PHIL 322 A: Modern Philosophy

Meeting Time: 
TTh 2:30pm - 4:20pm
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photo of Anthony Fisher
Anthony Fisher

Syllabus Description:



TTh 2:30pm-4:20pm, classes will be conducted on Zoom.

Half the class will meet for the first 50mins, and the other half will meet for the second 50mins.

There are no in-person classes.


Anthony Fisher

office hours on Zoom: Friday 10:30am-12:30pm and by appointment.   

Course description

This course surveys the history of philosophy in the Early Modern period, starting with René Descartes and the rise of mechanist philosophy. We will examine criticisms of Descartes’s philosophy by Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and study Nicolas Malebranche’s developments of the Cartesian system. We will explore further reactions to Descartes by Anne Conway and Margaret Cavendish and proceed to study Gottfried Leibniz’s philosophical system and developments by Emilie Du Châtelet. Then we will venture into the empiricist tradition with a close reading of John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume, finishing with Immanuel Kant’s major contributions to the larger debate of the period. We will focus mostly on metaphysical and epistemological themes in these thinkers but with a sensitivity to the scientific considerations that helped motivate these thinkers to offer original and ground-breaking systems of nature. Along the way we will cultivate an appreciation for the importance of the history of philosophy and the value in investigating what thinkers of previous eras argued for and how it relates to philosophy today.

Required textbooks

  • Descartes, 1998. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Fourth Edition. Trans. Donald A. Cress (Hackett)
  • Berkeley, 1982. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Ed. Kenneth Winkler (Hackett)
  • Hume, 1993. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Second Edition. Ed. Eric Steinberg (Hackett)
  • Kant, 2002. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Second Edition. Trans. James W. Ellington (Hackett)

These textbooks can be ordered through the UW bookstore, with free shipping. We will use these editions of the texts. Other readings will be made available online on Canvas.

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 Early Modern philosophers, 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 iii) an enhanced ability to examine philosophical texts critically, especially primary material from the Early Modern period.


Quizzes: 10% of final grade

For each author and corresponding class there will be short quizzes that will be taken as the student has completed the relevant lesson. The quizzes are due before the associated class. So, for instance, for the class on Descartes's Meditations 1 and 2, students should work through the lesson page on Meditations 1 and 2 closely and carefully and then take the related quiz. The quiz questions are related to the reading and also the lesson page. 

Also, there are quizzes associated with the lesson pages on Arguments, Identifying arguments, and Evaluating arguments, which are due by the end of Week 1. 

Reading responses: 20% of final grade

One-page double-spaced weekly reading responses due by the beginning of the Thursday class, graded out of 2 points. Reading responses must not exceed one page. Your reading response can be on either the Tuesday or Thursday reading. The reading response must have two sections clearly labeled as such.

There are two types of reading response formats.

  • Type 1: Section 1: in one paragraph, describe some relevant features of the author’s theory and explain one of their arguments. Section 2: in one paragraph, raise a problem or worry for the theory that the argument you presented in section 1 is about.
  • Type 2: Section 1: in one paragraph, describe some relevant features of the author’s theory and explain one of their arguments. Section 2: in one paragraph, critically evaluate the argument you have presented in section 1.

See sample reading response type 1 and sample reading response type 2.

For section 1 of both types, do not summarise the reading. Do not simply describe what the author is up to. Explain how the author argues for a certain conclusion. Think of yourself as teaching your reader. Note that the reading will probably contain many arguments. Your job is to identify one of them and explain it. Do not present more than one argument.

For section 2 of type 1 only: try to find and clearly explain a problem or an objection against the theory itself, which the argument in section 1 is about. That is, a consequence of the theory that is implausible. This will amount to a reason to reject the theory (although of course it will not amount to a reason to reject the argument of section 1).

For section 2 of type 2 only: you could find a false premise and explain why the premise 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.

Further details: avoid quoting from the text. Your task is to explain some argument, 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.

You will have one free pass, where you can make up a reading response that you might have missed. Documentation is required to submit further reading responses.

Zoom presentations: 10% of final grade

Each week there will be presentations by students in groups on a certain reading prepared beforehand. 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 weekly reading responses, with discussion questions posed 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?’

Obviously, points are lost for not giving a presentation. You need to sign up for a presentation group under the People menu in Canvas. I recommend that you do this as soon as possible.

Discussion board posts: 10% of final grade

After the Thursday class for each week there will be a discussion thread on a certain reading but derived in part from class discussion, graded credit/no credit. For each thread you must 1) post a relevant, philosophically interesting comment and 2) respond meaningfully to at least one other person’s comment. To do well in this piece of assessment will, naturally, require partaking in class on Zoom.

Term paper: 20% of final grade

Students will write a 3-page paper on an assigned topic. Paper topics are handed out about 2 weeks before the deadline, with further instructions and grading criteria. This grade is broken into three elements:

  • Drafts of each paper hard copy, 1%, graded credit/no credit
  • Peer comments on each paper, 1%, graded credit/no credit
  • Paper graded by Instructor, 18%, graded according to rubric.

Take-home final: 30% of final grade

Comprehensive exam that covers all content of the course. 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.



Zoom etiquette

Unless stated otherwise classes will be conducted on Zoom. You will be expected to download Zoom, create an account through UW, and attend the Zoom meetings on Mondays and Wednesday 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. Please have your video on, dress decently, and pay attention. 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 Zoom 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 are having trouble!


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 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.

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.

Please see the department-wide policies page for further policies and resources.

Catalog Description: 
Examination of metaphysical and epistemological problems from the works of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant.
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
December 4, 2020 - 9:22pm