My Philosophy Degree in a Nutshell
A retrospective at all the courses I took at UMBC for my Philosophy B.A.
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I did a B.A. in Philosophy at UMBC. I loved it so much that I wanted to detail what I learned to urge other people to consider taking Philosophy at their university at least at some point in their academic career. I tried to list books when possible, but if the class was assorted readings, then I didn’t bother because syllabi are protected intellectual property of the professor, but general book recommendations are not.
The philosophy major consists of at least 36 credits, and this is how I did it:
One course in logic:
One course in ethics:
Two courses in the history of philosophy:
One course in metaphysics and epistemology:
At least two courses at the 400 Level:
- PHIL 478: Philosophy & Evolution
- PHIL 472: Advanced Topics in the Philosophy of Science: Philosophy of Space and Time
At least two courses at the 300 or 400 level:
Then I took these courses just for fun (also elective credits):
- PHIL 100: Introduction to Philosophy
- PHIL 152: Introduction to Ethics
- PHIL 353: Morality and Psychology
- PHIL 345: Philosophy of Language
- PHIL 356: Philosophy of Law
- PHIL 375: Philosophy of Medicine
PHIL 100: Introduction to Philosophy
An introductory philosophy course can take so many different forms and it all depends on the individual teaching philosophy of the professor. They can try to introduce you to a bunch of different subfields of philosophy, or they can just try to hone your philosophical intuitions as a way to prepare you for further philosophical studies. In this course, we mostly focused on Metaphysics, but I think this was good because while they are fairly abstract problems, they are things that people usually have thought about at some point in their life.
This class was not required for my major, but you do have to take one Philosophy course with a grade of C or above in order to take upper level Philosophy courses at UMBC. Additionally, I had shadowed this class with Professor Thomas as a high school senior, and I liked it so much that it was one of the reasons why I chose to go to UMBC.
- Can we be sure that the outside world exists?
- Descartes’ Evil Demon
- Berkeley’s Idealism
- Mediate and Immediate Perception
- What is a mind? What is consciousness?
- Cartesian Dualism & The Mind-Body Problem
- The Problem of Other Minds (Russell)
- Reductionism (Nagel)
- Searle’s Chinese Room
- What constitutes personal identity?
- Ship of Theseus
- Mental (Memories)
- Do we have free will?
- Religious and Scientific Determinism
- Does God exist?
- Argument from First Cause
- Argument from Design
- Pascal’s Wager
- Logical and Evidential Problems of Evil
- Free Will Solution (Evil happens as a byproduct of our gift of free will.)
- Big Picture Solution (We need evil to grow.)
PHIL 152: Introduction to Ethics
Almost all Philosophy degrees require a course in Ethics, and while this course did not satisfy that requirement (it needed to be a higher level course in Ethics), I really liked this class because Ethics is mostly about studying how to live your best life (“how to live the good life”). The course had lots of lively discussions about morality and how to make good decisions (see: The Trolley Problem).
- Where does moral truth come from?
- Cultural Relativism
- Divine Command Theory
- Euthyphro Dilemma (Plato/Socrates)
- How should we think of making moral choices?
- Hedonic Calculus (Bentham)
- Categorical Imperative (Kant)
- Virtue Ethics (Aristotle)
- Why be moral? What is a social contract?
- Hobbes Leviathan
- Rawls Justice as Fairness
PHIL 357: Philosophy and Human Rights
This class was the course that satisfied my Ethics requirement for my degree. I had never thought about human rights very much or the philosophical underpinnings of them before this course, but I am glad I took the course. As someone who thinks a decent amount about AI ethics, I think that this course content will definitely become more important/prevalent if/when we can create artificial consciousness.
- Are rights natural or given to us by a society?
- Natural Rights
- Human Rights
- Do rights give us something new or protect something that we already have?
- Positive Rights
- Negative Rights
- Rights as Duties
- Who deserves rights?
- Consciousness (Do animals deserve rights?)
- Are rights unalienable/absolute?
- Can you give them away?
- Can you revoke them for punishment?
PHIL 321: History of Philosophy: Ancient
The UMBC Philosophy degree has two history course requirements: Ancient and Modern. I wanted to take Ancient pretty early because philosophy is a tradition of ideas, so knowing what ideas came first is really helpful. While most of the theories of the Ancient thinkers are no longer held, my professor said something that stuck with me, “Just because it is Old, does not mean it is Bad.” We have a tendency to write off wrong theories, especially that have since fallen out of favor, but especially in Philosophy, it just represents the progress of ideas.
Main Topics: We read Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics while thinking about some of the following questions:
- What makes an action pious? (Plato: Euthyphro)
- How can we acquire knowledge? (Plato: Meno)
- Is the soul immortal? (Plato: Meno, Phaedo)
- What is the goal of life? (Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics)
- What is virtue? Are we responsible for our actions? (Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics)
- What are causes? (Aristotle: Physics)
- What is the soul? (Aristotle: De Anima)
- Should we fear death? (Epicurus)
- Are our actions free? Are we morally blameworthy? (Stoics)
PHIL 322: History of Philosophy: Modern
This was the second of my history requirements. Modern Philosophy does not mean philosophy done in the 21st century, but rather around the 17-18th centuries. We read Decartes, Cavendish, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and Kant, to name a few. The focus of this class was much more on metaphysics and epistemology, we did not focus on Ethics a lot, whereas Ancient thinkers were definitely grappling with it more, or at least in the reading selections from class. During this semester we were sent home for an early Spring Break to never return back to campus due to COVID-19, because of this some readings were dropped because it was harder to teach material online for teachers who had never done it before.
Main Topics: We focused on some of the following questions:
- Does God exist? What is the nature of God? (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz)
- What is the world made of? Are mind and body different substances? (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz)
- How do things interact with each other? (Spinoza, Leibniz, Conway)
- Understanding and Knowledge (Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant)
- How do we understand things?
- How do we organize knowledge?
- What are the objects of knowledge?
- What are the aims of knowledge?
- How can we be sure of what we know?
PHIL 369: Philosophy of Humor
This was one of my favorite classes that I took as a part of my Philosophy degree, and one that was actually very practically useful. I am someone who loves comedy, I think of myself as someone who is pretty funny, but I also liked to be fairly analytic about the jokes that I told, or why I laughed at the jokes that other people told. This is also one of the first classes where I truly began to form my own philosophical opinions on the topics that we discussed in class (I believe in an Incongruity Theory about humor). In my other classes, I either did not know enough, or felt too insecure in my abilities to form my own opinions and be able to defend them as well.
- What is humor?
- Laughter (a reaction to humor) vs humor (the object itself)
- Superiority Theory (Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Hutcheson, Bergson)
- Incongruity Theory (Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard)
- Relief Theory (Santayana, Spencer, Freud)
- Philosophy of Jokes (Carroll, Cohen)
- What makes something a joke? Can anything be a joke?
- Are there different types of jokes?
- What is the purpose of a joke?
- Do jokes have to be funny (i.e. make you laugh)?
- Do you need to be able to understand a joke?
- Is there an optimal interpretation of a joke?
- Ethics of Humor (de Sousa, Boskin, Wilson)
- When is it wrong to laugh? Is it problematic to laugh at something tragic or painful?
- How should the butts of humor respond?
- How do jokes reinforce systematic oppression?
- What is “offensive” humor?
- Are there some subjects too sensitive to joke about?
- Are there some jokes that only certain people are able to tell?
PHIL 373: Metaphysics
This class fulfilled my Metaphysics and Epistemology requirement for my degree. I considered taking Epistemology, but I thought that my classes thus far had more of a focus on Epistemology than Metaphysics. I think that the current work in Epistemology is very interesting, but on the whole I find Metaphysics more interesting, especially in regards to Ontology. I really enjoyed this course, and my final essay for the course, titled “Holes: Pretty Interesting Movie / Pretty Tough Ontological Question” was probably my favorite essay to write and think about in all of undergrad.
- Does the external world exist?
- What are properties? Are individual properties manifestations of some universal/prototypical property?
- Property Nominalism
- Property Universalism
- What are holes? Are they entities of their own?
- What are surfaces?
- What is identity?
- Spatio-temporal continuity
- Is time travel possible? What are the paradoxes that could arise?
PHIL 399: Special Topics in Philosophy: Philosophy of Mathematics
This class counted towards a course at the 300 or 400 level, but really I just thought that was a super interesting course that was not regularly taught through the department, so I wanted to take advantage of it. A graduate student from Johns Hopkins University was teaching this class, among others, and he was really accessible and knowledgeable about the topic. While I am not the most mathematically inclined person, I find the Philosophy of Mathematics truly fascinating and while this course was challenging at times, I am really glad that I took it. This semester was the first semester we were fully online due to COVID-19, so people were not very talkative in class, and there were only about 9 people in this class, so it was definitely felt.
- Philosophy of Mathematics: Selected Readings by Benacerraf and Putnam
- An Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mathematics by Marcus and McEvoy
- What are the schools of thought in the Philosophy of Mathematics?
- What are mathematical propositions about?
- Do mathematical objects exist?
- Is math about real mathematical objects or just manipulation of symbols?
- Do mathematical objects exist independent of human thought?
- In virtue of what are “mathematical truths” true?
- What is infinity? Can it exist in reality or only in theory?
- How can we prove mathematical truths?
- Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem
- Continuum Hypothesis
- Rules (Wittgenstein + Kripke)
PHIL 346: Deductive Logic
The logic requirement is just to take this one-off class, and it is only offered in Fall or Winter, so I decided to just take it in its compressed, accelerated version during the Winter term. I went in knowing that I wasn’t super interested in logic, but to my surprise, I enjoyed the class more than I expected. I am still not a huge person on formal logic, but I think that I do understand why some people really like it, and it has improved my reasoning ability a tad. This class was fully online and most of the work in the class was done on our own via homework or quizzes.
- Validity and Soundness
- Symbolic Logic
- What are the logical connectives and what do they do?
- What are the Rules of Inference?
- How can we simplify logical expressions?
- Predicate Logic
- Bounded Variables/Quantifiers
- Converting natural language into Predicate Logic
PHIL 353: Psychology of Morality
This class didn’t really count for anything toward my Philosophy degree, just my total credit count for my double degree. Mostly, I just wanted to take this class because it seemed like a unique perspective on Ethics, a subject matter that I had wanted to study a bit more. This semester was also fully online, but by now teachers had gotten the hang of online instruction, which was good. Instead of reading essays or from a textbook all the time, we also read some published books which I had a blast reading.
- The Elephant in the Brain by Simler and Hanson
- The Righteous Mind by Haidt
- The Geography of Morals by Flanagan
- Is there such a thing as a selfless act?
- Psychological Egoism (Feinberg)
- Self-Deception & Signaling
- Confabulation & Modularity of the Mind
- Social Intuitionism
- Moral Foundations Theory
- Can people be morally responsible for the things they do if there is no free will?
- Moral Responsibility (G. Strawson & P.F. Strawson)
- Righteous Anger
PHIL 478: Philosophy & Evolution
This class was my first 400 level Philosophy class for the 400 level requirements for my degree. It was certainly a step up in the amount of work, but I think that was just because it was such a heavily structured class that was online. The real step up from the 300 and 400 level was the amount of unguided readings. We were expected to be able to read and parse fairly dense philosophical reading and present the arguments in a concise manner, as well as being able to critique the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments. This class content was super interesting to me and continued my interest in Evolution as a whole that started when I took BIOL 142 which was Ecology & Evolution.
- What is evolution?
- Spandrels vs Adaptationism
- What is the level of selection of evolution?
- Individual Selection
- Group Selection
- Gene-Centered Selection (Dawkins)
- Multi-Level Selection
- Is Evolutionary Theory science?
- Falsification as Science (Popper)
- Scientific Prediction
- Sociobiology/Genetic Determinism
- Modularity of Mind
- Evolutionary Psychology
- Social Darwinism
- Evolutionary Ethics
- Evolution of Morality
- Naturalistic Fallacy
PHIL 345: Philosophy of Language
I really enjoy Philosophy of X courses, and Philosophy of Language was one of those courses that I wanted to take so badly, so when I saw that it was being offered, I immediately registered for it. This class made me a better philosopher for sure, being able to see the history of ideas so clearly in the field allowed me to better contextualize and critique the arguments. I also became a better conversationalist and dialogue facilitator after I learned about Conversational Implicature when we read Grice. Philosophy of Language was equal parts getting really nitty gritty about specific parts of language, as well as thinking about how we use language and why, both of which I found equally interesting for very different reasons. This was the first time back in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I did not want to miss a single class because the content was so interesting and engaging.
- Is linguistic behavior sufficient for language?
- Turing Test
- Searle’s Chinese Room
- How can finite minds produce infinite language?
- Mill Reference
- Fregean Sense and Reference
- What’s the connection between evidence and meaning?
- Verification Principle
- Logical Positivism
- Do we say what we mean?
- Gricean Implication
- Cooperative Principle
- What are proper names?
- Causal Theory of Reference
- Twin Earth
- How do we use language?
- Austin: How to do Things with Words
- Private Language
PHIL 472: Advanced Topics in the Philosophy of Science: Philosophy of Space and Time
This class was my second and last 400 level Philosophy class I needed to fulfill the 400 level requirements for my degree. This course was also taught by a Johns Hopkins graduate student, just like my Philosophy of Mathematics course, but this professor had a different idea for the class. Since this was a higher level special topics class, he wanted to treat it more like a graduate seminar. That meant that there were no tests, only one paper and a presentation that was all of our grade. This was daunting, but took a lot of the pressure to understand every single detail in the course, because we could choose what we wanted to write our paper on. I ended up writing my paper on the Theoretical Virtues of the Leading Theories of the Metaphysics of Time because it was a fun application of the Philosophy of Science on the Metaphysics of Time. There were a number of times in lecture where I was super lost because there was a lot of physics and highly abstract conceptual discussions, but I learned so much during this course.
- Classical Space and Time in Galileo, Newton and Leibniz
- What is space?
- How do you calculate distance between two points?
- What about physics is relative?
- Special Relativity
- General Relativity
- What is the relation of space and time?
- How do we perceive time?
- Specious present
- What is the ontology of time?
- Growing Block Theory
PHIL 356: Philosophy of Law
The Philosophy of Space and Time was the last class I needed to complete my Philosophy degree, but I still wanted to take Philosophy classes, so both classes this semester were just for fun (as well as elective credits). This class was unique among the courses I had taken because this was the most applied. We talked about Supreme Court cases and had lots of discussions about the various theories of jurisprudence. I have no interest in going into a career in law, but instead thought that I could become a better citizen by getting to know theories of law and justice.
- What is the nature of law?
- What makes a law just?
- What gives a law power?
- Legal Positivism vs Natural Law
- Should morality be involved in law?
- How do we/should we interpret the Constitution?
- What makes you legally responsible for something?
- What makes a good legal system?
- How should we punish people? How should we decide that punishment?
- Should the death penalty be allowed?
- What is freedom? What is liberty?
PHIL 375: Philosophy of Medicine
This was the first time in awhile that this course was offered at UMBC, so I jumped on the chance to take this class. Through taking Philosophy & Evolution and Philosophy of Space and Time I realized how much I like the Philosophy of Science and the various sub-fields within it. This class was online, so it was equal parts reading and lecture time. The book that she had us read was really good, it was a great introduction to the field of the Philosophy of Medicine and provided a nice overview of a lot of important topics/debates.
- What is health?
- What is a disease? What makes something a disease?
- What is the aim of medicine?
- What is death?
- What is causation?
- What are (natural) kinds?
- How is evidence collected, interpreted, and used in medicine?
- What is inference? How is it used?
- Is psychiatry care or control?