Monday, October 26, 2009

On teaching "contemporary" philosophy

ISW acolyte Kevin Timpe writes me with the following query about teaching a contemporary philosophy course:

I'm scheduled to teach a Contemporary Philosophy course for the first time in the spring. It is part of the history of philosophy sequence for our major. While none of the courses in the sequence are specifically required, students have to take at least 3 of the 4 courses in the series.

My question is this. I'm a typical analytic philosopher. I had a class on Levinas and one on Habermas in grad school, but I haven't taken studied or read Sartre, Heiddeger, Merleau-Ponty, etc., since my undergraduate days. While I know that I could read these folks' primary works, to teach them I'd largely be relying on secondary sources for my own understanding. I'm wondering what you collectively think of me focusing just on the analytic side of contemporary philosophy, rather than trying to do both? After all, there's no way I can do justice to all of the worthy figures anyway. And I think there is a benefit to be had by teaching both what one knows and what one is passionate about. That said, I also worry that I may be doing the students a disservice if I didn't also include continental figures. What do you think? And regardless of how you answered the above question, what texts would you suggest I cover in this course? Book orders are due in two weeks!
Wakers: Can you help Kevin out?


  1. I think there's a possible compromise position in here: I think it would be a disservice to the students if they came out of the class having had no introduction at all to existentialism or phenomenology. But I also don't think it follows from this that there is any disservice in not reading them deeply for an undergraduate course. The best thing is probably to have a class or two on the subject, so that they know these things are there, and be honest with the students right from the beginning, "We can't possibly get to all of these strands of contemporary philosophy, so I'm going to focus on those strands that I think I can make into the most interesting class. Amd if you have an interest in any of these others, let me know so I can give you some resources on them."

    Likewise I think it would be a shame for a student to take a class on contemporary philosophy and never even to hear of ordinary language philosophy or logical positivism, but I don't think there's any problem with keeping them in the historical background rather than actually devoting extensive time in class to reading them.

    It's a bit pricey, but I think James Baillie's Contemporary Analytic Philosophy: Core Readings is a good text. (Although, full disclosure, in my undergrad I was taught out of it by James himself, so it would depend on how well it fits with what Kevin is interested in teaching.)

  2. When I was in undergrad, my school solved this dilemma by assigning two professors to collaborate on the course – both a continental philosopher and an analytic philosopher. I really think this was a wonderful solution to this dilemma. I realize not all schools may have this luxury, but as a student I found the class to be among the most intellectually rewarding of my undergrad career, for it exposed me to a both traditions in no superficial way. The interaction between the professors was very interesting as they were both present for class each day and seemed to learn a lot from the class as well.

    As you are only one professor, and one who characterizes himself as a typically analytic one at that, I think it is unrealistic to expect you to be able to cover both in an equally potent way. I do agree with the comment above – I think you would be doing the students a disservice by not exposing them to continental philosophy at all. However, I strongly agree that you would be doing them a disservice by not sharing what you are knowledgeable and passionate about, for I think some of the best teaching happens when a professor particularly relishes something. My solution would be to cover some continental philosophers, but devote a much more substantial chunk of the course to the analytic philosophers. As far as continental readings go, I would suggest reading some Heidegger at the very least, and maybe some continental philosophers who raise similar issues to some of the analytics – for example, I found that reading Wittgenstein and Derrida together made for a very interesting dialogue about language. Perhaps this would be a way to explore some continental stuff within the context of analytic philosophy?

    Also, keep in mind that your students will be taking a wide array of courses (I am assuming), so while you do bear a responsibility to expose them to both continental and analytic philosophy in a contemporary class, I am sure they will have numerous other opportunities to develop what they are exposed to in your class in their future classes. I wish you the best of luck with the class!

  3. Even if you tried to cover the analytic side of contemporary philosophy, you're probably biting off more than can be handled in one course. Getting through an early analytic course that covers Frege to the Quine/Carnap material can be a challenge, and that would still leave you Kripke and the explosion that's come after. When I took a similar course as an undergrad the professor choose to organize the readings around one theme, in this instance 'truth'. This allowed to instructor to pull in a lot of readings from the likes of Frege, Russell, Moore, Tarski, Putnam, and Davidson, but also a couple of readings from Heidegger and Foucault.


  4. Thanks for the comments so far. Most of our majors (>80%) will take a course taught by my colleague entitled 'Existentialism and Literature'. So most of the students will get a pretty good exposure to that tradition there. Maybe I'll see if he can come give a few lectures to my class; I think getting the course to be completelly team-taught would be great, but infeasible. (The best course I ever taught was a team-taught honors course with a historian.)

    I like your suggestion, Matthew, about organizing the readings around a common theme. I'll need to give that some thought.

  5. I like to teach what I enjoy and do well, and I think that's a good policy for others. I don't think it's important to cover both analytic and continental in one course; you can't cover everything that could be called contemporary, anyway. (Of course, it's a different story if the department has a set curriculum in mind.) When I taught contemporary last year, a junior-level required course, I emailed the students as soon as they registered with a list of about ten recent articles in good journals that I wanted to read. Then, I structured the course around two of them, picking readings from the last century that would lead us up to the two most favored choices. (The students chose one article on neuroscience and consciousness and another on laws of nature.) I had fun. The students were exposed to some serious work. And, when the work got difficult, they had only themselves to blame!

    Here's the course page, if you're interested:


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