Philosophy postgraduate modules

Sample module descriptions

God, Freedom and the Meaning of Life

The module is an introduction, at Masters-level, to a number of philosophical issues that have a relevance to the philosophy of religion, such as: Are there sound arguments for/against the existence of God? Is freedom compatible with God's foreknowledge? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is life meaningless without God? Can there be morality without God?

Background reading:

J. L. Mackie (1983), The Miracle of Theism (Clarendon Press), E. D. Klemke (2000), The Meaning of Life, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press).

Philosophy of Language

Philosophy of Language covers a range of advanced topics in analytic philosophy of language and its overlap with the realism/antirealism debate in metaphysics. In any given year, some of the following topics will be addressed in detail: Frege's distinction between sense and reference; Russell's theory of definite descriptions; logical positivism and the verification principle; Quine on analyticity and translation; Kripke's Wittgenstein on rule-following; Grice's theory of meaning; Davidson's programme; Dummett's attack on realism.

Background reading:

A. Miller, Philosophy of Language (Routledge 2nd edition 2007).

Philosophy of Cognitive Science

While the Philosophy of Mind module is concerned mainly with metaphysical questions about the mind (physicalism vs. anti-physicalism etc.), this module one focuses more on semantic and epistemic issues – some of them informed by empirical results in psychology and linguistics, and each of them the subject of intense contemporary attention. We’ll begin by looking at several theories of intentionality, and at the fundamental debate between internalism and externalism about mental content. Next we’ll turn to semantic and epistemic questions that arise in the philosophy of consciousness: of particular interest here are representationalism – (or intentionalism) the theory that phenomenally conscious states are representational/intentional states (as opposed to mere sensations) and higher-order theories, according to which such states are phenomenally conscious in virtue of being the objects of higher-order intentional states. Another important recent proposal we’ll examine in detail involves the idea that subjects enjoy special phenomenal concepts with distinctive semantic properties which can be invoked to explain away (in a manner consistent with physicalism) the intuitions about conceivability etc. which motivate anti-physicalists. If time permits, we’ll also consider some contemporary issues about self-knowledge and perception.

Background reading:

Crane, T., 2001: Elements of Mind: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind, Oxford University Press;

Chalmers, D., 2002: ‘Consciousness and Its Place in Nature’, in S. Stich & T. Warfield (eds.), Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Mind, Blackwell;

Papineau, D., 2002: Thinking about Consciousness, Oxford University Press.

Philosophy of Mind

This module is mainly devoted to issues in the metaphysics of mind, looking at questions of what the mind is (if, indeed, we even have one) and the status of mental properties. The focus will be on contemporary debates in that area, looking at the contemporary view of the Identity Theory of Mind; the Conceivability argument, supervenience and zombies; the recent resurgence of substance dualism; contemporary panpsychism; and eliminative materialism and computational views.

Background reading: John Heil’s Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction and David Chalmers’s The Conscious Mind

Philosophy of Health and Happiness

This module will engage you with debates at the forefront of current research in the philosophy of health and happiness. You will explore conceptual problems (e.g. what “health” and “disease” are); question contemporary lifestyle issues (for instance, regarding how health, happiness and meaning relate, as well as whether there is a correlation between income and life satisfaction). You will be asked to consider how technological advances are changing these understandings (e.g. genetic advances). Topics which you will address include: What is happiness? How should we understand health and disease? How do health and happiness relate? How does illness affect our understanding of what matters?

Background reading:

H Widdows & I Law (2008) Conceptualising Health: Insights from the Capability Approach, Health Care Analysis, 16:303–314. 

R Crisp (2008), Well-being, in E Zalta (ed.) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Metaphysics

In this module we will investigate a range of advanced topics in contemporary metaphysics: personal identity, free will, modality, and realism & anti-realism. Questions we’ll discuss include: Is free will compatible with determinism? Is the nature of reality independent of how we describe it? What does it take to retain your identity over time?

 

Background reading:

Simon Blackburn, Think! (OUP 1999), chapter 3, 4 and 7

Module textbook: H. Beebee & J. Dodd (eds), Reading Metaphysics (Blackwell 2006), chapters 1, 2, 3, 5.

Epistemology

Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge. In this module we examine five fundamental issues which have been especially prominent in recent debates on the subject. The first two, although prominent in recent literature are also especially traditional: (i) A priori knowledge (is there any, and if so, what is distinctive about it?). (ii) Internalism vs. externalism (to know something, does a subject have to be aware of its justification?). The next two topics concern recent responses to philosophical scepticism: (iii) Is knowledge is ‘closed (under known entailment’)? (iv) Epistemic contextualism. Our fifth topic will be chosen by students during the module. Options here include perception, testimony, memory, coherentism, infinitism, and the value of knowledge. 

Background reading:

Audi, R., 2002. Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction 2nd ed., Routledge.

Steup, M. & Sosa, E., 2005. Contemporary Debates in Epistemology, Wiley-Blackwell

The Value of Life

This module is intended to provide scope for an assessment of that brand of extreme philosophical pessimism according to which life not only has no positive value but is something we should be better off without – that, to echo the title of a recent book by David Benatar, it is “better never to have been”. The initial focus will be on the arguments for this view put forward recently by Benatar himself and before him by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). The focus will then shift to the more affirmative approaches of thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and William James (1842-1910). An important subsidiary theme will be the nature of pleasure, pain, happiness and suffering.

Background reading:

‘On the Vanity and Suffering of Life’ by Arthur Schopenhauer (chap. 46 , Vol.2 of The World as Will and Representation, E.F.J.Payne translation, Dover Books);

‘Is Life Worth Living?’ by William James (in his The Will to Believe and other essays in popular philosophy, Dover Books).

 

Research skills and Methods for MA students

This module consists of 10 x 2 hour sessions of core skills. Normally six out of ten sessions are taught by the College of Arts and Law as components of its generic research skills module. The other four sessions are taught by members of the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion and focus on discipline specific topics.

Global Bioethics

This module introduces you to the increasing number of dilemmas in bioethics that cross national boundaries and transcend domestic regulation. Bioethical dilemmas, whether arising from scientific and technological developments or from the research practices of pharmaceutical companies, raise issues which cannot be effectively addressed at national or regional levels. Bioethics clearly calls for global solutions to what are global dilemmas and you will be introduced to some of the key bioethical issues which arise in the contemporary global context. Key bioethical concerns are: genetic justice; eugenics; reproductive choice and procreational autonomy; the ‘10/90 disequilibrium’ (90% of the global burden of premature morality is attributable to diseases of the developing world while 90% of global expenditure on health research is directed towards disease problems of the developed countries); issues of medical tourism and the trafficking of body parts, where the rich purchase ‘spare’ body parts from the poor; issues of who owns genetic material; concerns about the power of pharmaceutical companies, biopiracy and the global Intellectual Property regime. Conceptual themes and concerns will enhance the analysis of such practical dilemmas and key focal concepts include justice, autonomy, commodification, commercialisation and consent.

Background reading:

H Widdows (2007), “Is Global Ethics moral neo-colonialism? An investigation of the issue in the context of bioethics”, Bioethics, 21 (6): 305-315.

Global Ethics

This module introduces you to key concepts and debates in global ethics. It explores the nature of ethics and provides the theoretical tools necessary for you to analyse the arguments of others and create robust ethical arguments of their own.

Background reading:

K. Hutchings (2010), Global Ethics, Polity Press.

Human Rights

This module covers a selection of human rights issues from a legal, political and philosophical perspective. Recent developments and topic issues, including civil rights threats after September 11, are discussed, so is the protection of minorities, capital punishment, and the development of gender-based human rights.

Background reading:

K. Hutchings (2010), Global Ethics, Polity Press.

Philosophical Research

This module aims to make you more informed about philosophical methods. It also provides support for conceiving, planning, and presenting research. Some of the sessions are devoted to philosophical questions about philosophical methodology. On others, you will be able to use recent papers that are relevant for your research as starting-points for presentations and discussions. In addition, the seminar includes sessions on dissertation design, using bibliographic and IT resources, and creating research proposals for applying for PhD places, funding, etc.

Background reading:

Peter Strawson (1992): “Analytical Philosophy: Two Analogies”, chapter 1 in his Analysis and Metaphysics – An Introduction to Philosophy (also available online at ‘Google books’)."

 

 

 

Disclaimer

Modules and Courses are constantly updated and under review. As with most academic programmes, please remember that it is possible that a module may not be offered in any particular year, for instance because a member of staff is on study leave or too few students opt for it. The University of Birmingham reserves the right to vary or withdraw any course or module.