Wednesday, March 4, 2009

An "interdisciplinary" introduction to philosophy course?

Conceptions vary of what philosophy is, or should aspire to, even (or perhaps especially!) among philosophers themselves. One such conception is that philosophy addresses questions and assumptions that are central to, but generally go unexamined, in other disciplines. My purpose here is not to defend this conception of philosophy. Indeed, it strikes me as highly controversial and limited. (Ethics doesn't seem to fit well into this conception of philosophy, for instance).

But I had a thought for what might be an intriguing way to organize an intro to philosophy course: Identify assumptions made in other disciplines and use these as these content objects for the course. So I could imagine you could have a course where:

  • Students read the Republic, say, and having had it pointed out to them that Plato's psychology is strongly egoistic, investigate to what degree egoism is assumed in orthodox economics or political science.
  • Students read Descartes and other work on skepticism concerning knowledge of the empirical world as a way of considering whether natural science is naively empiricist.
  • Students read core sources on free will and determinism and consider to what degree the governing precepts of contemporary biology (or physics, or even sociology) are deterministic.
Better yet, perhaps students could generate the assumptions themselves based on their knowledge of other disciplines. (That might not work if the intro students are mostly freshmen.)

I can see one obvious objection to this approach: It makes philosophy seem like the snarky kid in the corner with no domain of its own, whose job is to hassle other disciplines. Yet on the other hand, I could see two advantages to such an approach: First, it's an ideal way to get guest speakers into your class from other disciplines (and in my view, guest speakers are almost a welcome addition to a class). Second, it seems likely that students will continue to apply the knowledge they acquire in the class because they are likely to go on to study these other disciplines. Teaching philosophy as a 'freestanding' discipline, with its own distinctive problems, encourages students to think of philosophy as something that one does outside of thinking about other things. In contrast, this approach signals that the activity of philosophy arises along side of other intellectual pursuits and is hardly cordoned off from them.

Could such an approach work?


  1. I'm pretty sure such an approach can work as I think I've been doing something like it for many years now. You're right about the "snarkiness" worry, but the worry about not doing it that way is "irrelevance."

    I'm befuddled by your suggestion that ethics doesn't fit with this, however. All disciplines include some conceptions of value, human nature/motivation, etc. and few disciplines critically evaluate them as part of their course content or aims. Meanwhile, those that do critically evaluate them often fail to connect the ethical assumptions that inform their own discipline with those that inform others. My own view is that one of the most valuable things a philosophy course can do for students is help them integrate their understanding across various domains. This strikes me as particularly true in ethics.

  2. This is actually how I expect intro courses to work. I agree with Nancy - ethics fits nicely into this framework. Applied ethics is the easiest way to engage students with ethical ideas.

  3. Thom and Nancy -

    Thanks for your comments. I didn't mean to suggest that ethics couldn't be taught in such a course. My initial point was only that there's an element of the study of ethics that isn't tied very closely to other disciplines and their assumptions. Some of ethics (ethical theory, e.g.) is more purely philosophical.

  4. It makes philosophy seem like the snarky kid in the corner with no domain of its own, whose job is to hassle other disciplines.

    Isn't that true? :-)

  5. I think your concern that philosophy will seem snarky is pretty easily overcome. My personal understanding is that philosophy's focus is on foundational questions, which remains philosophy's domain. But the answers to those questions are relevant to a wide number of disciplines. If ethics, then political science, psychology, and even biology are relevant. If philosophy of science, then all the sciences, and so on. Philosophy can still retain its focus on foundational questions while advising those in other disciplines about their own philosophical presuppositions. Indeed, philosophy can best answer the foundational questions in conjunction with other disciplines, as the answers are often well outside the a priori realm of the armchair.


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