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24.03 Relativism, Reason, and Reality

Spring 2000

This subject can be used for HASS-D

Texts | Assignments | Examination | Subject matter | Schedule and handouts

INSTRUCTOR: Alex Byrne; E39-342; office hours by appointment; 8-6106;

TAs: Roger White; E39-339; office hours M 1.30-3.30 (or by appointment); 3-2526;; Asta Sveinsdottir; E39-328; office hours M 11-1 (or by appointment); 8-0773;

TIMES AND PLACES: Lectures TR 10-11, 56-154; Recitation Sections F 10-11, 26-168, 11-12, 56-191. Attendance at lectures and recitation sections is essential: much material not in the readings will be presented there. In accordance with HASS-D regulations, no less than one hour per week will be devoted to discussion.

TEXTS: You need to buy four books (none is expensive). They're at the COOP:

Gilbert Harman and Judith Jarvis Thomson, Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (third edition)
John Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality
Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons

In addition to these books, a few supplementary readings will be distributed in class.

ASSIGNMENTS: There is a reading assignment for each class meeting. These are often relatively short, but many require close study, and you should not postpone them. In accordance with HASS-D regulations, you will be expected to write approximately 20 pages. These will be divided among 4 papers (the HASS-D requirement is at least 3). There will often be short reading quizzes or study questions for the Friday sections. You must complete these in order to pass the course.

You are encouraged to discuss the writing assignments (and, of course, also the reading assignments) with each other, but the written work you submit must be entirely your own. Your papers should not contain quotations or quotations masquerading as proper paraphrases: a statement of the ideas of one of the authors you've read must be couched in your own words. Do not use any footnotes. There will be no prizes for writing in anything other than plain English. Finally, remember that we want you to think seriously about the issues, and formulate and defend your own opinions. Your TAs will be looking for evidence of this.

DEBATES: The course naturally divides into three parts. At the end of each part we will hold an in-class debate. Everyone is expected to participate.

EXAMINATION: In accordance with HASS-D regulations, in addition to the writing assignments you will be required to take a 3-hour final exam covering material dealt with throughout the term. The final exam will account for a substantial portion of the grade (no less than 15%). The exam will be open book and open notes, 9am-12pm, Monday 15th May, 56-154. There will be no mid-term exam.

GRADING: 60% papers, 25% final exam, 15% class and section participation.

SUBJECT MATTER: This course is primarily intended for those students who have not had any previous exposure to philosophy. It treats a small number of important philosophical questions in some depth. (For more breadth and correspondingly less depth, try 24.00, Problems of philosophy.)

The question that will occupy us for the first part is:

(1) What kinds of things are persons? Persisting soul pellets, living bodies, brains, or what?

You no doubt think that whether you survive some upcoming event (say a heart operation) is of great importance: normally, death is a bad thing. In a remarkable book, Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit has argued that the right answer to (1) implies that, sometimes, you ought not to care at all about your survival: sometimes, death is as good as life. We shall examine Parfit's argument and critical reactions to it.

The second part will consider this question:

(2) Are moral standards in any sense relativistic?

Harman and Thomson's Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity takes the form of a debate about the question (Harman being the moral relativist, and Thomson the moral objectivist). It's self contained, and mostly very clear and accessible. We will read and discuss more or less the entire book.

The question that is central to the third part is:

(3) Are ways of conceptualizing the world ("conceptual schemes") relativistic?

As background, we shall discuss Karl Popper's view that the hallmark of scientific theories is falsifiability, and then read Thomas Kuhn's famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which, at any rate on some interpretations, provides some support for an affirmative answer to (3). Kuhn's book will also give us the opportunity to discuss some central questions about science (for example: Does science progress by getting closer and closer to the truth?; When scientists replace an old theory by a new one, is this a process of rational belief change?).

AIM: By the end of the course you should be able to see your way through the swirling fog of metaphor that often surrounds these issues to a reasonably precise formulation of the central questions. You should also have some familiarity with the way in which a philosophical problem arises, and techniques by means of which one might try to solve it. And, with a bit of luck, you might even end up with strong philosophical views yourself.

A NOTE ON THE READINGS: None of these writings is easy reading: they are not introductions to philosophy but rather examples of it. If you have trouble understanding what an author says, or any other question concerning the course, please do not hesitate to ask.

A NOTE ON CLASS PARTICIPATION: This is encouraged. Talking about philosophy is one of the best ways of doing it. It is much better to say something you later realize is mistaken or confused than never to say it at all.

A NOTE ON FEEDBACK: Your comments and criticism, expressed either to myself or the TAs, are most welcome.

WEB RESOURCES: On writing, see Jim Pryor's Guidelines on writing a philosophy paper. Useful glossaries are Jim Pryor's Philosophical Terms and Methods and the Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is good, although nowhere near complete. An instructive site to browse is David Chalmers' website. See the MIT Philosophy page for colloquia dates, other course information, etc.


NB: if the readings change (as they might, depending on how discussion goes), updates will be on this website.

What kinds of things are we?

week 1: 1/31

T, R, F Introduction. Perry, Dialogue ("the first night"); Parfit, ch. 10 [handout 1, arguments; handout 2, Parfit 1]

week 2: 2/7

T, R, F Perry, Dialogue ("the second night", "the third night"); Parfit, ch. 11 [paper 1]

week 3: 2/14

T, R, F Parfit, ch. 12, 13 [handout 2, Parfit 2; paper 1 due 2/17]

week 4: 2/21

R, F Parfit, ch. 14 [handout 3, Parfit 3; paper 2]

week 5: 2/28

T, R, F Parfit, ch. 15 [handout 4, Parfit 4; first debate; paper 2 due 3/2]

Moral relativism

week 6: 3/6

T, R, F H&T, ch. 6 [handout 5, H&T 1]

week 7: 3/13

T, R, F H&T ch. 6, 7 [paper 3; handout 6, H&T 2; handout 7, H&T 3]

[3/20-24: spring vacation]

week 8: 3/27


R, F H&T ch. 1-5

week 9: 4/3

T, R, F H&T, ch. 1-5, 9, 10 [second debate] [paper 3 due 4/6]

Conceptual schemes: Popper, Putnam, and Kuhn

week 10: 4/10

T (Moral relativism continued; handout 8, H&T 4; handout 9, H&T 5.) R, F Popper, selections (distributed); Putnam, The 'corroboration' of theories (distributed); handout 10, Popper.

week 11: 4/17

R, F Kuhn, ch. 1-5; handout 11, Kuhn 1 [paper 4]

week 12: 4/24

T, R, F Kuhn, ch. 6-13 plus postscript; handout 12, Kuhn 2

week 13: 5/1

T, R, F Kuhn, ch. 6-13 contd. [Study Questions; paper 4 due 5/4]

week 14: 5/8

T, R [third debate]; review session