Saturday, January 3, 2009

Difficulties of Teaching Ancient Philosophy: taking the “Ancient” out of Ancient Philosophy

I am curious if anyone has experimented with alternative and effective methods for teaching Ancient (Greek) Philosophy. I have found it a difficult subject to teach, but over the past few semesters, I have been experimenting with something that has worked surprisingly effectively.

On the first day of my Ancient Greek philosophy class, while most of my students are beginning to realize that the rumors surrounding the course work-load are true, and after I have begun developing some useful terminology, such as “logos” and “nous”, I am typically, but unsurprisingly, met with at least one student in class who simply does not believe that anything I am saying will ever make sense to her. Then, as I begin to develop something of a systematic explanation of Greek Philosophy in the next few days of class, I find that I quickly lose even my best students’ interest. Why does Ancient Greek philosophy feel so…well, ancient? “Because it is!” my students tell me.

My students often remind me that while I see the relevance of these ancient ideas, they barely see the relevance of philosophy itself. So, when I come to class overly eager to tackle Plato’s solution to the Parmenidean/Heraclitean problem of the one and the many, my students quite rightfully want to tackle each other on the way out of the door.

In order to combat this diluvial dysphoria, I have experimented with a method that not only keeps the students engaged, but also prepares them to think and work in philosophy (and its fun for me too). It is something rather intuitively dissonant: I simply take the "ancient" arguments and put them into modern symbolic notation. Since very few of my students have ever studied anything resembling philosophy before, they move from paralysis to curiosity while I translate Parmenides’ argument for the One, or one of Zeno's paradoxes, into modern symbolic notation.

What I have come to realize, at least for my students, is that they are fascinated by philosophy, particularly how philosophy can take something very seemingly simple (like free will or immortality or the existence of God) and make it entirely baffling, only to put it back together again. Ancient arguments are fun…for me, but my students simply do not immediately see the philosophy behind these antique articulations. When I draw up the arguments in symbolic notation, and walk my students through each argument to show how the arguments work, my students not only begin to reinvigorate their fascination with philosophy, but they also, strangely, begin to take ancient philosophy seriously. It is as if they had found something entirely new that few else have noticed.

I find teaching ancient philosophy to be difficult, and my students may think I am nuts for studying it; so I try to win them over by proving them right. After all, they already think I am crazy for being a philosopher. Prove them right and win them over! This idea was confirmed for me after reading Mark Edmudson’s insights in his NYT article on "good teachers", which Michael Cholbi formerly posted on. Here is an excerpt.

“Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat?Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call “counterintuitive” but to the teacher means simply being honest. Good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar. The philosophy professor steps in the window the first day of class and asks her students to write down the definition of the word ‘door.’”

I would be very grateful to read your thoughts on such teaching methods and/or alternative ways of teaching Ancient Philosophy.


  1. In part, I suspect, it depends upon what sorts of issues you take up from Ancient philosophy.

    I have organized my Ancient course (required for our major and a gen ed course for non-majors probably about 1/3 majors each time) around the question of the "best life." I motivate the question with Socrates and trace an arc through Plato, Aristotle, Stoic, Epicurean, Skeptic answers to the question. This is in part a function of the place of Ancient in our curriculum and the need to have a class that can both provide majors with a good basis for later courses, and not turn off non-majors.

    Along the way we explore some epistemological, metaphysical, and meta-ethical questions that must be considered in order to ask or answer the question of the best life.

    I don't pretend to give a complete survey of Ancient philosophy (generally no pre-socratics) and less metaphysics than might be traditionally taught. Nevertheless, I think that I can give an accurate representation of the questions that prompted philosophy and keep those questions close to life for students, while introducing some of the key metaphysical and epistemological questions (typically I've do epistemology and metaphysics of forms with some of the Aristotelian response, and the skeptic's arguments).

    Works by Pierre Hadot, Annas, and Nussbaum are probably influences on this approach.

    This also allows me to evaluate students in two different registers in a sense. The best students master the technical and textual matters as well as possess an understanding of their significance, the good students will typically be stronger on the latter--that is, they may have less nuanced understanding of the subtleties of e.g. the Aristotelian ergon argument, but they demonstrate mastery of the significance and the key ideas.

  2. Why not go with the good ol' Socratic Method/Questioning or Coyote teaching.

  3. Thanks Jason,

    I use a similar technique but in reverse. After introducing my students to predicate calculus, I then introduce them to the Ontological Argument, Kant's objection, and subsequent discussions about whether or not existence is a predicate. Modern technical devices become interesting when students see that they can be used to cast light on ancient problems. It also is a good way of letting them see what symbolic logic can and cannot do: once an argument has been formalized within a particular logical system, testing for validity becomes a technical issue of applying rigidly defined rules - but the really difficult questions arise when you are considering which set of rules to adopt.

  4. While I have not taught much ancient philosophy, I do think that one of the barriers to understand them is that we treat their terms as technical terms rather in the manner of modern or scholastic philosophy, and use the scholastic terms when translating the ancients (e.g., species, premise, and so on).

    I think most of the classical philosophers up until Aristotle or some time after (including the Epicureans) used terminology of ordinary language instead of a technical vocabulary, and the best way to understand them is replace the technical terms with ordinary contemporary words in a rough translation. Then they start to make sense, and the reader is not misled by the homonymity of terms like species or morphe or ideai. Locke got this.

    In short, treat them as ordinary language philosophers, trying to get at the meaning of terms in the vernacular, and they often make more sense.

  5. I think it depends on the teacher. I took a intro course and I absolutely hated philosophy. I took a Greek Civ class and my teacher went over all the classical philosophers and now i'm hooked, and shortly after i changed my major. Check out my blog, if your interested in another point of view.

  6. The right writers are a good suggestion, like Pierre Hadot as someone mentioned. I studied for a while under one of his students, Horst Hutter. He wrote a book called Shaping the Future and I think the title alone could inspire students. Hutter and others like him discuss philosophy in a way that is close to life and doesn't feel completely relegated to an academic setting, suggests spiritual (e.g. breathing) exercises that don't require any specific doctrine, and bring out an existential quality that to the texts (like Plato's erotics) that are very seductive for new students. Also, I had a presocratics teacher who gave each student a Heraclitus fragment and asked them to make what they could of it and talk about it in class for a minute or two. Told us no one knew what it really meant anyway. Ended up being some of the most enjoyable lectures I ever had. I think you have to get through to it but the interest in Ancient thought is usually there.

    if you want to reply could you do so at my site, I don't think anyone's been there yet


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