PHIL 196, Sec. 004: TTh 4pm-5:30pm in G160 Angell Hall
The University of Michigan
Fall 2004

Instructor: James Woodbridge
email address:
Course Webpage:
Office Hours: T 2pm-3pm, W 12:30pm-2pm, and by appointment
Office: 2203 Angell Hall
Office Phone: 764-6882
Dept. Phone: 764-6285


The theme for this course is relativism, the view that everything is just a matter of opinion, that there is no single correct view about some subject-that "anything goes." In some cases this seems obviously right; consider the issue of what is and is not funny. In other cases it seems highly implausible; consider the issue of whether the Earth is round or flat. We will consider the theme of relativism from within several different areas of philosophy. This will lead to such questions as, Are there any objective truths about reality (how the world is), or are all "facts" just relative to some worldview? Are we "the measure of all things"? Are there any objective criteria for knowledge, or will any belief system qualify as well as any other? Is there anything more to truth than being "true-for-me"? Are there objective moral standards, or is custom "king of all"? Is morality just relative to individual opinion or to culture? If we want to resist relativism, are there constructive alternatives? In considering these issues, we will examine what historical and contemporary philosophers have had to say about them, paying particular attention to the methods philosophers use to identify, critique, and construct arguments. Some of the general skills students will develop include the formulating, defending, and critiquing of arguments and theoretical positions, and the ability to think critically about difficult and abstract issues, such as relativism.


Descartes, R. Meditations on First Philosophy, Third Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993.
Goodman, N. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1978.
Kirk, R. Relativism and Reality: A Contemporary Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Melchert, N. Who’s to Say? A Dialogue on Relativism. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1994.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism, Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2001.
Moser, P. K. and Carson, T. L. Moral Relativism: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Plato. Theaetetus. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1992.

The books for the course are available at Shaman Drum Bookstore located upstairs at 313 South State Street.

(They are also on reserve at the Undergraduate Library.)


Requirements.............................................Percent of Final Grade

Class Contribution.....................................................20%
Response Essays (3)..................................................20%
First Paper.................................................................30%
Second Paper.............................................................30%

About the Requirements:

Class Contribution--One thing this requirement covers is your class attendance (surprisingly, if you don't attend class you can't contribute to it). However, to get an "A" for class contribution you must do more than just show up; you have to contribute frequently to class discussion. You are expected to arrive having read the assignment for the day and ready to talk about it constructively and analytically. A further element of this requirement involves posting contributions on the Electronic Discussion Board (available through C-Tools). Everyone must make at least six entries on the EDB during the term, either asking a (substantive) question about a reading, following up on class discussion, or attempting to answer a question posted by someone else. Three postings must be made by the end of October and three after that.

The Response Essays--During the term you will have to write three 2-page essays responding to various readings. You will pick your three essay choices from a range of options posted on the course Webpage. Essay options will be announced on Thursdays and essays are due in my mailbox at the Philosophy Dept. by 3pm the following Monday. You must complete at least one Response Essay before the First Paper assignment and a second by early November.

The First Paper--There will be a 4-5 page paper due in mid October. Topics will be posted on the course Webpage 9 days before the paper is due, and all papers are due at the beginning of class on the due date. Late papers will be subject to a substantial grade reduction (you really don't want to find out how much).

The Second Paper--There will be a second 4-5 page paper due in early December. Topics will be posted on the course Webpage 9 days before the paper is due. Late submission is still not a good idea.

Note: All assigments must be satisfactorily completed in order to pass the course.


This is a seminar course, so our class meetings should be geared mainly toward student discussion. I hope that you will all have views about the issues we are going to address, and I want you to express and explore those views. It is the nature of the topics we will be considering that people's views will differ. You are encouraged to question your classmates (and me) when anyone says something you disagree with, but everyone should always keep in mind that disagreement is not a personal attack. Philosophical discussion thrives under this kind of interaction and often stems from disagreement. At the same time, philosophical discussion aims at reaching some sort of agreement. We probably won't reach agreement every time, but we should aspire toward it.


The readings for the course are from a variety of different texts. They are listed below by author and chapter numbers in roughly the order they will be assigned. Readings from the Moser and Carson anthology are listed by selection author, followed by "MR" and the page numbers.

A note about the readings: Philosophical writing is often subtle and difficult. Do not be fooled by the shortness of an assignment into thinking that it will take little time. Most of these readings should be read at least twice. I recommend a first time straight through and then a second pass taking notes.

After a brief introduction to the topic of relativism, the course will be divided into 2 main parts. These units and the readings for them are as follows.

1. Relativism: What Is the Issue?
Melchert, Chapters 1-2
Kirk, Chapters 1-2
2. Knowledge, Truth, and World: Objective or Perspective?
Plato, Theaetetus, 142a-186e
Kirk, Chapter 3
Goodman, Chapters I, VI-VII
Kirk, Chapters 6 and 9
Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy
Kirk, Chapter 7
Melchert, Chapter 3
Kirk, Chapters 10-11
3. Morality, Values, and Standards: Is Custom King of All?
Brandt, MR 25-31
Sumner, MR 69-79
Benedict, MR 80-89
Wellman, MR 107-119
Rachels, MR 53-65
Harman, MR 165-184
Foot, MR 185-198
Scanlon, MR 142-162
Mill, Chapters I-IV
Mackie, MR 259-276