Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Expecting the Old Guys

For me, one of the hardest courses to design is the Introduction to Philosophy course. First of all, it has an impossible premise. There's simply too much philosophy. But that's not what I wanted to write about here. In addition to the topics one chooses, there is also the method of presenting those topics. Since I do a very problem-based type of philosophy, I tend to emphasize the same in my Introduction course. We cover several topics, including free will, personal identity, the mind-body problem, the problem of evil, and the problem of relativism. The last time I taught it, I actually hunted down five dialogues (all from Hackett, it was a cheap course) and used them to lay out the problems. It went pretty well, but I could definitely improve it.

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.


  1. Very interesting post Adam.

    I have tried over the years to incorporate both approaches to teaching intro courses. I think that students do need some awareness of Plato and Descartes so I do have them read some of the Socratic dialogues and parts of the Meditations. We then move on to discuss some of the arguments for/against believing in the existence of (a theistically defined) God and the problem of evil We read some Aquinas, Paley, Hume, and James as well as Mackie, Ayer, and Hick. I finish up with some existentialism and have then read some Sartre and Camus. If time permits I have them read Epictetus' The Enchiridion.

    Most of my students will never take another philosophy course so I want them to be able to see some value in what philosophers are trying to do. I believe, as did Russell, that it is the questions, not the answers, that make philosophy so interesting and I try to convey this to my students. I want them to see that it can enrich their lives even if they do not take any more courses. I ask them to save Plato and Epictetus (if not the others) and reread them after a few years. I tell them that they will make more sense to them, or give them a different perspective, as they have more life experiences thru which to filter what is being discussed. To this end I utilize gutenberg.org and other free downloads so they will have no financial incentive to sell back any texts.

  2. Adam,

    I tend to try to incorporate both the old guys and the newer guys (and gals) in intro. I've never taught intro in a straightforwardly historical manner; I favor a problems-based approach with historical texts used where appropriate. This helps to serve the twin goals of (a) showing students that philosophy has a long and storied history that intertwines with culture and history more generally, and (b) showing that, even though there are disjunctures in philosophical discourse where fundamental assumptions or aims change, there is still a single philosophical conversation that can be traced back over the centuries. I've found this approach to be very successful in teaching topics like state authority and personal liberty. It's fun to see students respond to the juxtaposition of Republic passages on censorship, Mill's On Liberty, and Andrea Dworkin's work on pornography!

  3. I now teach at a school where there is no intro to philosophy. In its place we have a course named "Great Books of Philosophy" and it is a GE required class taken by mostly young non-majors. We cover at least three texts, one from ancient, one from modern, and one contemporary. On the face of it, that sounds like a historical approach. But as Michael suggests above, you can also make it a problems oriented class.

    For example, my class is now reading Plato's Gorgias, Epicurus, Mill's Utilitarianism, and essays from Nagel's Mortal Questions. One question we are pursuing in a problems-based way is the question of the nature of intrinsic value. We will read several hedonists, but each disagrees about the nature of pleasure and how we are to live our lives given that pleasure is the good. We also get to read the views of a couple non-hedonists as well. We pursue questions about the foundations of ethics, with some virtue theory, some consequentialism, and some deontology represented in the readings.

    I tend to think that this approach works much better than the types of courses I used to teach (which were just like the example you gave of a problems-based approach). For one thing, we get to delve much deeper into the questions when reading the great books. We are in effect asking a few related questions, and examining various positions on them for the entire term. As long as the texts are chosen wisely, I think this is a great approach.

  4. I've never had the chance to teach Introduction to Philosophy, but I've been both excited and intimidated by the thought of it, excited because it could include almost anything, intimidated because it is an introduction to almost everything.

    I think if I were to design a course today, my main objective would be to "advertise" for the specific philosophy department at which I were working. By this I mean I would try to give roughly the same portions of time to history, ethics, and the rest as one could expect to get over four years as a philosophy major. So if the department where I'm working offers a lot of courses on, say, the continentals, I'd make sure I include an appropriate amount of material on them in my intro class.

    At the same time, I think I'd like to avoid the sort of reiteration that an intro to philosophy class can produce. I don't want my students to later walk into a course in epistemology or early modern and roll their eyes because they have to listen to yet another lecture about Descartes' demon. (I acknowledge John's point that most students in an intro class won't take another philosophy class, but since no one is going to teach something they think unimportant, I wonder whether it really matters that we teach the very most reputable philosophers.) Because I don't want my philosophy majors to roll their eyes in any of their courses, I think I'd try to teach more of the philosophers that they might not get to read in their other classes (think Schopenhauer, al-Ghazali, Peirce, Plotinus).

    The goal for me, then, would be to prepare a student for what a philosophy major would be like (here) were they to choose it while at the same time not wasting the time of those who do eventually choose to be philosophy majors by teaching them something they'll also get in another course.

    I'd also try to acknowledge the fact that almost no student in an intro class is going to read a lot, so I'd keep the texts relatively short.

  5. Thanks for the post, Adam.

    Out of curiosity, why were you '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?"'

    This kind of disappointment requires more understanding of philosophy and historical figures than many students at many schools bring to philosophy classes. So I wonder why you think more than a few might have had this kind of expectation since, for many students, philosophy classes aren't quite what they expect them to be like (i.e., they're [hopefully] not just people expressing their 'opinions', sessions with a Guru, wildly extravagant speculations, etc.).

  6. Hey Adam, long time no see! Nice blog you contribute to here.

    For what it's worth I thought I would chime in and speak up for the more historically minded of us. I teach all of classes historically, begining with the pre-Socratics and ending up with contemporary stuff like Armstrong Searle and Dennett. This lets the students see that there is/has been a very long conversation about this stuff that they are now joining. It also lets them connect it up to other stuff they know abot history. For instance, knowing that Hobbess lived during the English revolution helps to explain his obsession with having a string ruler...what I find is that the problems come up organically and the students then have some grasp of why the different answers were given. Also important, I think, is exposing the student to Western culture and to seeing the whole of an individuals philosophy...

  7. Nathan--

    A couple have actually asked me which is why I speculate that way. But I think that a lot of people know there is something out there called philosophy and that famous people like Descartes, Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates have something to do with it. Thus they're thinking of it as "received wisdom of the ages". At least I think that's roughly the thought process. Perhaps their parents contribute to the thought process by reminiscing about their college philosophy courses, which were probably much more likely to be historical.

    But you're definitely right that there's another subset that comes in with the "this is where there are no right answers" mindset. I usually take care of their worries by the first week if I'm doing my job!

  8. Richard-- Great to see you too. Congrats on the position and thanks for your thoughts! How do you have time to go all the way from the Pre-Socratics to Dennett? Do you narrowly focus on one particular aspect of the great conversation?

  9. Thanks!

    yeah, it is a lot to cover in one semester! But think of the intro biology or physics course, a similar amount of material is covered...of course there are semesters where we barely make it to Kant...but as long as the students have some grasp of how Descartes, Newton, and Gallileo reject Aristoteleanism, Locke's development of a naturalized Cartesian philosophy of mind, Hume's critique of empiricism, and Kant's response I think they have been introduced to philosophy :)

    As you can probably tell, I do tend to emphasize the aspect of the conversation that I am interested in, but what's great about the historical approach is that you can emphasize any part of the conversation that you (or the students) want. I try to get the basics of a philosophers general view out and then focus as the course/discussion requires. This gives the class some flexibility, as you mentioned in your original post. The problems come up on their own and you can persue them as you want.

    I think that this in some sense also 'normalizes' the intro philosophy experience. First-time students are often put off by the abstract nature of philosophy. They are not taught to think like that in their other courses. Now, I do not think this is anything like appropriate or anything like that, but it is a fact. So, instead of just throwing them in the deep end and seeing if the sink or swim, this approach let's some of the course work be learning something concrete. So they can learn Socrates' argument, and Arisitotle's characterization of it and response to it. You can even present the arguments with numbered premises! ;^)So I think that the pro you listed for the problems-based side is also a pro for the historical-based side...

    Finally, I just noticed you worry about people being turned off of philosophy because they read some philosopher that they think has it right. Probably for every one of those we have one like Strawson (say) who thinks they have it right and then re-interprets it into modern vernacular...or conversely one like Thomas reid who thinks that they have it dead wrong and blasts them...or who defends them from standard objections (olike Mill did for Bentham)...so on the whole I would say it more than balances out....

  10. By the way it just occurred to me that the same is true for the contemporary stuff too, isn't it...they read Russell or Wittgenstein and stop doing philosophy, wouldn't you say?


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