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PHIL 252
Autopoietic Systems Fall 2020
Division II Writing Skills
Cross-listed PHIL 252 / STS 252

Class Details

In ancient Greece, Democritus took his ontological bearings by atoms he took not to come to be, change, or pass away, but to move and interconnect in space so as to compose everything else. Plato also took his ontological bearings by entities that do not change, but ones that are not in space or time: mathematical structures and, at least aspirationally, the forms or ideas of the good, the beautiful, etc. Aristotle, finally, took his ontological bearings by temporal entities, i.e., organisms. In these terms, modern science combines central teachings of Democritus and Plato: the universe is understood as a mechanism whose components–ultimately, atoms–interact in ways governed by mathematical laws, and–for Descartes and his followers–animals, too, are machines rather than organisms. Hence, Laplace’s (1814) thesis that “An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.” This deterministic, mechanistic, and reductionist way of thinking has, for the past several hundred years, powerfully influenced such diverse fields as philosophy, biology, and economics. Over the past few decades, however, it has been challenged by new discoveries, particularly in physics and biology, and by theoreticians in a variety of disciplines. These theoreticians focus on complex, dynamic systems as, in one terminology, wholes that are more than the sums of their constituents. In this tutorial, we examine some of the most promising and intriguing trends in this potentially revolutionary movement. Our central focus will be on autopoietic systems, i.e., entities that subsist over time despite changing their material constituents. The smallest such entities are cells, but the tissues, organs, and organisms of which many cells are constituents are also autopoietic systems, as are yet more complex entities such as universities, economies, ecosystems, and states. The process ontology required by autopoietic systems is a radical alternative to the ontology that has been dominant for the past several centuries. It has many exciting implications for various subdisciplines in philosophy and for various academic disciplines beyond philosophy.
The Class: Format: tutorial; Virtual
Limit: 10
Expected: 10
Class#: 2538
Grading: no pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: Presentations, responses to presentations, essays, response papers, participation in discussions.
Prerequisites: None.
Enrollment Preferences: Philosophy majors and potential majors.
Distributions: Division II Writing Skills
Notes: This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
PHIL 252 Division II STS 252 Division II
WS Notes: Students will write 6 6-8 page essays and 6 2-3 page response papers. I will comment on all the essays, and my comments will aim to help students improve their writing skills. Among the issues to be addressed will be the challenge of writing essays to be presented rather than simply to be read.
Attributes: PHIL Contemp Metaphysics + Epistemology Courses

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