Thursday, June 01, 2006

Philosophy Intro Courses

Weatherson had an interesting post a while back on "101 teaching", specifically whether it's preferable to go for breadth or depth of content. I don't have any relevant experience here, besides the classes I've taken as a student, but I'm inclined to think that the ideal undergraduate philosophy programme would offer two compulsory first-year courses (one each semester), one on methodology and the other on problems.

Oddly enough, the best overview of philosophical methods I received was in a linguistics class ("semantics"). It included first-order logic, scopal ambiguity, possible worlds analyses, counterfactuals, referential opacity, the de dicto/de re distinction, etc. Very useful -- and interesting too, if taught in the right way, with fun examples, etc. So I think it'd be great to introduce all that in a standard phil course, along with standard "critical thinking" topics, informal fallacies, and crucial philosophical distinctions like necessary vs sufficient conditions, soundness and validity, truth vs. certainty, and so forth. (I would also include a special section on thought experiments!)

The course could be called The Philosopher's Toolkit, and make use of the book of the same name. The core goal would be to impart to students the conceptual "tools" which can aid their critical thinking generally, and prepare them for academic philosophy in particular. The challenge, of course, is to impart these skills in an engaging way.

My second ideal course, Problems of Philosophy, has two parts. (1) It would begin with a very broad and shallow survey of the major fields, just so that students get a taste of the kinds of questions that are asked (and some of the important arguments), and hopefully perk their interest in the more specialized later-year courses. (2) But it would conclude with a much more in-depth section on a particular topic (I'd choose ethics) with the goals of (i) showing students how philosophy is actually done; (ii) thereby establishing that it's not all just a matter of arbitrary opinion; and (iii) giving students a chance to do some real philosophy for themselves.

I'd also suggest an option course on Philosophy of Life that addresses the sorts of wishy-washy subjects that I've taken to rambling about recently under that category. You know: sexual ethics, existentialism, authenticity, the meaning of life, etc. Students love that stuff, and if you can't find it in a philosophy department, who else is going to offer it? It'd be loads of fun, and potentially very popular (I imagine), even if the more serious professors would scoff. Besides, they are important topics, and philosophers shouldn't feel above discussing important things every now and then. ;-)


  1. This is a topic I've been ranting about a lot lately. My niece took a 101 course from a member of one of the world's top phil depts (I won't say which one, but it rhymes with Gutgers) and the prof so loaded the course with content inappropriate for newbies that he killed any interest that a very bright young woman would ever have for the discipline. It was a crime. The thing to remember about 101 courses is that you are not training the next generation of philosophers, you are doing 3 things: (1) you are literaly introducing the class to the subject -- they have heard the word, but none of them really know what philosophy is. You are starting from square 1; (2) you are teaching students who walk in believing that everything "is just a matter of opinion and everyone is entitled to their opinion" that there are such things as arguments, that you need to read carefully to charitably understand those of other people and you need to think hard about forming your own, and that there are important ways to objectively evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of arguments; and (3) you need to motivate the questions; you need to make philosophy fun and exciting; you need to show them how it is abstruse, but also vital and germane (usually in a way that avoids words like vital and germane). This last part is CRUCIAL. Part of the job of teaching an intro class is to impart to your students an understanding about why philosophy matters and a desire to continue to engage in deep, rigorous thought that challenges conventions. If it means covering less material, then so be it. Remember, the overwhelming majority of students in your classroom will never, never again be exposed to philosophy in any structured fashion. This is our only shot at them. If philosophy has anything to contribute to the world, blowing it in a 101 class is a double tragedy: they not only don't get the value, they come to believe that it is not of value in the first place.

  2. Hi Steve, while I agree with everything you say there, it's a bit hard to know how to apply it without further details re: what makes content "inappropriate for newbies". (For example, do you think my proposed 'toolkit' course would be better suited to the 200-level?) Accepting the worthy goals you identify, how should one go about pursuing them?

  3. No, that seems wonderful. I cover some similar topics in my 101 and my intro level critical thinking course. It seems like not covering some of these topics is to fail to convey the rigor that is so beautiful about philosophy. At the same time, I would urge you to make sure you don't do it in a way that is too dry. You might want to pair your toolbox with one of two really cute books that clue students in to the bolts that you are supposed to be using the tools on -- Peg Tittle's "What If" and Jessica Pierce's "Morality Plays". Both do a wonderful job of collecting the classic examples and thought-experiments and provide a fantastic way to get the class excited about topics on which you can then demonstrate the use of the tools.

    When I referred to my niece's class, I mean the guy (who is a fantastic technician, a top drwaer philosophical mind) was taking kids who had never looked at a single passage of Plato in their lives and giving them Quine and Kripke. Now, I love teaching the pieces he chose, but I love teaching them at the 300-level where the deep questions at the heart of analytic philosophy can be actually discussed. To take an 18 year old who has never heard the term "empiricism" and expect them to understand why undermining the synthetic/analytic distinction is important or what a rigid designator is just floored me. There was an old skit on Saturday Night Live called "comedy killers" about topics that would instantly destroy any attempts at humor. These things are intro-level philosophy passion killers. Part of our job is PR. Our job at the intro level, whether we like it or not, is to make the case concerning the relevance of philosophy. It is something we are not trained for in grad school and something we dislike, but we disregard it at our peril.

  4. The Philosopher's Toolkit is an excellent entry level text on the philosophical method. am surprised that so few courses actually use the book. It is light enough to be read directly without getting boring, although I think thought experiments will be a good way to introduce these distinctions. The same author has written a collection of thought experiments called The Pig That Wants to be Eaten. A great place to mine for material, but the book is written for a lay audience so the treatment for each experiment is a bit superficial. Don't forget paradoxes too, everybody loves them.

    I have always thought that the tools should be the first things that are taught, rather than to be picked up along the way like in most philosophy courses.
    As for the philosophy of life option, a newbie friendly book will be Life and Meaning by Oswald Hanfling, which covers the conceptions of the meaning of life according to the philosophers. Quite a common text in the UK, so you may have heard of it already.

  5. I think broadness is cool in some ways, but you don't want things to be too superficial either, so that it becomes bullet points about topics philosophy applies to. I think picking a really good, controversial topic, and digging a fair depth into it can do a lot to stimulate interest, exposing students to where philosophy can go. If you do this with a range of topics in tutorials and let the students pick the ones that interest them for coursework and exams then you've probably hooked everyone you're going to.

    The toolkit is a good idea for the serious students - I would consider a course on logic, particular informal logic to be vital. But those courses are usually considered pretty boring, so I would also say they probably don't need to be compulsory. When I did it there was about 150 students that did Stage 1 Logic, and about 12 that took it to Stage 2. Stage 3 actually got bigger, but only because it merged with mathematics departments - the number of people coming from philosophy to Stage 3 logic dwindled to 2, and we were both really average students compared to the maths folks. We tried, but at that level it's totally theoretical and mostly about numbers and set theory. I thought it was stretching things to even include it in a philosophy course, I imagine that was done for the double major students who also pursued maths. Some infinities are bigger than others? Fascinating. Prove it? No, thanks.


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