this is phil 310...


  • Instructor: Max Weiss
  • Email:
  • Office: 745 Commonwealth, Room 504
  • Office hours: Th 1-3


We will examine the origins, the successes and the failures of the modern conception of human beings. This conception originated with a revolt against the medieval scholastic fusion of Aristotelian metaphysics and Christian theology. In the medieval tradition, religious authorities provided a systematic account of the nature and purpose of human life at the center of an intelligibly ordered cosmos. But the moderns discovered things aren't always what they seem: the earth isn't the center of the universe, and objects don't fall just because they're supposed to. Maybe human beings are not essentially different from other living organisms, and maybe organisms are just complicated machines. Who's to say what we really know? What kind of things are we, that we can discover the nature of things for ourselves?

Modern philosophy begins with the rise of modern science and with Descartes' application of scientific methods to the study of his own self. We'll see that this drove him to great natural scientific achievements. But the deep conflicts in Descartes' resultant self-understanding defined a set of problems for his modern successors. We'll then turn to Spinoza, who on the one hand worked out an even more austerely naturalistic conception of the world, yet who on the other hand sought an explanation of naturalism itself, as the only means to blessedness. Both Descartes and Spinoza as well as Leibniz, however, maintained that through its innate knowledge or power of understanding, the mind is on its own a source of insight into the nature of reality. The empiricists worked to undermine this doctrine. For Locke, the mind is at its origin a tabula rasa; and for Berkeley, it is inconceivable that something exist unperceived. In Hume, the apparent rational structure of the world, and even the very existence of the human self---altogether dissolves into the patterns of habitual association in the play of ideas.n

In this course, our aim will be to engage in philosophical conversation with people like Descartes, Elisabeth of Bohemia, John Locke, etc. Biologically speaking, none of these people are alive anymore. So, their part in the conversation must be represented by our knowledge of their thought. We'll need to develop that knowledge through study of their texts. This will be the starting point from which we can work toward insight into fundamental philosophical questions.


The course website is at


Course resources, including announcements, handouts, etc., will be posted here. Similarly the website contains a discussion forum. To access these you'll need to sign up at the site. It's pretty straightforward, but the routine goes like this:

  1. from the course homepage, click signup
  2. at the /signup page, enter a username, your email address and a password
  3. at the next page, /affiliate, enter the code cogito plus your name
  4. check your email, and click on the link in the message you'll shortly receive
  5. reload the course website.


The following will be available in the campus bookstore:

  • Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings. Cambridge, 1988
  • Philosophy 310 course packet

I'll also circulate supplementary material on the course website, including optional readings and lecture notes.


For the sake of evaluation, coursework will be divided into equally weighted units as follows:

  • essay project (two units)
  • takehome midterm (one unit)
  • final exam (two units)
  • group presentation (one unit)
  • attendance and participation (one unit)


You'll be responsible for producing an essay which accomplishes an interesting philosophical task. The ingredients of the project are as follows.

  • optional 1-paragraph proposal, due Friday, 4 March
  • initial submission, due Monday, 14 March; maximum 1000 words
  • resubmission, due Wednesday, 20 April; maximum 1200 words

Further details will be given in class.

Takehome midterm

This will consist of a series of short-answer questions about Descartes and Spinoza. It will be circulated on Friday, February 26 and due Wednesday, 2 March.

Final exam

The final exam will be given on

  • Saturday, May 7, in the same classroom as the usual class meetings.

Final exam questions will in general resemble questions from the midterm.

Note that the final exam falls on the last day of the final exam period. Please arrange your travel plans accordingly.

Group presentation

Most Fridays we'll have a presentation from a group of three students. The goal of the presentation should be to extract some challenging question from that week's material, summarize relevant evidence, stake out some positions, and finally provoke discussion. I will not lecture, and it will be up to the presenters and the rest of you to make this interesting! You should sign up for a presentation under the /questions tab of the course website.


This depends partly on attendance and partly on your overall engagement in the course. A signin sheet will be passed around in class. If you have most two unexcused absences, then your mark on this component is guaranteed to be no lower than the mark on the rest of your coursework. A higher participation mark requires showing extra engagement, particularly by contributing to class discussion.


Plagiarism, etc.

Students are expected to abide by the BU code of academic conduct, available at Suspected plagiarism may be referred to the Dean for adjudication.


Studies suggest that laptops and other electronic devices distract their users and surrounding students.

So, please don't use laptops or other electronic device for the duration of each class meeting.

Road map

Here's the plan:

  • Introduction; background (week 1)
  • Descartes (weeks 2-5)
  • Spinoza (weeks 6-7)
  • Locke (weeks 8-9)
  • Berkeley (week 10)
  • Hume (weeks 11-14)

Further scheduling details are available on the course website.