PHIL 150A1: Who Am I? People and Our Place in The Universe

This course is a general introduction to philosophy as an academic discipline, organised around the theme of personhood: the question of what we essentially are, and what is good for us. You will be exposed to some of the best writing on these topics that has been produced by Western culture, and have the opportunity to improve your ability to think and write critically by considering whether and how what these thinkers have had to say is correct.

Learning objectives

  1. You will read and gain an understanding of some foundational texts in Western philosophy.

  2. You will study and explore core philosophical questions regarding what we essentially are and what is good for us.

  3. You will write and revise philosophical essays explaining and analysing the views presented in the course reading material.

Learning outcomes

  1. You will be able to understand what an author means to say in difficult philosophical texts, and demonstrate this understanding by answering comprehension questions.

  2. You will be able to defend in depth your understanding and conception of two philosophical topics, in the writing of two philosophical essays.

  3. You will be able to identify and engage in distinctively philosophical theorising about a number of topics, and express this understanding in formulating the basic structure of your written answers.


  • Sean Whitton <>
  • Virtual office: Zoom link available on D2L
  • Office hours: By appointment between 1pm and 2:30pm on Thursdays and Fridays

During the course, I expect to respond to all e-mails within 36 hours. Please do not expect a response sooner than 24 hours after you send your e-mail, and don’t expect to receive a reply on Saturday or Sunday. Plan ahead.

To be sure of an appointment in office hours, be sure to write before 5pm on the day before when you wish to attend.

Please do not e-mail me if your question could be answered by reading the syllabus.

Required Texts

  1. Thomas Nagel, What does it all mean? (Oxford University Press, 1987) – available as a UA library ebook, so you do not need to buy this one

  2. RenĂ© Descartes, Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings, translated by Desmond Clarke (Penguin Classics, 1999) – do not use an alternative edition/translation

  3. Plato, Gorgias, translated by Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press, 1994) – do not use an alternative edition/translation

  4. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (any complete edition)

  5. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (any complete edition)

The Descartes, Hobbes and Locke have recently been translated into a more contemporary English by Jonathan Bennett, and these translations may be downloaded for free from The editions specified above are still required texts for the course. My suggestion is that you read Bennett’s translations alongside the printed editions.

Course Format and Teaching Methods


There will be two didactic lectures per week, posted on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Fridays, I will post a lecture in response to questions received about the content of that week’s Monday and Wednesday lectures, discuss assignments, and review more challenging material.

As the course progresses I may experiment with alternative ways to handle the Friday sessions: we might try group video calls or similar.

Required Submission of Questions

Each week, five students will be assigned to submit questions to be discussed in the Friday lecture, by e-mail by 11:59pm MST on Thursday, though each week other students are free to submit questions too. When it is your turn to submit a question, it should be at least 25 words long: explain precisely what you want help with, or want to discuss. I will try to answer questions in such a way as to benefit as many people in the class as possible.

The students who are assigned will be notified by e-mail at the beginning of their assigned week.


Each item of reading is associated to one of the didactic lectures, and should be completed in advance of watching that lecture. See the Course Schedule below [exactly which pages to read are TBD for some dates].


There will be a number of very short, unannounced reading quizzes posted during the course, each to be completed within 36 hours. They will be easy if you are up-to-date with that week’s reading, and difficult otherwise.


You will write two papers. Their topics and more specific instructions will be posted when they are assigned.

For the first paper you will be required to submit a draft. You will be penalised if your final version of the paper does not respond adequately to my feedback.


There is no midterm. There is one open book final exam, which will be a mixture of short written answers and multiple choice.



  • 90%+: grade A
  • 80%+: grade B
  • 70%+: grade C
  • 60%+: grade D
  • Less than 60%: grade E


  1. Participation: 5%
    • attending office hours
    • submission of Friday questions
  2. Syllabus quiz: 5%
  3. Reading quizzes: 15%
  4. Final exam: 25%
  5. First paper draft: 5%
    • 1500 words
  6. First paper final: 20%
    • 1500 words
  7. Second paper: 25%
    • 2000 words

This course is a writing intensive Tier One General Education course. You will write a minimum of 3500 words. This writing requirement comprises the following assignments: the first paper and the second paper. You will have the opportunity to revise and resubmit the following assignment: first paper.


  1. Late work will not be accepted, except where mandated by university policy, or where we have agreed, several days in advance, to extend your deadline.

    It is your responsibility to contact me early enough, not my responsibility to arrange an extension at the last minute. I really mean it. You’ll simply get a zero.

  2. The two papers and the paper draft must be submitted in PDF format, on D2L. No Word documents, no Pages documents. If you submit in the wrong format, you will get a zero. If you have any doubt about your ability to convert to PDF, talk to me well in advance.

    If you have D2L issues close to a deadline you may e-mail me the PDF as proof you did it in time, but it cannot be graded until it has been uploaded to D2L.

  3. You may go 10% above or below the word limit for a paper. Beyond that, you will get a zero.

  4. There will be no extra credit.

  5. Please double-space, use one inch margins, and a size 12 font. Other than that I do not care about your formatting choices, so long as you satisfy the requirements of academic integrity.

General Information on Taking a Philosophy Course

Philosophy is not like other subjects. Please review my notes on taking a philosophy course.

Course Schedule

Unit 1: Knowledge and scepticism

Monday 24th August
Meditation I
Wednesday 26th August
Meditation II
Syllabus quiz due 11:59pm MST
Friday 28th August
Review and discussion
Monday 31st August
Meditation III
Wednesday 2nd September
Meditation III continued
Friday 4th September
Review and discussion
Monday 7th September
Labor Day – no classes
Wednesday 9th September
Meditation IV
Friday 11th September
Review and discussion
Monday 14th September
Nagel chs. 1–3
Wednesday 16th September
Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (excerpt posted to D2L)
Friday 18th September
Review and discussion
Monday 21st September
Meditation V
Wednesday 23rd September
Meditation VI
Friday 25th September
Review and discussion
First paper draft due 11:59pm MST

Unit 2: Personhood

Monday 28th September
Nagel ch. 4
Wednesday 30th September
Nagel ch. 6
Friday 2nd October
Review and discussion
Monday 5th October
Hume on the self (excerpt posted to D2L)
Wednesday 7th October
Dennett on the self (excerpt posted to D2L)
Friday 9th October
Review and discussion
Monday 12th October
Nagel ch. 7
Wednesday 14th October
Anscombe, Modern Moral Philosophy (excerpt posted to D2L)
Friday 16th October
Review and discussion
First paper final due 11:59pm MST
The magic word is “lemon”.

Unit 3: Virtue

Monday 19th October
Introduction to Ancient ethics
Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (excerpt posted to D2L)
Wednesday 21st October
Socrates’ exchange with Gorgias: 447a – 461b
Friday 23rd October
Review and discussion
Monday 26th October
Socrates’ exchange with Polus: 461b – 468e
Wednesday 28th October
Socrates’ exchange with Polus: 468e – 481b
Friday 30th October
Review and discussion
Monday 2nd November
Callicles’ speech: 481b – 492c
Wednesday 4th November
Socrates’ response to Callicles: 492d – 505c
Friday 6th November
Review and discussion
Monday 9th November
The end of the dialogue: 505c – 527e
Wednesday 11th November
Veterans’ Day – no classes
Friday 13th November
Review and discussion

Unit 4: Politics

Monday 16th November
Hobbes on psychological egoism: /Leviathan/ ch. 13
Wednesday 18th November
Hobbes’ state of nature: /Leviathan/ ch. 17
Friday 20th November
Review and discussion
Monday 23rd November
The Hobbesian commonwealth: /Leviathan/ chs. 14 and 18
Wednesday 25th November
More on the Hobbesian commonwealth: /Leviathan/ ch. 15
Second paper due 11:59pm MST
Friday 27th November
Thanksgiving Recess – no classes
Monday 30th November
Locke’s state of nature: /Second Treatise of Government/, chs. 1–5
Wednesday 2nd December
Leaving the Lockeian state of nature: /Second Treatise of Government/, sections 87–100 and 113–122
Friday 4th December
Review and discussion
Monday 7th December
Nagel ch. 8
Wednesday 9th December
Nagel chs. 9–10
Wednesday 16th December
Final exam due 11:59pm MST

UA-mandated notices

Absence and Class Participation

The UA’s policy concerning Class Attendance, Participation, and Administrative Drops is available at:

The UA policy regarding absences for any sincerely held religious belief, observance or practice will be accommodated where reasonable,

Absences for groups of more than three students that are pre-approved by the UA Dean of Students (or Dean Designee) will be honored. See:

Threatening Behavior Policy

The UA Threatening Behavior by Students Policy prohibits threats of physical harm to any member of the University community, including to oneself. See

Accessibility and Accommodations

Our goal in this classroom is that learning experiences be as accessible as possible. If you anticipate or experience physical or academic barriers based on disability, please let me know immediately so that we can discuss options. You are also welcome to contact the Disability Resource Center (520-621-3268) to establish reasonable accommodations. For additional information on the Disability Resource Center and reasonable accommodations, please visit If you have reasonable accommodations, please plan to meet with me by appointment or during office hours to discuss accommodations and how my course requirements and activities may impact your ability to fully participate.

If our class meets at a campus location, please be aware that the accessible table and chairs in this room should remain available for students who find that standard classroom seating is not usable. See

Code of Academic Integrity

Students are encouraged to share intellectual views and discuss freely the principles and applications of course materials. However, graded work/exercises must be the product of independent effort unless otherwise instructed. Students are expected to adhere to the UA Code of Academic Integrity as described in the UA General Catalog. See: and

UA Nondiscrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy

The University is committed to creating and maintaining an environment free of discrimination; see

Our classroom is a place where everyone is encouraged to express well-formed opinions and their reasons for those opinions. We also want to create a tolerant and open environment where such opinions can be expressed without resorting to bullying or discrimination of others.

Subject to Change Statement

Information contained in the course syllabus, other than the grade and absence policy, may be subject to change with advance notice, as deemed appropriate by the instructor; see