Medicine, Nursing and Allied Health Professions


Reality, Existence and Change

Module titleReality, Existence and Change
Module codePHL3116
Academic year2021/2
Module staff

Dr Jonathan Davies (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

The module is concerned with the basic categories with which we understand the world. This is often expressed as the metaphysical question, “what kinds of stuff is the world is made of”? The course is partly historical and the students’ engagement with metaphysical questions will be through a range of canonical philosophical texts. We will start with the problems of change and stability in Ancient Greek philosophy, which sets the stage for many of the most important ontological theories (atomism, materialism, idealism).

A significant portion of the course will be dedicated to the debate between monists and pluralists (of varying kinds). Many students will be familiar with Cartesian Dualism (one form of pluralism). The motivations for, and the responses to, this theory will be explored and the notion of “substance” (which is probably the most important in philosophical understandings of the nature of the world) will be critically engaged with. This section of the course will also explore two dominant monisms (materialism and idealism).

The latter part of the course will relate this philosophical tradition of asking questions about the fundamental nature of the world to modern science (in particular, physics), and consider the ontological assumptions that underlie our current scientific understanding. This section of the course will investigate physicalism and the place of philosophy in thinking about fundamental questions of ontology.

It is expected (but not required) that students should have some familiarity with basic questions of metaphysics (e.g. Cartesian Dualism).

Module aims - intentions of the module

What is the world made of? Philosophical attempts to address this question form the core of this module. We aim to explore a range of attempts to explain the nature of the world around us, in terms of its most basic constituents. Notions such as “substance”, “process”, “atoms”, “ideas” have all been central in questions of fundamental ontology and we will aim to develop a critical understanding of their place in our attempts to understand the world. We also aim to explore related questions concerning the number of types of “stuff” (i.e. the debates between pluralists and monists) - and the problem of change and stability. Is change an illusion? What features of the world (if any) are constant? Is the world simply material? We aim to critically engage with philosophical attempts to answer these questions as well as question the place of philosophy in addressing them.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Develop an advanced understanding of the problems of fundamental ontology and a range of philosophical attempts to address these problems
  • 2. Analyse and critically engage with a range of ontological theories, developing an in-depth understanding of issues at stake in some key metaphysical disputes over the fundamental nature of the world

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Reveal and critique the ontological assumptions underlying of a range of areas of philosophy (e.g. mind, science)
  • 4. Understand how metaphysical questions relate to wider philosophical understanding of the world (e.g. substance as a fundamental philosophical category) and make use of this insight in your wider philosophy

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Grasp, and be able to articulate clearly, the problematic nature of many of our basic assumptions about the world
  • 6. Explain a wide range of problems and theories of varying degrees of abstractness, and present coherent clear arguments in response to these problems and theories.
  • 7. Demonstrate the ability to work independently, within a limited time frame, and without access to external sources, to complete a specified task.

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

The philosophers listed are indicative. The texts chosen may deviate from those mentioned below.

The problem of change in ancient Greek philosophy – Zeno, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Democritus, Plato

Aristotle on substance – Aristotle

Cartesian dualism and responses – Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz

Idealism – Berkeley, Kant, Hegel

Materialism – Democritus, Hobbes, Marx

Neutral Monism – Spinoza, Mach

Process and the critique of substance – Whitehead

Physicalism and the place of philosophy – Sandra Mitchell, Quine, Carnapp

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching activities1111 one hour lectures
Scheduled learning and teaching activities1111 one hour tutorials
Guided independent study33Assigned reading associated with lecture and tutorials
Guided independent study10Preparation for in-class discussion
Guided independent study35Preparation for assigned essay
Guided independent study50Exam Revision and private study


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
In-class presentation10 Minutes1,2,5,6Verbal

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay502000 words1-6Written
Exam`501.5 Hours1-7Written


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay, 2000 words (50%)1-7August/September re-assessment period
ExamExam, 1.5 hours (50%)1-7August/September reassessment period


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Lloyd, G.E.R. (1970) Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle. Norton (New York, London)

Collingwood, R.G. (1945) The Idea of Nature OUP (Oxford)

Woolhouse, R.S. (1993), Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz: The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth Century Metaphysics. Routledge (London, New York)

Rescher, N. (2000), Process Philosophy: A survey of Basic Issues. University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh)


Selections from…

Spinoza’ Ethics (1996) Penguin Classics translated by Edwin Curley

Leibniz (1992) Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays: Translated and Edited by Garber, D. and Ariew, R. Hackett (Indianapolis)

Whitehead, A.N. (1946) Science and the Modern World, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge)

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Web based and electronic resources:

Selections from…

Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Ross translation available at

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Ontology, Metaphysics, Substance, Process, Event, Monism, Pluralism, Change, Stability

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date