Philosophy 1200: Introduction to Philosophy

Memorial University of Newfoundland

Class Time and Location: MWF 11-1150 am.
Instructor: Dr. James Scott Johnston (, 864-6924.
Office Hours: MWF 10-1050 am ED 5002 in Hickman Hall or, if necessary, by special appointment.
Prerequisite: At least one semester of course work.


This course will introduce you to the major branches, some key texts and authors, and problems of philosophy. We will group the branches, key texts, and authors together with their ‘problems’ around a central theme. This theme is Philosophy, for and against. Along the way we will have recourse to the history of philosophy, and especially metaphysics from ancient times to the 20th century.
We will begin our course with Socrates/Plato, and the difficulty of defending what philosophy is and does in the face of criticism and skepticism. In this we turn to Plato’s middle dialogue, the Gorgias. We then continue by examining a central issue of metaphysics: ontology or, the study of being. We will examine closely one of the chapters in Aristotle’s Metaphysics: the chapter on Primary Being; for his understanding set the tone for the next thousand years of philosophy.
By the early middle ages, philosophy had come under withering criticism and we see how one Christian theologian musters his intellectual and moral courage through the use of, and contemplation with, philosophy. This is Boethius and the tract he wrote on the basis of his struggles is The Consolation of Philosophy.
The so-called modern age heralds a change in direction for philosophy. The move away from theological matters to matters of mind, self, and knowledge begins. We will look at Rene Descartes revitalization of philosophy in the Discourse on Method, through his analysis of the role of the thinking self and the importance of getting a philosophical method just right. Then we will turn to a late 18th century German thinker, Immanuel Kant, who in the Critique of Pure Reason claimed that for metaphysics to once again be the queen of the sciences that it once was, a severe limitation on the reach of reason was required. Once accomplished, metaphysics would find its place once again settled and philosophy would emerge as a proper system. By the mid-19th century, distaste for grand, philosophical systems had emerged. We see this particularly with Karl Marx, the writer of the German Ideology. Sweeping metaphysical and theological systems of thought are the target, and Marx uses all his powers of rhetoric to demolish them.
Our last two thinkers emerge at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, respectively. Friedrich Nietzsche has always been thought of as the destroyer of God, metaphysics, and indeed, philosophy. We see this particularly in his philosophical novel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. John Dewey has been thought of a patient reconstructor of a (chastened) philosophy that pays a great deal of attention to biology, sociology, and psychology. Dewey’s revisioning of philosophy is succinctly presented in Reconstruction in Philosophy. We will see what is left of philosophy in the first half of the 20th century with these two thinkers.

Studying these thinkers gives us an opportunity to delve into various systems or schools of thought. The schools of thought we will discuss as move through the thinkers are:

1) Realism
2) Platonism
3) Transcendental Idealism
4) Marxism
5) Materialism
6) Existentialism
7) Pragmatism
8) Naturalism

We will also concentrate heavily on the question of metaphysics; what it means, how it emerges in key texts and authors, and whether, in the final analysis, it is worth pursuing.

Plato: Gorgias
Aristotle, Metaphysics book Lambda.
Boethius: the Consolation of Philosophy
Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method
Kant The Critique of Pure Reason, A, B preface
Karl Marx , The German Ideology part 1
Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Dewey: Reconstruction in Philosophy

Additional Resources:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Jim Pryor Guide to Writing a Philosophy Paper)


Quiz: 5% (end of week 2-beginning of week 3)
One writing assignment, broken into four distinct phases

Mid-term: 15% (terms, short answer)
Final: 20% (terms, short answer)

Writing assignment phase 1: 10% due end of week 4
Writing assignment phase 2: 10% due end of week 7
Writing assignment phase 3: 30 % due end of week 10
Writing assignment phase 4: 10% due last day of class

Writing will be broken into four parts-

Assignment 1 annotated bibliography (3-4 pages)
Assignment 2: introduction, thesis statement, and working bibliography (2-3 pages)
Assignment 3: rough draft of paper (10 pages)
Assignment 4: complete and final draft of paper (10-12 pages, including bibliography)

The Question on which you will write is:

What was philosophy thought to be in X thinker or period? What is it in Y thinker or period? What changes in thinking (not external or historical events) account for the differences?

So, for example, if Plato thought X about philosophy, and Dewey thinks Y about philosophy, what are these differences? And what changes presumably have led to Dewey thinking Y? Or: if existentialism (Nietzsche) thought X about philosophy and pragmatism (Dewey) thought Y about philosophy, what are these differences? And what changes presumably have led to pragmatism thinking Y? (you won’t have to spell out all of the changes—just a few major ones).


A: Excellent 80-100%
B: Good 65-79%
C: Satisfactory 55-64%
D: Minimally Acceptable 50-54%
F: Failing below 50%

Note on Marking Papers:

As much attention as possible will be devoted to marking papers for form as well as content (indeed, form and content are not properly separable, and clear development of a thesis depends on a sound and effective writing style.) I will use a rubric, which will be made available before the third stage of the writing assignment.

Use of Recording Devices in the Classroom:

I am open to students using recording devices provided they clear their use with me beforehand.

Intellectual Honesty:

Students are reminded of the University policy on intellectual honesty, especially that part which pertains to plagiarism and self-plagiarism (see the Memorial University Calendar p. 63). Plagiarism and self-plagiarism are forms of academic fraud; complaints or allegations of such are subject to the adjudication of the Senate Discipline Committee.

Statement on Students with Disabilities:

Students with permanent or temporary disabilities who would like to discuss classroom accommodations are asked to see the instructor as soon as possible.

Class Syllabus:

Week 1 (Jan 5-9th)
Introduction to Philosophy, go over syllabus, answer questions (1 class)

The Branches of Philosophy (1 class)

Leading questions of Philosophy/informal Logic (1 class)
Logical questions
Metaphysical questions
Moral questions
Epistemic questions
Aesthetic questions
Background Reading: Subjectivist and Objectivist fallacies (online)

Week 2 (Jan 12th-)

School of Thought: Realism (Metaphysics)
Plato: Gorgias (2-3classes)

Quiz end of week 2

Weeks 3-4 (Jan 19th-Jan 30th)
The Ancient Philosophical World/Medieval Philosophical World
School of Thought: Aristotelianism (Realism), natural theology
Aristotle, Metaphysics Book Lambda (1-2 classes)
Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy (3-4 classes)

First Writing Assignment due end of week 4

Week 5 (Feb 2nd-Feb 6th)
School of Thought: Realism (Rationalism)
Descartes: Discourse on Method (2-3 classes)

Week 6 (Feb 9th-Feb 13th)
School of Thought: Idealism
Kant: Critique of Pure Reason, Preface A/B (2-3 classes)

Feb 16th-20th Mid-term week: Mid-term Exam

Week 7 (Feb 23rd-Feb 27th)
Marx : The German Ideology, Book I. (2-3 classes)

Week 8-9 (March 2nd-March 13th)
Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (5-6 classes)
School of thought: Existentialism

Second Writing Assignment due end of week 7

Week 10-11 (March 16th-March 27th)
Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (5-6 Classes)
John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy
School of Thought: Pragmatism, naturalism

Third Writing Assignment due end of week 10

Week 12: Wrap-up/class discussion/Final exam review
What was philosophy and why did it create such controversy? (1 class)

Complete and Final Draft of Writing Assignment due last class

Final Exam


Faculty of Education

230 Elizabeth Ave, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1B 3X9

Postal Address: P.O. Box 4200, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1C 5S7

Tel: (709) 864-8000