Teaching Philosophy

21 April 2013

The study of philosophy, or the study of what other people have said that gets categorized under the heading 'philosophy', has the potential to leave one feeling a perpetual student. Expertise can be acquired in a so-called "field" of study. Along the way, however, students will have realized their "field" of study looks less like an actual field and more like a narrowly defined section of a bookshelf in a stuffy library. They will have also realized that one never finished studying philosophy.

It's an interesting thought experiment to put the shoe on the other foot. What if you had to teach philosophy? Where would you start? Any student can give a non-committal answer questions about what they are studying. They are on their way to knowledge, and, in any case, there is too much to capture is a single phrase. On the hand, a teacher lacks that bohemian luxury. They must say something

The first thing I would do is set aside any latent Socratic inclinations. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato cast his teacher, the famous Socrates, in the role of questioner, leading his conversation partners to the realization of truths they already knew, but had quite been able to articulate on their own. My approach would include a discussion of a famous philosophical text. We would have never known Socrates, after all, unless Plato of cast him as a character in his philosophical dialogues. Regardless how much talking philosophers do, they are always falling back into texts, each of which is going to preserve a small portion of a tradition of reflection that never quite comes clearly into focus.

More to the point, then, which text would you start with? And let's say, for the sake of argument, it could only be one text. Not one thinker. Not one philosophical school. Not one series of texts. One text.

My choice would be Rene Descartes' Discourse on Method (1637). There are a few reasons why.

First, the text is relatively brief. It contains six chapters in total, all of which can be digested in a single sitting, or over a number of sittings without much difficulty..

Second, the purpose of the text is to take a position on anything in particular, but to introduce the reader into a way of thinking about things. You are invited to follow Descartes on his philosophical journey, to think through why he came to the conclusions that he eventually did.

Third, Descartes' philosophical observations are woven through a personal narrative allowing for historical commentary. That means a teacher can put "flesh" on the bones of the argument, placing arid speculative suggestions in a more recognizable human context.

Fourth, the Discourse contains recognizably contemporary intuitions about the nature of things. It takes the form of a personal narrative. It is playful experimental with the ideas it presents. It wonders about the nature of the human self. And, most importantly, God has been displaced from the center of inquiry. The entire world of human experience is no longer assumed to come from God and return to him. (It still does, of course. Descartes holds God to be the Creator of all things. He is not willing, however, to start with that as the presupposition of his inquiry.)

The basic argument of the Discourse is that all those things Descartes had formerly held to be true he had discovered many reasons to doubt. His experience of violent and destructive discord among different Christian sects during the Thirty Year's War had lead him to seek a more certain basis for knowledge. The revelation of God could not be trusted, as it was mediated by human beings. The same went for the teaching of the schools, by which was meant the abstruse logic-chopping arguments of the late medieval world. 

So Descartes resolves to doubt all that can possibly be doubted, and in the process doubts no only what other people have told him, but also what his own eyes and ears "tell" him. He even suggests, for the sake of experiment, it is possible to conceive of oneself existing without a body. After "emptying" his mind of all those doubtful thoughts, Descartes arrives at the one conviction he cannot shake: I think therefore I am--"that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is." 

All of this is ripe for discussion. Is the format of philosophical dialogue effective in conveying the author's intention? To what extent is one's thinking conditioned by one's lived circumstances? What would it mean to begin one's thinking with God rather than oneself? and vice versa? Is it possible to doubt everything? Can we ever be certain of anything? What might it mean that our minds our completely distinct from our bodies. Does any of this even makes sense?

The closer you look at a text like the Discourse, the more perplexing it becomes. Descartes is perhaps best described as not quite modern enough. Which makes his Discourse the perfect choice to begin teach philosophy.

Does anyone else have other suggestions?

Comments (3)

Daniel Mullin's picture

Daniel Mullin

Sunday, April 21, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Descartes' Discourse is a

Descartes' Discourse is a good choice. If I had to pick another, I would say the Euthyphro. In the past, I've found students have responded well to it, probably for similar reasons you list for the Discourse: it's brief, it doesn't really resolve the issue but is a launching pad for discussion, there's a narrative to the text, and it's remarkably contemporary. There's also the religious angle you mention: arguably virtue, in this case, no longer comes from God (or the gods) but from some other source. It's a good place to begin thinking about secular approaches to ethics.

Richard Greydanus's picture

Richard Greydanus

Sunday, April 21, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I am thinking real hard right

I am thinking real hard right now, and I am having a difficult time coming up with another text. Galileo's Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems is one of those really assessible texts that makes having a conversation easy to have. It doesn't quite qualifiy as philosophical, though. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola Oration on the Dignity of Man is another title that comes to mind, along with Lorenzo Valla's Ascent of Mount Ventoux. They are too period specific, though. And as I think about it, it does seem strange that I can't cite anything from the 19th or 20th century that is representative of "philosophy".

Daniel Pech's picture

Daniel Pech

Sunday, March 2, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I see three main problems

I see three main problems with the 'one text' limit.
First, define 'one text'.
Second, is the assumption that the 'one text' be authored only by those already dead? or, instead, may the text be authored by contemporaries of the teacher?
Third, if the text may be authored by contemporaries of the teacher, then may the text even be authored by the teacher? (Obviously, the first problem listed here might make the self-authored text quite...inclusive.