Spring 2022 - PHIL 451W E100

Advanced Topics in the History of Philosophy (4)

Modality in Modern Philosophy

Class Number: 7364

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    We 4:30 PM – 8:20 PM
    AQ 5004, Burnaby

  • Prerequisites:

    two 300 level PHIL courses.



May be repeated for credit. Writing.


Selected Topics: Modality in Early Modern Philosophy

 [Note: this course is to be taught concurrently with PHIL 854.]

This course will approach the systematic philosophical theories of some of the great early modern philosophers by asking after their theories of modality: their accounts of existence, necessity and possibility. Theories of modality flourished in the early modern period and were largely developed in the context of the rational theology that animated rationalism in the period. Nevertheless, many of the questions entertained by early modern philosophers are echoed in contemporary discussions of modality. For example, early modern philosophers engaged in a rich debate over the notion of essence and its relation to modal concepts. Furthermore, the notion of a possible world is first articulated and put to explanatory use in the early modern period.

We will proceed by topic rather than by philosopher. Our first topic will be essence and its connection to existence. We will examine the medieval origin of the ontological argument for the existence of God and its ascendancy and ultimate downfall in the 17th and 18th centuries. We’ll then turn to necessity and contingency. Are these notions explicable in terms of essence? Or do they explain the notion of essence? Does rationalism entail necessitarianism, or can the rationalist make room for genuine contingency (and thus freedom of action)? Finally, we’ll consider early modern theories of the ground of possibility: in virtue of what are facts about possibility true? Virtually all theories contend that possibility is grounded in the divine, but they disagree about the feature of God that plays the relevant explanatory role. Some contend that it is divine volition. Others the divine intellect. And others still say that possibility is grounded in the divine nature. But can we be sure that God is possible? How might we prove this?

We shall read selections from Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Baumgarten, Hume and Kant along with a wide selection of secondary literature.


PHIL 451W may be applied towards the Writing Requirement (and the upper division Writing Requirement for Philosophy Majors). This course may be repeated for credit if the topic is different.


  • 6 short response papers (300 – 600 words) 25%
  • One of: Option A, or Option B - see explanation below 75%


  • One of the following options:
    • Option A
      • One final paper (3600 words minimum) with required draft, due at the end of the semester: 75%
    • Option B
      • One medium-length paper (1500 words minimum) due roughly halfway through the semester: 25%
      • One final paper (2500 words minimum) with required draft, due at the end of the semester: 50%


Course delivery: in person.



* Spinoza, Ethics. Hackett. ISBN: 9780872201309.

* Leibniz, Philosophical Essays (Ariew and Garber, eds.) ISBN: 9780872200623.

* All other readings will be made available on Canvas or through the library website.

Department Undergraduate Notes:

Thinking of a Philosophy Major or Minor? The Concentration in Law and Philosophy? The Certificate in Ethics? The Philosophy and Methodology of Science Certificate?
Contact the PHIL Advisor at philmgr@sfu.ca   More details on our website: SFU Philosophy

New elective grade policy : P/CR/NC, pilot project for 2021 and Spring 2022. List of exclusions for the new policy. Specifically for Philosophy: 

  • Students can use a P or CR to satisfy any requirement for a major, joint major, honours, or minor in Philosophy (with the exception of Honours tutorials).
  • Students can use a P or CR to satisfy any prerequisite requirement for any PHIL course.
  • Students can use a P (but not a CR) to satisfy any requirement for the Ethics Certificate, or the Philosophy and Methodology of Science Certificate.
  • Philosophy Majors and Honours students can use a P (but not a CR) to satisfy any WQB requirement.

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity web site http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html


Teaching at SFU in spring 2022 will involve primarily in-person instruction, with safety plans in place.  Some courses will still be offered through remote methods, and if so, this will be clearly identified in the schedule of classes.  You will also know at enrollment whether remote course components will be “live” (synchronous) or at your own pace (asynchronous).

Enrolling in a course acknowledges that you are able to attend in whatever format is required.  You should not enroll in a course that is in-person if you are not able to return to campus, and should be aware that remote study may entail different modes of learning, interaction with your instructor, and ways of getting feedback on your work than may be the case for in-person classes.

Students with hidden or visible disabilities who may need class or exam accommodations, including in the context of remote learning, are advised to register with the SFU Centre for Accessible Learning (caladmin@sfu.ca or 778-782-3112) as early as possible in order to prepare for the spring 2022 term.