The Big Questions of Philosophy

Course No. 4130
Professor David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma
King's College
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Course No. 4130
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What Will You Learn?

  • Investigate the concepts of free will, the soul, God, and more using the tools of philosophy.
  • Explore some of the biggest questions in time: Could there be an afterlife? What is the meaning of life?
  • Discuss the virtues of being "good" when wickedness has its rewards.
  • Look at how philosophy influences and is influenced by politics and society.
  • Delve into the relationship between government, and philosophy by investigating how society should be organized.

Course Overview

We have all pondered seemingly unanswerably but significant questions about our existence—the biggest of all being, “Why are we here?” Philosophy has developed over millennia to help us grapple with these essential intangibles. There is no better way to study the big questions in philosophy than to compare how the world’s greatest minds have analyzed these questions, defined the terms, and then reasoned out potential solutions. Once you’ve compared the arguments, the final step is always deciding for yourself whether you find an explanation convincing.

This course gives you the tools to follow and create logical arguments while exploring famous philosophers’ viewpoints on these important questions. Although progress has been made toward answers, brilliant thinkers have continued to wrestle with many big questions that inspire thoughtful people everywhere. These questions include:

  • What is knowledge?
  • Can religious belief be justified?
  • Does God exist?
  • What is the nature of the mind?
  • Do humans have free will?
  • What is morally right and wrong?
  • How should society be organized?

The philosophers who have confronted these mysteries include Plato, St. Anselm, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Smith, Marx, Rawls, and Nozick, among many others. And while it is easy to think of philosophy as a catalogue of great names such as these, it is really a collection of big questions and the arguments that try to answer them.

The Big Questions of Philosophy is your chance to engage in this intellectually exciting pursuit as you address issues that have preoccupied great minds for millennia. Your guide is philosopher David Kyle Johnson, an award-winning teacher and nationally recognized scholar, author, speaker, and blogger, who is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.

An ideal entry point into this vital subject, The Big Questions of Philosophy gives you direct contact with classic problems that philosophers have grappled with over the centuries. Along the way, you meet scores of key figures, both ancient and modern. In addition, the course’s broad scope, wealth of examples, and many comparative arguments will appeal to those more experienced in philosophy—including those who already know the difference between abduction and deduction, between Occam’s Razor and Pascal’s Wager.

A Modern-Day Socrates

In 36 mesmerizing half-hour lectures that will challenge your old assumptions and recharge your current thinking, Professor Johnson plays a role much like Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. He is good-natured, lucid, and dogged in his search for the truth. You start each lecture with a question that is often transparently simple, but that grows increasingly subtle and complex as you consider and object to possible solutions. Professor Johnson’s approach is surprisingly entertaining and easy to follow as you wade through philosophical issues such as these:

  • Miracles: Could an eyewitness report ever justify the belief that a miracle had occurred? You learn that the laws of reasoning place miracles outside the bounds of verifiable knowledge. Miracles can never be established as matters of fact and can only be accepted as matters of faith.
  • Free will: Do we really have a choice in what we do? Theologically, free will seems impossible if God knows the future. Philosophically, it’s impossible in both a deterministic and an indeterministic universe. And biologically, free will seems incompatible with our understanding of neuroscience.
  • The self: What makes you the same person today that you were in the past? The challenge of answering this question, which bears on everything from legal culpability to the prospect of an afterlife, inspired Professor Johnson to major in philosophy as an undergraduate.
  • Thinking machines: Can machines think? Philosopher John Searle proposed a thought experiment which suggests that computers can simulate thinking, but without understanding. This “Chinese Room” argument became one of the most heated philosophical discussions of recent times.

Think Like a Philosopher

How are these issues decided? In the first four lectures of The Big Questions of Philosophy, you learn the tools of philosophical analysis. Contrary to popular belief, philosophy is not just “a matter of opinion.” It is the systematic quest to discover truth and reject falsehood, for which a number of powerful principles and techniques have evolved over the centuries, among them:

  • Truth is not relative: A belief is true if it matches the way the world is. If two people disagree, it can’t be that both are right—that what each believes is “true for them.” To prevail in a debate, an opinion must be informed by the relevant facts and based on sound reasoning.
  • Aristotelian logic: The traditional route to sound reasoning is Aristotelian logic, which stresses deduction as the only way to achieve knowledge that is mathematically certain. Less certain but very powerful is inductive reasoning, which is used in fields such as science.
  • Abduction: A form of inductive reasoning, abduction appeals to criteria such as simplicity, testability, and conservatism. In other words, a hypothesis should be preferred if it is simpler than other explanations, can be tested, and doesn’t contradict established knowledge.
  • Fallacious reasoning: To be avoided at all costs, fallacious reasoning comes in many forms and is unfortunately very common. One example is “mystery therefore magic”—when the inability to prove that something has a natural explanation is given as grounds for a supernatural explanation.

Indeed, these guidelines lead to fruitful results not just in philosophy, but also in every sphere of life. Whether you are puzzling over politics, investments, a new purchase, a career move, or any important decision, it is indispensable to think critically and reason from valid principles.

Philosophy Is All Around You

Socrates found grist for his philosophical discussions in the everyday life of Athens in the fifth century B.C. Similarly, Professor Johnson takes many of his examples from the world around us, including popular culture. These situations show that philosophical problems are everywhere and that our intuitions about what seems right can help guide us toward answers to the big questions:

  • Skepticism: Descartes’ struggle with skepticism led him to a single, indubitable truth, “I think, therefore I am.” Movies such as The Matrix and Inception push skepticism even farther, questioning the boundary between dreaming and reality and throwing into doubt the prospect of ever acquiring knowledge.
  • Knowledge: Plato’s definition of knowledge—”justified true belief”—has been tested in innumerable thought experiments that show we can have good evidence for a true belief but still lack knowledge. Johnson considers several such “Gettier problems,” including one involving the U.S. Open Tennis Championship.
  • Personal identity: The teleportation machine in Star Trek is an endless source of thought experiments involving personal identity. Discover intriguing answers to scenarios in which the transporter splits, duplicates, fuses, and otherwise transforms the persons who enter it.
  • Meaning: Philosophy is popularly thought to deal with the meaning of life—and indeed it does. Professor Johnson closes the course by seeking a genuine solution to the famous problem in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, concerning “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.”

Illuminate Life’s Greatest Mysteries

Given the longevity of these big questions, it should be no surprise that many controversies are far from settled. In fact, by the end of the course you may be even less sure of the right answers to some of the questions than you were at the beginning. But being a philosopher means constantly testing your views—giving a reasoned defense if you believe you are right and modifying your ideas when you realize you are wrong.

You will experience this cycle many times with The Big Questions of Philosophy. You’ll discover that great thinkers before you have offered convincing answers to hard questions, philosophers after them have made equally persuasive objections, and then still others have refined the debate even further—causing the issue to come into sharper and sharper focus. Professor Johnson offers this illuminating simile: “Thinking philosophically is like having a powerful flashlight that you can shine into the darkness that seems to surround life’s greatest mysteries—a flashlight that can reveal the answers to the big questions, and one you can use to find your way forward.”

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36 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    How Do We Do Philosophy?
    The first four lectures of the course pose the big question: What is philosophy? Start by exploring the kinds of problems that philosophy addresses, the way philosophy works, and the distinction between philosophy and opinion. Discover that philosophy is arguably the most important pursuit there is. x
  • 2
    Why Should We Trust Reason?
    Hone your philosophical thinking by identifying the categories of fallacious reasoning that ensnare us all. Investigate examples of gut-thinking, confirmation bias, appealing to ignorance, the correlation fallacy, begging the question, and equivocation. Learn how to check your reasoning for flaws. x
  • 3
    How Do We Reason Carefully?
    Avoiding fallacious reasoning is just the beginning of philosophical thinking. Go deeper by studying the rules of deduction and induction. In the process, learn Aristotle's three axioms of logic, the difference between truth and validity, common mistakes in logical arguments, and why practically all scientific arguments are inductive. x
  • 4
    How Do We Find the Best Explanation?
    Explore the power of abduction, a form of induction also known as inference to the best explanation, that is used not only by philosophers, but also by doctors to make medical diagnoses and scientists to construct theories. Even Sherlock Holmes - the master of deduction - really practiced abductive inference. x
  • 5
    What Is Truth?
    Now begin a section of the course devoted to the big question: What is knowledge? Start with the problem of defining truth. Investigate three philosophical theories that attempt to pin down this elusive concept: pragmatism, coherentism, and the correspondence theory. x
  • 6
    Is Knowledge Possible?
    Having covered ways of gaining evidence and justifying belief in pursuit of knowledge, now ask: Is knowledge really possible? See what Plato had to say. Then delve into Rene Descartes' celebrated struggle with this problem, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of his position. x
  • 7
    What Is the Best Way to Gain Knowledge?
    Put empiricism to the test as the best way to acquire knowledge. Study the ideas of John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume, together with the response of Immanuel Kant, before settling on the most effective route to understanding the world as it is. x
  • 8
    Do We Know What Knowledge Is?
    Address a famous problem concerning the nature of knowledge, posed by contemporary philosopher Edmund Gettier. Use different thought experiments to test the traditional definition of knowledge. Discover firsthand the bafflement and enlightenment that comes from doing philosophy. x
  • 9
    When Can We Trust Testimony?
    In this section, put what you've learned to work by asking the big question: Can religious belief be justified? Start with Hume's argument that testimony can never justify a belief that a miracle has occurred. Analyze the flaws in Hume's reasoning, and think about whether his conclusion still holds. x
  • 10
    Can Mystical Experience Justify Belief?
    Look at the phenomenon of religious experiences, pondering whether such events justify belief. Find that practically all religions have religious experiences, but the beliefs they lead to can be radically different. Can feeling the touch of God," like Jules in Pulp Fiction, justify religious belief? " x
  • 11
    Is Faith Ever Rational?
    Given that faith by its nature makes no claim to being logical, can it ever be considered rational? Learn that all of us unconsciously behave as if it is. What are our grounds for doing so, and how does this apply to religious faith? Your inquiry introduces you to famous arguments by Blaise Pascal, William Clifford and William James. x
  • 12
    Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?
    Begin a series of lectures addressing the next big question: Does God exist? The most popular proofs appeal to God's existence as the best explanation for the universe's existence and nature. In this lecture, test the cosmological and teleological arguments, using the tools of philosophy and the evidence of physics. x
  • 13
    What Is God Like?
    Traditionally, if God exists, God is perfect - God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. See how these three attributes are likely inconsistent with each another. Focus in particular on the difficulties with St. Anselm's argument for a perfect God, and look at modern proposals for redefining our conception of God. x
  • 14
    How Could God Allow Moral Evil?
    Now consider arguments against God's existence, the most common being the problem of evil. Explore various theological solutions that account for why God allows certain evils, like the holocaust. Does God have reasons we cannot understand? Examine the flaws in this argument. x
  • 15
    Why Would God Cause Natural Evil?
    It is one thing for God to grant humans the freedom to do evil, but it's harder to understand the existence of natural evils such as earthquakes and plagues. Evaluate different approaches to this problem, including the suggestion that God exists but didn't create our universe. x
  • 16
    Are Freedom and Foreknowledge Compatible?
    Do we have free will? This is your next big question. Begin with a close study of omnitemporalism - the idea that the future already exists and that God necessarily has foreknowledge of it. Taking this view, attempt to make sense of the notion that people have the power to act freely. x
  • 17
    Do Our Souls Make Us Free?
    Look at the problem of free will from the point of view of the soul, the conjectured seat of mentality that exists apart from the body. Discover that neuroscience suggests that the soul does not exist and also casts doubt on the concept of free will. x
  • 18
    What Does It Mean to Be Free?
    Some philosophers, called compatibilists, argue that if we understand free will correctly, the idea that humans are free becomes defensible, leaving room for moral responsibility. Evaluate this stance, and close by considering the consequences of conceding that we don't have free will in the traditional sense. x
  • 19
    What Preserves Personal Identity?
    Spend the next four lectures on the big question: Could there be an afterlife? First, ask what defines a person and how personal identity is preserved over time. Discover that many proposed answers fail, including the notion that personal identity is preserved by the soul. x
  • 20
    Are Persons Mere Minds?
    Explore the possibility that personal identity is preserved by memory, as Locke contended, or by psychological continuity. Test these ideas in thought experiments involving the transporter from Star Trek and other intriguing scenarios. x
  • 21
    Are Persons Just Bodies?
    Could it be that you are the same person over time because you have the same body over time? Explore the implications of this view, which traces to the Judeo-Christian concept of the resurrection of the body in the afterlife. Consider biological objections. x
  • 22
    Are You Really You?
    Close your inquiry into the afterlife by looking at new ways of defining personhood. According to perdurantism, a person is the sum total of an individual's life experiences and cannot be isolated to a particular time and place. Then question the very concept of a person - a move that may rule out the possibility of an afterlife. x
  • 23
    How Does the Brain Produce the Mind?
    The next three lectures address the big question: What is the nature of the mind? Start with the celebrated "hard problem" of consciousness: How does the brain produce the mind? Investigate two possible answers and explore why many philosophers consider both to be problematic. x
  • 24
    What Do Minds Do, If Anything?
    Examine three more theories of the mind - property dualism, epiphenomenalism, and eliminative materialism - discovering that each has shortcomings. All of us feel that we have minds, so why is it so difficult to pin down what the mind is? Could the mind be an illusion? x
  • 25
    Could Machines Think?
    Push your exploration of the mind even further by looking at functionalism, which suggests that anything that functions like our brain has mentality. The implication is that, in principle, machines can think. Study some responses to this theory, including John Searle's thought experiment called the Chinese Room. x
  • 26
    Does God Define the Good?
    Turn to the next big question: What is morally right and wrong? Your first step is to inquire what establishes the truth of ethical statements. Look briefly at emotivism, which holds that our emotions tell us what is right. Then focus on divine command theory, which considers God to be the source of moral truth. x
  • 27
    Does Happiness Define the Good?
    Could the happiness or absence of pain that results from an action define whether it is good? The Greek philosopher Epicurus held this view, which was fine-tuned by utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Study objections to this outlook. x
  • 28
    Does Reason Define the Good?
    Kant suggested that reason determines what is moral or immoral. Analyze his famous categorical imperative, which is a set of obligatory moral rules guided by reason. See how Kant's rules go far beyond the Golden Rule. Then uncover the shortcomings of the categorical imperative. x
  • 29
    How Ought We to Live?
    Take up virtue ethics, which suggests that we should concentrate less on resolving which actions are moral or immoral, and instead focus on cultivating virtue. Explore the complexities of this quest, the need to use practical wisdom, and its ultimate goal of eudaimonia, or well-being. x
  • 30
    Why Bother Being Good?
    Wickedness has its rewards, which raises the question: Why bother being good? Explore this issue with Plato, whose dialogue The Republic is a detailed description of a highly regulated, virtuous society. Plato contends that the individual achieves virtue in an analogous way. x
  • 31
    Should Government Exist?
    This section of the course considers the big question: How should society be organized? Here, perform a thought experiment that casts into doubt the moral justification of government. Then probe more deeply into this view, called philosophical anarchism, which has a spectrum of positions from benign to violent. x
  • 32
    What Justifies a Government?
    Does government arise naturally from a state of anarchy? Does this fact morally justify it? Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau thought so. However, each of these philosophers saw different factors driving individuals to enter into the social contract. Compare their views. x
  • 33
    How Big Should Government Be?
    Explore three theories on the proper size of government, focusing on economic regulation and delivery of services. Adam Smith saw a minimal role, Karl Marx envisioned total control, and John Maynard Keynes believed that major government intervention was necessary under certain conditions. x
  • 34
    What Are the Limits of Liberty?
    Deepen your study of the role of government by examining Mill's arguments in his famous 1859 treatise, On Liberty. Apply his reasoning to three of today's hot-button issues: To what extent should marijuana, gay marriage, and offensive and inflammatory speech be legal? x
  • 35
    What Makes a Society Fair or Just?
    Enter the fray with philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick, who reached different conclusions about what would constitute a just society. Begin with a thought experiment based on Christopher Nolan's movie Interstellar, pondering how you might start civilization from scratch in the fairest possible way. x
  • 36
    What Is the Meaning of Life?
    Professor Johnson poses the last big question of the course: Can we answer the ultimate question? Draw on the many insights you've gained from these lectures, together with your experience thinking philosophically, to probe the meaning of life from several points of view. x

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Your professor

David Kyle Johnson

About Your Professor

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma
King's College
Dr. David Kyle Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He earned a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma. At Oklahoma, he won the coveted Kenneth Merrill Graduate Teaching Award. In 2011, the American Philosophical Association’s committee on public philosophy gave him an award for his ability to make philosophy accessible...
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Reviews

The Big Questions of Philosophy is rated 3.9 out of 5 by 76.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fast paced Philosophical Discourse Professor Johnson's presentation is a fast paced sharp articulated formal verbal presentation in a simultaneously parallel artistry of the informal communication necessary extensional dynamic(s) that fulfill the topic's coverage in all dimensions. If there is one suggestion that I could add is that in such a course that presents many terms not commonly used in the mainstream lexicon, where such terms not only are defined ,however used to synthesize a concept takes my mind into a spin to follow both the definitions, and the synthesized concept that is challenging to encode as learning. It would help if terminology could first be introduced as definitions. Then, repeat the value of each term, and how it contributes to the concept as conclusion. Lastly, recap shortly all the terms, and the concept conclusion for a manageable learning encoding. As usual with many of the courses I have acquired, I prefer the video version as it affords to present the detailed lecture in its entirety.
Date published: 2019-04-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Makes driving less tedious A delightful, detailed discourse about philosophy's concepts of our lives. The course is entertaining and thought provoking.
Date published: 2019-03-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointing and not worthy of The Great Courses If you are part of the "New Atheist", "New Skeptical Materialist" crowd , you will love these lectures and the snide, condescending approach that is taken to any philosophical beliefs that challenge those assumptions - (and, I am sorry...they are just assumptions, no matter how elegantly packaged.) I bought these lectures fully prepared, even chomping at the bit, to have my own beliefs and assumptions thoroughly questioned and examined in hopes of further growth and insight. But after 12 lectures it was glaringly obvious that I what I was being treated to was less honest philosophical analysis and, instead, polemic and propaganda. We are assured that "scientific invesitgation", (or at least the scientific investigation that aligns with the professor's own beliefs), is a better "faith" for the modern world. Yet this assumption is, itself, never thoroughly questioned or examined. It is "obvious", after all. Really? What makes it "obvious"? We are given that favorite shibboleth of the "scientism" crowd that an unexpected improvement from a serious illness, (as an example), is due to the "placebo effect". Oh, well, that explains it. And what exactly is the "placebo effect", exactly, and why does it work? "Well because...it's the placebo effect...that's why!" Does that sound like a rational answer to you? The author Patrick Harpur talks about in his writing of this tendency of the Scientism crowd to embrace "explanationism" any explanation, no matter how tawdry or unsatisfying, is better than the possibility, however slight, that something may be happening that is beyond or ability to understand it, not only now, but perhaps, ever. So if you are looking for a stimulating, challenging, yes maybe even comfortable, honest examination of philosophical assumptions and beliefs...look elsewhere, this is isn't it. If you are one of the snarling New Atheist/Skeptical crowd that enjoys living in the comfortable echo chamber of your own "belief system", you will love these lectures. This is "Logical Positvism" at his finest. And propganda and polemic for that Belief. (Funny...and perhaps revealing...that term does not occur in these lectures...not once. If you are not familiar with the term, and it's logical weaknesses, it may be well worth looking up.) This kind of polemic, propoganda and, yes, bullying, is not worthy of the Great Courses. And if this is the kind of "penetrating, questioning, probing analysis" currently being taught in Acedmia, it is diffucult to see how we are really advancing scientifically, intelectually...or morally. Disappointing...to say the least.
Date published: 2019-01-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging and Enthusiastic Presentation After completing David Johnson's course in Science Fiction and Philosophy, I decided to try this course, which goes into much more depth. It was excellent. The entire course was well organized into subsections, and there was an overall arc which tied it all together. Professor Johnson is not afraid to take a stance on many complex issues, and he backs up his conclusions with well reasoned, logical arguments. I didn't always agree with him, but I respect his reasoning, and enjoy his enthusiasm for the material. This was a very enjoyable, informative course, and I looked forward each day to the next lecture.
Date published: 2018-12-19
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not Worth The Investment The professor's approach is quite novice. Sadly, he's more of what I'd call a cut-n-paste professor without any real depth of experience of his own. His approach to applying philosophy to homeopathic medicine was sad, very novice, and uneducated, as one of many examples. I've purchased at least 50 courses from The Great Courses, and this is one of the rare times I had to return a course.
Date published: 2018-11-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing The professor is enthusiastic and engaging. However, he frequently presents his point of view as accepted fact. A good example is his lecture on the difference between brain and mind. The great thinker, Martin Rees has written that this is one of the great questions of Science to be determined. Dr. Johnson thinks he already has the answers. The most problematic part of the course is an underlying bias which has been pointed out in previous reviews. He tries to use to philosophy to justify his agenda towards high taxation. His argument is undercut by his lack of understanding of the importance of effective tax rates instead of stated tax rates. This is one of the few Teaching Co. courses where I regret the purchase.
Date published: 2018-10-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from In The Top Five of 100 Courses I love this course. I have over 100 Great Courses and I liked all but one or two, however this course is so exceptional that I would rate it as one of my top five courses. It is exceptional because the subject matter is so relevant to life and so clearly explained. However let me add some background to what I just wrote. I love courses that are thought provoking. I want courses that cause me to think about what was said long after the course was finished. In fact the courses I love best are the ones that kept me awake at night thinking about something that was said in the course and this course caused some sleepless nights. I also love discovering something new in a subject I thought I had a pretty good handle on. I have other Great Courses in philosophy and science and some of the material in this course was a review, but Professor Johnson managed to throw in a lot of material that was new. In fact what led me to this course was buying and viewing his course on science fiction as philosophy. He covered things that were not in that course. I also like the way the material was presented. Professor Johnson would raise the question and then give one possible answer. Then he would point out the flaws in that answer. Then he would repeat the process with another possible answer and again the flaws. As Professor Johnson likes to say, philosophy questions are hard and remain debatable, that is why they are still in philosophy and not in some other branch of study. And my final caveat. At the end of Professor Johnson's courses he says he hopes some of the material in the course viewers disagreed with. He wants to provoke us and cause us to question our thinking and pat answers. Unfortunately I found nothing in the course I disagreed with. I am a fan of science and history. I like math. I try hard to use reason and logic. I am not religious. So the question I asked myself, if some material in this course had been objectionable for me would have I have given it a five star rating. Well if I learned anything from this course I like to think I would have, even in disagreement.
Date published: 2018-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Breadth and Depth! This is the third set of lectures I have purchased with Dr. Johnson. He's organization both within and between lectures facilitates understanding and helps you to see the connections across concepts. He is careful to cover major perspectives without favoring some over others - except to point out which are more sound. I fully enjoyed this series and feel that the overlap between this set of lectures and his others is valuable rather than redundant. I strongly recommend getting this set along with his other collections. Stellar work!
Date published: 2018-10-03
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