However, the whole time, I was convinced that a good number of students were thinking to themselves, "I signed up for philosophy. Why aren't we reading Plato, Aristotle, or Nietzsche?" That of course leads to the other way of teaching Intro: a more historical approach. Below, I discuss some pros and cons of each approach, with a plea for similar thoughts and experiences from our audience.
The Problem Approach:
- Pros: For me one of the primary benefits of studying philosophy was the liberating method of thought. In fact, I wish that I had learned how to think critically and philosophically before I'd been let anywhere near Descartes, Anselm, and the rest. This method can be easily shown to be applicable in places other than philosophy, allowing the course to make the learning curve shorter on all of his or her other courses. The problems approach can emphasize argumentation, clarity, and precision with slightly more ease than the historical approach. Also, I think the problems approach better prepares students to read papers in contemporary philosophy. If they plan on going on in philosophy, this is an important asset. Finally, because the extra step of interpretation can be minimized in most cases, anybody can jump in and play. You're at most intimidated by tough arguments, rather than towering historical figures.
- Cons: It certainly won't be what most people have expected as a philosophy course at first, and this can turn some students off completely. Also, while it prepares students for contemporary reading, they may be left behind somewhat in a future curriculum that emphasizes historical figures and interpretation. Furthermore, because most contemporary philosophers like to emphasize technical points, it can give students perhaps too narrow a version of all the skills that philosophers employ -- especially interpretation. Also, while it can be very beneficial to learn to think critically, it can be hard to emphasize the kind of imagination that students tend to be able to employ in a more historical introduction. At least if one doesn't like a historical introduction, one can say that one has read some Plato. If you're not into argumentation despite the professor's best efforts, you may report that all you did was "run in circles" all semester.
The historical approach:
- Pros: It's how philosophy has been introduced for hundreds and hundreds of years and they'll be prepared when they hear the names in the future. Students are reading not just this century's mediocre minds, but minds that have stood the test of time and have inspired thousands who never even took a philosophy course. Plenty of people feel the need to pick up Plato at some time in life, but many fewer remember with fondness the day they first read John Perry's dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. Also, students studying the great philosophers encounter several issues at once, and are able to mine the text for more without a bad chance of success. The great philosophers inspire readings that draw connections between different topics rather than lasering in on one. Finally, argumentation can be introduced alongside the issues as the great philosophers are offering good arguments. It takes a little more work to explain to students how it works because the arguments are sometimes less explicitly stated, but that difficulty allows students to develop better interpretational skills. Also, from the professorial perspective, it can be considerably more rewarding to gradually become familiar with the older texts than it is to come back to a simple, clear argument every semester.
- Cons: It can be intimidating to study the great, old, white, dead guys, and even more so if you're not old, white, or a guy. Contemporary philosophy has a much more diverse array of voices. Because the philosophies are so developed, it can be harder to play along in the way one can after one has learned simple argumentation. The old guys can certainly leave students in admiration, thinking it would be hard to improve on things rather than sharp and critical of new ideas. Teaching historically also underlines the the idea that a "philosopher" is someone like Plato or Kant rather than the person standing in front of the room teaching them Plato or Kant. It can be much harder to imagine yourself as a philosopher when you're reading Kant than when you're trying to emulate your professor's skill at coming up with counter-examples to numbered arguments. Finally, students can get "stuck" in the history rather than really interacting and coming up with their own ideas and arguments. I've seen more than one person who decided that Spinoza or Marx had it all right, and never felt the need to do any more philosophy, let alone going beyond to the great new frontiers that are being explored today in academic journals.
Ok, so that was way too much. But I'm eager to hear what others have to say about their favorite way of teaching Intro and/or the alternative. And, of course, there has to be something to be said for a mix, or ways that I'm not even entertaining here.