Thursday, June 07, 2007

Philosophy 'hooks'

A quick opinion poll: What do you consider to be the most engaging philosophical issues (for a general audience)? Relatedly, what is the best way to get undergrads "hooked" on philosophy?

Applied ethics and political philosophy are perhaps the most obviously relevant, being the sorts of issues that folk tend to argue about anyway. May as well learn how to do it well! On the other hand, "familiarity breeds contempt" -- I think much of the appeal of philosophy is the unique opportunity it offers to think about wild and wacky questions that just don't get addressed elsewhere. So even in these relatively practical subfields, I think the most fun can be had by looking at concepts in a new light, e.g. questioning common understandings of such values as 'democracy' or 'freedom'. (But maybe that's just me.)

Within epistemology, radical skepticism always struck me as the most obviously engaging topic. (Everybody loves the Matrix!) Anything else?

Metaphysics, similarly, seems a mixed bag. But I'd expect free will, personal identity, and time, to provoke immediate and universal fascination.

Philosophy of language seems like a tougher sell. I was always fascinated by scopal ambiguity, at least. Perhaps a puzzle-based approach ("how are we to make sense of this sentence...?") could serve to introduce the tools of the trade in an engaging way. Still, it's not quite so immediately gripping...

Same goes for formal logic, but paradoxes are an important exception. My all-time favourite undergrad course ("philosophical logic") in fact did nothing but explore, in an accessible, non-technical manner, various paradoxes and puzzles -- liar, raven, Zeno, Newcomb, surprise examination, sleeping beauty, the idle argument, etc. At least for one of my temperament, it's hard to imagine a better lure...

Meta-ethics comes close, though. It's just an downright fascinating question, whether "oughts" are objective and real. (Important, too.) Normative ethics can be gripping too, esp. disputes over what is good -- Nozick's "experience machine", Parfit's "repugnant conclusion", etc.

Philosophy of mind and science I'm less familiar with. Consciousness and Artificial Intelligence are obviously engaging, though. (Other areas I've missed? Aesthetics: the issue of emotional responses to fiction is interesting.) Further suggestions welcome...


  1. Great list so far, and has most of what I've found interesting about philosophy. I'd like to add:

    Philosophy of religion: Nearly everyone has thought about this at some point or another and it tends to be popular in my experience. The existence of God, problem and evil, etc.

    Mind: Problem of other minds, maybe? It's intriguing, but it gets technical.

    Aesthetics: What is art? What good are the arts? Especially if there is a recent media story on a particularly oddball piece of modern art.

  2. Mindbenders are fun, but if you want people hooked, you have to talk about things they're passionate about. So Political philosophy, ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, the four big areas of philosophy that often have importance for public controversy.

  3. Skepticism is always a great bet. Although it can frustrate people. I agree that free will is always engaging once you frame the determinism vs. libertarian view and then throw in the problem of randomness. Since most folks intuitions (not necessarily mine) go the Libertarian route you can then raise the metaphysical issue of physicalism thereafter. Undercutting what they just arrived at is always fun.

    I'm not sure philosophy of religion is as interesting as folks give it credit. Although that may vary with group. Anselm's ontological argument if well taught can be very interesting though. The problem is that it's a fairly subtle argument and is usually taught in a way that makes it uninteresting. I was lucky to have a teacher who taught it very well. It bothered me for days once I finally wrapped my mind around it and understood it from Anselm's perspective. It's just that most teach it from Kant's perspective. Not that one can neglect Kant. But it's best to blow their minds and then get to the more robust criticisms.

    Time is interesting but rough to teach to lower division students in my experience. If one has to do it then a bit of Augustine and then a bit of physics is in order. The two main formulations of time. (Psychological versus physical)

    I love philosophy of language. I'm not sure how to teach it to make it interesting to newbies though. Applied speech acts theory might be good. That is focus on the difference between what is said versus what you use what is said for. But that can be dry before you get to the application.

    Names are always fun and asking how names work. Throw in some Russell, Kripke and so forth.

    Personally I really like the issue of metaphor versus the literal and which comes first. But that can be difficult to teach well.

    Paradoxes are always fun. I tend to see them best taught as part of language since most aren't ready for set theory.

    The question of what meaning is can be fun. Especially if you raise the problem of Frege and whether meanings are something "out there."

    For philosophy of science, which is fun, the demarcation problem is always a fun thing if taught well. Unfortunately so many present a caricature of Popper here. The reduction issue and covering laws can be very interesting to people as well, if they have a bit of a scientific interest. (i.e. is biology in theory reducible to physics? What about psychology?)

  4. In metaphysics: time travel. Plus you can get to time, personal identity, free will, constitution, philosophy of physics and the like through different examples of putative time travel.

    In epistemology: I think that testimony is a good place to start. I have read that 90% or more of the things we know we know from testimony, so it might hit home.

    In philosophy of language: this one is tough, but I have found that puzzle basing and success conditions are a good place to start. Asking, "for those of you who believe in God, if it turned out that there was a deity but that he was a jokester and far from omnibenevolent, would He be the one that you believed in or not?"

    Philosophy of mind: I don't know...dreams versus waking?

    Meta-ethics: I haven't ever seen meta-ethics taught in a way that undergraduates enjoyed.

    Philosophy of science: Definitely taking new scientific discoveries and trying to draw philosophical consequences, though I admit that I think the philosophical value of doing this is next to null.

  5. as counter-intuitive as this may seem, i think that propositional logic is a fun introduction. learning about the underlying structure of ordinary statements is pretty down to earth, and something that most people can appreciate. the material here is not at all lofty or dense, and its practical value is pretty clear (e.g., lsat prep!). by contrast, i think that the average student is likely to think of twin-earth or brains-in-vats as eminently silly, and ethics might actually be too shopworn to seem novel (whereas everyone has some experience with ethics, logic is likely to be fresh). goldfarb's book on deductive logic is one of the main reasons i became a philosophy major.

  6. I stopped after first year philospohy, other than formal logic, so I may be exactly the wrong person to answer this but my list is:

    1) Anything in ethics
    2) Knowledge, Gettier and the problem of induction
    3) Free will and determinism

  7. History of philosophy can be a big draw for those of a more classical mindset. It's not as much a "hook" as it is a "well" but it's easy to see how one can be drawn into it.
    Philosophy of mind has been mentioned, but one can see the history and philosophy of psychology as a closely related though separate field.
    As subsets of some topics already mentioned: dialectics, genealogy, and ontology.
    And going further into departmental gray areas, gender studies, comparative literature, cultural theory and such are closely aligned with philosophy, but might not lead a student directly to the philosophy department of h/er university.

  8. Existentialism was by far the biggest draw at the university where I was an undergraduate.

  9. where was that, Andrew? just curious. I'm UChicago, since I asked.

  10. Some things which have worked well for me, particularly with students just starting philosophy:

    * Rawls's argument that talent and hard work are just as morally arbitrary as social status or skin colour.

    * Singer on duties to the very poor in other countries.

    * Mill on what a successful human life would be (pushing the apparent tension between On Liberty and the consequences of utilitarianism)

    Like Jack, I've never seen meta-ethics work very well with undergraduates; and an attempt to teach some semi-formal logic to first-years, this year, was not especially successful (they mostly hated it). Perhaps the 'paradoxes' route's a good idea, though.


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