Marie Jayasekera

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I’ve taught courses that explore issues in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and moral philosophy in the 17th and 18th century; on ethics; and on the contemporary literature in moral psychology; as well as those that introduce students to philosophy, to the university, and to critical thinking and writing. I’ve also supervised independent studies on topics in ethics, moral psychology, and philosophical method.


Introduction to Philosophical Problems (see syllabus)

Lower-level undergraduate: This course introduces students to number of philosophical problems drawn from a variety of branches of philosophy: for instance, the issues of freedom, determinism, and moral responsibility; the possibility of knowledge; the problem of personal identity; and the nature of moral obligation. This course approaches these issues using philosophical method—primarily clear, careful, analytical reasoning. One way students develop the skills involved in philosophical method is through reading classic and contemporary texts closely and engaging each other in discussion. A second way students develop their analytical and thinking skills is by writing frequently and critiquing and discussing their writing.

First-year Seminar (writing intensive)

Lower-level undergraduate: A variant of Introduction to Philosophical Problems, this course introduces first year students to college-level academics including research and writing by exploring a number of foundational topics in philosophy.

Challenges of Modernity (see syllabus)

Lower-level undergraduate: This course is a guided exploration of a number of intellectually and culturally significant works in science, philosophy, literature, art, and music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, and Nietzsche’s On the Genalogy of Morality. The works we engage with in this course are important for us because they each questioned and proposed ways of overturning entrenched thinking about nature, morality, social structures, norms, and beauty, among other issues. We investigate how these works pose challenges to dominant ways of thinking and evaluate whether they are successful.

Ethics (see syllabus)

Lower and mid-level undergraduate: Students taking this course will become familiar with some central topics in moral philosophy. We explore such questions as: What makes an action right or wrong? How is an action’s rightness or wrongness related to its consequences? If what makes an action right or wrong is not a matter of its consequences, what about the action makes it right or wrong? What is virtue? Is moral truth objective or is it relative to one’s culture? We also investigate the implications of the answers to these questions for an issue of the class’s choosing (e.g. punishment, war and torture, our obligations to animals).

Modern Philosophy (see syllabus)

Mid- and upper-level undergraduate: The 17th and 18th centuries were a significant period in the development of philosophical thought in Europe—in fact, many of the questions philosophers grapple with today were formulated in a distinctively “modern” way during this time. In this course, we focus our primary attention on the views of a selection of influential philosophers of the period (from Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Malebranche, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant) on various topics in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind—in particular, what there is, what we can know, and what we are. The goals in working through the texts are to understand and engage with the author’s positions and arguments regarding specific philosophical issues, and to appreciate the systematic nature of the philosophy that was characteristic of the period and the ways in which it has influenced philosophical thinking today.

Proseminar (see syllabus)

Upper-level undergraduate: This course guides philosophy majors in developing an independent research project, including identifying an appropriate research question, finding sources, structuring a research paper, writing an abstract, and presenting their work.

Descartes and the Will (see course site)

Senior Seminar: In this course we explore the following topics: (i) belief, the will, and epistemic responsibility; (ii) freedom of the will; (iii) emotions and the will; and (iv) weakness of will. Our starting point is the will as it figures in several of René Descartes’s (1596-1650) most significant works. Although scholars have studied many aspects of Descartes’s philosophy in great detail (most notably his epistemology), the will and the many issues in which it figures is one area in which there is still much to be clarified and illuminated. We intersperse our investigation of Descartes’s views with works of contemporary philosophers on the very same issues. We get a sense of how the philosophical conversation is proceeding today and see that the issues with which Descartes was grappling are still live today.

Moral Responsibility (see course site)

Senior Seminar: This course is an advanced seminar on contemporary philosophical work on moral responsibility. In particular, we focus on a prominent, influential, and lively strand of the literature: P. F. Strawson’s landmark paper, “Freedom and Resentment” (1962), and the discussion that has engaged with and debated the issues he presents in that paper. As background to Strawson’s account of moral responsibility, we begin with an overview of the issues and main positions in the free will and determinism debate. We then turn to Strawson’s paper, developments of his position, and critiques of his account. We then explore the nature of blame, a related issue ties together our discussions of the preceding material. The last third of the semester is devoted to several case studies that highlight the challenges in developing the conditions for moral responsibility: psychopaths, wartime atrocities, and autism.

Hume’s Treatise (see syllabus)

Senior Seminar: This course explores David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), considered by many to be one of the most significant and influential works in Western philosophy. His project in the Treatise is to provide a “science of human nature,” which includes an account of knowledge, the passions, and morality. In so doing, he discusses induction, causation, personal identity, free will, sentiment as the basis of moral concepts, the limits of reason, and virtue and vice. Our goal is to make sense of the Treatise as a systematic whole. To do so, we also draw on parts of the two Enquiries as well as the secondary literature. We also aim to get a sense of how Hume’s views have influenced contemporary philosophy.