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WPHI101 Thinking the Real: Western Metaphysics

Unit rationale, description and aim

If metaphysics is the study of reality, epistemology is the study of how we can know about reality, of how the human mind is able to access the real, acquire knowledge of the world, and grasp the truth.

In this unit, students will read some of the classic western texts related to the possibility, nature and limits of knowledge. They will read seminal ancient and medieval works in the field by thinkers including Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, concerning the possibility of knowledge, on what knowledge is ultimately based, and concerning that towards which it strives. Students will encounter key Enlightenment works by philosophers such as Locke, Hume and Kant, on the achievability of certainty, the relative contributions of rationality and perception to the acquisition of knowledge, and the implications for the nature and processes of the natural sciences. Students will also examine some major twentieth century works by philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Gadamer, concerning the question of interpretation and the idea of objectivity. Through their analysis of such texts, students will be encouraged to develop reasoned argumentative positions in response to them.

Learning outcomes

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.

On successful completion of this unit, students should be able to:

LO1 - Describe some of the central problems in western epistemology and major positions and theories taken in response by some key philosophers in the tradition (GA5)

LO2 - Use clear English expression purposefully to develop coherent and consistent positions in relation to western epistemology (GA5, GA9)

LO3 - Critically analyse selected debates in the history of western epistemology (GA4, GA8)

LO4 - Apply developing skills in philosophical research (GA5).

Graduate attributes

GA4 - think critically and reflectively 

GA5 - demonstrate values, knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the discipline and/or profession 

GA8 - locate, organise, analyse, synthesise and evaluate information 

GA9 - demonstrate effective communication in oral and written English language and visual media 


Topics will include: 

  • criteria for knowledge: belief, opinion, justification, and the question of certainty; 
  • the object of knowledge claims: universals and singulars;  
  • ancient and early modern sceptical arguments;  
  • the origins and aims of rationality and logical method as means of justification; 
  • the problem of ultimate foundations for knowledge;   
  • the role and efficacy of sense perception and its relation to the possibility of knowledge;  
  • rationalist and empiricist theories of knowledge; 
  • realist and idealist theories of knowledge;  
  • theories of truth and the role of interpretation;  
  • the possibility of self-knowledge;  
  • the possibility of religious knowledge.  

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 critical 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 analyses of 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 interpret key ideas raised in the seminal texts studied; they will learn to critically analyse the philosophical theories enacted in these texts; and they will also learn skills in developing increasingly comprehensive and pertinent positions of their own in response to these texts. Such positions will take into account ideas encountered in other units of study (e.g., within western literature and art) as well as implications for contemporary thought and practices. In this way, skills in textual analysis, conceptual evaluation, and cogent verbal and written expression will be further developed, skills that are of great demand in the professional workplace.

Assessment strategy and rationale

This unit continues the strong emphasis on textual analysis of seminal works in western philosophy. The assessment strategy is designed to require students to demonstrate their understanding of the key epistemological ideas and theories covered in the unit (LO1) through critical analysis of the set texts, and the crafting of well-developed positions on them (LO3). Such analysis will be modelled and enriched by the style of discussions in the seminar/ tutorial classes. The focus on 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 two assessment tasks are designed to assess and help develop critical analytical skills, and the ability to differentiate argumentative strategies. Students are required to choose sections drawn from two assigned texts in order to contrast the approaches developed in each, effectively opening a dialogue between them. This requires them to explore and analyse the reasons for the argumentative convergences and divergences in these texts. The research essay task requires them to delve further and more deeply into the work of two thinkers explored in the unit, on the basis of further research of their own. This task includes the requirement to critically analyse the positions developed in the seminal texts under consideration concerning the epistemological matters at issue.  

Overview of assessments

Brief Description of Kind and Purpose of Assessment TasksWeightingLearning OutcomesGraduate Attributes

Comparative written analysis task I

Requires students to identify and discuss a key epistemological theme or problem that is differently developed in two of the early assigned texts in the unit.


LO1, LO2, LO3

GA4, GA5, GA8, GA9

Comparative written analysis task 2

Requires students to identify and analytically discuss a second key epistemological theme or problem that is differently developed in two of the assigned texts in the unit.


LO1, LO2, LO3

GA4, GA5, GA8, GA9

Research Essay

Requires students to critically analyse an important debate in western epistemology, with reference to at least two of the key thinkers whose work was examined in the unit.


LO1, LO2, LO3, LO4

GA4, GA5, GA8, GA9

Representative texts and references

Arendt, Hannah (1978). The Life of the Mind. San Diego: Harvest.

Davies, Brian (2014), Thomas Aquinas's ‘Summa Theologiae’: A Guide and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, Michel (2002), Archaeology of Knowledge. Transl. A.M. Sheridan Smith. London: Routledge.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2004), Truth and Method. Transl. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. London: Continuum.

Gregoric, Pavel (2012). Aristotle on the Common Sense. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Guyer, Paul. (2010). The Cambridge Companion to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hume, David (2007), An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John (1996), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Plato (1997), “Theaetetus” and “Republic”, In Plato: Complete Works. Eds. John Cooper & D.S. Hutchinson. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Sextus Empiricus (1990), Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Transl. R.G. Bury. Buffalo: Prometheus.

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