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Philosophy is the art of imagining alternatives.  William James

Spring Semester, 2019

Dr. Dennis M. Weiss

Office: HUM 154

Office Hours: MWF  12:00 - 12:50, T 2:00 - 3:30,

and by appointment

Office Phone: 815-1513

Course Syllabus: your daily reading and writing assignments


Course Description

The Western philosophical tradition is thought to have gotten underway with Socrates' immortalized claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. Ernst Cassirer argues that in this claim Socrates introduces a fundamental philosophical question that is to preoccupy subsequent philosophers: what does it mean to be a human being? What is the nature of man? It is this fundamental philosophical question that is at the center of this course. We shall seek to try and understand our nature as human beings by considering the historical and contemporary approaches comparing human beings to their nearest relatives: animals and machines. Through a close and careful reading of philosophical, scientific, and literary texts, we shall attempt to better understand our own nature as human beings. Our goals include:

  • learning to identify, develop, and critically evaluate philosophical arguments

  • learning how to carefully and critically read texts

  • understanding and assessing the philosophical background to discussions of human nature

  • understanding and assessing contemporary dominant approaches to understanding human nature

  • addressing the issue of whether we should enhance human nature

This course satisfies the Diversity Constellation in Generation Next General Education. 

Constellations are groupings of courses around broad themes that can be addressed using multi- and interdisciplinary perspectives. Constellations build upon the skills acquired in the Foundations courses and the base of knowledge and methodologies acquired in the Disciplinary Perspectives courses.  Constellations will allow students to apply higher-level thinking and communication skills while increasing the breadth and depth of their education.  The Constellations will be structured to help students integrate ideas from different disciplines, as well as the co-curricular, in an intentional way.  They will allow students see the connections between what they have learned in different general education courses, as well as help them make connections between the general education curriculum and their major. Students will take courses in a Constellation from minimum of three disciplines. The learning objectives for constellations are:

  1. Evaluate alternate, divergent, or contradictory perspectives or ideas.

  2. Engage in inquiry that provides new insight or insight that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

  3. Apply knowledge and methods from two or more disciplines to a single issue or problem.

  4. Make connections or create a synthesis that links two or more seemingly dissimilar contexts.

  5. Engage in critical reflection on their work and the process of its creation.

  6. Demonstrate appropriate collaborative work skills, and the ability to work responsibly alone or in the context of a group as required.

  7. Present themselves and their work professionally.


  • Can Animals and Machines Be Persons? Justin Leiber

  • Additional readings will be available via the web.

Note: Philosophy is still very much a text driven discipline. Much of our time in class will be spent analyzing and discussing texts. For this reason, you must bring your readings to class. This includes all textbook readings as well as online readings. Not having enough credit to print is an unacceptable excuse for failure to bring your readings. If you don't bring your readings to class you will not be able to adequately participate in our seminar and your grades will suffer.

  • My expectation is that you will have read assigned texts prior to coming to class and that you will be able to access them while in class, either as a hard printed copy or as an electronic document.

  • If you choose to access course documents electronically, you should do so on a device other than a smart phone (a pad or laptop). You should also know that, "In a review of educational research published by SAGE Journals in July, Singer and University of Maryland professor Patricia Alexander discovered that readers may not comprehend complex or lengthy material as well when they view it digitally as when they read it on paper." READ THE ARTICLE HERE

  • Philosophical writing is usually complex and lengthy, so whether you are accessing our course documents in print or electronic form, you should acquire good practices of annotation. Work on learning how to annotate, both in print and digital forms. There are many good pdf annotators available (I use and like PDF Expert) and you should avail yourself of one.

  • Harvard University has a good website I highly recommend you review: Interrogating Texts

Daily Micro Essays

You should immediately purchase a small package of 4x6 index cards (no smaller). With each new reading assignment, prior to that reading being discussed in class, I will ask you to write a brief, "micro" essay, usually analyzing some aspect of that day's reading assignment. Sometimes I will simply ask you to record your philosophical reactions to the reading. These micro essays serve a number of purposes: they motivate you to complete the reading and come to class, help to focus your reading, provide a study guide for your midterm and final, and stimulate class discussion. You should be prepared to share your micro essays with other members of the class during our class discussions. Your essays should be approximately150 words in length. Each day I will collect your card, review your essay to determine that you have adequately completed the assignment, record your having completed it, and return them to you the following class day. At the end of the semester I will award up to 100 points for these micro essays, deducting five points for each one you failed to turn in. 

What if I miss class? You can miss up to three micro essays with no penalty. You should count on saving these "misses" for days that you are sick or otherwise not able to make it to class. If you are sick or have to miss class for some other reason, you don't need to provide me with an excuse. You'll simply receive no credit for that day's micro essay. 

  • Micro essays must be completed before coming to class. 

  • No micro essays completed at the start of class or during class will be accepted. 

  • Essays can only be turned in on those days that you attend class. 

  • You cannot have other students turn your essays in for you. 

  • You can miss three micro essays without penalty.

  • If you miss no micro essays during the semester, I will award you 10 points for your good performance.

Essay Exams

Three times during the semester, you will be asked to write a series of essays assessing, reflecting, and expanding on the issues and materials discussed in class. These essays will presuppose your understanding of the material we have covered in class and will ask you to analyze arguments and philosophical theories and construct arguments of your own on issues relevant to the material discussed in class. The essays must be typed, double-spaced, and employ appropriate college-level writing skills. Late essays will be accepted up to one week past the due date but will be penalized ten points for each day late. More information regarding essay exams will be given in class on the appropriate days.

A Note on Moodle and Grades

Most of our course documents and course information is available through this webpage and an additional webpage (linked at the top of this page) that has our daily assignments on them. I will occasionally use Moodle but don't use it daily. I especially won't be uploading grades to Moodle. I believe that as adult critical thinkers, you should be able to track and monitor your progress in this course, and that includes keeping track of your performance and your grades. And therefore I won't post grades to Moodle.

Electronic Submissions

Please note that I generally do not accept electronic submissions of assigned work. You are responsible for insuring that I receive a hardcopy of your work by the assigned deadline. I may occasionally ask you to submit work via Moodle, in which case you must submit a pdf.

Course Engagement

In her article "Feminist Epistemology" Naomi Scheman argues that it is misleading to think of epistemic agency as ideally exercised in solitude. Knowing and coming to know, Scheman contends, are social and interactive. "They are things we do, and things we are appropriately held responsible for doing, in social and cultural settings that variously help and hinder our doing them well." I wholeheartedly agree with Scheman that knowing is a practice that ideally occurs in a social setting. Each of us is responsible for participating in a variety of communities of knowers and it is a responsibility we ought to take seriously. Our class is one such community, a community in which we must actively participate in the social practice of knowing. To encourage your participation in this community of learners and to encourage you to come to class prepared to discuss that day’s issues, at the end of the semester, you will receive a grade based on your course engagement throughout the semester. The grade you receive will be based on, among other things, your regular attendance and engagement in class, your improvement over the course of the semester, and, to the greatest extent, your willingness to contribute in a meaningful way to the daily class discussion. Other indices of an engaged student include:

  • Your willingness to engage the texts and issues associated with the course in the spirit of learning more about yourself and the world you live in.

  • Your ability to respect a diversity of opinion as demonstrated by conducting yourself in a civil manner and by refraining from interruptions and ridicule of others.

  • Your ability to listen and participate during class.

  • Your ability to offer relevant, on-topic commentary.

  • Your ability to arrive at class on time and prepared.

  • Your ability to focus on class during class time. Habitual entrances and exits during class sessions will result in a grade penalty, as will holding private discussions during class and disruptions arising from cell phones, watches, pagers, and the like.

  • Your ability to avoid complaining and asking questions whose answers have already been provided (e.g., “Can I make up the quiz?” and “What is the response for next time?”).

  • Your ability to let me know ahead of time if you have to miss an appointment or conference.  


Course Engagement Rubric: This engagement rubric details how you can assess your preparation and participation in the course and how I will award you points at the end of the semester.

Activities outside of regular class hours

As part of the regular course requirements, you will be expected to occasionally participate in events outside of the regular class hours. You may be asked to watch videos on your own time and attend evening events. Additionally, as part of the English and Humanities Department's efforts to encourage student participation in college cultural activities, I will ask that you attend two cultural events during the semester. These cultural events can include lecture and film series, theatrical or music events, galley exhibitions, disciplinary lectures or events. You can find information on the College's cultural events on my.ycp, on the College's website, and through other information access points. Following your attendance, you should write a brief 250 word reflective analysis of the event you attended describing what event you attended and your reflective thoughts about it. This should ideally be turned in within one week of the date of the event, so that you don't forget the details. You will receive 10 points for each of the two events you attend and write-up.

Class Attendance

While I won't be taking roll in class each day, your micro essays will provide me with a record of your attendance. Attending class is a key factor in college success. Not only does regular attendance help you succeed, it also helps the class work well and succeed. As my class participation guidelines make clear, a classroom is a community of learners in which we are all engaged in mastering material. It's far easier to do that when everyone attends regularly. When you fail to attend class, you lose points for your missed micro essays and your class participation grade suffers. Additionally, if you miss the equivalent of one's week's classes, your final grade may be lowered by one-half grade (.5). If you miss the equivalent of two weeks' classes, your final grade may be lowered by one full grade. If you miss any class, please be responsible for getting class notes, assignments, etc. from another student in class. It may help to have available telephone numbers or e-mail addresses of one or two classmates.

E-Mail Addresses

You are expected to have an active York College e-mail address and to check it regularly during the semester. I will send e-mail only to your address. If you wish to use other addresses, such as private internet service provided addresses, you should set up your YCP address so that it automatically forwards your mail to that address.

Your Responsibilities

You should explore the following links so that you better understand the standards that we will adhere to in this course.


It is your responsibility to remain apprised of all assignments and any changes in the syllabus or grading policies. I reserve the right to make changes to class policies and the syllabus as I deem necessary. I expect that you will be in class daily, having prepared your work and ready to discuss the material. 

You should obtain the names and contact information from several of your fellow classmates so that you have someone to contact if you must miss class. You should not depend on either e-mailing or phoning me to learn what you missed in class or find out your assignment for the following class. 

You should strictly observe the following policies:

  • Attendance is not optional but strictly required.

  • Class begins promptly at the appointed time. Don’t be late.

  • Students should come to class prepared, having read and completed the day’s assignment, ready to discuss it.

  • You should bring the day's readings with you to class each day.

  • There is to be no sleeping in class. Stay awake and alert.

  • Do not leave the room during the class period without prior permission.

  • Do not carry on private conservations while class is in progress.

  • Treat all class members with respect and civility.

  • Make sure that all cell phones and other electronic equipment is turned off.

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