Phil 238: Philosophy in Literature

MWF 9-9:50

Offered by Sara Bernstein (

Spring 2007


What is time? Can it move backwards? Can one travel backwards through it? If something is conceivable, does that make it possible? Are you the same person through time? What makes you the same person through time? Is reality distinct from reality-as-we-know-it? Are humans good or evil?  This course will examine these questions as posed by literature, and as answered by philosophy.


Course Texts:             Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams

                                    Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths

                                    Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Double

                                    Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics

                                    Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

                                    Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

                                    Voltaire, Candide

                                    John Perry, Dialogue on Good, Evil, and the Existence of God


... and numerous others, available on e-reserve.


Course Requirements:


One short paper, 3-4 pages, due February 16.                             20%

In-class midterm exam, Friday, March 2.                                       30%

One short paper, 3-4 pages, due April 4.                                      20%

Cumulative final exam, Friday, May 11.                                         30%


See bottom for notes on extra credit.




Philosophy and literature: partners-in-crime or ships passing in the night?  


            Jan 10:            Introduction.


What is time?


            Lightman: it can bend in a loop! It can repeat endlessly! It can move backwards! It can have holes! It can slow down and speed up!.....


            Jan 12:            Lightman, Einstein's Dreams, 8-69.


            *Jan 15:          MLK Day. No class.


            Jan 17:            Lightman, Einstein's Dreams, 70-111


            *Jan 19           Lightman, Einstein's Dreams, 112-179.  No class.


            Lewis: Fasten your seat belts.


            Jan 22             Lightman, continued; Lewis, "The Paradoxes of Time Travel"



            Jan 24             Lewis, continued


            McTaggart: There is no spoon time.


            Jan 26             McTaggart, "The Unreality of Time"                       


            Jan 29             McTaggart, continued; Time wrap-up.                   Time Extra Credit Due.


Are you the same person across time?


            Kakfa: Sure! ...If by "the same person," you mean "the same-'person'-but-cockroach."


            Jan 31             Kafka, "The Metamorphosis"                                  


            Feb 2              Kafka, continued; Dostoyevsky, The Double        (ch 1-4)


            Dostoyevsky: Yes! No! Wait, let me ask my crazy alter-ego.


            Feb 5              Dostoyevsky, The Double (continued)                   (ch 5-9)


            Feb 7              Dostoyevsky, The Double (continued)                   (ch 10-13)


            Parfit: Possibly! But the actual "you" might not survive.


            Feb 9              Parfit, "Personal Identity"  (e-reserve)


            Feb 12            Parfit, continued


            Shoemaker: Yes, if you have your own memories.


            Feb 14            Shoemaker, "Persons and their Pasts"  (e-reserve)


            Feb 16            Shoemaker, continued                                             PAPER DUE.  Personal Identity Extra Credit Due.



Do you have free will?


            Borges: you have choices. Does that count?       


            Feb 19            Borges, "The Garden of Forking Paths"     


            Chisholm: Yes! If your act was agent-caused and not event-caused.  


            Feb 21            Chisholm, "Human Freedom and the Self" (e-reserve)


            Feb 23            Chisholm, continued


            P.K. Dick: Nope.       


            Feb 26            P.K. Dick, "Minority Report" (e-reserve)


            Dennett: Maybe a little.      


            Feb 28            Dennett, "I Could Not Have Done Otherwise—So What?" (e-reserve)   Free Will Extra Credit Due.


            Mar 2              MIDTERM EXAM.


If something is conceivable, is it possible?


            Mar 5              Calvino, Cosmicomics, "The Distance of the Moon" through "A Sign in Space"


            Mar 7              Calvino, Cosmicomics, "All at One Point" through "Games Without End"


            Mar 9              Calvino, Cosmicomics, "The Aquatic Uncle" through "The Dinosaurs"


[Spring Break]


            Mar 19           Calvino, Cosmicomics, "The Form of Space" through "The Spiral"


         Yablo: yes, if "conceivability" is narrowly construed.    


            Mar 21           Yablo, "Is Conceivability a Guide to Possibility?" (e-reserve)


            Mar 23           Yablo, continued                                                                                          Conceivability and Possibility Extra Credit Due.


What is reality?


            Plato: it's like shadows on a cave wall.     


            Mar 26           Plato, The Republic, beginning of Book 7


            Borges: it's like an infinite library full of exhaustively descriptive books, or like a map the size of its actual territory.


            Mar 28           Borges, "The Library of Babel" and "Of Exactitude in Science"


            Mar 30           Borges and Plato, continued


            Baudrillard: it's a media-created construct. ("Welcome to the desert of the real...")


            Apr 2              Baudrillard, "The Precession of Simulacra" from Simulacra and Simulation   (e-reserve)  Reality Extra Credit Due.


What is the human condition?


            Nozick: hopefully, the goal is more than pleasure.        


            Apr 4              Nozick, "The Experience Machine" (e-reserve)      PAPER DUE.




            Apr 6              Kierkegaard, "Fear and Trembling"


            Apr 9              Kierkegaard, continued


            Sartre: It's radical freedom. It's also hell. (What is hell? Stay tuned!) 


            Apr 11            Sartre, No Exit


            Apr 13            Sartre, continued


            Apr 16            Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (excerpt) (e-reserve)                                    Human Condition Extra Credit Due.


Are humans good or evil?


            Nagel: I'm not sure if pure good is possible, but donŐt stop trying.


            Apr 18            Nagel, "The Possibility of Altruism" (short excerpt) (e-reserve)


            Voltaire: Gee, I wonder what happens when you toss a purely good protagonist into a cruel, evil world. Let's find out!


            Apr 20            Voltaire, Candide


            Apr 23            Voltaire, Candide      (continued)


            Apr 25            Voltaire, Candide      (continued)


            Perry: Many different questions yield many different answers.


            Apr 27            Perry, Dialogue on Good, Evil, and the Existence of God.


            Apr 30            Perry, Dialogue on Good, Evil, and the Existence of God (continued)               Good and Evil Extra Credit Due.


            May 2             Review.


Friday, May 11, 2007:         Final exam, 8-10 AM.



A few notes concerning:




Plagiarism is representing another person's work as one's own. Outside works must be clearly cited or placed in quotes. Any cheating will be handled according to the university's policy on academic dishonesty. Please see the UA Code of Academic Integrity for more information.




Everyone is permitted one 24-hour paper extension. Extensions must be requested three days in advance.


Extra Credit


In each topic, there will be an extra credit assignment involving the following movies:


Time:                                                  Back to the Future and Twelve Monkeys

Personal identity:                              Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Free will:                                             Run Lola Run and Minority Report

Conceivability and possibility:        Contact and Solaris (2002)

Reality:                                                Existenz and The Truman Show

The human condition:                     Groundhog Day and Vanilla Sky

Good and evil:                                  High Noon and Crimes and Misdemeanors


The assignment will ask three questions which involve comparing and contrasting the themes in both movies to the themes in the reading. All questions must be answered; answers should be 400 words each (adding up to approximately 1,200 words, or four to five pages, total.) Up to five percentage points can be earned on each assignment.


Syllabus Changes


It is possible that topics will be added, removed, or changed on the syllabus. If this happens, it will be announced in class and on the website.


Ways to Reach Sara, or her Indistinguishable Robot Clone


Email (by far the best way to reach me):

Department phone: (520) 621-3120 (during office hours)

Office Hours: MWF, 10-11, Social Sciences 130.







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