PHIL201: The Philosophy of Death

Course Syllabus for "PHIL201: The Philosophy of Death"

Please note: this legacy course does not offer a certificate and may contain broken links and outdated information. Although archived, it is open for learning without registration or enrollment. Please consider contributing updates to this course on GitHub (you can also adopt, adapt, and distribute this course under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license). To find fully-supported, current courses, visit our Learn site.

This class provides an in-depth introduction to the philosophical problems surrounding death.  It takes its starting point in the fact that everyone, eventually, will die.  This is one of the few facts that human beings can be absolutely sure about.  Given this certainty, however, death still presents us with many difficult and pressing questions. What does it mean to die in the first place?  Who or what is the “person” that dies?  Is it merely a physical body, or is it also something like a soul, and, if so, does the existence of a soul indicate that there is some hope of immortality?  Moreover, what should our attitude toward death be?  Should we think of it as a good thing or a bad thing?  And what effect should it have on the way we live our lives?  At some point in our lives, we all grapple with these questions.  This course uses the doctrines and arguments of a number of prominent philosophers concerning death as a means to investigate these and other questions.  The course is organized around the lectures of Shelly Kagan, Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, who develops his own philosophy of death over the length of the course.  Its major purpose, aside from familiarizing you with the writings of major philosophers on the subject of death, is to teach you how to think about death philosophically—to decide for yourself what you believe about death and to provide careful and convincing arguments for those beliefs. This course is divided into three long units.  The first unit covers metaphysical questions about death, i.e., questions about what death is, what persons are, and the existence of the soul.  This unit includes material about the positions of dualism and physicalism, various arguments for the existence of the soul, as well as a close reading of Plato’s Phaedo, one of the most influential arguments for immortality.  The second unit deals with questions about how we ought to value death.  We will address the views that personal identity is rooted in the soul, in the body, and in the “personality” (understood as a cluster of psychological properties).  We will also consider the possibility that death has little or nothing to do with the death of the “person,” but can be accounted for in purely physical terms.  We will conclude the unit with a look at Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  In the third unit, we cover topics such as the (alleged) badness of death, how the fact that we will die should influence the way we live, and whether it is ever appropriate to bring about our own death prematurely.  We will consult with several important contemporary philosophers, as well as with the great Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, and the late existentialist Walter Kaufmann.

Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course, the student will be able to:

  • Discuss the philosophical issues connected with death: what it is, whether it is good or bad, and its significance in terms of the way we choose to live.
  • Explain the inter-relatedness of questions about death and questions about personal identity and the “self.”
  • Differentiate between dualist and physicalist conceptions of death and specify the particular consequences of each approach.
  • Describe the multiplicity of cultural, religious, and philosophical views about death and the soul.
  • Discuss major philosophical arguments for and against the immortality of the soul.
  • Articulate major theories of personal identity, and provide reasoned criticisms of these major theories of personal identity.
  • Explain and evaluate the view of death presented in literary works such as Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
  • Discuss in a philosophical way certain value-theoretic questions about death: whether it is inherently good or bad, whether it presents us with obligations to live our lives in a certain way, and whether it is permissible to end life prematurely.
  • Describe the existentialist view of death and the notion that it gives life meaning by restricting its shape and scope; explain the various ways in which this limiting feature of death has been interpreted.

Course Requirements

In order to take this course, you must:

√    Have access to a computer.

√    Have continuous broadband Internet access.

√    Have the ability/permission to install plug-ins or software (e.g., Adobe Reader or Flash).

√    Have the ability to download and save files and documents to a computer.

√    Have the ability to open Microsoft files and documents (.doc, .ppt, .xls, etc.).

√    Be competent in the English language.

√    Have read the Saylor Student Handbook.

√    Have completed ENGL001 and ENGL002 as part of the “General Education Program.”

Course Information

Welcome to Philosophy 201: The Philosophy of Death.  Below, please find general information on this course and its requirements.

Primary Resources: This course is composed of a wide range of free online materials.  However, the following course content is most heavily relied on:

Requirements for Completion: In order to complete this course, you will need to work through each of the three units and all of its assigned materials.  You will also need to complete:

  • The Final Exam

Note that you will only receive an official grade on your Final Exam.  However, in order to adequately prepare for this exam, you will need to work through the readings and web media for each unit.

In order to “pass” this course, you will need to earn a 70% or higher on the Final Exam.

Your score on the exam will be tabulated as soon as you complete it.  If you do not pass the exam, you may take it again.

Time Commitment: This course should take you approximately 50 hours to complete.  Each unit includes a “time advisory” that lists the amount of time you are expected to spend on each subunit.  These should help you plan your time accordingly.  It may be useful to take a look at these time advisories and to determine how much time you have over the next few weeks to complete each unit, and then to set goals for yourself.  For example, Unit 1 should take you 17 hours.  Perhaps you can sit down with your calendar and decide to complete subunit 1.1 (a total of 5 hours) over two days, for example by completing 1.1.1, 1.1.2, and part of 1.1.3 (about 2.5 hours) on Monday night; completing the remainder of 1.1.3, 1.1.4, and 1.1.5 on Tuesday night; etc.

Tips/Suggestions: Finally, you will find it useful to use the following “Philosophy: Glossary of Technical Terms” throughout this course.

Reading: University of Aberdeen: “Philosophy: Glossary of Technical Terms”

Link: University of Aberdeen: “Philosophy: Glossary of Technical Terms” (HTML)

Instructions: You may choose to peruse this glossary, but you do not need to read this entire glossary straight through.  Instead, save it as a bookmark in your web browser for consultation throughout this course.

Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the webpage above.

Table of Contents: You can find the course's units at the links below.