PHIL 436 A: British Empiricism

Spring 2021
MW 2:30pm - 4:20pm / * *
Section Type:
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):

Spring 2021


MW 2:30pm-4:20pm PST

Synchronous online class


Anthony Fisher <>

office SAV M282; office hours Tuesday 10:30am-11:30am and by appointment         

Course description: This course examines the metaphysics and epistemology of British empiricists in their historical context, including John Locke, Mary Astell, Catherine Cockburn, George Berkeley, David Hume, and Mary Shepherd. We will study their positive proposals and the key debates that unfolded among them. We will begin with an in-depth look at Locke’s Essay: critique of innate ideas, nature of mind and matter, primary/secondary qualities, sense-perception and knowledge, substance, essence. Then we will examine Mary Astell’s rationalism and dualist criticism of Locke as well as Catharine Cockburn’s defence of Locke. Next we will analyse Berkeley’s Principles, exploring his critique of abstractionism and of realism as well as his arguments for idealism. Finally, we will read Hume on perception, knowledge, nominalism, causation, laws of nature, and scepticism, focusing on his Treatise; and finish off with Mary Shepherd’s objections against Hume and her realist views of knowledge of the external world.

Required textbooks:

Texts will be made available online, either through Past Masters (access via UW library) or Canvas or Googlebooks. If you want to buy the relevant books, I recommend these editions:

  1. Locke, John. 1979. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford University Press).
  2. Astell, Mary. 2002. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Parts I and II. Ed. Patricia Springborg (Broadview Press).
  3. Cockburn, Catharine. 2006. Catharine Trotter Cockburn: Philosophical Writings. Ed. Patricia Sheridan (Broadview Press).
  4. Berkeley, George. 1982. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Ed. Kenneth Winkler (Hackett Publishing).
  5. Hume, David. 1978. A Treatise of Human Nature. Second edition (revised). Eds. L.A. Selby-Bigge and Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford University Press).
  6. Shepherd, Mary. 2020. Mary Shepherd’s Essays on the Perception of an External Universe. Ed. Antonia LoLordo (Oxford University Press).

If you are after one or two books to buy, then I recommend Locke’s Essay and Hume’s Treatise.

Other readings will be made available online on Canvas or through UW library.

Learning outcomes: On successful completion of the course, students will be able to demonstrate: i) a detailed understanding of the concepts, problems, and arguments that motivated the British Empiricists, ii) a thorough knowledge of the theories and arguments by these philosophers in their historical context, especially with respect to the development of each philosopher’s thought and the debates that unfolded between them and their contemporaries, and iii) an enhanced ability to examine philosophical texts critically, especially primary material from the Early Modern period.


Reading responses: 30% of final grade. One-page double-spaced reading responses to be posted on Canvas by the beginning of the Wednesday class, graded out of 2 points. Reading responses are designed to help you develop the skill of identifying arguments, explaining them in your own words, and evaluating them. These skills are important for writing papers and class discussion. Reading responses must not exceed one page, double-spaced.

For the Monday or Wednesday reading you must explain one of the author’s arguments and offer a critical evaluation of it. The argument you discuss must not come from class notes, class discussion, or material on Canvas. You must find an argument in the reading directly.

The reading response must have two sections:

  • Section 1: in one paragraph, explain one of the author’s arguments in detail. Do not summarise the reading. Do not simply describewhat the author is up to. Explain how the author argues for a certain conclusion. Think of yourself as teaching your reader.
  • Section 2: in one paragraph, critically evaluate the argument you have presented in section 1. For instance, you could explain why a premise of the argument is false, or raise a worry for a premise or an inference between premises or from premise to conclusion. You are permitted to raise a clarificatory question about the meaning of a term or phrase (e.g., that it is ambiguous) but this should be executed in a philosophical manner (e.g., if it is ambiguous, disambiguate and explain the distinct meanings). Just because you do not understand a term it does not imply that the term is meaningless or incoherent.

Do not quote from the text. Your task is to explain some argument or theory, not to repeat it. If you quote something, it is difficult to determine whether you have understood it. Your reading response should demonstrate some grasp of the author’s project. Your response should be wholly original. You should not consult outside sources.

Here is a sample reading response from my PHIL322 Modern Philosophy course.

Presentations: 10% of final grade. Meaningful contributions and intentional participation are essential for active learning. You need to prepare adequately and actually contribute meaningfully to class discussion. Each week on Wednesday there will be a presentation by the assigned group for that week. The presentation must be on the Wednesday reading. The presentation must be insightful, relevant, and philosophically interesting as well as generate discussion. One purpose of the presentation is to lead discussion for that portion of the class. Presentations can follow a similar format to that of the reading responses, with discussion questions given at the end of the presentation. Other formats include:

  • Explain This. The designated group will present a list of 3 terms, phrases, or sentences whose meaning they think needs explaining. The larger class will then attempt to provide the relevant explanations.
  • Plausible vs. Implausible. Two groups will be designated. One group will present what they think is an especially plausible claim or argument from the reading, while the other group will present what they think is an especially implausible claim or argument. The larger class will then discuss how to push back on the plausible claim/argument and how to defend the implausible claim/argument.
  • Close Textual Analysis. The designated group will lead discussion for the class with a focus on specific passages in the reading. The discussion should be aimed at understanding and evaluating the particular passages highlighted by the group. Suggested prompts: ‘let’s figure out what’s going on in this passage’, ‘this claim seemed implausible to me – how could somebody defend it?’, ‘this claim seemed really plausible to me – how could somebody challenge it?’

Points are lost for not giving a presentation. You need to sign up for a presentation group under the People menu. Do this in the first two weeks of term. End of Week 3 you will be manually put into a group and the ability to self-sign-up will be turned off.

Term paper: 30% of final grade. A philosophy paper has a distinctive argumentative structure that clearly articulates and argues for a specific thesis. A history of philosophy paper has a more specific argumentative structure that involves interpretation and reconstruction of an author’s argument(s) and an evaluation of that argument(s). Length: 4-5 pages, for both undergraduate and graduate students.

The term paper is to be submitted on Canvas and will be peer reviewed and blind graded; therefore, you must not include your name or ID number in the document anywhere or in the filename. Only .doc and .docx file extensions are accepted.

Term paper consists of the following elements:

  • Draft, 2%, graded credit/no credit
  • Peer review, 2%, graded credit/no credit
  • Final version of paper graded by Instructor, 26%, graded according to rubric.

Further instructions and grading criteria for each paper will be provided closer to the due dates.

Final exam: 30% of final grade. Comprehensive take home exam, to be completed throughout finals week, due at end of finals week. Students will be given certain passages from the authors we are studying (not necessarily material from the assigned texts) and instructed to reconstruct an argument of the relevant passage and explain its significance in the author’s wider arguments and views.

5-credit variant: if you have opted for the extra 2 credits, you need to complete the above plus write an extra 3 page paper halfway throughout the term, due end of week 5. Speak to me about this at the start of term if you have chosen the extra 2 credits.


Online etiquette: classes will be conducted on Zoom or some other online teaching platform. You will be expected to download Zoom, create an account through UW, and attend the online meetings on Mondays and Wednesdays as if we were in the classroom. Just like in the classroom, you will be expected to adhere to a decent level of respectfulness to each other and to the Instructor (don’t go jogging while we are having class, etc). Just like in the classroom, we should create an inclusive and charitable discourse that is not dominated by a small group of students. Please inform me of any digital barriers you might face.

UW Privacy policy: This course is using online class sessions that may be recorded. The recording will capture the presenter’s audio, video and computer screen. Student audio and video will be recorded if they share their computer audio and video during the recorded session. The recordings will only be accessible to students enrolled in the course to review materials. These recordings will not be shared with or accessible to the public.

The University and Zoom have FERPA-compliant agreements in place to protect the security and privacy of UW Zoom accounts. Students who do not wish to be recorded should:

  • Change their Zoom screen name to hide any personal identifying information such as their name or UW Net ID, and
  • Not share their computer audio or video during Zoom sessions.

If you do not wish to be recorded, please speak to me beforehand to arrange alternative participation assignments. For those who do not wish to have their presentations recorded the recording will be turned off for that segment, but please let me know ahead of time if you choose this option.

Late work: Late work is not accepted. Exceptions are made only for personal and medical emergencies when documentation is provided. Let me know in advance if you have having trouble!

Conversion: A conversion scale (to the 4.0 system) will be chosen at the end of the quarter, based on the usual grade distribution for classes like this. On any chosen 4.0 conversion scale, however, 96% and above will be sufficient for a 4.0, and 60% and above will be sufficient for passing the course, where ‘passing’ strictly means achieving a 0.7 or higher on the 4.0 system.

Plagiarism: Plagiarism on any assignment will be reported to CSSC and penalised. It is your responsibility to know what counts as plagiarism. It is easy to avoid plagiarism in this class.

See end of syllabus for additional, department-wide policies.

Note on writing credit: Passing this course is enough for earning a W credit.

Class expectations

Each student will have read the reading actively and critically. Active reading means taking notes, underlining text, summarising relevant passages, etc. Critical reading means argumentatively engaging with the author, questioning a premise or a conclusion in some argument, or raising queries or finding something that seems implausible or introducing a relevant consideration that has been overlooked, or identifying an unclear word or phrase or concept. Each student should write out answers to the reading questions and come up with their own questions. In the case of leading class discussion, the student will have prepared discussion questions and lead discussion by introducing the topic and posing questions.

Course expectations

The class is not identical with the course. The class is one part of the course. The other parts of the course involve each student reading the material before class and after class. A student’s understanding of the content of the course should not rest entirely on what unfolds in class. A student should not draw their sole understanding of the material from class, class discussion, class notes, or class handouts and other related material.

Course schedule

See the Course schedule. You should consult it on a regular basis throughout the term.

Information for Students

University of Washington, Department of Philosophy

Policies and Resources

Academic Misconduct

Academic misconduct, including plagiarism, is prohibited by the Student Conduct Code for the University of Washington and is taken very seriously by the UW. According to the student conduct code, academic misconduct includes:

  1. "Cheating" which includes, but is not limited to:
    1. The use of unauthorized assistance in taking quizzes, tests, or examinations, or completing assignments;
    2. The acquisition, use, or distribution of unpublished materials created by another student without the express permission of the original author(s);
    3. Using online sources, such as solution manuals, without the permission of the instructor to complete assignments, exams, tests, or quizzes; or
    4. Requesting, hiring, or otherwise encouraging someone to take a course, exam, test, or complete assignments for a student.
  2. "Falsification," which is the intentional use or submission of falsified data, records, or other information including, but not limited to, records of internship or practicum experiences or attendance at any required event(s), or scholarly research.
  3. "Plagiarism," which is the submission or presentation of someone else's words, composition, research, or expressed ideas, whether published or unpublished, without attribution. Plagiarism includes, but is not limited to:
    1. The use, by paraphrase or direct quotation, of the published or unpublished work of another person without full and clear acknowledgment; or
    2. The unacknowledged use of materials prepared by another person or acquired from an entity engaging in the selling of term papers or other academic materials.
  4. Unauthorized collaboration.
  5. Engaging in behavior specifically prohibited by an instructor in the course of class instruction or in a course syllabus.
  6. Multiple submissions of the same work in separate courses without the express permission of the instructor(s).
  7. Taking deliberate action to destroy or damage another's academic work in order to gain an advantage for oneself or another.
  8. The recording of instructional content without the express permission of the instructor(s), unless approved as a disability accommodation, and/or the dissemination or use of such unauthorized records.

(Source: WAC 478-121 - Academic Misconduct)

Plagiarism may lead to disciplinary action by the University against the student who submitted the work. Any student who is uncertain whether his or her use of the work of others constitutes plagiarism should consult the course instructor for guidance before formally submitting the course work involved.


Incomplete grades may only be awarded if a student is doing satisfactory work up until the last two weeks of the quarter and has furnished proof satisfactory to the instructor that the work cannot be completed because of illness or other circumstances beyond the student’s control. (Sources: Office of the Registrar – Incomplete Grades), UW General Catalog, Student Guide – Grading System)

Grade Appeal Procedure

A student who believes that the instructor erred in the assignment of a grade, or who believes a grade recoding error or omission has occurred, shall first discuss the matter with the instructor before the end of the following academic quarter (not including Summer Quarter). If the student is not satisfied with the instructor’s explanation, the student, no later than ten days after their discussion with the instructor, may submit a written appeal to the chair of the Department of Philosophy with a copy of the appeal also sent to the instructor. The chair consults with the instructor to ensure that the evaluation of the student’s performance has not been arbitrary or capricious. Should the chair believe the instructor’s conduct to be arbitrary or capricious and the instructor declines to revise the grade, the chair, with the approval of the voting members of his or her faculty, shall appoint an appropriate member, or members, of the faculty of the Department of Philosophy to evaluate the performance of the student and assign a grade. The Dean and Provost should be informed of this action. Once a student submits a written appeal, this document and all subsequent actions on this appeal are recorded in written form for deposit in a School file. (Source: UW General Catalog, Student Guide – Grading System)

Concerns About a Course, an Instructor, or a Teaching Assistant

If you have any concerns about a philosophy course or your instructor, please see the instructor about these concerns as soon as possible. If you are not comfortable talking with the instructor or not satisfied with the response that you receive, you may contact the chair of the program offering the course (names available from the Department of Philosophy, 361 Savery Hall).

If you have any concerns about a teaching assistant, please see the teaching assistant about these concerns as soon as possible. If you are not comfortable talking with the teaching assistant or not satisfied with the response that you receive, you may contact the instructor in charge of the course. If you are still not satisfied with the response that you receive, you may contact the chair of the program offering the course (names available from the Department of Philosophy, 361 Savery Hall), or the Graduate School at G-1 Communications Building (543-5900).

Equal Opportunity

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Access and Accommodations

Your experience in this class is important to the instructor. If you have already established accommodations with Disability Resources for Students (DRS), please communicate your approved accommodations to the instructor at your earliest convenience so you can discuss your needs in this course.

If you have not yet established services through DRS, but have a temporary health condition or permanent disability that requires accommodations (conditions include but are not limited to: mental health, attention-related, learning, vision, hearing, physical or health impacts), you are welcome to contact DRS at 206-543-8924 (Voice & Relay) or or DRS offers resources and coordinates reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities and/or temporary health conditions. Reasonable accommodations are established through an interactive process between you, your instructor(s) and DRS. It is the policy and practice of the University of Washington to create inclusive and accessible learning environments consistent with federal and state law.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as the use of one’s authority or power, either explicitly or implicitly, to coerce another into unwanted sexual relations or to punish another for his or her refusal, or as the creation by a member of the University community of an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working or educational environment through verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

If you believe that you are being harassed, seek help—the earlier the better. You may speak with your instructor, your teaching assistant, the undergraduate advisor (363 Savery Hall), graduate program advisor (366 Savery Hall), or the chair of the philosophy department (364 Savery Hall). In addition, you should be aware that the University has designated special people to help you. For assistance you may contact: SafeCampus; Office of the Ombud (339 HUB, 206-543-6028); Title IX Investigation Office (for complaints that a University student has violated the sexual misconduct provisions of the Student Conduct Code); University Complaint Investigation and Resolution Office (for complaints concerning the behavior of University employees, including faculty, teaching assistants, and other student employees).


The Office of Research Misconduct Proceedings (ORMP) coordinates the University’s handling of allegations of research misconduct against members of the University community, in consultations and cooperation with the University’s schools, colleges, and campuses.

University rules define scientific and scholarly misconduct to include the following forms of inappropriate activity: intentional misrepresentation of credentials; falsification of data; plagiarism; abuse of confidentiality; deliberate violation of regulations applicable to research.

Students can report cases of scientific or scholarly misconduct either to the ORMP, to their faculty adviser, or the department chair. The student should report such problems to whomever he or she feels most comfortable.

(Sources: Executive Order No. 61 – Research Misconduct Policy; Office of Research Misconduct Proceedings; minutes of Grad School Executive Staff and Division Heads meeting, 7/23/98.)


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SafeCampus staff will listen to your concerns and provide support and safety plans tailored to your situation. Caring, trained professionals will talk you through options and connect you with additional resources if you want them.

If you're concerned, tell someone.

  • Always call 911 if you or others may be in danger.
  • Call 206-685-SAFE (7233) to report non-urgent threats of violence and for referrals to UW counseling and/or safety resources. TTY or VP callers, please call through your preferred relay service.
  • Don't walk alone. Campus safety guards can walk with you on campus after dark. Call Husky NightWalk 206-685-WALK (9255).
  • Stay connected in an emergency with UW Alert. Register your mobile number to receive instant notification of campus emergencies via text and voice messaging. Sign up for UW Alert
  • For more information visit the SafeCampus website.

Religious Accommodations

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy ( Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form (

Food Insecurity and Hardship

Any student who has difficulty affording groceries or accessing sufficient food to eat every day, or who lacks a safe and stable place to live and believes this may affect their performance in the course, is urged to contact the UW Any Hungry Husky Program. Any Hungry Husky provides hunger relief free of judgment or stigma. Go to for information about the food pantry and food security grants. In addition, UW offers emergency aid for students experiencing unexpected financial hardships that may disrupt their education or get in the way of completing their degree. Go to for more information about how to apply.

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Faculty members at U.S. universities – including the University of Washington – have the right to academic freedom which includes presenting and exploring topics and content that other governments may consider to be illegal and, therefore, choose to censor. Examples may include topics and content involving religion, gender and sexuality, human rights, democracy and representative government, and historic events.

If, as a UW student, you are living outside of the United States while taking courses remotely, you are subject to the laws of your local jurisdiction. Local authorities may limit your access to course material and take punitive action towards you. Unfortunately, the University of Washington has no authority over the laws in your jurisdictions or how local authorities enforce those laws.

If you are taking UW courses outside of the United States, you have reason to exercise caution when enrolling in courses that cover topics and issues censored in your jurisdiction. If you have concerns regarding a course or courses that you have registered for, please contact your academic advisor who will assist you in exploring options.

Face Coverings and Social Distancing in the Classroom during COVID

The health and safety of the University of Washington community are the institution’s priorities. Until otherwise stated face coverings are required per UW COVID Face Covering Policy: indoors where other people are present and outdoors when keeping a 6-foot distance may not be possible. This includes all classrooms and buildings/public spaces on each of the UW campuses.

If you physically can’t wear a mask, you choose not to wear a mask, your mask isn’t appropriate/sufficient, or if you aren’t wearing a mask properly (covering both your nose and mouth-diagram below), you CANNOT be in the classroom and will be asked to leave.

If you have a medical condition or health risk as outlined in the UW COVID Face Covering Policy, you may request an accommodation. Please contact Disability Resources for Students office BEFORE GOING TO CLASS at (Seattle) (Tacoma) (Bothell).

A face covering must:

  • Fit snugly against the sides of the face
  • Completely cover the nose and mouth
  • Be secured with ties, ear loops, elastic bands, or other equally effective method
  • Include at least one layer of cloth, although multiple layers are strongly recommended
  • Allow for breathing without restriction
  • Be capable of being laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape

CDC: How to Wear Masks

Catalog Description:
Examination of the metaphysical and epistemological views of Locke and Berkeley, with perhaps some attention also to Hume. Prerequisite: either PHIL 322 or PHIL 350.
GE Requirements Met:
Social Sciences (SSc)
Writing (W)
Last updated:
April 20, 2024 - 5:17 am