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.)

  • KG

    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.)

    You’re not doing a great job of defending your discipline from the accusations (fairly frequent on some FtB blogs!) of being worthless pseudo-intellectual wankery (to put it in technical terms).

    The examples you give are all very similar, in that they all appear to pre-suppose that the way to clarify an ordinary language term (“simplicity”, “identity”, “cause”) is to define it in a way that will always give you a clear yes or no answer when you ask if it applies; and that if you can’t come up with such a water-tight definition, you’re in conceptual trouble. Neither assumption is justified. Rather, ordinary language (and even legal and scientific language in many cases), deals with vagueness and ambiguity by ignoring them until they are relevant to a specific case that actually needs to be decided for non-philosophical reasons, then sharpening the definition, or defining a new class of intermediate cases, just enough to deal with the current case, and maybe some suffiicently similar ones.

  • mnb0

    “Basically, what you learn taking a graduate philosophy seminar is that everything is more complicated than you thought it was.”
    I can assure you the same can be achieved by studying physics. And when it comes to modern physics it’s not so clear either that anybody knows what he/she is talking about. Matter/energy dualism? A universe consisting of ten dimensions? Virtual time? Huh?

    “you can’t really trust what you learned in that one philosophy course you took in college.”
    Exactly what I tell my kids when I offer them Ohm’s Law.

    As far as Ockham’s Razor is concerned – I brought it up after all – you can already wonder what “simpler” means if you look at all the immensely complicated mathematics involved these days. These go above my head as well. But that’s not really an argument against you writing about it, is it?
    I don’t expect you to offer the last word, you know. You may begin thinking about that as soon as physicists have formulated their GUT, unifying Quantum Theory with Relativistics. I don’t think you and I live to see that.
    So go ahead. More people might realize that everything is always more complicated than you think. It always is. In every singlie field.

  • Kevin

    So why exactly is philosophy complicated? From an outside perspective, it looks as though the problem is that the profession is saturated with people who try to complicate problems instead of solving them.

    These issues don’t seem to be too difficult. For example, figuring out what to do when you have a near infinite number of options. Well, chess players do that all the time. In any given game, there are millions and millions (although not infinite) of ways a game could progress and the players need to find the most optimal line of play. Being efficient at that process is essential to playing in a timed session. Do philosophers think that they completely fail at tackling this problem? I suspect not, so what is the issue?

    • ged

      It is not so much about people who enjoy complicating problems rather than solving them, it is more about people who enjoy looking at solutions and finding a weakness in them. This almost always adds complexity.

      • Kevin

        I don’t think that is the problem at all. In science, every new discovery is met with skepticism with everyone trying to find weaknesses in it. This doesn’t lead to nobody finding a solution or to a lack of progress like it does in philosophy. The only difference I can see is that in science, everyone knows what it looks like to be disproved or proven, yet it doesn’t seem like anyone knows what a good solution looks like in philosophy.

        • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

          I think the “we don’t know what a good solution looks like in philosophy” diagnosis is basically correct, and a better diagnosis of the problem than “philosophers are trying to complicate problems rather than solving them.” Though I think there is a huge impulse in philosophy towards showing off how clever you are, whether or not what you’re saying is right. But that could be stopped down on if only we knew what good solutions to problems looked liked.

          • Kevin

            I think it would be better worded as “philosophers create problems where there need not be problems” as opposed to “philosophers are trying to complicate problems rather than solving them.” There are many areas where questions are asked as if they are hard questions when it seems to be a nonexistent problem. For example, how do you get from an is to an ought (other than from conditional values)? Philosophers seem dead set in trying to solve this in order to have a theory of morality. Why is that? Can’t I have a theory of morality that doesn’t need to address that? Whenever someone tries to put forth such a theory (e.g. Sam Harris), this is the objection, even if the theory doesn’t presume to cross the gap. As long as philosophers are dead set on including this into a working theory of morality, the discussion on morality will not progress (unless we abandon the input of philosophers). It’s so simple that I don’t know why they are objecting the way that they do; its almost like that’s what they are trained to say based on certain trigger words.

        • aspidoscelis

          “In science, every new discovery is met with skepticism with everyone trying to find weaknesses in it.”

          Compared with philosophers, scientists just aren’t very good at this. At least in biology, we routinely overlook substantial conceptual problems and errors because… well… we don’t notice them, or don’t have the time and/or inclination to actually do anything about them. People get worked up and worried about empirical, methodological & statistical problems, sure, but the fundamental question – “Does this actually make any sense?” – is too rarely even asked in science.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    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.

    I know you only picked this out as an example of something that can be more complicated than it looks, but Occam’s Razor follows directly from probability theory, so if you have actual probabilities it’s pretty straightforward to determine which hypothesis is simpler.

  • http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk Disagreeable Me

    Funny you mention the ship of theseus paradox and the issue of identity through time. I’ve been blogging on the issue of personal identity recently. Currently in the middle of a series of about five posts on my take on the subject.


    My take on this issue is that our intuitions of personal identity are a bit muddled. It’s more of a useful abstraction or heuristic to think that I have a unique personal identity rather than that it’s a true statement about reality.

    What I identify with is the algorithm that makes up my mind, and this algorithm is implemented on the substrate of my brain, which is itself a pattern of atoms and molecules. As such, I don’t think that the particular atoms have any significance. If I’m destroyed in a transporter and rebuilt at a remote location, I consider this to be identical to transport. If I am cloned by a machine, body and mind, both the original and the copy have equal claim to my identity. If my mind is digitally uploaded to a virtual afterlife, then that digital simulation of me is really me.

    On this topic, I love this cartoon (although I suspect the animator does not share my point of view):

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