Teaching philosophy

What is it that we expect students to learn when we teach philosophy? Is philosophy an arcane and charmingly useless vestige of a nineteenth-century university education?  Or does it have something crucial to add to the liberal education of the twenty-first century — whether in the arts and sciences or in pre-professional schools?

Philosophers would probably answer this question in a wide variety of ways.  In my own case, I have several high-level goals in mind when I approach a new group of undergraduate students in philosophy.  I hope to help them to develop in several ways:

  • to gain a set of intellectual skills: analysis, reasoning, clarity of thinking and exposition, open-mindedness and a readiness to try to see a problem from multiple points of view
  • to learn some of the developed approaches to “philosophical” problems: knowledge, ethical behavior, individual rights, social justice, the authority of the state, the nature of rationality, the meaning of human life
  • to gain an engaged involvement in some great thinkers and their theories and reasoning in detail
  • to gain some meaningful acquaintance with some important philosophical theories (utilitarianism, empiricism, mind-body materialism, ordinary language philosophy …)
  • to gain an ability to see the connections between philosophical reasoning and real human problems — scientific knowledge, addressing poverty or racism, resolving conflicts of value or conflicts of interest or desire, …

Most of these goals have to do with developing intellectual capacity — imagination, reasoning, analytical ability, critical capacity to probe behind ordinary assumptions — more than gaining specific bits of knowledge about the history of philosophy.  Students are exposed to pieces of philosophical traditions that result in exam questions such as these: What was Anselm’s ontological argument?  What was Russell’s paradox?  What were the higher pleasures according to J. S. Mill?  But the real learning goal isn’t that the student should have the ability to draft a short Wikipedia entry on one of these topics.  Rather, the goal is that he/she has enough of a set of analytical and critical skills so that she can pick up a philosophical problem; explore and develop the problem with insight and imagination; consider a variety of ways of addressing the problem; and put forward a philosophical argument that attempts to resolve the problem.  The student needs to learn how to think — philosophically, imaginatively, and critically.

It is true, of course, that being able to formulate and resolve a philosophical problem requires a degree of acquaintance with the systems and theories that previous generations of philosophers have brought to bear on the problems they raise.  So it is important to have grappled seriously with Anselm, Russell, or Mill.  And this means taking seriously the positions these philosophers and others advanced and the intellectual frameworks within which they reasoned.  So a degree of knowledge of some of the fields and traditions of philosophy is an important intellectual attainment for a philosophy student.  But the goal of pursuing this knowledge is not so that the student can become a mini-expert on Anselm or Russell; rather, the goal is to broaden the set of intellectual frameworks and reference points on the basis of which the student’s philosophical imagination can address new problems.

This approach addresses one of the large dichotomies that we have to face in designing a university curriculum: the split between “intellectual skills and capacities” and “mastery of content”.  My position puts primary emphasis on the former over the latter.  One might ask, in good philosophical fashion, why we might want to make this choice?  My own reason has to do with the highest goal I think universities ought to pursue: to help their students to gain a rich range of skills, tools, and intellectual resources on the basis of which they can address the widest range of problems they will face in their civic and professional lives.  When a philosophy student graduates, attends law school or business school, and enters the world of professional activity, he/she may not be able to reproduce specific arguments from the course she took in epistemology or the philosophy of science.  But what we hope is that the challenge of working with those arguments as an undergraduate, challenging and dissecting the assumptions the philosopher made, and considering alternative solutions to the problem, will have given him/her a broad intellectual range and acuity, and a flexible and imaginative ability to think through a set of issues.  And, we would hope, these skills are highly transportable, from the context of philosophy to the practical intellectual challenges of being a good doctor, lawyer, or engineer.  Ultimately the intellectual capacities of imagination, analytical ability, critical insight, and intellectual rigor are the best and most enduring attainments of a good liberal education.

This goal has to do with intellectual capacity and imagination.  But we have another and equally important goal as well in designing a university education or a philosophy course.  This is the goal of helping our students become engaged and morally motivated members of the organizations and communities to which they belong.  We would hope that our students have cultivated an ability to think independently and seriously about the issues of social justice and personal conduct that arise in the society that they are helping to constitute; and we would hope that they have acquired some of the components of personal seriousness that lead them to act with conviction on the basis of their moral ideas.  The transition from narcissism to engagement is not an automatic or inevitable one, and a suitable learning environment in the university can have a large impact on this process of personal development.  So my hope in my own philosophy classroom is that students will have an opportunity to explore and challenge their own moral ideas; to come to see how the contemporary world measures up with respect to those ideas; and to see that their own engagement in issues of community, justice, and social progress can make a meaningful difference in the state of their world.

Some of this process of critical self discovery can happen in the classroom.  But some of it is best stimulated by the other activities that can help students get engaged in the important social issues of their day — poverty alleviation, literacy, racial disparities, etc.  Involvement in organizations such as Habitat for Humanity or Amnesty International can give students a genuine understanding of the needs their world presents to them, and the difference that their engagement can make.  And the teamwork that unavoidably accompanies all these activities gives a concrete illustration to the student of the value of collaboration.

This line of thought converges with one of the common refrains of current thinking about pedagogy: the idea of the student as an “active learner.”  As Socrates and Habermas illustrate in the images above, a very large part of teaching philosophy is the challenge of getting the student to think for himself/herself.  The student needs to take on the intellectual challenge as a serious one; and he/she needs to expend the real mental effort required to understand and deal with the problem.  This can’t be distilled into an artful lecture by the professor; rather, it seems to require dialogue and intellectual exchange.  The student needs to be engaged in the debate; and he or she needs to be brought to see the stakes of the issue.  (In spite of the vast lecture hall that Michael Sandel confronts in the third image above, he too is capable of engaging and challenging the students in his classroom.  Here is a video of a lecture from his Harvard course on justice.)


4 Replies to “Teaching philosophy”

  1. I'd like to suggest one thing that philosophy is not, or should not be, which is a home for the propagation of religion. Dotted throughout our fair land are philosophy departments employing philosophers of religion, theologians, and the like, whose work is frankly confessional, with only the most sorry excuse for an analytical veneer. Things like the doctrine of the trinity, theological hermeneutics, salvific luck, and prophecy are the focus of professors at public universities, no less, to cite a few easily trolled examples. I'd call that a scandal.


  2. I'd call that an inaccurate depiction of what analytic philosophers of religion do, not a scandal. Daniel, excellent and important points, especially given recent public discussions concerning the role of philosophy in the humanities and sciences.


  3. Great Blog, Dr. Little!As a student of philosophy, I enjoyed this entry a lot. It is often hard to explain to people what an education in philosophy means, or how it is "useful" to modern people. With the skills given me via philosophy: I can read. I have read Darwin, Marx,Linnaeus, Mill and Aristotle in one whole week for one philosophy class. What other academic subject allows you do that? Now I can read difficult books, and grapple with difficult words and ideas, but these tasks are just a few of lower pleasures. The real joy of philosophy is being able to analyze an idea, really break-it down, and get into the machinery of thought.I read, everything, differently now. I am recalcitrant in my acceptance of ideas that do not satisfy any philosophical rigor. Thank you and the others like you!


  4. I dunno, Dr. Little.I've been a computer programmer for more than 30 years, a profession that has its own demands for "analysis, reasoning, clarity of thinking and exposition, open-mindedness and a readiness to try to see a problem from multiple points of view." I'm self-educated in a number of areas, including my profession, so I believe I have the capacity to learn.About ten years ago, I started to study philosophy. Over the past decade, I have not been favorably impressed by the intellectual skill and character of professional academic philosophers or their students. With few exceptions (you yourself appear to be one of them; I'm currently reading Scientific Marxism and I'm favorably impressed) I've found professional philosophers' work to feature sloppy reasoning, turgid, opaque writing, and an insufferable holier-than-thou attitude towards argument and criticism. I had one friend with whom I corresponded for several years while he pursued his undergraduate degree in philosophy. As he progressed, his writing and thought became progressively worse.This is, of course, just one person's anecdotal experience. But based on my experience, I would not advise a student interested in clear and honest thinking to even college-level course in philosophy much less pursue a degree. I would, rather, advise a student interested in just what philosophers say they're about to study engineering or science (or law, if they're really bad at math).I think one problem is that there's no independent measure of philosophical thought and writing. In computer programming, your program has to work; if it doesn't, you know you've misunderstood the problem. In science, your theory has to match experiment and evidence. Even in law, you have to persuade a (more-or-less) disinterested judge or jury.I cannot of course prove my position; I have only personal experience and anecdotal evidence. I offer my thoughts only to inform you how an interested and not-entirely-stupid outsider sees your profession as a whole after a non-trivial investigation.


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