Monday, August 27, 2012

Teaching philosophy as the provision of critical vocabularies

I don't know how many of you came across this study documenting the apparent decline of moral language in our written culture. The authors scoured Google Books for words with moral significance (conscience, character, etc.), as well as virtue or trait words (honest, patience, kindness, etc.). While the authors found an increase in certain morality-related words (compassion, integrity, fairness, tolerance, selflessness, discipline, dependability, reliability), the overall frequency of moral language in our written culture has declined dramatically over the past century.

Now of course we should be careful in drawing grand conclusions from this study. In particular, we should hesitate before concluding that this study shows actual moral decline, i.e., a decrease in general moral virtue or conscientiousness. 

But the authors speculate that their findings reflect the highly individualistic values that younger people now seem to espouse :
We think that this extreme moral individualism and relativism can be partly explained by our findings—these young people have not been socialized into a shared moral framework, and they simply lack the vocabulary for it. ....Our findings fit in this broad cultural picture in which individual achievement and fulfillment are valued above almost everything else, and definitely above communal values.
Without sounding too codger-y: I think there's something to this. The relative decline of religion has left a conceptual gap in popular consciousness that has yet to be filled in. I don't actually think most of my students have bad moral values. But they certainly don't have robust conceptual networks for thinking about value questions. As we've noted here many times before, a crude relativism is often students' starting place for thinking about value questions.

And this seems to me precisely where philosophy, and philosophical ethics in particular, enter the scene. It's not fashionable these days to talk about the role of education in 'civilization': You sound like some sort of retro-Kipling, pining for the days when teaching the Great Books was seen as a lynchpin in a battle against cultural barbarism. But there's a different way of thinking about the civilizing function of education. People cannot coherently think about what they cannot describe and categorize. One powerful benefit of studying ethics from a philosophical point of view is that it provides us with critical vocabulary for thinking about ethical questions. And in our present culture, this seems more needed than ever. This means thinking of philosophical education neither as dispensing a series of timeless truths nor as merely the sociology of thought. Five years ago, I wrote this, about my own ethics courses:

In these courses, what I hope to convey above all else is that philosophy offers a tradition of serious, reasoned argument about moral questions. This is, I think, a shock to many students: The cultures from which they come, to the extent that have 'moral argument' at all, don't tend to treat moral questions as amenable to rational discussion or progress. The choices available in the wider culture are easy dogmatism (sometimes though not always religious in origin) or easy skepticism. What I intend they discover in a moral philosophy course is that there are other options. The students need not hitch themselves any one of them, of course. But the overall message is that moral knowledge is not hopeless. Indeed, moral philosophy presents us with an overabundance of plausible theories and options, rather than a meager menu of self-serving dogmas or theoretical non-starters.

But what applies to ethics applies to other domains of philosophy as well. Students lack a critical vocabulary for thinking about knowledge. Hence, epistemology serves that aim. Students lack a critical vocabulary for thinking about the artistic. Hence, aesthetic serves that aim. When we provide students such critical vocabularies, we are (in an important way) civilizing them. In a time of cultural flux, where there is an ever greater need for such civilizing processes, we are serving a vital cultural function.


  1. Great post! In particular, I find that students don't even have the vocabulary or framework to understand virtue ethics because it relies so much on a rich ethical language. The question I have though is whether we can impart these thick concepts at the college level. Will students feel the valence of the terms or understand them as mere categories?

  2. This is a very good starting point for thinking about what we should be doing in our classes (perhaps especially classes that are part of the general education curriculum). With ethics in mind, one thing that strikes me about your point regarding the overabundance of plausible theories is that this itself might be overwhelming. For example, suppose we cover basic utilitarian, deontological, and virtue theories, at each step laying out the framework and then reading a strong critique of that framework. The next obstacle to get past is a reaction of the sort, "well, what's the point of studying these theories if they each turn out to be wrong?" So, I try to emphasize the idea that we can learn something even from frameworks that we ultimately are inclined to reject, that we need to pay attention to the insights that can sometimes show themselves even in theories we ultimately think are wrong. (And since others may accept those theories, appreciating the lines of thought that point toward that theory will be important for understanding and interacting and responding to one's peers.)

  3. Additional data point. I asked my students yesterday, after they had read the first chapter of Sandel's book, how many of them knew what a virtue was and only one student had any idea. A couple of them told me they had to go look up the word in the dictionary!

  4. Seems to me that what is relevant has absolutely nothing to do with vocabularies but conceptual competence and being able to think with the ideas effectively, and only in so far as the former is loosely correlated with the latter is vocabulary of any importance. Maybe this is just a conflation because the study is on word frequencies, but if not maybe semantic knowledge might not be the most relevant point of teaching philosophy in this context.


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