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 centuries; 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.


Lower-level undergraduate

The Meaning of Life (syllabus)

This course introduces students to central questions about the meaning of life. The question itself may be taken in a number of ways: Why is there a universe that contains life? What is the nature or purpose of human persons? What is the point of our existence? What should we do with our lives? This course examines these and other questions relating to meaning in life. It investigates our place in the physical universe, the possibility and significance of God’s existence, the nature of human persons, the nature of ‘the good life’ (including the import for ‘the good life’ of knowledge, success, pleasure, health, friendship, love, etc.), the nature of value and its relation to meaning in life, and the meaning of death.

Lower-level undergraduate

Introduction to Philosophical Problems (syllabus)

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.

Lower-level undergraduate

First-year Seminar (writing intensive)

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.

Lower-level undergraduate

Challenges of Modernity (syllabus)

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.

Lower- and mid-level undergraduate

Ethics (syllabus)

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).

Mid- and upper-level undergraduate

Modern Philosophy (syllabus)

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 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.

Upper-level undergraduate

Proseminar (syllabus)

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.

Senior Seminar

Descartes and the Will (course site)

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.

Senior Seminar

Moral Responsibility (course site)

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.

Upper-Level Undergraduate/Graduate

Hume’s Treatise (syllabus)

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.

Upper-Level Undergraduate/Graduate

The British Empiricists (syllabus)

This course aims to illuminate not only the commonalities but also the significant differences in the approaches and views of the main representatives of the tradition labeled “British Empiricism”: John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. Thus, in addition to seeing how they understand the view that sense experience is the ultimate source of our concepts and knowledge, we will explore the differences in their aims and projects as well as their positions on various metaphysical issues. We will focus the latter on how these thinkers understand human agents—-their conceptions of the nature of the mind, personal identity, freedom, and agency.

Upper-Level Undergraduate/Graduate

Free Will in Early Modern Philosophy (syllabus)

If everything we do must happen because of events in the past, do we really have a say in what we do? Are we responsible for our choices if they are determined by our desires? If God preordains a plan for the history of the created universe down to the smallest details and creates the universe accordingly, are we not mere puppets? And, most importantly, what is our actual predicament: are we free? In this course, we will explore the answers to these questions advanced by a number of early modern philosophers: Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, and Reid. In so doing, we will seek to understand (1) their varying conceptions of freedom, (2)the contexts of discussion: e.g., the background intellectual debates and the philosophical commitments that shape and constrain their conceptions of freedom, (3) the particular threats to freedom the thinkers have in mind; and (4) the connections among them (e.g. Leibniz responding to Locke, Reid to Hume).