Rationalism and Empiricism

Spring 2004 MW 1:00—2:15, EC 32


J.      Michael Russell, Professor of Philosophy and Human Services


Note:  this syllabus is subject to change and is meant to give you a rough idea of what to expect in this course.  It is not offered as a binding contract. 


Office:  H-311-B, mailbox in H-312. 

Phone:  (714) 278-2752

Email jmrussell@fullerton.edu

Web:   http://jmichaelrussell.org

Office hours: 12-1:00 MTWR, appointments strongly advised as I will sometimes be in meetings elsewhere at these hours. 


Catalog description: The rationalism of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, and the empiricism of Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Prerequisites:  junior standing and completion of General Education requirements I-A, B, and C. 


The six thinkers covered in this class are of fundamental importance to anyone seriously interested in philosophy.  They also are thinkers any broadly educated person should know, because they are central contributors to the ideas that underlie the humanities, social, and natural sciences. Therefore students are welcome to use this course to fulfill general education objectives as an introduction to humanities (GE III-B-2) provided it is understood that the material is presented at a level that presumes a serious interest.


Text: Cummings, Robert, and Owen, David, Central Readings in the History of Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Kant ( Wadsworth, 1999, ISBN  0-534-52347-1)



Anticipated Schedule:

Week 1 Background to Rationalism

Weeks 2-3:   Descartes: skepticism, the cogito, thinking, God, two substances

Week 4 Descartes and Spinoza: one substance, God, self

Week 5 First exam (might be week 6).  Then: Spinoza: God, self, mind and body as attributes

Weeks 6-7 Spinoza & Leibniz, infinite substances, freedom.

Weeks 8  Background to Empiricism, Locke 

Weeks 9-10 Locke & Berkeley: a causal theory of perception, simple and complex ideas, primary and secondary qualities

Weeks 11-12: Berkeley, esse es percippi, minds and ideas, idealism.  Second exam.

Weeks 13-15: Hume, skepticism, self.

Final exam: Friday, May 28, 2:30-4:20.





Learning objectives:[1]

·         Be able to explain clearly each of the thinkers and concepts listed in the schedule above, and other related concepts.

·         Be able to demonstrate understanding of the fundamental contributions of these thinkers to our post Medieval and modern understanding of what it means to be a human being seeking knowledge, and prepared to appreciate these European foundations in a global context.

·         Appreciate the arguments that led these thinkers to their conclusions

·         Critique the implications and consequences of these theories

·         Develop ability and confidence in reading difficult text

·         Develop ability in philosophical writing

·         Appreciate the contemporary import of these historical figures



Anticipated outcome:

Students who complete this course will, thereby, have an enrichment of their understanding of the humanities, an understanding of key ideas of six major philosophers, and an improved capacity to discuss these things.  Philosophy is a very practical study with a reputation for being impractical: Outcomes of the course include increased ability and confidence in reading and analyzing very difficult but influential thinkers.  This sort of ability is of the utmost practicality, which is why philosophy is a good preparation for law school or virtually any profession not fooled by the myth of impracticality. You can tell that to members of your family.


Requirements and Means of Assessment:


Three examinations are required.  These are tentatively scheduled for the 5th week, the 12th week, and final exams week.  These will probably be in class, but may be on-line.  Writing quality will be considered in grading.  At the instructor’s option, essays weak because of quality of writing may be revised and resubmitted with the possibility of reconsideration of the grade.  The probable format of the exams will be this:  There will be two or three essay questions.  A question will begin with a passage from the text, selected by me.  I will also make reference to some idea I have addressed in lecture.  You will be asked to write about that passage in relationship to that idea.


You are expected to use Blackboard, and to be aware of announcements made there.  Once you are enrolled in this course you are automatically signed up for Blackboard with the email address provided to you by the University.  You can change this so that you use your preferred email address.  If you do not have access to a computer off campus there are computers available to you on campus.  For information on how to get to and use your Blackboard account, see:


http://blackboard.fullerton.edu/support/students/handouts/student%20handout.pdf   and:




For further assistance call the University’s computer help-line:  278-7777.



You are also expected to initiate a minimum of three interesting and substantive contributions to the discussion board on Blackboard, and to make a minimum of six interesting and relevant responses to contributions of your classmates.  Over and above the “substantive” contributions, you are encouraged to have fun with Blackboard discussions.  As with in-class participation, and other forms of interaction with me (such as electronically or in office), all this figures into my overall impression of you, and I may take that overall impression into consideration in determining your final grade.  Poor attendance figures negatively into my overall impression of you.  If you must miss a class, your showing me the courtesy of informing me in advance, or shortly after your absence, will lessen the negative impression. 


Because grades emphasize quality of writing you are encouraged to prepare for exams by frequently writing practice essays which express, evaluate, and compare major ideas presented in lecture and readings.  You are very welcome to submit practice writing to me in hard copy or (preferably) by email. 


To receive at least a grade of D, or "poor," you should be able to give some evidence of understanding some basic ideas from all the “objectives” identified above, be able to express these in at least minimally acceptable English, and be able to indicate some relevant personal opinion about some of this.


To receive at least a grade of C, or "acceptable but less than good," you should be able to do the above, with an acceptable demonstration of understanding the material, expressed at an acceptable level of writing.  It will help if I have a general impression of you as making a significant effort. The C student might have a better than C level of understanding, hampered by poor writing, or a better than C level of writing, hampered by poor grasp of content. In this course "C" does not mean "average" and there is no reason, in principle, why all students might not be graded as at least "good."


To receive at least a grade of B, or "good," you must have a generally good grasp of the material, generally express this well, and have some relevant and interesting ideas or formulations of your own. Strengths in two of these areas may balance out weakness in a third. It will help if I have an impression of you as attentive and in some way(s) participating.


To receive a grade of A, or "excellent," you must express yourself very well, demonstrate an understanding of main points and subtleties, and demonstrate insight or creativity or formulations or personal application or something indicative of excelling beyond work that is good. I should have an overall impression of you as someone with a good understanding of the material and as someone who has participated or contributed in class or on line or in some way.


Violations of academic honesty may result in failing the course and in further action via the Dean of Students.  Either at random or at my inclination, I may ask students to explain orally how they came by ideas expressed in their writing, and may use other techniques to detect plagiarism.  With subject matter discussed in so many books and in so many generations of student essays, academic dishonesty is a problem that undermines the teaching of a course of this sort.  .  Policies regarding academic dishonesty will follow those stated in the University Catalog, pages 95‑96. Basically, I expect written work to be your own, with collaboration appropriately acknowledged.


Make‑up examinations are possible when there is what I think a good reason for missing an exam.  However, as suggested above, "A" grades mean you excel by comparison with others who do good work, and it is hard to make that comparison if you don't take an exam under comparable conditions, so it is harder to convince me that you excelled.






[1] These objectives are intended to meet General Education requirements for Category III-B-2, which include the following goals for student learning:

a.        To understand the distinctive characteristics of the humanistic perspective

b.       To understand the historical and cultural factors, in a global context, that led to the development of the humanistic perspective.

c.        To understand the differences between the humanistic and other perspectives, as well as the differences among the humanistic disciplines.

d.       To understand and appreciate the contributions of the humanities to the development of the political and cultural institutions of contemporary society.

e.        To be familiar with and understand major texts (both written and oral), key figures, significant traditions and important themes in the humanities.

f.         To analyze the meaning of major texts (both written and oral)O from both Western and non-Western cultures, either in English or, if appropriate, in the language of the texts being analyzed.

To apply the humanistic perspective to values, experiences, and meanings  in one's own life, and demonstrate how understanding the humanities can shed light on what it means to be human today.