Friday, November 2, 2007

Teaching the History of Philosophy

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?


  1. I think you can get them past doing a book report (summary) by asking them to formulate the (1) the issue or problem the philosopher is addressing, (2) the thesis of the philosopher, and (3) the strategy the philosopher employs to argue for their thesis.

    I have them do this when they write their own papers as well. I call these three elements a formal introduction. If they cannot formulate a proper introduction, they will be unable to write a good philosophy paper.

  2. You asked Becko:
    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?

    Certainly interpreting texts is part of the philosopher's skill set, so the question is how to make students appreciate that fact and be willing to practice the skill. I encounter students who very quickly glom onto the picture of philosophy as argumentative (even comabative), but who miss the other scholarly side of the discipline where careful exposition is important. So I guess I see the challenge as how we might get students to see that the latter is in fact related to the former -- that the 'book report' is part of the intellectual give and take too.

    It seems to me one thing to try is to have students write an argumentative paper on a particular text and then hold them accountable for their interpretations and explanations of that text. We should expect (I think) that if the text is sufficiently intricate that questions could be raised about whether their arguments, valid, sound or otherwise, adequately reflect the text in question, charitably interpreted. You might also try some peer review here. These kinds of exercises might underscore that doing our best to get someone's views correct is not just a pedantic intellectual endeavor. Peer review in particular might illustrate that perhaps the hardest part of philosophy is simply figuring out what one is trying to say and how to express that clearly. I imagine students who issue the "when do I get to do philosophy?" complaint will feel differently when it's their views that are being reconstructed or appraised.

  3. What is it that they think they would be doing if you started “letting them” do philosophy', as you put it?

  4. Here are two suggestions for ways to get students to stop thinking of these tasks as "book reports":

    (1) Remind them that their job is not just to find out what (e.g.) Locke said, but also to figure out why he thinks this is reasonable. As one of my undergraduate advisors pointed out to me, it's incredible that so many very smart people have said so many seemingly stupid things, and it takes a lot of work to figure out why they thought those things were true. How could Locke really believe these things? What were the assumptions behind his arguments that made the arguments seem so powerful?

    This should help students see that they are not just reporting what it says in the book. They have to think about it.

    When it comes to comparing two philosophers, ask what changes in assumptions make Locke's view so implausible to (e.g.) Reid.

    (2) Compare the student's request to a chemistry student's request to "do chemistry." Presumably, they would want to do some experiments. The philosophical equivalent of doing experiments is thinking through arguments--not just reading them passively, but really thinking about them, as you would need to do to complete (1), above.

    Would students complain in a chem lab because they didn't get to come up with most of the experiments on their own? They shouldn't. Doing a very good experiment that someone else spent a long time devising is probably more useful in the early construction of knowledge than doing a bad experiment that you thought up on your own.

    Just as doing others' experiments equips one to explain a well-established result in chemistry, so thinking through others' arguments equips one to explain an important conclusion in philosophy.


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