Philosophy 83
10:30 - 11:50, TF Peter Suber
Carpenter 328Spring 1999-2000



The reading for this course consists of many hand-outs and the following books:

  1. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago, second edition, 1970 (or third edition, 1996).
  2. Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1936.

Ben-Ami Scharfstein's The Philosophers, Oxford University Press, 1980, is recommended but not required.

I've created a course home-page containing a collection of hand-outs and course-related web links at If you find any other relevant links, let me know and I'll add them to the collection.

You are almost certainly taking comps this semester. We assume you've already read our comps hand-out. But if you haven't, now is definitely the time.


Works and pages cited for a given day will be discussed that day and should have been read in advance. Those in square brackets are recommended but not required. Explications and papers are due at class time on the days listed.

Week 1, January 10 - 14
No class
First class, no reading due.

Week 2, January 17 - 21
This syllabus. Karnos and Shoemaker hand-out. Metaphilosophy Themes and Question hand-out
Maria Ossowska hand-out.

Week 3, January 24 - 28
Nicholas Rescher hand-out.
Nicholas Rescher hand-out, cont.; Daniel Dennett hand-out. Have chosen the two philosophers on which you will give presentations

Week 4, January 31 - 4
Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, at least to p. 110.
Kuhn, cont., the rest of the book, including the Postscript.

Week 5, February 7 - 11
Grimshaw and Bordo hand-outs.
John Wisdom hand-out. Philosophy as Autobiography hand-out.

Week 6, February 14 - 18
Feuer hand-out.
Earle hand-out.

Week 7, February 21 - 25
Two Bartlett hand-outs.
No class today. Mid-term break.

Week 8, February 28 - March 3
Boas hand-out. Exam questions and list of previous courses due
Newman hand-out.

Week 9, March 6 - 10
Nozick hand-out.
Presentation Day

Week 10, March 13 - 17
Presentation Day
Presentation Day

Week 11, March 20 - 24
No class. Spring break.

Week 12, March 27 - 31
Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, 1-13, 55-75 Self-assessment due
Mannheim, 75-108

Week 13, April 3 - 7
Mannheim, 192-211, 248-263
Mannheim, 265-286

Week 14, April 10 - 14
Mannheim, 286-311 Topic of term paper due.
Presentation Day

Week 15, April 17 - 21
Presentation Day
Presentation Day Evaluation form due before next class

Week 16, April 24 - 28
Judgment day: last day of class
No class.

Week 17, May 1 - 5
No class but... Term paper due


Title Due date Weight Description
Two oral presentations One in Weeks 9-10, one in Weeks 14-15 25% each A short, informal paper must accompany each one. Details.
Term paper May 3, noon 25% 15 page minimum, no maximum. The topic is due April 10. Details.
Questions for future history of philosophy exams February 29 0% For departmental bookkeeping. Details.
List of philosophy courses you've taken February 29 0% For departmental bookkeeping. Details.
Self-assessment March 26 0% For departmental bookkeeping. Details.
Evaluation form April 24 0% Due any time before the last day of class. Use the hardcopy form I will hand out or print yourself a copy of the online version.
Participation Daily 25% Attendance plus helpful, voluntary participation in every discussion. Includes giving presentations and leading discussion on Fridays. Details.
You must submit all assigned work to pass the course.

Metaphysician, heal thyself!

The focus of this course is metaphilosophy, or the philosophy of philosophy. This is your chance to look back on your career as a philosophy major, to reflect on what you have been doing, and to think about the point, value, scope, and nature of philosophy.

If I could define "metaphilosophy" for you, I would. But because it is the philosophy of philosophy, it cannot be defined fully until we know what philosophy is —and that is the subject of the course.

Here are a few preliminary words. Metaphilosophy primarily asks the question, "What is philosophy?" —with all its associated questions such as why we should do it, how it should be done, and how it relates to other human activities.

The distinction between philosophy and metaphilosophy is frequently difficult to grasp, especially as philosophy includes metaphilosophy. The theory of recollection, mind-body dualism, pre-established harmony, and the transcendental ideality of time are philosophical theories, not metaphilosophical ones. But like any other philosophical theories they reveal or imply positions on the nature of philosophy, its methods, standards, purpose, subject matter, relation to history and action, and so on.

On the theory that a list of metaphilosophical questions will help you understand what metaphilosophy is, better than a discursive definition, I've prepared such a list for you.

Some philosophers think and write explicitly about metaphilosophy. Kant's claim that philosophy can be a science, Hegel's claim that philosophy is the history of philosophy, and Henry Johnstone's claim that in philosophy all arguments are ad hominem are all metaphilosophical positions (but also philosophical ones). They are about philosophy and make claims about its nature.

Metaphilosophy may be conscious or unconscious in a philosopher or text. It may, in Wittgenstein's words, be "displayed" even if not "depicted" in a work of philosophy. Even if a work does not explicitly raise metaphilosophical questions, it displays or betrays a position on the nature of philosophy.

There are many metaphilosophical themes that we could make the center of attention, and that help narrow down the large question of what philosophy is. In different years I focus on different topics. This year I want to focus on disagreement and diversity. We will pursue such questions as the following:

Why have philosophers not agreed as often as scientists? Have philosophers agreed more than they appear to? Less? Does philosophy contain any incommensurable disagreements? Does historical understanding make the disagreement less invidious and chaotic? What can legitimately be inferred from the spectacle of disagreement? (For example, does it follow that at least half the positions are in error? that we should be relativists? that we should be skeptics? that certainty is unattainable? that philosophy is non-cognitive? that philosophy is dialectical? that truth is contradictory? that philosophy is not a science? that philosophers are narcissists? that future work is necessary? that future work is pointless?) What does it mean that philosophers disagree about the significance of disagreement? How does a given philosopher regard philosophers with other views, her own position's exclusivity, and disagreement itself? Is agreement a goal of philosophy? Is the apparent range and persistence of philosophical disagreement a sign of failure? health? (More.)

In trying to understand disagreement and diversity in philosophy, we will frequently bump into the following sub-topics of the problem.

  1. Cognitivity. Does philosophy provide knowledge (is it cognitive)? Can its claims be true or false? If it merely criticizes or examines knowledge, but is not itself knowledge, then how can we tell whether a given critique or examination is trustworthy without appealing to criteria of knowledge? How can we decide that some philosophy is better than others? What does "better" mean in judgments of that kind? What different ways are there to be non-cognitive? What could the value or point of non-cognitive philosophy be? Is the claim of cognitivity belied by the spectacle of disagreement? (More.)

  2. Methodology. What is the role of argument in philosophy? How important are certainty, consistency, and completeness? How does philosophy use and justify its criteria (of truth, meaning, cognitivity, philosophy, and so on)? How should philosophy begin? Are there methods peculiar to philosophy? What is the relationship between method and result in philosophy? How does philosophy justify its methods? Why is philosophy more conscious of its methods than the sciences? (More.)

  3. Historicity. What is the relation of philosophy to the history of philosophy? Is this relationship different from that of mathematics, chemistry, literature, or religion to their histories? Is philosophy the history of philosophy, as Hegel asserted? Does the history of philosophy show progress? Are all philosophical claims and theses historically conditioned, and unable to transcend history? Are philosophical questions really "perennial" or do they subtly change from period to period? What metaphilosophical questions are typically answered (if only sub silentio) in writing the history of philosophy? (More.)

  4. Psychologism. What is the relation of philosophy to the personality of the philosopher? Is this relationship different from that of mathematics, chemistry, literature, or religion to the personalities of their practitioners? Does a person's philosophy critically depend on that person's temperament? Is philosophy done by "the whole person" and not merely by (say) "reason"? Is philosophy disguised autobiography? In what sense is philosophy the confession or self-revelation of the author, as Nietzsche asserted? Are all philosophical claims psychologically conditioned, and unable to transcend psychology? What happens when we use psychology to analyze philosophers, and philosophy to critique psychology? Which is prior to which? Do philosophies, like other behaviors of philosophers, have causes? Do causal explanations of philosophies subvert the reasons philosophers offer for their philosophies? How does one's gender affect one's philosophy? Do we lose anything valuable when we try to interpret a philosophy without knowing the biography of the philosopher? (More.)

  5. Immanence and Non-Immanence. Should we read philosophies with primary attention to their reasons (immanently) or to their causes (non-immanently)? Is a philosophical theory to be examined in light of the evidence and arguments its author puts before us (immanently) or studied as a symptom, side-effect, or epiphenomenon of class struggle, will to power, individual psychology, historical situatedness, cultural determinism, linguistic confusion, race, class, or gender (non-immanently)? Even if you are inclined to read philosophy immanently, what might be useful for us, qua philosophers, to learn about the philosopher's (or philosophy's) psychological, historical, political, and economic conditions? What of philosophical interest might be (in Wittgenstein's terms) displayed but not depicted? Is the history of philosophy a conversation of questions, answers, arguments, and conclusions, or is it a series of intellectual reflections of material conditions? Is philosophy ideological? Are non-immanent reductions of philosophy self-referentially inconsistent? (More.)

  6. Self-Application. Are a given philosopher's criteria of truth (knowledge, meaning) true (knowable, meaningful) by their own terms? Must they be? Is self-referential inconsistency as objectionable as other kinds of inconsistency? If a philosophy has implications for the nature or use of argument, proof, language, method, or philosophy itself, then must it comply with its own strictures on these subjects, or can it work at a 'different level' and exempt itself? For a given work, what is the effect of doctrine (if any) on the genre of its exposition, type of discourse, or use of language? on its mode of assertion, type of confidence or certainty claimed? How should we judge philosophies which (as most do) instruct us how to judge? (More.)

  7. Primacy of the Practical: Is "the practical" (in Kant's sense, "the ethical") primary in philosophy? Do we do epistemology and metaphysics (and metaphilosophy) for the sake of ethics? Is philosophy essentially a kind of inquiry or a kind of life, thinking or activity, theory or praxis? What is the relation between "the speculative" and "the practical" in philosophy? Should we expect the study of philosophy to make us better people? (More.)

Oral presentations

Pick one pre-Kantian philosopher and one post-Kantian philosopher. (If you want to work on Kant himself, you may do so once and put him in either list.) Study their metaphilosophical positions closely, especially on —but not limited to— the primary themes of the course.

You will give an oral presentation on the metaphilosophy of each of your two philosophers, the first in Weeks 9-10 and the second in Weeks 14-15. These oral presentations should take about 30 minutes. During the presentation you should at least inform us of the the philosopher's metaphilosophical position on a few of the primary themes of the course (though not more than two or three). Take a stand on what the philosopher's position is; offer us a reading. Do not merely raise the questions or show the presence of certain themes. As with papers, depth is better than breadth. Stick to just one metaphilosophical theme if you have enough to say about it. Try to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the philosopher's position as well. If the author's position raises metaphilosophical questions for you, offer us some of your own direct reflection on the answers. Then for the rest of the hour lead discussion on the meaning and merits of the author's metaphilosophy.

A common problem with oral presentations in the past has been to waste time on philosophy that could and should have been spent on metaphilosophy. One remedy is simply to be aware of this pitfall. Another is to let everything in your presentation build up to an answer to the question: what does this philosopher think philosophy is? Another is run some of your outline by me well before the presentation.

The presentations should be based on a close reading of primary texts, as well as substantial library research. When you give a presentation, submit to me (1) at least five questions on the interpretation of your philosopher's metaphilosophy, (2) at least five questions on the merits of that metaphilosophy, and (3) a bibliography of the sources you consulted, with annotations on their usefulness for your presentation topics. The questions you submit should be among those on which you plan to focus discussion after making your initial presentation.

Finally, while you may consult your notes during your presentation, of course, please do not read a prepared text.

Presentation slots will be filled first-come first-served.

You should have picked your philosophers by Week 3. If you haven't, we will still assign all slots for the term around that time so that you know as early as possible when you are "up".

Leading discussion

Starting Week 2, the first half of every Friday class is reserved for student-led discussion. Discussion leaders should be especially well prepared on the parts of the text assigned for that day. Leaders should start with a 10-15 minute presentation in which they offer a reading of selected parts of the text of interest to them. For the rest of the hour, they should lead discussion on those and other, related topics. In the presentation and subsequent discussion, the leaders will not lecture, and need not have answers, but should have good questions and know where in the text to look for answers and how to lead a discussion that discovers answers. Each leader should give me a short outline of their presentation and plan for discussion at the beginning of the hour. I will be glad to meet with discussion leaders beforehand to discuss topics and methods. See the hand-out on leading discussion for more information.

You will present and lead discussion as often as the enrollment divides into the number of eligible Fridays.

Which Fridays go to which students will be decided first-come, first-served. If there are no volunteers for a given Friday, I will throw dice. Look ahead at the assignments and your work for other classes, and volunteer as soon as you can for the week of your choice.


This is a seminar; hence, there will be very few lectures. Attendance and good preparation are essential to the success of a seminar. I expect all of you to be fully prepared every day to discuss the reading, ask questions about its meaning and merit, help others to find the answers, discern presuppositions, trace consequences, reconstruct arguments, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of positions, and recognize the stakes.

I expect everyone to talk voluntarily every day. I will not call on non-volunteers unless it is necessary to bring in every voice.

I hope to make use of electronic discussion to continue and deepen our in-class discussions. I've set up an email list for this course. If you send an email to the list, then everyone in class receives a copy automatically. To use the list, simply send email to meta or For answers to common questions about using such a list, see my electronic discussion hand-out.

The chief elements of the class participation grade are attendance, preparation for class, performance in discussion, and the week(s) as presenter and discussion leader. Because this is a seminar, attendance, preparation, and participation are essential to its success. Note that this is more a seminar than even most seminars: much more research during the term will be presented orally in class than in papers.

Term paper

One significant paper is required for this course. It should be on a metaphilosophical question important to you. It need not be about a single author's metaphilosophy, but it should be anchored in primary texts. The paper should be 15 pages minimum, no maximum.

Library research will be welcome but is not required. Included a bibliography of the works you consult or quote. You may incorporate any relevant work already done for your oral presentations, but the paper should not merely be a written version of one or both your presentations.

The topic question of your paper is due in writing on Tuesday of Week 14, well before the paper itself is due. If you can settle on your topic even earlier, you should consider doing so; that will give you more time to think, collect notes, and write. Because grades are due shortly after the due date, I can give no extensions on this paper.

The paper assignment (for both papers) is described in more detail in the essay assignment hand-out.

See my generic hand-out for details on paper mechanics, lateness, rewrites, and the option of having me grade your paper on tape.

If you submit a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your paper, then I will mail it to you during the summer. If you only have your campus mail box number on the paper, then I will mail it to your campus box.

Other requirements

We require three pieces of writing from all senior philosophy majors. To make sure we get them, we assign them in Metaphilosophy, even though they are not related to the course.

  1. Some questions for future history of philosophy exams. We keep a database of good questions from which we choose when constructing a new exam. Write 5-10 questions that you find interesting, important, and at the right level of difficulty.

  2. A list of the philosophy courses you've taken here or elsewhere. We have a form for this, so don't start yet.

  3. A self-assessment. How much have you grown as a philosopher in your time here and how much of this growth can be attributed to our curriculum and teaching? We'll hand-out a more extensive description of the self-assessment in class.

Return to the course home-page.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374. Copyright © 1999, 2000, Peter Suber.