Undergrad and Graduate Topic Seminars 2016- 2017







 PHIL 233 Trial & Execution of Socrates  T R  12:30  1:50  Kathrin Koslicki
  Do you care about freedom of speech and the separation of church and state?  Were the citizens of Athens right to convict and execute Socrates in 399 B.C.?  Decide for yourself by studying what was arguably the most important trial in the history of Western civilization.  Through innovative methods, including blended and project-based learning, we will explore the philosophical, historical, cultural and political circumstances which led to Socrates’ death, culminating with our own mock trial of Socrates at the end of the semester.  Along the way, we will examine the testimony of some of Socrates’ most illustrious contemporaries (e.g., Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes) and encounter the perspectives of experts from a range of disciplines, including Philosophy, History & Classics and Religious Studies.  This course has no prerequisites and is open to non-majors and majors.

PHIL 384

Ethics in the Anthropocene T R 14:00 15:20 Chloë Taylor

This course will introduce students to the concept of the Anthropocene, and ask what new (or exacerbated) forms of social vulnerability this geological epoch has created. We will begin by looking at the facts about climate change and social vulnerability, and will ask what kind of social justice framework we need to respond to these facts. In particular, we will consider the ways that the global poor pay the highest price for the pollution of the first world; the impact of climate change on First Nations people, island and arctic dwellers; the impact of climate change on women and children; and the impact of climate change on nonhuman species. Although we will briefly consider several other social justice frameworks (economic, game theory, state-centered), our emphasis in this course will be on the potential for restorative justice frameworks to address the ethical challenges of the Anthropocene.

PHIL 400/500

Essence & Essentialism
T 15:30 18:20 Kathrin Koslicki

Metaphysics is the discipline which studies reality in the most general and allencompassing way possible. As metaphysicians, we are interested in such concepts as existence, identity, change, parthood, essence, necessity, dependence, and the like. These concepts are not restricted to particular domains (e.g., mathematics, biology or music), but apply across the board. In this seminar, we will focus on the concept of essence and the doctrine of essentialism, both of which have been with us since ancient Greek times. For Aristotle, the essence or what it is to be a thing is that which is most explanatorily basic about the thing in question and in terms of which its other features are to be explained. For example, in Aristotle’s view, once we have grasped what thunder is (viz., that thunder is a type of noise in the clouds caused by the extinction of fire), we can then explain why thunder is loud, why it accompanies lightning, etc. The doctrine of essentialism thus forms a central part of Aristotle’s metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of science. Although popular throughout the middle ages, Aristotelian essentialism was also, at various points in the history of philosophy, taken to exemplify perfectly why traditional scholastic doctrines can stand in the way of scientific progress and logical clarity. During the 20th century, for example, the analytic philosopher, W. V. Quine, famously argued that Aristotelian essentialism is incoherent and should be rejected on logical grounds. Recently, however, Aristotelian essentialism has experienced a revival in contemporary metaphysics and is currently being developed in a variety of interesting ways. In this course, we will have occasion to examine several of these new developments of Aristotelian essentialism (e.g., by Kit Fine, Bob Hale and Barbara Vetter) as well as their anti-essentialist critiques (e.g., by Alan Sidelle, Amie Thomasson and Meghan Sullivan).

PHIL 440/540

Development of Socratic Ethics




Martin Tweedale

In Plato’s early dialogues the figure of Socrates develops a line of thought in which the good life for human beings is equated with the life of excellence of character and this excellence is said to be a form of knowledge. This proposal dominated the main stream of ethical thought in the ancient world. The seminar will examine how that idea is criticized in the Platonic dialogues themselves and then how Plato tries to resolve difficulties in Republic.  We conclude with a brief look at how Aristotle modified Socratic ethics in his Nicomachean Ethics. Readings will consist of translations of ancient texts as well as works of recent scholarship.

PHIL 444/546

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason




Alex Rueger

We’ll read and discuss major parts of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in the second edition (1787).  The aim is to form a fairly detailed idea of Kant’s arguments and the overall objectives of the work.  The official objective is an investigation into the possibility of metaphysical knowledge (as traditionally conceived).  This requires, Kant claims, a new philosophical discipline – ‘transcendental’ or ‘critical philosophy’.  In retrospect (1797) Kant wrote that even though it may sound “arrogant and selfish”, properly speaking there has been no philosophy at all before the critical philosophy developed.  In this course we’ll try to understand what he meant with this claim.

PHIL 442/546

Seminar on Descartes




Amy Schmitter

Cartesian dualism is a familiar topic in philosophy. But Descartes also produced seminal work in mathematics, natural science, general metaphysics, and in the study of the "passions."  This course will be an overview of Descartes's work, considering his metaphysics, philosophy of mind and method (including techniques of problem-solving by line segments), as well as looking at his physical treatises and his account of the passions.  We will pay particular attention to how Descartes's thought developed over time in response to Scholastic-Aristotelian and other late Medieval and Renaissance philosophies. Individual issues to be examined include Descartes’s understanding of the role of attention for the discovery of knowledge (and how bodily and extended resources can help focus it) and the structure of the Meditations on First Philosophy, which operates “according to the order of reasons.” To this end, we will devote the middle part of the seminar to reading the Meditations on First Philosophy slowly (although not as slowly as Descartes himself seems to have recommended.) We will finish by looking at his correspondence with Elisabeth of Bohemia and his last work on the passions, particularly the passion of “wonder” [admiration]. The main aim throughout will be to get Descartes “right,” and to replace often stereotyped views with an understanding of the character of his thought in context -- a thought that is both more alien and more enlightening than is sometimes appreciated. 

PHIL 470/570

Global Health Justice




Glenn Griener

A girl born in Canada in 2010 enjoys a life expectancy of 82.7 years. A boy born during the same year in Haiti has a life expectancy of a mere 32.5 years. The Haitian boy can expect 27.8 of those years to be lived in good health while the Canadian girl can expect nearly 71 years of good health.
What should we make of inequalities in health outcomes such as these? Are health inequalities more important than inequalities in wealth or other social measures? Do countries like Canada, or their citizens, have moral obligations to address health inequality? The objective of this course is to examine critically various answers to these questions.
According to the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinations of Health (2008), influenced by the writings of Amaryta Sen, “Putting right these inequities – the huge and remediable differences in health between and within countries – is a matter of social justice. Reducing health inequities is … an ethical imperative. Social injustice is killing people on a grand scale."[i]
Peter Singer cites the fact of our common humanity and grounds the imperative on the humanitarian duty to provide aid to those in need.  Another influential approach – pioneered by Thomas Pogge – sees the imperative as a duty of corrective justice. The growth of the international human rights discourse in the post-war decades gives rise to another approach, one which grounds the imperative in such universal rights as "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health."[ii] Finally, a number of writers attempt to provide a cosmopolitan version of the social contract approach to social justice.  
An overarching objective of this course is to engage the main philosophical schools of thought regarding global justice with ongoing work in the disciplines of global public health and development economics. By doing that you should achieve a multidisciplinary understanding of global health justice.

[i] Closing the gap in a generation: health equity through action on social determinants of health. Final report of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2008).

[ii] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

PHIL 488/594

Challenges to Formal Semantics

   M W



Jeff Pelletier

This seminar will consider a number of topics centering around constructions of natural language that both challenge researchers in formal semantics and also raise important philosophical questions of epistemology, metaphysics, and social ontology.  We will start with the topics of mass terms and generic statements.  These are not only difficult areas in which to give any formal account of the truth conditions for statements employing these sorts of terms, but they also give rise to lightning rod issues like essentialism, prejudice and stereotyping; the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis concerning individuation and counting; natural and social kinds; and others.  Along with these particular topics, we will take a look at the more sweeping issue of whether any conclusions about “reality” can be determined by the language we use that is allegedly describing that reality.  Some of the cutting edge alternatives to this last issue are called Natural Language Metaphysics, Constructivism, or Natural Semantic Metalanguage.

Winter 2017

 PHIL 336 Medieval & Renaissance Philosophy   MWF  11:00  11:50  Jack Zupko

Welcome to the premier offering of the latest course in our history of philosophy sequence! Once we roll up the red carpet and get down to business, we’ll sample intellectual riches from the millenium of big thinkers between the fall of Roman Empire in the fifth century CE and the rise of modernity in the fifteenth.  We’ll look at how the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish intellectual traditions shaped the kinds of questions we ask today, in our secular and post-modern world.  Topics will include: Can I act freely if God knows everything I will ever do?  How can I know anything for sure if human judgement is hopelessly fallible?  Are there ways of knowing that go beyond reason and the senses?  Do humans and rocks differ only in complexity?  Does everything happen by chance?  Does a good person always act rightly, regardless of the circumstances?  What is the human condition?
Along the way, we’ll do some mythbusting: no, medieval peasants did not believe that the earth is flat or (apologies to Monty Python and the Holy Grail) that “very small rocks” float on water, and Renaissance thinkers were not lyre-playing romantics who abandoned logic so they could take more art lessons.  As always, the truth undermines our caricatures, and also tends to be a lot more interesting.

PHIL 384

Business Ethics

T R 



Jennifer Welchman

Business has a social contract with society. In exchange for property rights and profits, business must avoid unjust practices.But what kinds of practices are unjust and why? Bluffing competitors and consumers? Puffing products and services? Marketing to children? Political lobbying against environmental regulations? And what does justice demand regarding equity in the workplace or the treatment of whistleblowers? We'll consider and evaluate the answers contemporary theories of justice and ethics have to offer.

PHIL 368

Topics in Social Justice




Glenn Griener

  The manufacturer of Soliris charges half a million dollars for a one-year supply of this life-saving drug. Should provincial governments provide this drug to all who need it? Quebec pays for IVF treatment of infertile couples. Should Alberta follow suit? There is a seven-year gap in life expectancy between aboriginal and other Canadians. Aboriginal people have significantly higher rates of diabetes and other diseases than the rest of Canadians. What are our moral obligations to rectify these health inequities? This course applies theories of social justice to answer such questions.

PHIL 405/505

Intuitions & Exper Phil 




Ingo Brigandt

Conceptual analysis, intuitions, and experimental philosophy. This metaphilosophy seminar deals with two basic topics. The first pertains to what the proper methods of philosophy are. Here we have traditional armchair methods such as the use of intuitions in opposition to gathering questionnaire data as done in experimental philosophy, which is a prominent approach that arose a decade ago. The second topic pertains to what the primary aims of philosophy are. Conceptual analysis is the view that philosophy consists in analyzing ordinary concepts, which we already possess but whose definition needs to be properly articulated (e.g., ‘knowledge’, ‘causation’, ‘intention’, or ‘morally wrong’). In contrast, in the last few years the approach of conceptual engineering (aka conceptual ethics) has arisen, which argues that rather than spelling out concepts as they currently are, the philosophical aim should be to improve philosophical concepts, which may require the revision current concepts (e.g., ‘gender’ and ‘race’), the abandoning of flawed concepts, or the creation new concepts. An obvious connection between the topics of philosophical methods and philosophical aims is that the use of armchair intuitions (about how a concept applies to various imagined situations) would be a suitable method for the aim of conceptual analysis.
      A draft syllabus listing readings will be posted before the start of the term at https://www.ualberta.ca/~brigandt

PHIL 412/510





Rob Wilson

      This seminar will offer a philosophical exploration of eugenics and related topics—disability, biotechnological disciplining, reproductive rights, bioethics, social policy and bioscience, newgenics—with special reference to the history and contemporary significance of Alberta's eugenics movement (1928-1972).  The course will make use of a recently completed book by the instructor,The Eugenic Mind Project, to be published by The MIT Press in 2017, together with readings from authors such as Leonard Davis (on the concept of normalcy), Julian Savulescu (on procreative beneficence and parental obligation), Alison Kafer (on medical interventions and disability), Susan Wendell (on standpoint epistemology and disability), and Daniel Kevles (on science and eugenics).  The seminar will also rely on the work of eugenics survivors, such as Leilani Muir, Judy Lytton, and Glenn Sinclair, through their contributions to the EugenicsArchive.ca website developed in the Department.  The course may be of special interest to students, given the Department’s and University’s past involvement in Alberta’s eugenic past, and the course will encourage trespass between the philosophy of science, ethics, politics, history, and disability studies.

PHIL 420/522


T R  



Katalin Bimbo

This course takes a rigorous approach to classical first-order logic. Our primary proof systems will be axiomatic calculi. A precise semantic interpretation of formulas gives rise to notions of truth (satisfiability), validity, and semantic consequence. Once we separate the proof-theoretical and the model-theoretical considerations, we have to scrutinize their relationship. We will focus on proving metatheorems: the soundness and completeness theorems, the compactness theorem, the downward-upward Lowenheim--Skolem theorems, etc. Classical first-order logic is widely applied. We shall look at some straightforward modifications, which can be applied in philosophy, mathematics, computer science and other disciplines 

PHIL 440/540

Socratic Ethics after Plato




Martin Tweedale

The seminar begins by a detailed examination of Aristotle’s ethics and how it forwards the line of thought that Socrates espouses in the early Platonic dialogues, namely that the good life is the life of excellence of character and this excellence is a form of knowledge.  Later we will progress to the Epicurean and Stoic development of Socratic themes.  Students will be expected to discuss both the import and the relative merits of these highly divergent philosophical theories.  Readings will consist of translations of ancient texts as well as some works of relevant recent scholarship

PHIL 445/546

Hegel's Phenom of Spirit




Robert Burch

"The true shape in which truth exists can only be the scientific system of such truth. To help bring philosophy closer to the form of science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title ‘love of wisdom’ and be actual knowing—that is what I have set myself to do” (Phenomenology of Spirit, ¶5). Hegel thus tells the reader how to approach the project of his Phenomenology of Spirit. The task is to appropriate and demonstrate systematically philosophical truth as already immanent in experience, setting it forth in the form of a “system of the science of experience” so as to “provide the individual with the ladder to the standpoint of science, to show the individual this standpoint within himself” (Phenomenology of Spirit, ¶26). Our task in this course will be to consider the essential ‘moments’ in the first two stages of this ‘ladder’, those of consciousness and self-consciousness. The first of these stages consists in the Hegelian defence of transcendental idealism, which yet on Hegel's own terms is only a first step in realizing the standpoint of absolute knowing.  The second stage, self-consciousness, consists in Hegel's first decisive move beyond the subjectivism of transcendental idealism to the standpoint of reason as certain that it is itself reality.
Required Text: G.F.W. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) ISBN 0-18-824597-1

PHIL 450/550

Inter-generational Ethics




Jennifer Welchman

Are we morally obliged to preserve natural resources for our descendants’ future generations? Do we owe it to our predecessors to maintain their monuments, institutions, and traditional ways of life? And how should we manage conflicts when these intergenerational ethical duties conflict with one another or with our obligations to people existing now? (No text book)

PHIL 492/592

Self and Other




Marie-Eve Morin

A study a various accounts of otherness by main proponents and critics of the phenomenological movement. The central question will be whether phenomenology as a philosophy that starts from first-person experience can account for the alterity of the Other or whether in the phenomenon of the Other phenomenology reaches its limit. Authors to be studied might include Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, or Derrida.