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PHILOS 3HH3 Metaphysics

Academic Year: Fall 2017

Term: Fall

Day/Evening: D

Instructor: Dr. Megan Stotts

Email: stottsm@mcmaster.ca

Office: University Hall 314

Phone: 905-525-9140 x 24125


Office Hours: Monday 2:00–3:00pm, Wednesday 1:00–2:00pm, and By Appointment UH 314

Course Objectives:

Course Description:

Metaphysics is the philosophical study of the nature of reality, and in this class we will focus on the nature of one particular aspect of reality:  social reality.  Unlike simple physical things such as mountains and oceans, social reality is deeply dependent on human thought and action for its existence.  For example, consider our system of money, the legal institution of marriage, and McMaster University.  These social institutions exercise a lot of power in our lives.  We take money and marriage very seriously, and we work hard to satisfy the university’s requirements.  Nonetheless, these elements of social reality are quite fragile in the sense that they would cease to exist if we all stopped buying into them.  The simultaneous power and fragility of social reality makes it a particularly interesting topic for philosophical study.  Our primary focus will be on two contemporary accounts of the metaphysics of social institutions:  John Searle’s view that social institutions are formed by our acts of collectively imposing new statuses on parts of reality, and Seumas Miller’s idea that social institutions are structures of conventions and social norms.  Our goal will be to arrive at an informed judgment about which approach to social institutions is correct by the end of the course.  Students will be expected to participate actively and regularly in class.


Course Objectives:

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Clearly articulate the theories and arguments about social reality that the authors we read have offered
  2. Clearly articulate and argue for their own well-informed judgments about what the right account of social institutions is
  3. Read philosophical texts with a higher level of understanding
  4. Demonstrate the ability to write clearly and concisely about philosophical issues

Textbooks, Materials & Fees:

Making the Social World:  The Structure of Human Civilization, by John Searle.  9780199829521

Additional required readings will be posted on Avenue to Learn.

Method of Assessment:

In-class work:  5% 

Reading quizzes:  10%

3 short papers:  45% (15% each)

Final exam:  40%


About the In-Class Work:

Some in-class work—such as a group discussion or an in-class essay—will be assigned during most class sessions.  Students are expected to participate actively in these activities and be prepared to report back to the class afterward.  The written component of this in-class work will sometimes be collected.  When it is collected, it will receive 100% credit if it is complete, and 50% if it is partially complete.


About the Reading Quizzes:

We will frequently have short, unannounced reading quizzes in class.  The quizzes will be designed to be fairly easy for anyone who has carefully completed that day’s reading.  The purpose of these quizzes is twofold:  to hold you accountable for completing the reading assignments before class, and to essentially give you some credit toward your grade just for completing the reading, since reading itself is an important component of the class.


About the Short Papers:

In this course we will focus on developing your ability to write clearly and concisely about philosophical issues.  To that end, you will be asked to write three short papers (around 2 pages in length) over the course of the term.  Specific topics and marking criteria will be provided as the due dates approach.  Papers must be submitted in hard copy form (properly stapled) at the beginning of class on the due date in order to be considered to be on time.


Paper Due Dates:

Paper 1 draft due Sept. 27

Paper 1 due Oct. 4

Paper 2 draft due Oct. 25

Paper 2 due Nov. 1

Paper 3 due Nov. 24


About the Final Exam:

The final exam will be a cumulative essay exam.  Students will write the exam in person during the scheduled exam period.  Additional information will be provided as the exam approaches.


Absence Policy:  Attendance is required in this course.  Attendance will be taken in two ways:  by means of collecting in-class work, and by means of the reading quizzes.  Each recorded unexcused absence will result in a 3% penalty to your overall grade in the course.  If you have submitted an MSAF for the date you missed class, your absence will be excused.  If you have already used your MSAF for the term but have to miss class due to illness or an emergency, your absence will be excused if you contact me in a timely manner.  For extended or frequent absences, documentation will be required in accordance with the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work.

Policy on Missed Work, Extensions, and Late Penalties:

Assignment Policies:  Extensions on the short papers will be granted on a case-by-case basis.  If you think you need an extension on a paper, you should contact me via email before the paper is due.  If you submit an MSAF that covers the date on which a paper is due, your deadline will be extended to the date after your MSAF ends.  Late papers (without extensions) will be penalized 10% as soon as the deadline passes, and an additional 10% for every additional day they are late (weekends count as just one day).  Once the penalty has reached 50%, the late paper will no longer be accepted.  If you miss in-class work or a reading quiz due to an excused absence, you will be excused from that in-class work or quiz as well.  It is not possible to make up missed in-class work or reading quizzes due to unexcused absences.

Please Note the Following Policies and Statements:

Academic Dishonesty

You are expected to exhibit honesty and use ethical behaviour in all aspects of the learning process. Academic credentials you earn are rooted in principles of honesty and academic integrity.

Academic dishonesty is to knowingly act or fail to act in a way that results or could result in unearned academic credit or advantage. This behaviour can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: "Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty"), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.

It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty. For information on the various types of academic dishonesty please refer to the Academic Integrity Policy, located at www.mcmaster.ca/academicintegrity

The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty:

  1. Plagiarism, e.g. the submission of work that is not one’s own or for which other credit has been obtained.
  2. Improper collaboration in group work.
  3. Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations.

Email correspondence policy

It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from each student’s own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student.  Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.

Modification of course outlines

The University reserves the right to change dates and/or deadlines etc. for any or all courses in the case of an emergency situation or labour disruption or civil unrest/disobedience, etc. If a modification becomes necessary, reasonable notice and communication with the students will be given with an explanation and the opportunity to comment on changes. Any significant changes should be made in consultation with the Department Chair.

McMaster Student Absence Form (MSAF)

In the event of an absence for medical or other reasons, students should review and follow the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work. Please note these regulations have changed beginning Fall 2015. You can find information at mcmaster.ca/msaf/. If you have any questions about the MSAF, please contact your Associate Dean's office.

Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities

Students who require academic accommodation must contact Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to make arrangements with a Program Coordinator. Academic accommodations must be arranged for each term of study. Student Accessibility Services can be contacted by phone 905-525-9140 ext. 28652 or e-mail sas@mcmaster.ca. For further information, consult McMaster University's Policy for Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities.

Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous and Spiritual Observances

Students requiring academic accommodation based on religion and spiritual observances should follow the procedures set out in the Course Calendar or by their respective Faculty. In most cases, the student should contact his or her professor or academic advisor as soon as possible to arrange accommodations for classes, assignments, tests and examinations that might be affected by a religious holiday or spiritual observance.

Topics and Readings:

September 6:  Course Introduction (no reading)

September 8:  Tollefsen, “Social Ontology”


Unit 1:  Searle’s Account of Social Institutions

September 13:  Searle, Making the Social World, Ch. 1 (skip the appendix) and Ch. 2 (stop after p. 30)

September 15:  Searle, Making the Social World, the remainder of Ch. 2

September 20:  Searle, Making the Social World, Ch. 3

September 22:  Searle, Making the Social World, Ch. 4

September 27:  Searle, “The Structure of Illocutionary Acts”

September 29:  Searle, Making the Social World, Ch. 5

October 4:  Searle, Making the Social World, Ch. 6

October 6:  Brey, “The Social Ontology of Virtual Environments”


Mid-term Recess


Unit 2:  Conventions, Social Norms, and Miller’s Account of Social Institutions

October 18:  Miller, “Social Institutions”


Unit 2.1:  Conventions

October 20:  Lewis, Convention (selections)

October 25:  Burge, “On Knowledge and Convention”

October 27:  Miller, “On Conventions”

November 1:  Millikan, “Language Conventions Made Simple”


Unit 2.2:  Social Norms

November 3:  Pettit, “Virtus Normativa:  Rational Choice Perspectives”

November 8:  Miller, “Social Norms”

November 10:  Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society (selections)

November 15:  Bicchieri, “Norms, Conventions, and the Power of Expectations”

November 17:  Re-read Miller, “Social Institutions”


Unit 3:  Social Objects

November 22:  Baker, “The Ontology of Artifacts”

November 24:  Millikan, “Deflating Socially Constructed Objects”


Unit 4:  Applied Metaphysics

November 29:  Reading TBD by students’ preference

December 1:  Reading TBD by students’ preference


December 6:  Course conclusion (no new reading)

Other Course Information:

  1. Readings:  Please be sure to bring all of the readings to class with you each day.  This can be in electronic form or hard copy, but it must be easily accessible to you during class.
  2. Grades:  The scale used by the Registrar's Office will be used to convert number grades to final letter grades.
  3. Technology:  Cell phones may not be used during class.  Tablets and laptops may be used only for the purposes of taking notes or displaying electronic versions of course readings.
  4. Extra credit:  There will be no extra credit in this course.
  5. Changes to course outline:  The instructor reserves the right to make changes to this course outline.  Any changes by the instructor will be announced via email or in class.