Marie Jayasekera

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I’ve taught courses that explore issues in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, moral philosophy, and political philosophy in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries; 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 student projects on topics in ethics, moral psychology, philosophical method, and free will.

Recent Courses

Lower-level undergraduate

The Meaning of Life (syllabus)

This course addresses the question of the meaning of life. The question itself may be understood in different 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? This course examines one version of the question: what, if anything, makes a life meaningful? We begin by thinking about whether meaningfulness is entirely subjective. Then we will look at some possible sources of meaningfulness in life: one’s relation to God; community and relationships; work; and perfecting oneself. And then we turn to the relationship between meaning and death.

Lower- and mid-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.

Lower- and mid-level undergraduate

Political Philosophy (syllabus)

This course covers some of the most fundamental and influential ideas of texts and thinkers that are central to the modern Western political tradition, including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and John Rawls. We explore foundational questions of political philosophy, such as the nature of individual rights, the source of government authority, the justification of religious tolerance, and the meaning of political ideals such as liberty, equality, and justice. We aim to not only understand the views and arguments put forward in the texts but also actively, critically, and collaboratively engage with them as well as our own views.

Upper-Level Undergraduate/Graduate

Moral Responsibility (syllabus)

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

The Continental Rationalists

This course aims to illuminate not only the commonalities but also the significant differences in the approaches and views of prominent representatives of the tradition labeled ‘Continental Rationalism:’ René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz. We will investigate how these thinkers understand the view that reason is sufficient in some sense for knowledge, and, along the way, explore their methods for achieving knowledge as well as their views on innate ideas and a priori principles. We will also seek to make clear the similarities and differences in their positions on metaphysical issues central to the tradition—for example, the nature of substance, God and God’s relation to the world, and human agency and the possibility of free will.

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 thinkers: Descartes, Hobbes, Bramhall, Locke, Leibniz, du Châtelet, 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).