishments for sin; what kind of being would that be, and how could the visible world actually be affected by such a being?” “Farmers say that meat animals don’t suffer in a morally objectionable way. How do they know?” “Could he possibly have meant the same thing I think when I read his words?” “Is there any way she could really have known that night that her son was going down on a ship in the Pacific?” Questions like these keep arising and won’t go away. You’d need just as deep a justification for setting them aside, declaring them unanswerable, as you’d need for working answers for them.
(2) Anyway, we’ve already pushed our luck. We’ve already built up ways of thinking and acting that assume a set of metaphysical commitments. If we’re bound to think and act on metaphysical assumptions, shouldn’t they be good ones? And what are good ones? Some people’s chief metaphysical thought (implicit if not explicit) is “s*** happens.” Some people believe that the world is a completely deterministic, machine-like clockwork. What do such thoughts imply about hope, ambition, responsibility, and personal identity? On the other hand, some people believe that the human mind, just as they experience it, is absolutely sovereign over “matter” so that we need not worry about injury or death. And some have argued that our experience could just as well belong to brains dreaming in vats on the planet Venus as to the earthly beings we seem to be. Where do such thoughts leave common-sense respect for our world? What validity do they leave the sciences?
This Metaphysics class will take up as many piercing questions as possible while attending to a series of promising major proposals made by classical and contemporary philosophers, concentrating on Neoplatonist and analytic metaphysics.
Course readings will be assigned mainly in these required books, available in the bookstore:
Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen McKenna (Penguin)
Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics, 2nd ed. (Westview)
J. Kim & E. Sosa, eds., Metaphysics: An Anthology (Blackwell)
Grading will be based on class participation (10%), Metaphysical Notebook entries and responses (40%), a term essay (30%), and a take-home final examination (20%).
S C H E D U L E
Subject to change by announcement in class and/or e-mail
Introduction to course. The rise of metaphysics in Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle
Reading: From Plato’s Timaeus
Plotinus on the One, the many, intellect, and forms
Reading: Enneads I.6, VI.9; V.1, V.4, V.9
Plotinus on soul
Reading: Enneads VI.4-5, IV.3; IV.4, IV.8
Plotinus on evil and “providence”
Reading: Enneads I.8, III.2-3
Plotinus on time and eternity
Reading: Enneads III.7
Transition to contemporary metaphysics
Reading: van Inwagen, Metaphysics, Chap. 1
Reading: van Inwagen, Chaps. 2-3
Reading: van Inwagen, Chaps. 4-5
Teleology; dualism and physicalism.
Reading: van Inwagen, Chaps. 9-10
Reading: Quine, “On What There Is” (Chap. 1) in Metaphysics: An Anthology (MAA)
Identity and necessity; possible worlds.
Reading: Kripke and Lewis (Chaps. 7, 13) in MAA
Reading: Mackie and Salmon (Chaps. 32, 35) in MAA
Emergence and supervenience
Reading: Broad and Kim (Chaps. 37, 42), in MAA
Reading: Putnam and Sosa (Chaps. 44, 45) in MAA
The term essay is actually due Wednesday, November 26, but we’ll discuss your experience preparing it on November 25.
The take-home final exam is due at our class period’s assigned time in finals week.
The revised term essay is due by the last day of finals week.
THE METAPHYSICAL NOTEBOOK—GUIDELINES
For your course notebook, a loose‑leaf binder is recommended. This will make it easier to hand in and take back your entries, and also to keep handouts together.
Once a week (normally) you will be asked to bring to class a new entry in your Metaphysical Notebook—about 2 or 3 pp., if typed double-space—in which you discuss the week’s work (readings and discussions) both positively and negatively.
Positively, you will attempt to draw out of the week’s work the elements that you most want to include in your own metaphysical toolkit—ideas and arguments that are, you think, valid and worth remembering and benefiting from in the future. I encourage you to develop ideas and arguments in ways that suit your own purposes.
Negatively, you will attempt to identify the mistakes or otherwise unhelpful elements in the week’s work. (You are not committing yourself to rejecting anything! You can change your mind later about your earlier “mistake” calls! So be bold!)
The Metaphysical Notebook is an important learning tool that will enable you to keep track of what our class comes up with in a cumulative way.
Once or twice in the semester you may be asked to write a response to a peer’s entry in the same positive-and-negative way.
Individual Notebook entries and responses will be graded unsatisfactory (-), satisfactory (\/), or very good (+) depending on the attentiveness and thoughtfulness they show. The Notebook as a whole will get a letter grade.
THE ARGUMENT REVIEW
At least twice in the semester you will provide guidance to class discussion by preparing a 1-page handout for us in which you address such questions as these: What basically is going on in the assigned reading? What do you think is a particularly important passage? How does the argument of the reading seem to fit into our group’s discussion so far? How does it speak to your concerns in particular? What is most obscure in it or controversial about it?
GUIDELINES FOR THE TERM ESSAY
For your term essay, a 10-12 pp. paper (typed, double-spaced), you will tackle an issue in metaphysical thinking. You might focus either on how a particular philosophical approach is effective (or not so effective) in addressing metaphysical questions—for example, by doing a critical study of a philosopher—or on a particular metaphysical problem, paying attention to alternative ways of trying to answer it.
NOTE: If you are interested in making this paper the basis of the Colloquium paper required for the comprehensive exams in Philosophy, I will give you guidance on it tailored to that requirement.
If you decide to do a critical study of a philosophical approach, you will work with different material than the class has worked with. Consult with me about possibilities.
If you do a problem-centered paper, you will refer to a selection of philosophers’ works in order to help establish the range of arguments that can apply to the question at hand. I will help you find the best things for your purpose in the literature. Problem areas include:
Cosmology (e.g. the reality status of permanence and change, unity and diversity, time, causation, relations between actuality and possibility)
Identity (including problems of modality, emergence, personal identity)
Religion (the being of the holy, the holy’s substantial and causal relation with the world, the nature and reality status of “soul,” etc.)
Aesthetics (e.g. the reality status of semblances and fictions, the relationship of emotion to reality)
Ethics (e.g. the free agency and/or responsibility of “persons,” the reality status of moral “values”)
Logic (the reality status of universals and particulars, the reality requirements of “truth”)
Philosophy of Mind (e.g. idealism as a theory of reality à la Berkeley or à la Hegel, artificial intelligence, parapsychology, the Buddhist critique/reconstruction of mind)
Our class practice should give you more and more orientation as to how to develop your essay. Whatever your topic turns out to be, the essence of this exercise is that you get deeply into REASONING. What are the implications (perhaps unexpected!) of using certain key ideas? How is it that one conception fits the relevant phenomena better than others do? What are the interesting strengths and weaknesses of different and opposed arguments on a question?
Work hard; have fun. You will have an opportunity to rewrite the essay to improve it.
SOME COURSE RULES
- Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, the assignment of sharing in the class’s work that day will be counted as only half done.
- Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.
- As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.
- Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.
- Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.