Unit rationale, description and aim
Metaphysics, or what Aristotle called 'first philosophy', is the theory of reality. In asking basic questions concerning what makes things real, metaphysics challenges us to look beyond our everyday assumptions about the world, and to see it anew.
In this unit, students will study some of the classic texts in the history of western metaphysics. Through reading key texts by Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, they will survey major ideas in ancient Greek metaphysics, such as the relationship of matter and form, the possibility of change, the ultimate cause of movement, and the nature of the soul. By engaging with works by medieval thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, students will focus on issues such as the relationship between time and eternity, the status of 'universals', the nature of evil, and God as the world's ultimate ground. The works of early modern philosophers such as Descartes, Hume and Kant will focus students on how later thought builds upon, and questions, key aspects of the ancient tradition of metaphysics in relation to questions such as how human freedom fits into a material universe, the connection between mind and world, and the relationship between soul and body. In examining debates around such questions, students will be encouraged to develop reasoned positions of their own. In this way the unit aims to facilitate their understanding of key questions and theories in western metaphysics, and to enhance skills in textual analysis.
To successfully complete this unit you will be able to demonstrate you have achieved the learning outcomes (LO) detailed in the below table.
Each outcome is informed by a number of graduate capabilities (GC) to ensure your work in this, and every unit, is part of a larger goal of graduating from ACU with the attributes of insight, empathy, imagination and impact.
Explore the graduate capabilities.
|Learning Outcome Number||Learning Outcome Description|
|LO1||Describe some of the central problems in western metaphysics and major positions and theories taken in response by some key philosophers in the tradition|
|LO2||Use clear English expression to develop coherent and consistent positions in relation to metaphysics|
|LO3||Analyse debates in the history of western metaphysics|
|LO4||Apply skills in philosophical research|
Topics will include:
- The nature and possibility of metaphysics;
- The nature of things (substances and accidents; matter and form; essence and existence; potency, actuality and teleology);
- Identity, persistence and difference;
- Reality and the human; (the nature and attributes of the soul; the relation of mind and world; soul and body; human freedom);
- Space and time;
- Necessity, contingency and the existence of God;
- Modality and possible worlds.
Learning and teaching strategy and rationale
Classes are run in attendance mode for seminar/ tutorial groups of ten students. The focus of these seminars will be on engagement with the texts themselves, aligning with the nature of the degree program as essentially a ‘great books’ course. On the basis of prior reading of the set text for each week, classes take the form of guided encounters with the key ideas presented, through the facilitation of questioning, debate, shared analysis and evaluative dialogue.
It is through the broadly ‘Socratic’ approach to thinking and discussion in these sessions, that students will be enabled to identify and explain key ideas raised in the seminal texts studied; they will learn to analyse the philosophical theories enacted in these texts; and they will also learn skills in developing coherent and consistent positions of their own in response to these texts. Such positions will take into account implications for contemporary thought and practices. In this way, skills in textual analysis, and clear verbal and written expression will be modelled and developed, skills that are of great demand in the professional workplace.
Assessment strategy and rationale
Given the heavy emphasis on this unit on textual analysis, the assessment strategy is designed to require students to demonstrate their understanding of the key ideas and theories covered in the unit (LO1) through analysis of the key texts, and the development of positions on them (LO3). Such analysis will be modelled and enriched by the style of discussions in the seminar/ tutorial classes. The focus on clear oral and written communication (LO2) and development of research skills (LO4) are also designed to assess, and assist the student to achieve, the unit learning objectives.
The first task requires students to identify, explain and discuss a key idea from an early set text in the unit, and to present it orally to the group (supported by a written text of their own). Apart from serving the purpose of facilitating class discussion and introducing students to each other on an intellectual level early in the course, this task is designed to help develop analytical skills in an oral communication context, skills they will further refine throughout the course. The second task requires students to choose sections drawn from two assigned texts in order to compare different approaches developed in each. This requires them to explore points of commonality and points of difference between them. The research essay task requires them to delve further and more deeply into the work of two thinkers explored in the unit, supported by relevant secondary literature chosen on the basis of their own research. In this way, they are required to produce a more developed interpretation of their own concerning the metaphysical matters at issue.
Overview of assessments
|Brief Description of Kind and Purpose of Assessment Tasks||Weighting||Learning Outcomes|
Textual analysis Oral Presentation (supported by written elaboration)
Requires students to identify, explain and discuss one key idea in the history of western metaphysics, as it is developed in one of the early assigned texts in the unit.
Comparative written analysis task
Requires students to identify, explain and discuss one key theme that is differently developed in two of the assigned texts in the history of western metaphysics in the unit.
Requires students to analyse and interpret an important debate in western metaphysics, with reference to at least two of the key thinkers whose work was examined in the unit.
Representative texts and references
Adamson, Peter (2014). Classical Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Al-Fārābī (2005). “The Book of Letters”. In Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings. Transl. Muhammad Ali Khalidi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Aristotle (2016), “Metaphysics”. Transl. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Augustine (2008), Confessions. Transl. Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Berkeley, George (1998). A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Descartes, René (1986). Meditations on First Philosophy. Transl. John Cottingham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hume, David (2014). A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Leach, Stephen and James Tartaglia (eds) (2016). Consciousness and the Great Philosophers. London: Routledge.
Plotinus (2013). Enneads V. Transl. Lloyd Gerson. Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing.
Spinoza, Baruch (2018). Ethics. Transl. Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.