Course Offerings in Philosophy 2014-2015


What is Philosophy?

“Does God exist?” “How can we know we’re not dreaming?” “What is the best way to live?” “What is justice?” If you’ve ever asked yourself questions like these, you’ve already discovered an interest in philosophy. Philosophy is often described as including four areas of study. It investigates questions about reality that are not addressed by the sciences, such as “What is real?” and “Does God exist?” This area of philosophy is called “metaphysics.” Philosophy also investigates what knowledge is and how we can obtain it. This part of philosophy is called “epistemology.” Another set of philosophical topics concern what is right, good, fair, or beautiful. This third area of philosophy can be called “value theory,” and it covers ethics, politics, and aesthetics. The fourth area investigates reliable and unreliable ways of thinking. It includes logic and other topics in critical thinking.

Why do philosophy?

  • Philosophy is fun and challenging.
  • It helps you reflect on the deeper issues in life.
  • It helps you improve your critical thinking skills.
  • Philosophy provides a solid background for those who intend to go on for further studies in philosophy and many other areas.
  • Studying philosophy is good for your career prospects:
    • You acquire skills valued by most employers, like the ability to analyse and solve problems, to communicate, to organize ideas and issues, to assess pros and cons. These skills are important not just in philosophy but also in the modern job market.
    • Many employers prefer students with broad intellectual experience and skills. This is particularly true of students who study philosophy in combination with other subjects. You can take a social science subject (e.g. politics or psychology) as one of your double majors.
    • The study of philosophy is useful for at least the following careers: business, management, public administration, journalism, law, communication, public relations, teaching and publishing.

Our syllabus enables you to take a small amount of philosophy (in any year of study, without prerequisites), to major in philosophy, to take a double major, combining philosophy with another Arts or Social Sciences discipline, or to take a minor in philosophy. We recommend that students complete PHIL1012 or PHIL1034 before enrolling in upper-level courses, but students who have not done so may enroll with the permission of the instructor. Philosophy majors and minors are required to take one of these courses as a prerequisite for the major and minor.

Courses are generally organized as lectures or seminars and typically include tutorials. Particular importance is attached to tutorial participation.

A distinctive part of a university education is developing the ability to formulate and defend one' own ideas. The philosophy syllabus and our approach to teaching is guided by this principle.

The HKU Philosophy Department is known around the world for its pioneering role over the last two decades in exploiting the advantages of information technology as a new instrument in learning. Though not a substitute for thought or for more traditional forms of learning, properly used, I.T. facilitates our teaching and helps students develop skills that can be useful more generally.

Types of courses

Our courses are divided into three levels and four groups. The three levels are introductory (first-year), senior, and final-year courses. But students in any Faculty may take, for instance, a first-year philosophy course in any year of study (provided that the regulations of their own degree programme permit it). The four groups are of courses related by subject. The two first-year courses correspond roughly to the first two and the second two of these groups.

First Year

The department offers two general introductory courses in philosophy and one introductory course in logic. There are no prerequisites. These courses will normally be offered every year.

Students who intend to declare the major or minor in Philosophy are required to take PHIL1012 or PHIL1034. These courses are usually taken in the first year of study but may also be taken in other years. These two courses are also strongly recommended for students interested in taking individual second- and third-year courses without majoring or minoring in philosophy.

All students, whether prospective philosophy majors or not, are encouraged to acquire a basic knowledge of logic by taking PHIL1068, an online, self-study logic course.

Second Through Fourth Years

Students wishing to take senior-level courses are strongly recommended to have taken PHIL1012 or PHIL1034. However, students who have not done so may enroll with the instructor's permission. Some of these courses are also available to students of other faculties as "broadening courses".

All senior-level courses (not including the final-year courses) fall into one of four groups:

  • Knowledge and reality
  • Mind and language
  • Moral and political philosophy
  • History of philosophy

Of the senior-level courses, twelve to sixteen will normally be offered each year. Details are indicated below. Most of these courses consist of 24 lecture hours in one semester.

Final-Year Courses

Final-year majors or minors in philosophy in the three-year curriculum may choose to take, and final-year majors in the four-year curriculum must take, an optional "capstone" course giving them the opportunity to apply disciplinary knowledge and methods learned in their previous years of study. The capstone courses available include PHIL4910 Senior Essay (6 credits) or PHIL4920/PHIL3910 Senior Thesis (12 credits). In addition, third or fourth-year majors who qualify will be invited to take PHIL3810/PHIL4810 Senior Seminar.

Major in Philosophy

Three-year curriculum: Students who major in philosophy must take PHIL1012 or PHIL1034 and not less than 54 credits worth of senior-level or final-year courses in philosophy (that is, nine 6-credit courses). PHIL1012 or PHIL1034 is usually taken in the first year of study, but students may also take them in other years. Students are recommended to take at least one course from each of the four groups specified above. Third-year majors who qualify are recommended to take PHIL3810 “Senior Seminar” in their final year, especially if they are considering further study in philosophy. Students may also take a double major, combining philosophy with another Arts or Social Science discipline. (BA students taking a double major with a Social Science discipline must conform to the requirements determined by the Faculty of Social Sciences for majors in a Social Science discipline.)

Four-year curriculum: Students who major in philosophy must complete a total of 72 credits, including PHIL1012 or PHIL1034 (6 credits), 12 credits of introductory courses taken from any Arts programme (normally in the first year), and not less than 54 credits worth of senior-level and final-year courses in philosophy (that is, nine 6-credit courses), of which at least 6 credits must be in a “capstone” course (see below). PHIL1012 or PHIL1034 is usually taken in the first year of study, but students may also take them in other years. Students are recommended to take at least one course from each of the four groups specified above. Fourth-year majors who qualify are recommended to take PHIL 4810 “Senior Seminar” in their final year, especially if they are considering further study in philosophy. Students may also take a double major, combining philosophy with another Arts or Social Science discipline. (BA students taking a double major with a Social Science discipline must conform to the requirements determined by the Faculty of Social Sciences for majors in a Social Science discipline.)

“Capstone” courses: Fourth-year majors in philosophy in the four-year curriculum must complete a senior “capstone” course giving them the opportunity to apply disciplinary knowledge and methods learned in the previous years of study. The capstone courses available are PHIL4910 Senior Essay (6 credits) and PHIL4920 Senior Thesis (12 credits). (These courses will be offered beginning in 2015-16.) Final-year majors in the three-year curriculum may take a capstone course as an option but are not required to do so. PHIL3810 or PHIL3910 may serve as optional capstone courses. See Main.Capstone201516 for more details.

Minor in Philosophy

Students who minor in philosophy must complete PHIL1012 or PHIL1034 and not less than 30 credits worth of senior or final-year courses in philosophy (that is, five 6-credit courses). PHIL1012 or PHIL1034 is usually taken in the first year of study, but students may also take them in other years.

Note: PHIL1068 does not count as a senior course for satisfying the major / minor requirements.

Courses Offered in 2014-2015

First-year Introductory Courses

  • PHIL1012 Mind and knowledge: an introduction to philosophy (6 cr) (semester 1) (Dr Deutsch). This course is an introduction to philosophical issues about mind and knowledge. These include metaphysical questions about what minds are, such as whether the mind is something non-physical or whether it is some kind of computer, and questions about what knowledge is and how we can obtain it. We also address epistemological questions about the limitations of human knowledge, such as whether we can really know what other people's experiences are like or whether God exists. Assessment: 100% coursework.
  • PHIL1034 Ethics and politics, East and West: an introduction to philosophy (6 cr) (semester 2) (Dr Fraser). This survey course is a comparative introduction to philosophy focusing primarily on topics in ethics and politics. Lectures and readings will draw equally on the Chinese and Western philosophical traditions and indicate various respects in which the two can be put into dialogue. Readings include Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Daodejing, Xunzi, Zhuangzi, and Han Fei, on the Chinese side, along with Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Bentham, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, Bakunin, Russell, Berlin, Hart, Wolff, Rawls, Nozick, Taylor, and Scanlon, on the Western side. Assessment: 100% coursework.

All Levels

(Students to consult regulations of their own faculty.)

  • PHIL1068 Elementary Logic (6 credits) (semester 2). (Coordinated by Dr Max Deutsch) This is a web-based self-study course on elementary formal logic. Formal logic uses special symbolic notations to study reasoning and arguments systematically. In this course we shall look at some basic concepts in logic, and learn how to use special logical symbols to construct and evaluate arguments. There are no lectures in this course, and all teaching material is available online for self-study. There are, however, optional tutorials for students to ask questions. Registered students should visit the philosophy department web site at the beginning of the semester to find out how they can obtain access to the learning material. Assessment: 60% coursework, 40% exam. Note: Students who have taken PHIL1006, PHIL1008, PHIL2006, PHIL2008, or PHIL2510 may not take this course.

Senior Level

Senior-level courses offered in 2014-2015 are shown below. These courses are also offered to second- through fourth-year non-BA students for inter-faculty broadening purposes. Senior courses usually require a 6-credit first-year course as prerequisite and are assessed by 100% coursework, which may include in-class tests. Each senior-level course carries 6 credits (except for the optional final-year Senior Thesis, which earns 12 credits).

Semester 1

Group I : Knowledge and Reality

  • PHIL2100 Paradoxes of Decision (6 credits) (Dr McCarthy) The aim of the course is to introduce a variety of tools from decision theory. Decision theory is arguably one of the most important topics in philosophy because of its pervasive influence on a wide range of traditional philosophical topics, including ethics and epistemology. The central question is: which actions are rational in the face of risk or uncertainty? Some of the writings on this topic are very technical, but the course will try to skip over technicalities as much as possible and introduce most of the main topics via a series of paradoxes or puzzles. Topics which will be covered include objective and subjective expected utility theory; Newcomb’s problem and causal decision theory; game theory and the Nash equilibrium; and evolutionary game theory and the evolution of the social contract.

Group II : Mind and Language

  • PHIL2610 Philosophy of Language (6 credits) (Dr Deutsch) What is a language, and what is involved in knowing or understanding a language? In this course we will see how philosophers and linguists answer such questions as the following: What can logic tell us about the grammar of natural languages? Are human beings born with a universal grammar? What makes a word meaningful? What is the difference between what we mean and what we convey when we say something? How does a metaphor work? Can we learn something from slips of the tongue about the nature of language?

Group III : Moral and Political Philosophy

  • PHIL2315 Value Theory (6 credits) (Dr McCarthy) The aim of the course is to examine a variety of questions about goodness. It will cover three main topics: goodness for people; the distribution of goodness for people; and the goodness of creating new people. Topics to be covered include: the quality of experience, desire satisfaction, and objective goods; interpersonal comparisons, primary goods and capability sets; the measurement of goodness for people; utilitarianism; fairness and equality; giving priority to the worse off; the impartial spectator argument; veil of ignorance arguments; Harsanyi’s aggregation theorem; the nonidentity problem; and the repugnant conclusion. The course will pay special attention to the way the utilitarian and contractualist traditions treat these topics, and what they agree and disagree about.
  • PHIL2362 Liberal Democracy (6 credits) (Prof Ci) Liberal democracy is the dominant political value and form of government in terms of power and influence in the world today. It is supposed to be a coherent combination of liberalism and democracy, and yet there are deep tensions between these two components. It is by identifying these tensions that we can best understand the workings of liberal democracy as a form of government and assess its plausibility and appeal as a political value. Within this context, such familiar topics as political agency, freedom, rights, and private life will be seen in a fresh light.

Group IV : History of Philosophy

  • PHIL2002 Early Modern Philosophy (6 credits) (Dr Asay) This course is an introduction to the thought of the major figures of western philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries. We will read major works by Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and some lesser known pieces by some women writing in the era. In particular, we will focus on the questions of self, world, and God. What is the self? What makes me the same person over time? What is the nature of reality, and what can we know about it? What is the nature of God, and can we know whether he exists? We will explore how these important thinkers thought about these questions, and other important philosophical topics such as free will, causation, and skepticism.
  • PHIL2030 Kant's Critical Philosophy (6 credits) (Dr Wolff) Two aspects of Kant’s philosophy will be examined: first, topics in his theoretical philosophy such as objective knowledge, transcendental idealism and the thing-in-itself; second, topics in his practical philosophy such as moral duty, free will and rationality. Attempts will also be made to unify these two aspects of Kant’s philosophy.
  • PHIL2445 Mohism (6 credits) (Dr Robins) The Mohists were the first Chinese philosophers to attempt to develop systematic ethical and political theories and arguments. They came to advocate a Way that, they thought, best promoted benefit and reduced harm. It called for an end to warfare, exclusive moral attitudes, moderation in social expenditure, a rejection of traditional ritual extravagance, and conformity in moral judgment. In defending this Way, the Mohists developed a philosophical vocabulary that became fundamental to early Chinese philosophy. In this course we will study Mohist writings and some Confucian and Daoist responses to them. The issues we discuss will include the role of government and the justification of political authority; the integration of particular relationships within universalist moral frameworks; the demandingness of ethics, especially of ethical or political views according to which the current state of things is massively unjust; the nature of consequentialism; and Mohist ideas about language, knowledge, and argument.

Semester 2

Group I : Knowledge and Reality

  • PHIL2000 Tools for Philosophers (6 credits) (Dr Michael Johnson) This course is an introduction to some of the basic logical and formal techniques and concepts in contemporary analytic philosophy. Very often they are taken for granted in specialist philosophical writing. The aim of the course is to explain the meaning and application of these ideas clearly without the less important details, focusing on their philosophical relevance to show how these ideas can improve the clarity of various debates. The ideas to be discussed are taken from areas such as formal logic, probability theory, mathematics, linguistics, and the philosophy of language.
  • PHIL2210 Metaphysics (6 credits) (Dr Asay) This course covers both the nature of reality and the nature of knowledge of it and treats the two questions as intrinsically connected. We shall examine a number of important theories of metaphysics, as well as anti-metaphysics, including those of Plato, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and contemporary philosophers such as Habermas, Rorty and Putnam. We will treat these theories not only as representing different views on metaphysics but also as forming a logical order of development.

Group II : Mind and Language

  • PHIL2130 Philosophy of the Sciences (6 credits) (Dr Wolff) If we want to find out about the world around us, we look to science to provide the answers to our questions. But why? What justifies our faith in this enterprise? In this course, we shall investigate two related questions. First, what is the scientific method? We shall examine answers ranging from the rigid prescriptions of Popper to the anarchism of Feyerabend. Second, what reason do we have to think that the explanations provided by science are true? Here the answers range from optimism based on the success of science, to pessimism based on our repeated rejection of past theories. Along the way, we shall critically consider notions such as progress, objectivity, and the difference between science and non-science. We shall examine how philosophical questions arise in actual scientific practice. What examples are selected for this purpose will, to some extent, be determined by the interests of students.
  • PHIL2220 The Mind (6 credits) (Dr Deutsch) The human mind is the nexus of a number of great mysteries. What is the nature of self? Is the mind identical to the brain, or is it an immaterial substance? Is Artificial Intelligence possible, and can computers experience emotions and other feelings? Are our actions free, or are they determined by our genes and upbringing? We shall be exploring some of these issues and other related topics in this course.

Group III : Moral and Political Philosophy

  • PHIL2355 Theories of Justice (6 credits) (Prof Ci) All of us care about justice but perhaps you seldom pause to reflect on the nature of justice and the many difficult issues which justice raises. This course introduces you to these issues and systematic ways of thinking about them. In a nutshell, justice is concerned with the question, How should the benefits and burdens of social cooperation be distributed among members of society under conditions of scarcity and conflicting values? Or, as Serge-Christophe Kolm puts it, “What should be done when different people’s desires or interests oppose one another and cannot all be fully satisfied? Justice is the justified answer to this question and its science is the theory of justice.” We will think about this question at two levels: the distribution of fundamental rights and duties in the basic structure of society; and the distribution of goods in particular domains, such as health care. Since controversy abounds at both levels, we will discuss and compare a variety of positions, including those of John Rawls, Brian Barry, Amartya Sen, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, Serge-Christophe Kolm, Norman Daniels, and Francis Kamm. We will also consider whether, and to what degree, Western theories of justice such as these are useful for thinking about issues of justice in Hong Kong and the PRC at large.
  • PHIL2480 Confucianism and the Modern World (6 credits) (Prof Ci) This course introduces some of the central ideas of Confucianism, particularly as they have been developed by Neo-Confucian thinkers, and considers the contemporary meaning and relevance of these ideas for societies with a Confucian tradition. The thematic focus of the course is on whether and how (Neo‑)Confucianism promotes or hinders economic, political and cultural modernization. We shall also discuss how (Neo‑)Confucianism interacts with Western ideas, and (in the case of the PRC) Marxism in the process of social transformation.

Group IV : History of Philosophy

  • PHIL2001 The Beginnings of Philosophy (6 credits) (Dr Mark Wildish) The contents of this course will vary from year to year, but it is likely to include important early thinkers like Plato and Aristotle in the West, and/or Confucius and Laozi in China. This year the course will cover ancient Greek theories of knowledge and reality. What is the basic unchanging stuff of the universe? How is change and plurality related to this fundamental stuff? How is knowledge related to persistence and change? We will focus on the ways in which the varying accounts of persistence and unity underlying the phenomena of change and plurality, found in the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, and the post-classical schools, lead to differing conclusions as to what it is we are able to comprehend of the universe.
  • PHIL2010 Plato (6 credits) (Dr Mark Wildish) This course offers a general introduction to the central concerns of Plato’s philosophy. It focuses on Plato’s early and middle dialogues in which the enigmatic character of Socrates is central. It addresses Plato’s teachings on the role of philosophy in the life of the individual, the relation between knowledge and virtue, and his contribution to questions about the nature of love and desire.
  • PHIL2027 Rousseau (6 credits) (Dr Cook) Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was one of the most important philosophers of the French eighteenth century. He was critical of the Enlightenment’s fascination with science, arguing that virtue, community and a kind of freedom, not technological ‘progress’, should be the goal of human striving. In this course we seek to understand Rousseau’s thought in its historical context; we consider how he can be considered a philosopher for our own time, who respected the rights of nature as well as those of humanity. We read selections from his Confessions, and the entire texts of his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, and his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men.
  • PHIL2800 Buddhist Philosophy (6 credits) (Dr Robins) This course will introduce students to Buddhist philosophy. Topics to be covered will likely include the philosophy of the Pali sutras, early Mahayana philosophy, and Chinese Chan Buddhism. We will focus on understanding Buddhist ideas an arguments, thinking about them critically, and reflecting on the issues they raise.

Final-Year Courses

  • PHIL3810. Senior seminar (6 credits) (semester 1). This course will focus each year on one or more different key philosophical texts. Presentations will be made by students and discussed according to a schedule worked out in advance between students and the course co-ordinator. Selected third-year students will be invited to enroll. This is a third-year course and is normally offered every year. Permission to enroll will be given to students with outstanding second-year grades. Note: by invitation; for third year students only. Assessment: 100% coursework.
  • PHIL3910. Senior thesis (12 credits). A thesis may be prepared under supervision for submission not later than April 30 of the final year. Students have to decide a topic on which they would like to write, then select a teacher in the relevant field and discuss the project with him/her, before the end of their second year. If the teacher deems the project viable, then a thesis title must be agreed by the closing date of June 15. The student will then have to work on the thesis over the summer, and be able to demonstrate progress made. If the progress is adequate, work on the thesis may continue; if not, the student will have to take two courses instead. There are no word limits prescribed, but theses tend to be between 15,000 and 25,000 words in length. Assessment will be based entirely on the completed thesis. This course is only available to students majoring in Philosophy. Note: for third year Philosophy majors only; this is a whole year course. Assessment: 100% coursework.
  • PHIL4910. Senior essay (6 credits) This is a “capstone” course for the Philosophy major. Students will write a substantial philosophical essay based on independent research on a topic of their choosing under supervision of one of the Department’s teachers. Essays will be submitted not later than the last day of classes of the final year. Students must decide on a topic and approach a teacher in the relevant field for supervision. Topics may be an extension of work students have already done in other courses. No fixed word limit is prescribed, but theses will probably tend to be between 7500 and 10,000 words in length. Assessment will be based entirely on the completed thesis. This course is only available to students majoring in Philosophy. Note: For third- and fourth-year Philosophy majors only. This is a one-semester course. Assessment: 100% coursework.

See Main.Capstone201516 for more details.

Postgraduate Courses

  • PHIL6810 Senior seminar (semester 1) (meets concurrently with PHIL3810)
  • PHIL6820 Graduate seminar (semester 2)


Plagiarism, especially from the internet, is an increasing problem in this department and at this University; it is a serious offence against both the rules and the spirit of the University. Plagiarism is defined as the use of other people's ideas without correct and full acknowledgement. Your coursework should be your own; you will learn nothing by copying, either from peers or from websites. Furthermore, copying others' work is unfair to your fellow students. We certainly encourage discussion of ideas among students, but any ideas not your own that you introduce into your written work must be properly referenced. Please see this web page for further details:

Postgraduate study

The department offers two higher degrees by research, the MPhil and the PhD, and can arrange for supervision over a wide range of philosophical topics. If you are interested in pursuing postgraduate studies, please see this page:

Staff-student consultative committee (SSCC)

This committee meets regularly to discuss any matters of concern, and to consider ways of improving the work of the department. All students are welcome to make suggestions, and to attend the meetings. To attend meetings, contact Dr. Lau.

Department of Philosophy

  • General Office: B1013, 10/F., Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus
  • Office staff: Ms Loletta Li

School of Humanities

  • General Office: B0901, 9/F., Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus

Further information

To find out more about the department, please visit the department web site at There you will find study guides and links to other philosophy resources on the web.