When teaching the history of philosophy I encourage students to approach the history of philosophy as they would contemporary philosophy. It is as important to identify, outline and reconstruct Locke’s arguments as it is to identify, outline and reconstruct Peter Singer’s arguments. For each, one must use the principle of charity and considerations of overall coherence. Originality does not primarily consist in arriving at some completely novel idea but in providing explanations, arguments and interpretations of ways that philosophical problems can be or have been treated.
I emphasize that when one identifies, outlines, reconstructs and explains an argument, one is providing an interpretation for which one is responsible, i.e. one that is open to criticism.
Students often ask: “When do I get to do philosophy?” This is a difficult question to answer because when we ask them to explain, for example, Reid’s criticism of Locke’s theory of personal identity, we are asking them to do philosophy. But they often take us to be asking for a book report and they wonder why we’re not “letting them” do philosophy.
Any advice about how to make clear to students that when we ask them to provide interpretations and explanations of various positions in philosophy as exemplified by particular figures – from Socrates to Singer – we are asking them to “do” philosophy?