Knowledge and Reality

The details
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 5
Monday 17 January 2022
Friday 25 March 2022
29 September 2021


Requisites for this module



Key module for

BA V500 Philosophy,
BA V501 Philosophy (Including Year Abroad),
BA V502 Philosophy (Including Foundation Year),
BA V503 Philosophy (including Placement Year),
BA V508 Philosophy (Including Foundation Year and Year Abroad),
MPHIV599 Philosophy,
MPHIVA98 Philosophy (Including Placement Year),
MPHIVA99 Philosophy (Including Year Abroad),
BA VV53 Philosophy and Art History,
BA VV54 Philosophy and Art History (Including Foundation Year),
BA VV55 Philosophy and Art History (Including Placement Year),
BA VV5H Philosophy and Art History (Including Year Abroad),
BA VVHP Philosophy and Art History (Including Foundation Year and Year Abroad)

Module description

This module will introduce students to the debate between philosophers who, following Descartes, sought to provide a foundation of the human project by stressing the power of human intellect unaided by divine revelation.

We will focus mainly on the work of Descartes, and of two 'Cartesian' philosophers, Spinoza and Leibniz, who shared with Descartes the conviction that some absolute knowledge was in the reach of the human mind. Despite this shared conviction, however, there are profound differences between these individual philosophers, and we will highlight the differences in the way they approach the modern project.

We will more particularly focus on the following questions. What is the nature and limit of human knowledge? What role does human subjectivity have to play in the foundation of a new theoretical and practical world? Must a rationalist approach to the world rely on God? What must be the relations between faith and reason? Is human freedom compatible with a scientific vision of the world as governed by natural laws? What is the relation between the body and the mind?

The bulk of the term will be devoted to an examination of Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy. We will then see how Spinoza and Leibniz, while both working within the discursive framework laid out by Descartes, respond to quite different and in many ways opposed elements in Descartes' philosophy.

Module aims

The aims of the module are:
1. to introduce students to selected texts of some of the leading philosophers of the early modern period;
2. to introduce students to core issues in metaphysics and epistemology and through the study of these texts;
3. to give students some impression of how the texts and authors selected contributed to the theoretical framework underlying developments in philosophy.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students should be able in their essay and examination work to:

1. summarise and expound in their own words theories and arguments from early modern philosophy;
2. expound and criticise commentaries on the traditional authors and texts;
3. expound and criticise some of the theories proposed by philosophers to cope with problems raised by selected authors.

By the end of the module, students should also have acquired a set of transferable skills, and in particular be able to:

1. define the task in which they are engaged and exclude what is irrelevant;
2. seek and organize the most relevant discussions and sources of information;
3. process a large volume of diverse and sometimes conflicting arguments;
4. compare and evaluate different arguments and assess the limitations of their own position or procedure;
5. write and present verbally a succinct and precise account of positions, arguments, and their presuppositions and implications;
6. be sensitive to the positions of others and communicate their own views in ways that are accessible to them;
7. think 'laterally' and creatively - see interesting connections and possibilities and present these clearly rather than as vague hunches;
8. maintain intellectual flexibility and revise their own position if shown wrong;
9. think critically and constructively.

Module information

Incoming Study Abroad students must have already taken an introductory module in Philosophy at their home institution.

Learning and teaching methods

1 x two-hour lecture each week followed by a one-hour discussion seminar at which issues covered in the lecture will be discussed. Week 21 is a Reading Week.


  • Locke, John. (no date) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
  • Spinoza, Benedictus de; Shirley, Samuel; Feldman, Seymour. (c1992) The ethics: Treatise on the emendation of the intellect ; Selected letters, Indianapolis: Hackett., pp.31-62-
  • Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Ariew, Roger; Garber, Daniel. (c1989) Philosophical essays, Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.
  • Hume, David. (no date) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
  • Descartes, René; Ariew, Roger. (c2000) Philosophical essays and correspondence, Indianapolis: Hackett., pp.127-141-
  • Descartes, René; Ariew, Roger. (c2000) Philosophical essays and correspondence, Indianapolis: Hackett., pp.113-127-
  • Descartes, René; Ariew, Roger. (c2000) Philosophical essays and correspondence, Indianapolis: Hackett., pp.97-113-

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework   Reading Quizzes TOTAL     
Coursework   Reconstruction Assignment (1000 words)  07/02/2022   
Coursework   Essay (2000-word)  25/03/2022   

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Steven Gormley, email:



External examiner

No external examiner information available for this module.
Available via Moodle
Of 907 hours, 36 (4%) hours available to students:
871 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


Further information

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