Term Paper Topics for PHIL410, Classical Philosophy
The following list includes suggested topics for term papers in PHIL410. These are generally topics, that is, subjects about which various positions are possible. Some are questions; some are issues about which there has been scholarly disagreement; some are fairly broad areas of inquiry. Although the description of each is brief, it should give you enough information to start research on it and decide whether you want to pursue it further.
- Anaximander and Anaxagoras
- What similarities are there between Anaximander's view that all things arose from an "unlimited" or "indefinite" and Anaxagoras' philosophy?
- Anaximander's Fragment
- A brief passage from Anaximander appears to be the earliest direct quotation preserved from an ancient Greek philosopher. What is its significance?
- The Pythagoreans and Mathematics
- The Pythagoreans, according to Aristotle, maintained that "all things are numbers".
- Heraclitus and Change
- Perhaps the best-known aspect of Heraclitus' views is the thesis that all things constantly change. There are many views about just how he meant this.
- Heraclitus, Cratylus, and Plato
- Aristotle says that Plato's view of the perceptible world as constantly changing was influenced by Cratylus, who in turn was influenced by Heraclitus.
- The Interpretation of Parmenides' Poem
- The fragments we have of Parmenides' poem argue for a very striking position: what is, is one, unchanging, and unifferentiated. What does this mean? Did he really mean it?
- Zeno's Paradoxes
- Plato says that Zeno's paradoxical arguments were intended to support Parmenides' views by showing that the views of Parmenides' opponents were inconsistent.
- Democritus' and Anaxagoras' Responses to Parmenides
- Both Democritus and Anaxagoras seem to be directing some of their arguments at Parmenides. How does this shape their views?
- Empedocles' Four Elements
- Empedocles held that all things were ultimately composed of four "roots": earth, water, air, fire. Why did he hold this? Is this
- Democritus on Appearance and Reality
- Democritus says that the sensory qualities we perceive, such as colors, are only "by convention", and that in reality there is nothing bu "atoms and the void".
- Are Socrates' Positions in the Crito and Apology Consistent?
- At his trial, Socrates said that he would not obey the court if they ordered him to "live quietly". in the Crito, he argues that he must remain in prison to be executed, in accordance with the court's decree, rather than escape. Are these consistent?
- Was Socrates a Sophist?
- Socrates' activity is often contrasted sharply with that of the Sophists in Plato's dialogues. However, some other figures (particularly the comic poet Aristophanes) saw Socrates as one of the Sophists.
- Protagoras on Truth and Knowledge
- Protagoras began his book Truth with the statement that "Man is the measure of all things". Much of what we know about Protagoras, and his Truth, comes from Plato's Theaetetus, which is ultimately critical of it. What did Protagoras really say? Are Plato's criticisms of it valid?
- Love and the Theory of Forms in Plato's Symposium
- In the Symposium (specifically in Socrates' account of Diotima's speech), Plato gives an account of a path to knowledge that begins with love between two individuals.
- Plato's Sicilian Voyages: Plato and Practical Politics
- Plato visited the court of Dionysius I at Syracuse, and later he visited Syracuse when Dionusius' son Dionysius II had succeeded him. Do Plato's interactions with political events in Syracuse indicate anything about his political philosophy?
- Plato's Use of Myths (in the Gorgias, Phaedo, Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus, Statesman, Critias)
- In the dialogues listed, Plato presents myths (that is, tales involving fanciful or fantastic places, gods, remote history. However, he also often expresses a distrust of poetry (as in Republic X) as somethning that encourages irrationality. Why does he put myths in his dialogues? What is the significance of each particular myth? (There are several possible topics here.)
- Plato's "Unwritten Doctrine"
- Aristotle ascribes some views to Plato that do not appear to be found in any of Plato's written works. What were these "unwritten doctrines"? Or were there any at all?
- Socrates' Philosophical Autobiography in the Phaedo
- In the Phaedo, Socrates gives an account of his early interest in the philosophical views of Anaxagoras and his subsequent disenchantment with them. What does this tell us about the historical Socrates, or about Plato?
- The "Euthyphro Problem" and the Philosophy of Religion
- In the Euthyphro, there is a discussion of the question whether the gods love what is pious because it is pious or, on the other hand, what is pious is pious because the gods love it. This issue is also important in the later history of the philosophy of religion.
- The Geometrical "Experiment" in Plato's Meno
- A critical section of the Meno is a conversation between Socrates and Meno's slave. What is its significance?
- "The Good" in Plato's Republic and Symposium: Plato as Mystic?
- Some passages in Plato have been taken by later philosophers, ancient as well as modern, as presupposing a kind of mystical experience. One prominent example is the vision of The Good at the end of Republic X; another is the "ascent of love" in the Symposium. Interpreters disagree on how important this is in interpreting Plato.
- Plato on Rhetoric
- Plato's Gorgias is sharply critical of the art of rhetoric that Gorgias teaches. Plato's Phaedrus has a more positive view of rhetoric. Book X of Plato's Republic is very distrustful of any kind of poetry. What can we make of all this?
- The Riddle of the Second Part of Plato's Parmenides
- The second part of Plato's Parmenides is often seen as baffling. What does it mean?
- Plato and Aristotle on Democracy
- Plato is critical of democracy as a form of government in the Republic. Aristotle's views about democratic government, as expressed in the Politics, are more complex.
- Plato as Totalitarian
- It has been argued that Plato's political views, at least as expressed in the Republic, are "totalitarian" in a certain sense. Yes or no?
- The "Third Man" Argument and Plato
- A famous objection to Plato's theory of forms is the "Third Man", a version of which appears in Plato's Parmenides. Did Plato have an answer to it? Or did he abandon the theory of forms because of it?
- Aristotle's Criticisms of Plato's Theory of Forms
- Aristotle presents objections to Plato's theory of forms (for example in Metaphysics I). . What are they? Are they justifiable?
- The Problem of Aristotle's Account of Substance inMetaphysics VII
- In Book Zeta (VII) of the Metaphysics, Aristotle seems to maintain that: (1) a thing's substance is its form; (2) forms are universal; and (3) no universal is a substance. These appear to be inconsistent. Are they really?
- Aristotle's Ethics and Contemporary Moral Philosophy
- Aristotle's ethical views are often appealed to by more recent philosophers. One important example is "virtue ethics" .
- Aristotle and Functionalism
- Some philosophers have seen Aristotle as holding an early version of functionalism about the soul; others have disagreed.
- Aristotle on Women and on Slavery
- In the Politics, Aristotle maintains that some people are natural slaves. He also says (or seems to say) that women (and children) have natural characteristics that make them incapable of
- Aristotle's Criticisms of Plato's Political Views
- In the Politics, Aristotle criticizes some of the views found in Plato's Republic. Are they on target?
- Aristotle and Plato on the Nature of Women
- In the Republic, Plato argues that women and men have the same essential nature. In the Politics and elsewhere, Aristotle appears not to agree. Sorting out the views of either philosopher on this subject is a good topic by itself; so is comparing their views.
- Aristotle and Biology
- Aristotle was a good observer of biological phenomena, and much of what he wrote concerns animals. This is sometimes seen as having an important influence on other aspects of his philosophy, for instance his conception of a "nature".
- The Two Best Lives in Aristotle
- In Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle contrasts the "active" life of political excellence with the life of the philosopher, devoted to theoria ("contemplation" or "study"), arguing that the latter is the highest form of human happiness. However, the preceding nine books of the Nicomachean Ethics concentrate almost entirely on political excellence.
- Aristotle's Unmoved Mover and Theology
- The arguments given by Aristotle in Metaphysics XII and Physics VII for the existence of an "unmoved mover" that is the cause of all motion were later adopted by Christian and Islamic theologians as arguments for the existence of God. Is Aristotle's unmoved mover properly called God?
- Democritus and Epicureanism
- Epicurus rests his philosophy on a version of atomism. How is it like, or unlike, Democritus' views?
- Pyrrho the Skeptic: What Did He Really Believe?
- Pyrrho's philosophical position seem to be incredible: no one knows anything (including the proposition "No one knows anything"). What did he really believe? How is his position related to later philosophers, for instance Hume?`
- Epicurus' Argument against Fearing Death
- Epicurus argued that since dying is simply going out of existence, there is no reason to fear death, since we cannot be harmed by it. This argument has received significant attention in recent years.
- Socrates and the Stoics
- The Stoic ideal of the virtuous man (the "Stoic sage") is often seen as influenced by Socrates.
Term Paper Topics
1. You are free to write on any topic related to political philosophy, but if you choose your own topic you must discuss it with me before you begin working on it. That way I can help you in a variety of ways, but especially to avoid tackling topics that cannot be well treated in a relatively short essay.
2. Plato and Hobbes both defend an absolutist state in which the ruler or rulers cannot be held accountable by the population and in which absolute obedience is called for. Yet their absolutist states are very different. Write an essay explaining how they differ and what features of Hobbes' and Plato's general philosophical positions are responsible for the differences.
3. As I mentioned in class, Shakespeare's play, Troilus and Cressida (the opening of which Hobbes could have seen as a teenager) is concerned with the breakdown of social order, as that social order was understood by late medieval political philosophy. Write an essay comparing that view of society and government to Hobbes' view and explaining how Hobbes' view could be seen as a response to the problems Shakespeare is concerned with. This topic is difficult and might call for some additional reading. On the other hand, it's an excuse to read some Shakespeare, even if not his best play.
4. Read Chapter 3 of Gregory Kavka's book, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, and write an appraisal of his account of Hobbes' argument that the state of nature will be a state of war.
5. In section 4.3 of Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, Gregory Kavka offers his analysis of Hobbes' discussion of the "Fool", who argues that keeping contracts is irrational whenever one can expect to do better by breaking them. Discuss Kavka's analysis and compare it to your own analysis of the passage or the analysis discussed in lecture.
6. Write an essay comparing Hobbes' and Locke's views of the laws of nature and of the role of the laws of nature in their political philosophy.
7. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are all concerned with freedom . Write an essay comparing the views of freedom of two of these three (or even all three) concerning some aspect of the definition of freedom or the role of the notion of freedom in political philosophy.
8. Hobbes has a serious problem explaining why self-interested rational individuals will comply with the social contract. His answer to the Fool's objection that it will sometimes be advantageous not to keep one's promises is to insist that it's never rational to believe that one can get away with injustice. In Chapter 6 of Morals by Agreement, David Gauthier tries to give a better answer. Write an essay studying Gauthier's response and appraising it.
9. Read Isaiah Berlin's famous essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty," (which can be found in his book, Four Essays on Liberty) and discuss how his notions of liberty compare with the views of liberty in one or more of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, or Mill.
10. Read Gerald MacCallum's essay, ‘Negative and Positive Freedom’, Philosophical Review, 76 (1967), pp. 312-34 (available in JStore) either in combination with Berlin or by itself and comment on the extent to which his analysis of freedom helps to clarify the views of one or more of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, or Mill.
11. Read Bernard Williams' 1962 essay, "The Idea of Equality," (pdf available from Dan Hausman) and comment on the relations between his view of equality and the notions of equality found in Rousseau. Is Williams more or less of an egalitarian than is Rousseau.
12. Read "Against Equality," by J. R. Lucas (Philosophy, Vol. 40, No. 154, Oct., 1965, pp. 296-307 pdf available from J-Store or from Dan Hausman) and consider his arguments against egalitarianism. To what extent are they consonant with or in conflict with the views of Locke or Rousseau?
13. In The German Ideology, Marx sketches a view of the historical development of human beings in society. Compare Marx's view to Rousseau's.
14. Read either chapter 6 ("Communitarianism") or chapter 7 ("Feminism") of Will Kymlicka's, Contemporary Political Philosophy and write an essay consider the criticisms of liberal political philosophy (particularly as found in Locke and Mill) communitarians or some feminists have made.
15. In Chapter 2 of his book, No Smoking, Robert Goodin makes an argument for outlawing smoking. How does his argument respond to the anti-paternalist arguments Mill makes in On Liberty? What do you think should be the policies concerning smoking, and how would you defend your views?