On The Goals Of Introductory Philosophy Courses

On The Goals Of Introductory Philosophy Courses July 13, 2009

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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