Philosophy 448:  Selected Topics

PHIL 448 Description

A course for exploring special topics of interest which vary from term to term.  Examples include the nature of tragedy, the philosophy of information, the ideas of Wittgenstein, the logic of explanation, or the philosophy of biology.  This course can be repeated for credit (if taking new topics).  (3:0:0)  Prerequisite: Third-year standing and one of PHIL 310, PHIL 111, or PHIL 112. 

Recent Topics in PHIL 448

Philosophy, Greek Tragedy, and the Truth of Human Life

An introduction into the ancient Greek struggle between the best way to understand and communicate the truths about human life as either reason (philosophy) or art (tragedy). Conflict in Plato and the Greek tragedians will be considered. Resolution in the works of Aristotle and Nietzsche will be examined.

This course is designed as an introduction to the common themes shared by ancient Greek philosophy and tragedy that attempt to communicate truths about the human condition. Philosophy and tragedy originated in Greece alongside democracy. At their origin, philosophy, tragedy and democracy shared values that became the cornerstones of western cultural and political identity. The ancient tragedians and philosophers  struggled with subjects such as political philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, and the nature of truth and meaning as they apply to individuals. This course will examine how the ancient tragedians and philosophers, both ancient and modern, struggled with these concerns. Finally, we shall consider how modern philosophers have sought insight from classical tragedy.

Advanced Bioethics

An in-depth exploration of the moral issues arising in health care, research, and policy, including independent work on a topic of the student's choice.  Preferably students have taken at least one course in ethics before registering.   

Feminist Philosophy

This course introduces students to a range of philosophical issues in feminist theory, such as sexism, oppression, social construction, and intersection between gender and race or class.  We shall begin with a very brief history of feminist philosophy, and then explore the diverse fields of feminist epistemologies, moral psychologies, ethics, and political theories.  

Negative Metaphysics and the Meaning of Life

This course will examine the central questions of metaphysics and epistemology from the perspective of doubt and negation. In particular, it will aim to understand the limits of what can be said or known, and, in doing so, will consider a different way of addressing philosophical questions.

Philosophy and Film

“Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great. It can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line .… It isn’t easy to come to terms with what one enjoys in films.”   Pauline Kael

What do we enjoy in films? How can “mere entertainment” connect us so powerfully with ourselves and others? In this course we examine how film, as a visual medium, constructs meaning and point of view. For instance, how does film engage in narration without the use of an explicit narrator? How does the reality constructed by a film interact with our ordinary assumptions of space and time? Other topics include voyeurism, fetishization, the nature of spectacle, and the portrayal of gender. Students taking this course will participate in the lectures and discussions for PHIL 220, but with additional work required (a short presentation and a longer term paper). 

Philosophy of Language

This course examines key issues in the philosophy of language pertaining to reference and meaning.  Topics include classic reference puzzles, roles of names and definite descriptions in sentences, meanings of meaning claims, meanings of metaphors, and skepticism about meaning claims.  The course considers core arguments addressing various questions, for example:

  • Do either names or descriptions directly refer to entities?
  • Can a sentence’s grammatical form mask its logical form?
  • How do names designate their bearers?
  • Are the meanings of sentences reliant on speakers’ intentions?
  • Is the meaning of a sentence its verification conditions?
  • Is there such a thing as metaphorical meaning and if so, how can we grasp it?  


This course is intended primarily as a preparation for students who wish to go on to graduate school in philosophy. Students taking this course will become closely acquainted with, and learn to analyze critically and contribute to, a core area in mainstream analytical philosophy. Those who perform well in this course should end up with a paper of sufficient calibre to serve as a good writing sample in a graduate school application; enough understanding of the contemporary realism/antirealism debate in the philosophy of science to write a good statement of purpose for a graduate school application on that topic; and skills in reading, thinking about, and writing analytic philosophy to a level needed for those entering graduate school.

Philosophy of Explanation: Explaining Explanation

In this course we will examine the logic of explanation and the attempt within the discipline of philosophy to, first, develop an analysis of different forms of explanation and of what it means to explain something as distinct from merely describing it, and second, to develop criteria of adequacy for good explanation. Students will then apply these reflections to individually selected case studies of problems in other disciplines or other areas of philosophy. While there is a wide range of possibility here, from physics to literary criticism and including the social sciences, history and biology, topics will be restricted to those in which the explanatory/philosophical issues can be made clear to a general audience in a short presentation.

Here are examples of the core questions we will address: What is the difference between ‘explanation’ and ‘description’? What is the logical relationship between a statement of that which is to be explained and a statement of that which is claimed to explain it? Must all explanations of events be causal?

Here are examples of questions that may arise in application of these reflections: How, in Law, is attribution of responsibility connected to explanation of an event? Is it possible to give a correct explanation of an activity in another culture when you do not share the values, the precepts and the understanding of what the world is like-common in that culture? While events in nature are routinely explained by appeal to laws of physics, can the laws themselves be explained or can they only be described? Given that nothing actually happens in a work of fiction, what, if anything, does explanation of a fictional story have in common in terms of logical requirements, with the explanation of a true story?
This will be a lecture/seminar course in which student application of philosophical analysis will take place in the context of shared readings and discussion.

Advanced Issues in 19th and 20th Century Philosophy

This course will present students with an advanced overview of philosophy (especially English-language philosophy) in the 19th and 20th centuries. Figures to be discussed include Bentham, Mill, Pierce, James, Frege, Russell, Moore, Ayer, Wittgenstein, Rawls, Singer, and Dennett. Emphasis will be placed on providing a comprehensive picture of philosophical developments during this period. Students taking this section of PHIL 448 will participate in the lectures and discussions for PHIL 201, but will also be provided with special guidance and more sophisticated instruction. The central assignment of this section of 448 will be a major paper dealing, at an advanced level, with one or more of the philosophers discussed in this course.


In this course we explore the nature of tragic art from the Greeks to the present. We begin with Nietzsche’s accusation that Socrates ‘killed’ tragedy, but our main focus is on Aristotle, and with the help of contemporary writers we explore central concepts of Aristotle’s Poetics – like the vexing notions of hamartia (‘tragic flaw’) and catharsis. What is the nature of the tragic hero, for instance, and how are his or her features related to the structure of the tragic plot? Does the tragic hero’s downfall reflect our desire for moral order in the universe – or our grasp of a profoundly unjust world? Is there a distinctively modern sense of the tragic? Works discussed include Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Euripides’ Medea, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Muriel Sparks’ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Philosophy of Biology: Issues in Evolutionary Theory

In this course we explore issues in biological evolution and the philosophy of science. We will examine concepts in contemporary evolutionary theory, as well issues arising from the social implications of biological explanation. For instance, we discuss the nature of adaptation, debate over the units and levels of selection, the application of game theory in evolutionary biology, and current varieties of evolutionary psychology. But we are also concerned with some of the more social implications of biological explanation: we consider biological explanations of human sexuality, ethical issues around genetic technology, the re-emergence of the Intelligent Design debate, and the possibility of morality in a Darwinian universe. As a case study, we also consider various evolutionary approaches to understanding the emergence of humour and laughing in humans.