On The Goals Of Introductory Philosophy Courses

In reply to my previous post on grants offered by the NEH to non-philosopher academics for creating novel classes on “enduring questions,” a philosophy professor writes to me in private:

Interesting. I share your general sensibilities on this, but it’s not clear to me that they are being sought “to teach philosophy classes”. They are being sought to teach “old chestnut classes”. That may be because certain chestnutty issues are not really explored in accessible ways in “philosophy” classrooms per se. As long as such limited courses don’t land INSIDE a philosophy curriculum, I don’t see why they can’t exist ALONGSIDE that curriculum. And it may spur the self-indulgent philosophy world to realize that most of what we talk about fails to engage people where they live.

I think this assumes that other disciplines would address “chestnut questions” (about happiness, the existence of good and evil, the good life, etc.) in a way that is more accessible.  But what do we mean then by “more accessible?”  and how is philosophy not accessible?  Is the empirical data which, say, a course on the psychology of good and evil would provide more accessible?  That portion of the class which says “here are the results of our experiments on the psychology of good and evil” might be more accessible but once the subject turns to tricky epistemological and normative ethical questions about the implications of the psychology of good and evil for developing substantive views about their objective natures, the course turns philosophical and threatens to be “inaccessible” in precisely the same ways that a philosophical ethics course is already “inaccessible.”

In other words, these questions are inherently philosophical and unless one is to treat them superficially as possible (which is never academically desirable) whatever problems philosophy professors have in reaching the average philosophy novice student will return.  I do not think that the problem is that philosophy professors actually regularly overwhelm their intro level students with distinctions only specialists can follow.  I think that the problem is that philosophy itself is simply hard for novices and philosophical conclusions cannot be simply summarized for outsiders as easily as empirical findings can.  In order to understand even basic philosophical positions, you need to have some ability to follow philosophical arguments and philosophical distinctions.

Secondly, it’s not like grasping physics, biology, geology, economics, mathematics, etc. is remotely easy for novices either but we do not blame science, math, or economics professors for this problem and offer their questions to literature and psychology departments to cover them.  I think the problem is that there is an expectation that philosophy classes fit the mold of literature or religion classes where there is a devotional and self-expressive engagement with topics like happiness and good and evil and the good life.  The assumption is that, as a humanities subject, philosophy should be personally edifying as part of liberal arts education’s role in cultivation of the student as “well-rounded human being.”

But that view of the philosophy class leads to its discrediting as a matter of rigorous knowledge.  If the focus is on my subjective engagement with my existential quandry then it’s a form of poetic thinking with no right or wrong or progress involved.  Philosophy class becomes in that case a stone for sharpening one’s creative and integrative thinking skills but it is ultimately not concerned with rigorous conceptual clarification or objective positions.  Philosophy in that case is a subject in which one muses rather than discovers, in which one speculates but does not develop critically assailable positions.

It seems to me only that edifying, personal journey view of a philosophy class can prevent it from becoming alienating and stressful.  Because as soon as philosophy classes require vigorous arguments and introduces clear delineations of concepts and leading candidate theories in the field, inevitably students will feel like this has less to do with their personal formation and more with a set of information and the terms and methods of an academic discipline.

That’s not to say that students should not be encouraged nonetheless to find in such philosophy courses resources for personal formation.  I am a huge proponent of the view that philosophy should play an enormous role in people’s development of their personal self-understanding and autonomous transformation.  But for this to happen maximally well such edification cannot be the direct goal at the expense of the sorts of training in rigor that threaten philosophy to be intimidating and seem “inaccessible.”  And I’m afraid that for all the latitude we give our students to speculate and debate freely and to reference their personal experiences in their thinking, it is inevitable that when we start applying the specific resources of the philosophical tradition we start to cross the line into schoolwork drudgery in many students’ minds.

That’s because, in the end, we need minds receptive to the challenge of disciplining their thought philosophically if they are going to get the fullest rewards philosophy offers and they must be able to see connections between high abstraction and personal edification in a way that most are not.  We can lead them to the ideas but we cannot make them think.  And we cannot force them to seek out the edifying implications of what we are doing.  Maybe philosophy professors do not adequately point them out.  But I doubt that’s the problem.  I think the problem has to do with student receptivity and mental categories that often firmly separate what is highly abstract from what is relevant and personal.

So, I don’t know how other disciplines can treat these subjects more accessibly without sacrificing what philosophical approaches offer that is of genuine value.  The only ways they might make the “chest nutty questions” more accessible  and retain academic value would be to provide a different academic value than about the questions themselves.  Maybe in a hypothetical “Literature and Happiness” class they can get high academic value about literature but mostly only edifying value on happiness.  Maybe in a hypothetical “Psychology of Good and Evil” class students get a high value of insight into psychology of this important topic but at the cost of likely getting a half-baked treatment of the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical issues related to good and evil.

And such classes as those do sound promising as complements to philosophy classes.  But they are not classes which are adequate treatments of good and evil or happiness.  They are classes which provide crucial supplement to philosophical treatments of those topics but if we want to get at the essence of those topics, in the way an academic class aims to, philosophy classes are needed.  This is not just a petty academic discipline turf claim but the inherent nature of the subjects.  The questions become philosophical, they take turns that literary and psychological and biological training do not prepare one rigorously to handle, they are questions which fit our peculiar training and mindset as philosophers.

I am amenable to the NEH desire to encourage the other disciplines to do work on enduring questions” that can complement ours.  It’s when they call the work of non-philosophers itself philosophy that I have to draw the sorts of distinctions I have here and in my previous post.

And ultimately that may mean that my position is rather close to yours when you say that these new NEH inspired classes should not land inside the philosophy curriculum.

Professor Jones replies below to my remarks in this post.  See my further reply to her insightful remarks by clicking here.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • JudeJones

    OK, I’ll come clean over here on the blog to having been the person who posted the comment on Facebook to which Dan is replying here. Since my earlier comments are out there in play, I thought I’d follow up with more considered ones and reply to Dan’s reply.

    First, I have now actually looked at the NEH grant opportunity in question, and the term ‘philosophy’ does not even occur in the grant description. So, any argument that is based on “their” calling something “philosophy” that is “not philosophy” is undermined. Repeatedly the NEH grant description uses the term “enduring questions” and invites a broad “humanities”-based approach to the range of questions considered “enduring” (without excluding folks in the sciences from proposing, of course). So then Dan’s question would have to become something like, ‘How might such courses undermine the traditional work of philosophy in dealing rigorously with enduring questions?’. But to this I would say, no more than any existing treatment of these questions does in non-philosophy courses (i.e. some of the good stuff coming out on evil lately is coming out via psychology and history, challenging philosophy and theology’s traditional leadership in these areas), and no more than philosophy erodes the rigors of disciplines like psychology and literature when we philosophers encroach, untrained, on those disciplinary questions by talking about literature and psychological experiments in our courses.

    Second, as a self-indulgent member of the philosophy world, I should clarify my snarky comment about “accessibility” in our classrooms: Of course Dan is right that in so far as we are training people to really think “philosophically,” disquiet and unsettlement are bound to be necessary accompaniments of the painful experience of rigor; and to an extent, he’s also right that really rigorous thinking about the “chestnut” questions cannot be dilletantish or merely expressive of mere “subjective engagement.” But I think there’s a question-begging rationalism running rampant in the description of subjective engagement as “poetical thinking” if it fails to attain certain “rigorous conceptual clarification or objective positions”. I think the “rationalism” part of that accusation is fairly clear, but will clarify it if asked. But I add “question-begging” because it presumes that the methodological objectives of philosophy (“rigorous conceptual clarification or objective positions”) are in fact the ones required to rescue such chestnut inquiries from some shallow or inherently incomplete treatment. But that is what the grant is asking people to explore–what, in the vast resources of intellectual disciplines, can we bring to bear on these questions so as to advance learning objectives and the intellectual formation of students in the “humanities” as such? Personally, I think it fairly evident that the disciplinary skills of literature, language, psychology, history, etc. have a great deal to bring to bear–in an intellectually rigorous manner–without either failing the chestnut questions or failing the students in terms of being intellectually challenging.

    More substantively, I would assert that much of the value of these “enduring questions” arises precisely NOT from their being bandied about in search of “rigorous conceptual clarification or objective positions” but in the inchoate, imagistic, even ‘poetic’ domains in which symbolic, resonant consciousness goes about its business of living. These questions endure NOT because they haven’t yet been conceptually exhausted, but because the “subjectively engaged” human lives them, quite non-conceptually (as well as conceptually) every day. Philosophy is an excellent discipline for achieving what can be achieved in terms of the rigors of concepts about these questions. But we should not delude ourselves that these questions are in the end only or even mainly about concepts. They are about emotions, biology, symbols, evolution, the impress of an overwhelming world, and about hope and fear. Those will never be exhausted or even satisfyingly treated only from a concept-focused approach. I’ve learned more about evil from novelists and historians than I have from philosophers. And way more about love from poetry and psychology. And that’s ok by me as a philosopher. I know that Dan is not denying this lived dimension of the questions in his posting, but I think he is overplaying the philosopher’s hand in defending our disciplinary competence’s centrality in “rigorously” dealing with the enduring questions.