Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Philosophy! Oh, thats-"

No one goes up to, say, an electrical engineer at a party and proceeds to tell the engineer what engineering is, or that engineering is all relative, or that engineers think too much, or that when it comes to engineering, people already know what's best for them, and we should never let anyone else tell us what to engineer because this is a free country.

How come they do that to philosophers, to philosophy teachers? It happens in the classroom too. I don't have to tell you that.

Last week in one of my ethics classes, during our discussion of animal ethics, one student declared that none of this ethics stuff matters, that it's all circular, that people are just going to do what they want to do anyway, and that's just how the world is.

I usually know how to respond to these kinds of things. But sometimes, when I'm on the third class of the day, it's night time, I'm just as tired as they are, and it's coming at me fast and furious; well, you know.

What do you say when people / students tell you things like this? I'd like to add some tricks to my tool box.


  1. Why would you want to compare Philosophy with Electrical Engineering?

    It's in the nature of a social science that it is more vague and open to discussion.

  2. @ andreasmoser:

    Thanks for your response.

    What do you mean by "more vague"? How are the social sciences more vague? More "vague" to whom? Why?

    Also, is it the case that I am comparing philosophy to electrical engineering? Or am I comparing the *questions* an electrical engineer gets from laypersons, to the questions a philosophy professor or philosopher gets from laypersons? What I intended to illustrate is the latter. Do you think that makes a difference? Why or why not?

    How about the second half of what I submitted? Do students ever make comments like the ones illustrated therein, in your classes? If yes, how do you respond? I'm especially curious about responses to that part of my post.


  3. The answer depends on whether this comes up in class, or in a non-instructional setting. If in class, do you cover metaethics in this course? If so, you could say, "Yes, that question raises issues of fundamental principles that we will get to in week 7 of the syllabus." If not, you could explain why not. [For example, if the reason is that the topic of moral skepticism is taught in a different course, briefly explain why the department organizes the curriculum as it does].

    In a non-instructional setting, I would first determine whether the person is actually interested in having a substantive conversation, or just dissing you. If the former, your interlocutor might be interested to learn that this is a well-known question to which there are several lines of response. If the latter, the best response is probably to change the subject or realize that you need to freshen your drink.

  4. I find that my students often have a hard time distinguishing between relativism/subjectivism and the mere existence of multiple perspectives. In many cases, they conclude that, since there are many perspectives, there is not a correct one.

    Putting a student like that on their heels to *defend* their claim often roots out the ignorance. Ask them why they believe what they claim; ask them to offer an argument in support of their claim; etc.

    Then again, I'm just taking a page from the Socratic playbook.

  5. @ Anonymous & Ontario,

    Thanks for your responses, and ideas. Socratic questioning is probably what I use most in response to these kinds of situations, both in class, and at parties! (Not that I have the time to attend many...that was perhaps wishful thinking.)

    It's useful to learn, and remember, what others do in response to these kinds of things. I encounter wonderful ideas all the time from coworkers and other profs; collecting more here means I know where to go when I need a refresher / boost.



  6. Karla,

    I hear you asking two things:
    (1) Why do people assume they have philosophical expertise or knowledge when they clearly do not assume such expertise or knowledge with respect to other fields?

    (2) How should we deal with students who question the relevance or impact of the academic study of philosophy?

    As for (1), the obvious answer is ignorance. The popular sense of 'philosophy' is very distant from what academic philosophers do, and so if you have no knowledge of what academic philosophers do, you assume they're gurus, phonies, or pontificators, so you could do their job just as well as they do. In other words, the question rests on the assumption that philosophical expertise doesn't exist, and so everyone's equally equipped to engage philosophical questions or issues.

    That's one explanation for Q1. The other one is that it's an attempt to deflate you by those who do have some familiarity with academic philosophy but found it too challenging. We have to face the fact that the serious study of philosophy is hard, though many students expect it will be easy. And when they find it's not easy, they rebel and decide it's all nonsense, not worth studying in the first place. That's a way of making your own difficulties easier to handle.

    That's part of what can go on with respect to (2) as well. My suspicion is that students who are dismissive toward philosophy are usually those whose intellectual maturity has stalled, and finding out that some questions are hard to answer (and that they aren't especially equipped to answer them) triggers hostility.

    But as far as how to deal with Q2: I'm with Anon 8:58. Treat as a serious intellectual issue. Point out to the student that it's an assumption of a great deal of philosophical inquiry that we can make rational progress, perhaps even persuade one another of the truth, and (in the case of ethics) change our behavior in the light of the truth. Interpret the student as questioning one or more of these assumptions. Ethics "is circular"? Talk about the methodology of reflective equilibrium and worries about we can justify our ethical beliefs non-circularly. Philosophy has no impact on our ethical beliefs? Point out that Aristotle shared a similar view, but on the other hand, Singer's Animal Liberation has sold over a million copies and helped to create a social movement.

    I guess my thought is that by taking the student as a serious inquirer, you find the kernel of insight in there and draw it out, in the hope that you keep the student engaged with the material you're teaching but more on the terms the student finds engaging.

  7. If everything is relative, dear student, and nothing ethical matters, then I'll assign you an "F" for the Moral Philosophy Course right now. - Bob

  8. Bob said pretty much exactly what I was going to say. I have said something like this in class in response to that sort of comment. The idea is to bring the issue back to something that affects them directly. When they say "It's all relative, who cares", that usually means they are forgetting how much _they_ care about being treated fairly, for example, as they move through their own lives. Of course, you have to make sure they know you mean it not entirely as a joke: they immediately need to be brought to see that they _really would_ think it would be morally wrong for a professor to give them an F despite their having done well in a class, and that if the professor replied by saying "Well, it's all relative, who cares", that would be completely unsatisfactory!

  9. Karla,

    I've collected a million stock replies to this sort of thing. That said, on my better days I don't respond to the request to "defend what I do." Let's face it, you or I are not going to convince them of philosophy's importance if they are angrily demanding us to justify its existence.

    Instead, I ask the student(s) how, if philosophy or ethics is so useless, they can explain it's presence for 2500 years in culture, literature, politics, academics, and so on.

    If it was really as useless as they think, then given an even average intelligence level for humans over the last 2500 years, they would have seen to it that it disappeared. Since it's still around, we'd have to then assume that either (a) before the emergence of this class, the average intelligence level of human beings has been frightfully low, so much so that they have been successfully conned into believing in the importance of something entirely useless, OR (b) the class is wrong and past history has been right, which means philosophy/ethics is not useless.

    Since no students are so arrogant as to pick (a), I then ask THEM to defend the importance of philosophy by reconstructing what those before them have collectively seen and recognized.

    In other words, instead of putting you on the defensive to defend it, make them do it.

  10. Thanks so much everyone, for your responses. They're timely, as I begin a new week tomorrow. I appreciate you taking the time to share your techniques!

    Michael: The way you break down what I said is divine. You clearly understood what I was saying, and the relationship between the two parts of my post. Your insights are very helpful.

    Bob & Gazza: in that very class, after the break (it's a 3 hour night class), I pulled the whole "So then it's okay if I give you all an F, right? Because I want to drive down to Miami this weekend, and I just won't have the time to grade..." That technique usually works in terms of getting them to look at relativism another way.

    Chris: I LOVE stock replies! Bring 'em! One line zingers are mighty handy for there's no more time left in a particular session for digressions on metaethics. Another prof and I were joking today about what he called the "stand up comedy" approach, about how sometimes it feels like that's what you've got to be good at, to keep things on track, some days. I really like the A vs. B approach that you outline in the second half of your response.

    There's one theme running through these comments, that I'd like to address real quick before I log off; the one that highlights how students need to be pressed to defend *their* positions. I agree.

    Thanks again for the great ideas and speedy responses everyone; I'm now sufficiently rejuvenated for the week ahead, I think. These are especially valuable threads for us early career educators. :) Karla

  11. A small point: the student Karla described isn't obviously a relativist, but some sort of skeptic. Students sometimes are relativists because they're skeptics, but this sort of skepticism seems to require a different response than does relativism.

  12. If a strongly held, dismissive point of view, is not subjected to peer review-How to address it? The opportunity may never come again and it may be the popular opinion in your class. Give it a voice and an appropriate venue for consideration; after all, teaching them to think independently is part of the mission statement, No? Allow a period of time, on or off class hours, to express his beliefs in a cogent, well reasoned fashion. The other students will also reveal ideas which may be holding them back or even some which may advance the cause of their own, personal wisdom.

  13. @ Jeronimonroe:

    Thanks for your input.

    "If a strongly held, dismissive point of view, is not subjected to peer review-How to address it?"

    My initial post doesn't ask how to address it, period; rather, I ask, and even end with, "What do you [other teachers] say when people / students tell you things like this? I'd like to add some tricks to my tool box."

    In other words, my goal is to collect *more* ideas, to see how others address these kinds of situations, so I can add *more* ideas to my toolbox.

    "Give it a voice and an appropriate venue for consideration; after all, teaching them to think independently is part of the mission statement, No?"

    I don't recall claiming that it was not, in my original post, or elsewhere in this thread. Is there a passage in this thread that made you think this was my viewpoint? If yes, can you point it out?

    Now...assuming I do take critical thinking to be the mission (I do), and assuming I do know how to deal with these things (I do), what tips and tricks can you share with me (and others reading this), so that I may add those to my toolbox? One can never have too many tricks and tips when it comes to these kinds of things.

    Do you teach? If yes, when/if these things come up, what are some of your go-to responses and techniques?

    Thank you in advance for your time. KP

  14. Karla -

    You said:

    "There's one theme running through these comments, that I'd like to address real quick before I log off; the one that highlights how students need to be pressed to defend *their* positions. I agree."

    I think that's the key. Often we feel put on the defensive by these comments, as if *we* have to defend our positions. Not so. It is the student who is calling out the conventional wisdom, so the burden is on him/her to defend what they say. Given the historical importance of philosophy of just about every discipline, they have a tall order in front of them - but if they can defend why they are right and history is wrong, I say give them a shot! :)

  15. Again, I think we all know what the appropriate response to a student's insolent remark is: 'That's no way for a student to talk'. That is how such a comment would have been met when academics were running academia. And students themselves were better off for being required to know their place- I know I was. But the whole concept of submitting to a mentor's discipline is lost on the current generation of "students." You can't tell them anything, not even 'Turn of your cellphones', without fear of reprisial. You think they don't know what you are? You are a low paid, part-time employee. If your own employer doesn't respect you, why should they?


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