What a graduate-level philosophy seminar is like

Last week’s discussion of what philosophical arguments everyone should know about gave me a lot of ideas for posts, but reading the comments, it occurred to me that there is a very big gap between me and almost all of you readers. The gap is this: even if you’ve read a good bit of philosophy, and even taken a philosophy class or two in college, you’ve probably never taken a graduate-level philosophy seminar. So let me try to explain what that’s like.

What I’m about to say won’t apply to all of the graduate-level seminars I’ve taken, but it will apply to most of them. Furthermore, my main examples will actually be from my time as an undergraduate at UW-Madison. At Madison, classes at the 300-600 level were used for both graduate students and undergrads, and the philosophy department’s major seminars were mostly 500 level, so they ended up being a mix of grad students. So what I’m describing isn’t in any way, unique to Notre Dame; I suspect it’s common though not universal among graduate seminars at top universities.

 Basically, what you learn taking a graduate philosophy seminar is that everything is more complicated than you thought it was and nobody has any idea what they’re talking about. One example that sticks in my mind is the ethics seminar I took at Madison. We spent a substanial chunk of the semester (I’m pretty sure it was more than a month) on the distinction between doing vs. allowing harm. The link is to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the subject, click it and you’ll begin to get an idea of how we managed to fill so many weeks talking about it.

What happened is that we found it basically impossible to say what the difference between doing and allowing harm might be. The problem starts to get difficult when you consider cases of deciding whether to disconnect someone from a machine in the hospital they need to live, and only gets worse from there. We spent a fair amount of time discussing Jonathan Bennett’s view (discussed in section 6 of the SEP article) that the key question is what would have happened given most of the actions you could have taken. One question that came up is how you even decide that given the seemingly infinite number of possible actions a person could take at any point in time. At one point someone consulted the department’s resident expert on probability theory to try to help with that, but it didn’t seem to resolve anything.

Another example: in the metaphysics seminar I took at Madison, we spent half the semester arguing about the problem of identity through time, which has to do with things like “On Star Trek, is the person who appears beamed-down on the planet the same person who stepped onto the transporter pad?” Philosophers actually talk about that, and take the question very seriously, and talk about which details matter (does it matter if you were reassembled from the same matter that you were disassembled into?) 

Another thought experiment that we discussed during the section on identity through time was the Ship of Theseus:

Over a long period all of the planks composing a certain ship are replaced one by one. Eventually a ship indiscernible from the original, but composed of entirely different planks, results. Call that later ship Replacement. As each plank is removed from the original ship it is used to construct a ship that is constituted from all and only the planks belonging to the original ship. Call the ship composed of the same planks as the ones initially composing the original ship Reassembly.

Identity is, very plausibly, an equivalence relation. One consequence of it being an equivalence relation is that it is subject to transitivity: the principle that if aRb and bRc, then aRc. Saying that, in the case of Theseus’ ship, Replacement and Reassembly are both identical with the original ship putatively conflicts with the transitivity of identity since Replacement seems to be later clearly distinct from Reassembly.

It’s possible that some of you now are thinking about what you think the Ship of Theseus shows. Realize that whatever you think it shows, there is a philosopher somewhere who thinks it shows the exact opposite. And the case can be tweaked in various ways to make the problem even worse.

Why does all this matter? Well, because low-level philosophy courses tend to way over-simplify things. When you try to take a discussion that could easily go on for five or six or seven weeks, and try to condense it down into two or three weeks, a lot gets lost. What tends to happen is that the professor will either just push their view of the issue, and/or they’ll try to give students some simplified version of the relevant ideas they can regurgitate on tests. The result is that to a large extent, you can’t really trust what you learned in that one philosophy course you took in college.

And it’s relevant for the “what philosophical arguments should people know about?” discussion because some of the things suggested are a lot less helpful once you examine them closely. For example: you think Occam’s Razor is great because it tells you to pick the simpler hypothesis? Okay, how do you define “simpler”? Let philosophers go at that question for awhile, and they will make it complicated in ways you can’t even imagine. That sort of thing is a major handicap on the usefulness of philosophy to non-philosophers (and only a slightly less major problem for professional philosophers.)

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