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WPHI201 Truth and Knowledge in Western Philosophy

Unit rationale, description and aim

This unit is concerned with questions of value that look beyond the instrumental or commercial. It examines the nature of moral and aesthetic worth, and the implications for right human action. Ideas around value are at the heart of debates in western ethics and aesthetics, about what really matters in life, and how humans should act in response. Students will study key ancient Greek and medieval texts by figures such as Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas that address the ultimate nature of morality and aesthetic value as a 'reaching toward' the transcendent good and beautiful. These ideas frame discussions concerning what constitutes human virtue and natural beauty. Students will also engage with the works of Enlightenment philosophers including Hume and Kant, who focus on the source of these assessments, whether through rational judgement, sentiment or intuition. More recent major works, including those by Mill and Nietzsche, will be examined with a view to their distinct interpretations and assessments of moral and aesthetic value.

The unit aims to facilitate sophisticated student understanding of the issues involved in this field of philosophy and the positions on them taken by major western philosophical thinkers, as well as to further enhance students' skills in critical analysis and argumentative evaluation.

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 - Identify and discuss some of the central problems in western ethics and aesthetics and major positions and theories taken in response by some key philosophers in the tradition (GA5)

LO2 - Use clear English expression effectively to develop coherent and consistent positions in relation to western ethics and aesthetics (GA5; GA9)

LO3 - Critically analyse debates in the history of western ethics and aesthetics (GA3; GA4; GA8)

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

Graduate attributes

GA3 - apply ethical perspectives in informed decision making

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: 

  • conceptions of the good: desire, happiness and transcendence;
  • ethics and virtue;
  • ethical reasoning and the passions;
  • duty and obligation;
  • happiness and the maximisation of utility;
  • ethical intention and intuition;
  • the concept of natural law;
  • conceptions of the beautiful and the sublime;
  • aesthetic experience through nature and art;
  • beauty and morality;
  • ethics, aesthetics and religious insight.

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 extract and interpret key ideas raised in the seminal texts studied; they will learn to critically analyse and evaluate the philosophical theories enacted in these texts; and they will also further develop their skills in developing comprehensive and acute positions of their own in response to these texts. Such positions will cross-reference with ideas, texts and traditions encountered in other units of study within their course (e.g., within western literature, art and religion), 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

The strong emphasis on textual analysis is continued in this unit and its assessment strategy. The assessment in this third-year unit is designed to require students to demonstrate their critical understanding of the key ethical and aesthetic concepts and theories covered in the unit (LO1) through critical analysis and evaluation 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 further develop critical analytical skills, the ability to differentiate argumentative strategies, as well as to offer points of critique that are well-grounded in the texts. Students are required to choose sections drawn from two assigned texts in order to analyse the commonalities and the points of divergence between them, thereby effectively opening a dialogue between them in which the reasons for divergences are analysed. 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. This task includes the requirement to critically analyse and evaluate the positions developed in the seminal texts under consideration concerning western theories of ethics and aesthetics.

Overview of assessments

Brief Description of Kind and Purpose of Assessment TasksWeightingLearning OutcomesGraduate Attributes

Comparative written analysis task I 

Requires students to analyse and critique two divergent approaches encountered in the unit to a key theme or problem in western ethics or aesthetics.


LO1, LO2, LO3

GA3, GA4, GA5, GA8, GA9

Comparative written analysis task 2

Requires students to analyse and critique two divergent approaches encountered in the unit to a second key theme or problem in western ethics or aesthetics.


LO1, LO2, LO3

GA3, GA4, GA5, GA8, GA9

Research Essay

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


LO1, LO2, LO3, LO4

GA3, GA4, GA5, GA8, GA9

Representative texts and references

Aristotle (2002). “Nicomachean Ethics” and “Poetics”. In Aristotle: The Complete Works. 2 volumes. Ed. Jonathon Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hughes, Fiona (2010). Kant's 'Critique of Aesthetic Judgement': A Reader's Guide. London: Continuum.

Hume, David (2014), A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shaftesbury, Lord (Anthony Ashley Cooper) (2000), Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, Immanuel (2018), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Transl. Allen Wood. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Mill, John Stuart (2017). Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Murdoch, Iris (2013). The Sovereignty of the Good. London: Routledge.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (2017), On the Genealogy of Morality, 3rd ed. Transl. Keith Ansell-Pearson and Carol Diethe (. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Osbourne, Thomas (2020). Aquinas's Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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