Rationalism & Empiricism
Philosophy 250
10:00 MWF Peter Suber
Carpenter 322Fall 2002-2003


The required reading for this course consists of the following books:

  1. René Descartes, Philosophical Essays, Lafleur trans., Macmillan, 1964.
  2. Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, and Selected Letters, Shirley and Feldman trans., Hackett, 1992.
  3. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays, Garber and Ariew trans., Hackett, 1991.
  4. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter Nidditch, Oxford University Press, 1975.
  5. George Berkeley, Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, ed. Colin Turbayne, Macmillan, 1954.
  6. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford University Press, rev. ed., 1968.

I've created a course homepage containing a collection of hand-outs and course-related web links at http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/courses/re/rehome.htm.


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

Week 1.  August 26-30
No class
First class; no reading due
This syllabus; generic hand-out, opening questions assignment, opening propositions assignment, library report assignment; Descartes, Discourse, Sections 1-2, Today's Think-About Questions

Week 2.  September 2-6
Descartes, Discourse, Sections 3-4, Today's Think-About Questions, Great chain of being hand-out
Descartes, Discourse, Sections 5-6, Today's Think-About Questions
Philosophy paper tutorial day; Essay assignment hand-out (short description)

Week 3.  September 9-13
Descartes, Meditations: Dedication, Preface, Synopsis, Section 1, Today's Think-About Questions
Descartes, Meditations, Sections 2-3, Today's Think-About Questions
Descartes, Meditations, Section 4, Today's Think-About Questions

Week 4.  September 16-20
Descartes, Meditations, Sections 5-6, Today's Think-About Questions
Review day
No class today but... "Half-graded" Descartes paper due
Spinoza, Emendation of the Intellect, pp. 233-250, Today's Think-About Questions

Week 5.  September 23-27
Spinoza, Emendation of the Intellect, pp. 250-262, Today's Think-About Questions
Spinoza, Ethics, Part I, through Prop. 17, Today's Think-About Questions
Spinoza, Ethics, Part I, through Prop. 36, Today's Think-About Questions Library report #1 due

Week 6.  September 30 - October 4
Spinoza, Ethics, Appendix to Part I; Part II, preface, definitions, axioms, postulates, propositions, and notes only, through Prop. 17; [proofs, corollaries, lemmas recommended]; Today's Think-About Questions
Spinoza, Ethics, through end of Part II, Today's Think-About Questions
Review day

Week 7.  October 7-11
Locke, Essay, pp. 43-48, 104-109, 117-123, 126-132, 134-141, Today's Think-About Questions
No class today but... Descartes/Spinoza paper due
Locke, Essay, pp. 143-146, 149-150, 155-159, 162-167, 180-181, 288, 295-302, 305-306, 307-308, 311-312, 316-317, Today's Think-About Questions
No class; I'll be out of town.

Week 8.  October 14-18
Locke, Essay, pp. 331-343, 525-527, 530-534, 536-538, Today's Think-About Questions
Locke, Essay, pp. 618-625, 630-639, 688-696, Today's Think-About Questions
No class; mid-term break

Week 9.  October 20-25
Review day
Leibniz, Discourse, Sections 1-12, Today's Think-About Questions
Leibniz, Discourse, Sections 13-25, Today's Think-About Questions Library report #2 due

Week 10.  October 28 - November 1
Leibniz, Discourse, Sections 26-37, Today's Think-About Questions
Leibniz, Monadology, Sections 1-30, Today's Think-About Questions
Leibniz, Monadology, Sections 31-60, Today's Think-About Questions

Week 11.  November 4-8
Leibniz, Monadology, Sections 61-90, Today's Think-About Questions
Review day
No class but... Locke/Leibniz paper due 10:00 am
Berkeley, Preface and First Dialogue, Today's Think-About Questions

Week 12.  November 11-15
Berkeley, Second Dialogue, Today's Think-About Questions
Berkeley, Third Dialogue, Today's Think-About Questions
Review day

Week 13.  November 18-22
Hume, Treatise, pp. xiii-xix, 1-25, 66-68, Today's Think-About Questions
Hume, Treatise, pp. [26-65], 69-94, Today's Think-About Questions
Hume, Treatise, pp. 94-123, Today's Think-About Questions Library report #3 due

Week 14.  November 25-29
No class, Thanksgiving break

Week 15.  December 2-6
Hume, Treatise, pp. [124-30], [130-55], 155-87, Today's Think-About Questions
Hume, Treatise, pp. 187-218, Today's Think-About Questions
Hume, Treatise, pp. pp. [219-51], 251-63, 263-74, Today's Think-About Questions

Week 16.  December 9-13
Review day Evaluation form due before next class
Last class; oral evaluation Berkeley/Hume paper due 10:00 am
No class

I've stuck in a review day every time we change philosophers. Here are some of my ideas on how to use these days; let me hear yours.


Title Due date Weight Description
Descartes paper September 19 10% 5-6 pp. "Half-graded". Write both an interpretation and evaluation, but I'll only grade the interpretation. Details.
Library report #1 September 27 5% 2-3 pp. Details.
Descartes and/or Spinoza paper October 8 20% 6-10 pp. (8-12 pp. if comparative). Details.
Library report #2 October 25 5% 2-3 pp. Details.
Locke and/or Leibniz paper November 7 20% 6-10 pp. (8-12 pp. if comparative). Details.
Library report #3 November 22 5% 2-3 pp. Details.
Berkeley and/or Hume paper December 11 20% 6-10 pp. (8-12 pp. if comparative). Details.
Ask opening questions Mondays 2% You'll do this as often as our enrollment divides into the number of available Mondays. Details.
List opening propositions Wednesdays 3% You'll do this as often as our enrollment divides into the number of available Wednesdays. Details.
Participation Daily 10% Attendance, preparation for class, and helpful, voluntary participation in class and electronic discussion. Details.
Evaluation form December 10 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.
With the exception of library reports, you must submit all assigned work to pass the course.

Half-graded Descartes paper

The 5-6 pp. "half-graded" Descartes paper, due at the end of our Descartes unit in Week 4, is an opportunity to learn how to write about philosophy without the intimidation of a "fully-graded" paper.

The assignment in brief is to ask a question, then (in Part 1) reconstruct Descartes' answer to the question with his supporting argument, and then (in Part 2) start to evaluate the strength and weaknesses of his answer and argument. In Part 1, aim for accuracy, detail, and textual evidence for every significant claim you attribute to Descartes. In Part 2, aim for fairness to Descartes, persuasive use of argument, and focus on the position interpreted in the first half of the paper. In both parts of the paper, aim for clarity without oversimplification. For more detail, see my essay assignment hand-out.

I will only grade the interpretation half (Part 1) of this paper. I'll comment on the evaluation half (Part 2) but without giving it a grade.

To reduce intimidation even further, this paper will also be shorter than the other major papers in the course, and weigh less in the final course grade.

Your first regular, fully-graded paper isn't due until the end of our Spinoza unit in Week 6, and you may not get it back until mid-term. A secondary purpose of this paper, then, is to give you feedback before mid-term on your ability to interpret a philosopher's position and argument, to evaluate them, and to write clearly and precisely about them.

Graded Papers

Apart from participation, the chief work for this course consists of three significant papers. Each should contain interpretation and evaluation as described in my essay assignment hand-out.

The first paper should be on Descartes and/or Spinoza, the second on Locke and/or Leibniz, and the third on Berkeley and/or Hume. At least one of these papers should be comparative. Within these limitations pick any topic you find interesting and important. A topic is a question; see the essay hand-out. I will occasionally suggest good topics throughout the term. I'd be happy to help you frame your own ideas in an office appointment, if you'd like.

The topic of your Descartes/Spinoza paper should not be the same as the topic you used in your first, "half-graded" Descartes paper.

Comparative papers have three parts, not just two. Start with a single sharp question, as usual. In Part 1, reconstruct the answers of both philosophers along with their supporting arguments. Describe the important similarities and differences between their answers and arguments. In Part 2, show how they would respond to one another's arguments and objections. In Part 3, offer some evaluative comments, as usual; these could be on the strengths and weaknesses of the two positions, considered separately, or on the relative superiority of one of them. (Despite these instructions, some students always assume that comparative papers need no evaluative comments. To omit them is to omit about a third of the paper!)

Non-comparative papers should be 6-10 pages long. Comparative papers should be 8-12 pages long.

You may use any of your library reports in your papers, if relevant. But please note: while you will find many scholars in the library who have interpreted and evaluated our authors, you should not let their scholarship take the place of your own interpretation and evaluation.

See my generic hand-out for details on paper mechanics, lateness, and rewrites. Here's the gist:  I apply a penalty to late work that arrives during the semester. I don't accept late work or rewrites after the last day of class.

If you give me a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your final paper, then I'll mail your paper back to you during the break. If you only put your campus mail box number on the paper, then I'll mail it to your campus box. If you do neither, I'll hold it for you to pick up next semester.

Catch-up Reading

If you have not taken Ancient Greek Philosophy, or Western Ways of Wisdom, then I recommend that you do some independent reading on Plato and Aristotle early in the semester. Acquaint yourselves with at least these positions: from Plato, "the divided line", the theory of recollection, and the theory of forms (or ideas), and from Aristotle, the critique of Plato, the four causes, and the unmoved mover. Beyond these topics, nothing is necessary. But if you want to do more, read up on any part of their epistemology or metaphysics. Secondary sources are good enough for this assignment, since they will give you a more complete picture in a shorter time. Your first library report may be on Plato or Aristotle, if you like, but need not be.


I would like to try a modified discussion format in which lectures respond interactively to questions. Students in the past have said that this material is too difficult to discuss without some foundation provided by lectures. But at the same time, the material is too exciting for a straight lecture format —the more you understand it, the more you'll want to discuss it. Since the objective is not to write down a formula but to think, philosophy requires real-time conversation.

I will assume that you read the day's reading and understood most of it. In my lectures I will sometimes focus on the most difficult points from the reading, sometimes the most important, and sometimes fine points most likely to be overlooked. Sometimes I will omit detail in order to give the big picture; sometimes I will ignore all but one sub-topic in order to give detail. There are two important consequences for you. (1) First, the lectures will not suffice to convey everything that is important in the reading. They couldn't. (2) Second, you may have questions on parts of the reading I did not cover. If so, please ask them. I am always willing to slow down or make mid-course corrections.

I will try to strike a balance between lecture and discussion. I'll want your help in determining whether we should adjust the balance more toward lecture or more toward discussion. If you're not comfortable giving me this or other kinds of feedback in class, feel free to do it by email.

Every Monday, one of you will open class by asking the first questions. See the opening questions hand-out for details. You'll take turns at this, and go as many times as the enrollment divides into the available slots. If two or more of you go on the same day, each will do the whole assignment separately, not one assignment jointly.

Every Wednesday, one of you will open class by writing on the board (or reading aloud) the five most important propositions asserted by the author in that day's reading. See the opening propositions hand-out for details. You'll take turns at this too, and go as often as the enrollment divides into the available slots. If two or more of you go on the same day, I'll leave it to you to decide whether to write separate sets of five propositions or one set jointly.

If you find the opening questions and opening propositions especially helpful, we can add one (or perhaps both) to Friday's classes as well.

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 ratemp or ratemp@earlham.edu. For answers to common questions about using such a list, see my electronic discussion hand-out.

Electronic discussion might include the following:

  • follow-ups to the Monday opening questions, trying to answer them
  • follow-ups to the Wednesday opening propositions, refining their accuracy and discussing their centrality
  • nominating and refining the central propositions from non-Wednesday readings, in order to build a "consensus outline" of the course texts
  • identifying the arguments for the central propositions
  • discussing the "think-about" questions
  • posting URLs to helpful readings discovered elsewhere on the net
  • continuing discussions that start in class
  • asking the questions that are really on your mind

The chief elements of your participation grade are attendance, preparation for class, and performance in class and electronic discussion. See my generic hand-out for details on participation and discussion.

Think-about questions

I have written a hand-out of questions correlated with each day's reading. Use it to help you focus on important issues as you read. The questions will also point to likely topics of future class discussion on which you ought to be prepared, at least with page numbers. The questions will be worth your cogitation even if we don't reach them in class. Many would also make good paper topics.


Our objectives, while many, implicate one another tightly and cannot be separated. We will try to understand our authors. We will read sympathetically and yet critically. We will look for presuppositions. We will not focus on positions alone but will try always to see them with their supporting arguments. We will not focus on isolated positions and arguments, but will try always to see them in relation to other thinkers and events (historically) and in relation to other ideas (systematically). We will ask questions and look for answers. We will go to the library for illumination of our texts and our questions. We will practice using discussion to answer our questions when no participant had an answer before the discussion began. We will compare different positions and arguments. We will compose our own arguments. We will be creative in thinking through the meaning and merits of positions and arguments. We will learn a bit more about what philosophy is. We will make some progress thinking through some very basic questions for ourselves.


Any student with a documented disability who wishes to arrange reasonable accommodation should talk to me and the Director of the Center for Academic Enrichment (Runyan basement, phone x.1341) as soon as possible and at least within the first two weeks of the semester.


Here are the dates of our authors and some of their notable contemporaries, chronological by birth year. Our authors' names are links to searches in Hippias, the philosophy-specific search engine.

Copernicus (Mikolaj Kopernick)
1473 - 1543     Polish         
Luther, Martin
1483 - 1546German
Calvin, John
1509 - 1564French
Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de
1533 - 1592French
Bruno, Giordano
1548 - 1600Italian
Bacon, Francis
1561 - 1626English
Galileo, Galilei
1564 - 1642Italian
Shakespeare, William
1564 - 1616English
Kepler, Johannes
1571 - 1630German
Hobbes, Thomas
1588 - 1679English
Gassendi, Pierre
1592 - 1655French
Descartes, René
1596 - 1650French
Milton, John
1608 - 1674English
La Rochefoucauld, Duc Francois de
1613 - 1680French
Cavendish, Margaret (Duchess)
1623 - 1673English
Pascal, Blaise
1623 - 1662French
Fox, George
1624 - 1691English
Conway, Anne Finch (Viscountess)   
1631 - 1679English
Locke, John
1632 - 1704English
Spinoza, Baruch (Benedict)
1632 - 1677Dutch
Newton, Isaac
1642 - 1727English
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm
1646 - 1716German
Bayle, Pierre
1647 - 1706French
Masham, Damaris Cudworth
1659 - 1708English
Astell, Mary
1666 - 1731English
Swift, Jonathan
1667 - 1745Irish
Cockburn, Catharine Trotter
1679 - 1749English
Berkeley, George (Bishop)
1685 - 1753Irish
Voltaire, Francois-Marie Arouet de
1694 - 1778French
Johnson, Samuel
1696 - 1772English
Hume, David
1711 - 1776Scottish
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques
1712 - 1778French
Smith, Adam
1723 - 1790Scottish
Kant, Immanuel
1724 - 1804German

Return to the course home-page.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374.
peters@earlham.edu. Copyright © 1997-2002, Peter Suber.