Philosophy Department

Undergraduate Courses Spring 2002



Non-Major Introductory Courses



Ethics and Society

TR 3:30-4:45 PM

Albert Piacente


Examines grounds for moral judgment and action in various social contexts. Typical topics: public versus private good and duties; individualism and cooperation; inequalities and justice; utilitarianism and rights; regulation of sexual conduct, abortion, and family life; poverty and wealth; racism and sexism; and war and capital punishment.


Intensive Introductory Courses



Central Problems in Philosophy

MW 2:00-3:15 PM

Thomas Nagel


An intensive introduction to the main problems of philosophy, through historical and contemporary writings.  Topics will include knowledge and skepticism, the mind-body problem, moral objectivity, and free will.  Four short papers and a final exam.



Minds and Machines

TR 2:00-3:15

Ned Block


Minds and Machines examines the conflict between computational and biological approaches to the mind. Topics covered include whether a machine could think, whether thinking could be symbol crunching, whether a computational description is entirely observer-relative, the Turing Test, mental representation, the reduction of the mind to the brain, neural nets, mental imagery, and whether consciousness can be explained computationally or biologically.



Group I: History of Philosophy



History of Modern Philosophy

MW 11:00-12:15 AM

Gary Ostertag


This is a survey of 17th and 18th century European metaphysics and epistemology.  We will read Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant.



Group II: Ethics, Value, and Society




TR 9:30-10:45 AM


We will begin the course by discussing some ethical problems that we encounter as citizens and human beings.  Then we will consider philosophical approaches to ethical problems.  We will discuss and evaluate deontological theories, utilitarianism, existentialism, and pragmatism.  Readings will include Plato, Mill, Rawls, Dewey, Sartre, and Foucault.  Course work will include two midterm exams, a term paper, and a final exam.



Medical Ethics

MW 6:20-7:35

James Dwyer


In the first part of the course, we will consider a number of ethical issues that arise in the practice of medicine.  We will discuss confidentiality, truthfulness, informed consent, competence, refusal of treatment, assisted suicide, decisions for children, and professional obligations.  In the second part of the course, we will consider ethical issues that are related to health care systems, public policies, and social institutions.  We will discuss the allocation of scarce resources, social justice, social responsibility, and international duties.  Throughout the course, we will reflect on different philosophical approaches to ethical issues.  We will discuss ethical theories, the role of principles, case-based reasoning, moral virtues, and pragmatism.  Course work will include two midterm exams, a term paper, and a final exam.



Group III: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Mind, Language, and Logic




MW 3:30-4:45 PM

Scott Walden


Introduces the techniques, results, and philosophical import of 20th century formal logic. Principal concepts include those of sentence, set, interpretation, validity, consistency, consequence, tautology, derivation, and completeness.



Modal Logic

TR 11:00-12:15 PM

Rohit Parikh


Modal Logic is the logic of necessity and possibility and other such notions.  In recent times, the framework of possible worlds has provided a valuable tool for investigating the formal properties of these notions, and the subject has found application in a variety of fields - including philosophy, linguistics and computer science.  This course will provide an introduction to the basic concepts, methods and results of modal logic, with an emphasis on its application to some of these other fields.



Belief, Truth & Knowledge

MW 9:30-10:45 AM

Roger White


This course is an inquiry into the nature of inquiry. We often seek answers to questions—e.g., Who was responsible for the Sept 11 attacks? Will the Knicks win tonight? 837+655=?—and take ourselves to know the answers, or have rational opinions, or to have good evidence for our views. Rather than answer these questions, we will step back and ask, What is the nature of evidence? and What it is to know something or to be rational? In answering these questions, we will examine versions of, and responses to Skepticism: that there is very little we can know or have reason to believe.



Philosophy of Science

TR 2:00-3:15 PM

Gordon Belot

We will consider a range of question about the nature and objectivity of scientific knowledge. What is the difference between scientific explanations and other ones? What is the role of observation and experiment in scientific knowledge? How and why does scientific knowledge change over time? Can we have knowledge of what is in principle unobservable? Is scientific knowledge more objective than other forms of knowledge? We will read some classic contributions to the philosophy of science from the last fifty years.




Topics in the History of Philosophy

TR 11:00-12:15PM

Cian Dorr


We will spend most of the course reading our way through one of the greatest books in philosophy, Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.  Additional readings may include: excerpts from the works of Hume’s precursors (including Locke and Berkeley); excerpts from some of Hume’s other works; contemporary and recent commentary on Hume; and articles by twentieth-century philosophers engaged in projects related to Hume’s. 




Topics in Ethics and Political Philosophy

TR 2:00-3:15 PM

Peter Unger

The course will revolve around two central questions in basic ethics, with related discussion of several topics in applied ethics.  The first central question is, what is it that determines the moral status of a particular being?  If we can save one human baby or else two elephants, in a world with plenty of each, what is it about the human baby that determines it's she alone that we should save, rather than both elephants, each (suppose)

mentally more advanced than she?  And, here's the second central question: Is there a morally significant distinction, even anywhere in the neighborhood of the (probably insignificant) distinction between causing and letting happen - between killing and letting die, for instance, and, for another instance, between inflicting pain and letting pain happen?        

On the second question, I'll unconfidently argue that there really isn't any important distinction.  And, so, it's terribly wrong to for us to allow distant little children, in the poorest regions, to suffer and die young. But, now turning back to the first question, there's this:  If we can't find good reason to accord the human babies enormously higher moral status than almost all other mammals, will we then be required, on pain of behaving very badly, to provide them also, all over the world, with whatever aid they need to flourish?   For many centuries, that may be enormously costly.  So, there'll be important interplay between our two central questions.

        Our discussion of these questions will have implications for issues of discrimination, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and other "hot topics" in applied ethics.

        Far from being a series of lectures, the course should consist mainly of lively discussion with, and among, its students, where the students think hard about ethical  issues. Since there won't be an attempt to impart a "body of ethical knowledge," there won't be any exams.  But, students must write two lucid short papers, or possibly three, each on a different issue discussed in class.




Honors Seminar


Peter Unger










Philosophy Department – New York University



MAIN BUILDING, 100 WASHINGTON SQUARE EAST, ROOM 503, NEW YORK, NY 10003-6688. (212) 998-8320. FAX: (212) 995-4179.


CHAIR OF THE DEPARTMENT: Professor Boghossian






ADMINISTRATIVE STAFF: Debbie Bula, Anupum Mehrotra, Michael Balla



Philosophy poses general questions about reality, knowledge, reasoning, language, and conduct. The four main branches are metaphysics (What is the ultimate nature of reality? What really exists and what is mere appearance?); epistemology (What, if anything, can be known and how?); logic (What are the principles of correct reasoning?); and ethics (What is moral value? And what moral values should we adopt?). Other, more specific, branches of philosophy address questions concerning the nature of art, law, medicine, politics, religion, and the sciences.


Everyone tends to have or assume answers to these questions. The aim of the department is to enable students to identify, clarify, and assess these answers, both ancient and modern. Philosophy prepares students for a more reflective life, for advanced studies in the subject, as well as for professions that emphasize analytic thinking and argumentation, such as law, business, and programming.






A major in philosophy requires nine 4-point V-level or G-level courses in the department. These must include (1) Logic, V83.0070; (2) History of Ancient Philosophy, V83.0020; or Advanced Greek Philosophy, V83.0023; (3) History of Modern Philosophy, V83.0021; (4) Ethics, V83.0040; or Nature of Values, V83.0041; or Political Philosophy, V83.0045; (5) Belief, Truth, and Knowledge, V83.0076; or Metaphysics, V83.0078; (6) Minds and Machines, V83.0015; or Philosophy of Mind, V83.0080; or Philosophy of Language, V83.0085; and (7) Topics in the History of Philosophy, V83.0101; or Topics in Ethics and Political Philosophy, V83.0102; or Topics in Metaphysics and Epistemology, V83.0103; or Topics in Language and Mind, V83.0104. No credit toward the major is awarded for a course with a grade lower than C.


Students considering a major in philosophy are encouraged to begin with one of the Intensive Introductory Courses, or with one of the following: History of Ancient Philosophy, V83.0020; History of Modern Philosophy, V83.0021; Ethics, V83.0040; or Belief, Truth, and Knowledge, V83.0076. Logic, V83.0070, should be taken as soon as possible.




JOINT MAJOR in Language and Mind


This major, intended as an introduction to cognitive science, is administered by the Departments of Linguistics, Philosophy, and Psychology. Eleven courses are required (four in linguistics, one in philosophy, five in psychology, and one additional course) to be constituted as follows. The linguistics component consists of Language, V61.0001; Grammatical Analysis, V61.0013; Introduction to Cognitive Science, V61.0028; and one more course chosen from Computational Models of Sentence Construction, V61.0024; Phonological Analysis, V61.0012; and Introduction to Semantics, V61.0004. The philosophy component consists of one course, chosen from Minds and Machines, V83.0015; Philosophy of Language, V83.0085; and Logic, V83.0070. The psychology component consists of four required courses: Introduction to Psychology, A89.0001; Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences, V89.0010; The Psychology of Language, V89.0056; and Cognition, V89.0029; in addition, one course, chosen from Seminar in Thinking, V89.0026; Language Acquisition and Cognitive Development, V89.0300; and Laboratory in Human Cognition, V89.0028. The eleventh course will be one of the above-listed courses that has not already been chosen to satisfy the departmental components.




A minor in philosophy requires four 4-point courses, at least three beyond the A-level Introductory Courses. One course must be History of Ancient Philosophy, V83.0020, or History of Modern Philosophy, V83.0021; one course each must come from Group 2 (Ethics, Value, and Society) and Group 3 (Metaphysics, Epistemology, Mind, Language, and Logic). No credit toward the minor is awarded for a course with a grade lower than C.




A student may sign up for an independent study course if he or she obtains the consent of a faculty member who approves the study project and agrees to serve as adviser. The student must also obtain the approval of either the department chair or the director of undergraduate studies. The student may take no more than one such course in any given semester and no more than two such courses in total, unless granted special permission by either the department chair or the director of undergraduate studies.




Honors in philosophy will be awarded to majors who (1) have an overall grade point average of 3.5 and an average in V- and G-level philosophy courses of 3.5, and (2) successfully complete the honors program. This program, which is taken for 2 points in each of the student's last two semesters, is intended to provide an intensive and rewarding culmination to the philosophy major. It involves participation in an honors seminar and the writing of a senior thesis under the supervision of a faculty adviser. Entry to the honors program requires a 3.0 average overall and a 3.5 average in at least five V- or G-level philosophy courses (at least one in each of the three Groups, plus one Topics course). The thesis must be approved by the adviser and by a second faculty reader for honors to be awarded.


Majors interested in admission to the program should consult the director of undergraduate studies toward the end of their junior year.





The department treats its course prerequisites seriously. Students not satisfying a course's prerequisites are strongly advised to seek the permission of the instructor beforehand.




Philosophy has a reputation for being otherworldly and impractical – some say, “philosophy butters no bread”, but it doesn’t really deserve this label.  The purpose of philosophy is controversial, but at least one this it involves is the construction and evaluation of arguments.  The study of philosophy is a training of expressing thoughts clearly and precisely, in defending one’s ideas and evaluating the positions of others.  Quite simply, philosophy gives a training in thinking.  And this is a skill valuable in any professional field.


Philosophy has a special affinity with the legal profession in which arguments, and the application of general rules to cases, play central roles.  Many law schools recognize this connection and are especially receptive to philosophy majors.  But philosophical skills are valuable elsewhere as well.  In business, you must formulate and clarify problems, to analyze potential solutions, and to defend your approach in a clear and rational way.  All these abilities are improved by exercising in philosophical argument.  And finally, medical schools and professionals place increasing importance on the ability to reflect in the ethical issues that arise in their practice – and these are of course problems treated in moral philosophy.


Some of these practical beliefs seem reflected the exceptional performance by philosophy majors on graduate admissions exams.  They show that philosophy majors scored higer than any other group on the verbal section of the GRE, and much higher than any other humanities majors on the quantitative section.  Philosophy majors are second only to math majors on the GMAT, and third only to math and economics majors on the LSAT.  Of course, majors training in philosophy may not be wholly responsible for these results – it may also be that brighter students are entering the field to begin with.  But in either case, the report suggests you’re not stupid if you join them.


But this still doesn’t touch on what surely remains the most reasons for studying philosophy.  College years shouldn’t just be a professional training.  They are a best chance to think about basic human questions – about personal and social values, about the nature of reality and yourselves.  Studying philosophy can bring into view questions of lifelong relevance and interest.  It can acquaint you with the issues in debates that will always recur, and can help you toward argued positions on such issues.  In a very rare case, it might even help determine your direction through life.