Planning an Introduction to Philosophy course

In April, I’ll be teaching an Introduction to Philosophy course at my alma mater, Cornell College. (Cornell’s academic calendar is called One Course at a Time, or the “block plan”, so that an entire course happens in the confines of three-and-a-half weeks. Thus the ‘In April’ bit.) I am really excited to be teaching at my very small and very dear Cornell, but I am nervous about the class itself.

I find the very notion of an “introduction to philosophy” course to be slippery and intractable. Philosophy is not like, say, Russian, where the first introductory course provides the pieces of knowledge (vocabulary, conjugation, stuff like that) that will be required in all subsequent courses. Philosophy has its own techniques and terms of art, of course, but they’re not the sorts of things that lend themselves naturally to sequential teaching, like in a foreign language (or math, or chemistry….).

The term ‘introduction’ seems apt in the case of philosophy, because the act of putting together and teaching an intro to philosophy course seems very much like the act of introducing more generally. If I want to introduce a visitor to Brooklyn, for example, I have to decide which of the things that I know about Brooklyn (which are too many to share in a short visit!) are salient enough, pleasant enough, relevant enough to include. The calculus depends not only on my knowledge of Brooklyn (the introducee) but also the visitor (the introduced). I want the picture of Brooklyn they get from my visit to reflect the way that I represent Brooklyn to myself, or at least a sort of idealized version of my own idea that will leave the visitor with pleasant memories of the city and a desire to learn more. And how I aim to develop that picture will change based on what I know about the visitor and his background knowledge.

So the trick is to do something similar with philosophy. The problem is that – like Brooklyn! – philosophy is vast and deep. Moreover (and here is where the analogy breaks down), in the case of philosophy it actually matters that the introduced comes away with a truly representative sense of what philosophy is like – at least, that is, insofar as the work of philosophy is independantly important. How do you select a reading list that is representatively broad without being vapid? sufficiently deep to represent the way philosophy is done without giving an overly narrow perception of the philosophical landscape? simplified enough to be approachable without overly caricaturing? relevant enough to the existing interests and knowledge of underclassmen without being pandering? And, given that there is no “right” way of making these decisions, how do you weigh each of these factors in the inevitable compromise that is represented by the eventual syllabus?

For me, it’s helpful to think about the different indexes one could use to organize and shape one’s course. These indexes are not mutually exclusive, but they must necessarily be ordered – favoring one index means making another index secondary, etc. Also, some of these indexes might necessarily be nested within others.

  • Chronology (eg 18th century)
  • Nationality/language
  • Great texts
  • Philosopher biography
  • Philosophical schools (eg empiricism, or utilitarianism)
  • Philosophical subfields (eg epistemology, or philosophy of language)
  • Topics (eg abortion, personal identity, truth)
  • Questions (eg ‘What is the nature of justice?’)

There are surely more, and different ways of carving them up, but this is a starting point.

In the past, when I have taught intro, my primary index has been philosophical subfields, with secondary index of questions and tertiary index of Great Texts. Thus I might do a unit on the philosophy of religion, which contains a section on proofs for the existence of God and a section on the problem of evil. In each of those sections, we read very well-known texts that represent different kinds of answers to the questions at hand. The next unit might be on ethics, with sections on virtues and on the goodness of acts, where we read Aristotle and Mill and Kant. And so on.

Clearly, this is not a terribly creative way to teach an intro class. From what I can remember, it mirrors closely the way that intro was laid out when I took it many years ago. But even though it is probably a pretty common approach, it is in many respects quite arbitrary. I try to take the Indian Buffet method – give just a taste of a couple different kinds of dish, and even the terrified diner might find something to latch onto. But the variety that constitues the strength of the buffet approach is also a weakness, as it threatens to give the newcomer an impression that the discipline is really a jumble of neato but otherwise unrelated questions. This is not indicative of the way that real philosophers actually do their work; that this approach is shallow means ipso facto that it does not display the best of what philosophy has to offer.

For this reason I find myself very drawn to an approach that takes a question or a topic as its primary index. A mentor of mine recently told me that he taught his most recent intro class as a sort of seminar on the topic of death, which involved both the reading of philosophical Great Works with a focus on death, as well as the introduction of texts that might not often be seen on a typical intro syllabus. This approach does not do away with the issue of arbitrariness – why choose death, after all? – but it does bump it up to a global arbitrariness, where once the overall topic of the course has been decided, the relevance of each reading to a cohesive whole is manifest.

There are several problems with this kind of approach, though. First is the obvious one: what topic do I choose? Ideally it’d be something that would permit the inclusion of at least some Great Works, and with a broad enough appeal to non-philosophers to convince them that it’s worth studying. A more fundamental problem that nags at me is whether this approach to an intro course is justifiable. Every course I ever took that was pitched this way, around a single topic, was an upper-level seminar type course. Does an intro course have the responsibility to be broad in scope? Or is it perhaps possible to have an appropriately broad list of readings centered around a single topic? Or – and this is my secret suspicion – is the concept of an introduction to philosophy class vague enough to be more or less meaningless, so that just about any kind of legitimate philosophy course might be explained away as an “intro” under the right kinds of circumstances?

I’d like to hear what some of my philosopher friends think about this dilemma (or maybe lack of dilemma, if I’m way off base). I’m also curious to hear what happens in other disciplines where the concept of an “introductory” course is just as inscrutable.

12 thoughts on “Planning an Introduction to Philosophy course

  1. Amanda French

    I’m neither philosopher nor (these days) teacher, so I don’t know why I find the topic so fascinating, except that I did myself face similar issues back in the day. Survey courses of literature tend to be similarly forced, and it always bugged me.

    One approach that I used with some (but only some) success once was to almost abandon the notion of a reading list. Tasked with creating a course on The Victorian Period — a period at least as deep as Brooklyn — I chose breadth over depth. That is, I got each of the students to go read in and about the Victorian author of *their* choice.

    I still think this was a genius idea: the main trouble was that I didn’t build in a good way for us all to come back together and report on and discuss our individual readings. But what about that? What if you chose a particular topic every week or two, then made the students pick which of several philosophers they want to read on that topic (you could give guidance there), and then in class the students report on what X thought about Y? Comparing and contrasting, as they say?

  2. Scott Leslie

    Never taught a philosophy course, but took many as it was my major. I guess the first question for me is one of context – is the course a general one for people who may never take another philosophy course, or meant to be an introduction to the field for people who will then continue to take courses? The answer is likely both, but where one puts the emphasis probably has a lot to do with that answer. But as you describe, typically “intro” classes seem mostly to be about indoctrination to the canon, either ordered by Chronology or Subfield.

    I like the “question/topic” approach too. Why not look at “quality” like good ol’ Phaedrus did? 😉 You can get into ethics, epistemology, phenomenology, and likely a few others from it as a starting point. I guess the other way to approach it is to simply ask yourself – what would you most like to teach/learn with others? At the point you are at, what do you find to be the most compelling philosophical topic and what area has readings in it you’d most like to go back to.

    Anyways, sounds fun – good luck!

  3. Alan Levine

    I hope you show your students the best pizza joints.

    Love the Brooklyn metaphor and the desire to make the class experience more than a tour, or to inspire students to be more than curious visitors.

    I don’t have any real ideas but am anxious to watch how it plays out.

  4. Matt

    A few quick thoughts:

    I’d add “major debates” and “methodologies” to the indices you’ve mentioned above.

    There is a difference between an intro course and a survey course. The purpose of a survey course is to offer a broad intro to a particular period or topic; the purpose of an intro course is to introduce students to the discourse of a field, and to do so in such a way that students leave the course with some grounding in the methodological considerations that characterize work in the field, with a basic understanding of some key terms in the field, and with some understanding of the way in which members of that field tend to conduct inquiries/examine texts/ask questions. Most importantly, an intro course should make students want to learn more about the field (I’m thinking here of Dewey’s notion that good pedagogy instills in students a desire to go on learning).

    All of this is to say that you shouldn’t feel overly burdened to present a broad swath of philosophy to students, since you shouldn’t necessarily be aiming for coverage, as you would have to were you teaching a survey course. Instead, to adopt a term from Barthes, who coined it when discussing photography, you should teach the kinds of texts and the kinds of issues that, for you, represent the punctum of the discipline — the texts that have, in some way, pierced or wounded you, and made *you* want to go on learning. You should teach, in other words, not just to introduce, but to inspire.

    So, yes, you could choose a cool topic like death, or like pizza ;), and teach texts related to that topic, but you could also teach the course as a series of loosely connected moments.

  5. Matt

    quick follow-up: every department has different expectations for its intro course. It’s probably a good idea to see if you can get a syllabus or two from the chair that highlight different approaches to the class.

    And as for having the sense that topic-based classes are more appropriate for upper-level classes than intro courses, I’d say that it’s all in the framing, the types of questions being asked, the research requirements, and the amount of secondary literature required. Certainly, one could teach the same topic as an intro class and an upper-level seminar, but they’d look very different in part because the types of critical approaches that would have to be taught from the ground up in an intro course would be assumed knowledge in the upper-level class.

  6. Boone Gorges Post author

    Thanks for the feedback, all.

    Amanda – I have a dream of doing the totally independent thing, but I’m held back by a deep fear that philosophical texts are, by and large, too hard, and too different from the texts that students are used to, for such a technique to work. Some of this fear is surely unfounded. And, to some extent, there would probably be some value in the inevitable confusion. Maybe there’s a balance, where the first half of the course consists of very guided and narrow readings, and the second half has more independence and choice.

    Scott – “Indoctrination to the canon” is a perfect turn of phrase to describe the thing that I don’t want to mechanically reproduce in the course. If a great work is used, I want it to be in virtue of its greatness, and in virtue of its ability to demonstrate something important about how philosophy is actually done, rather than simply because – oh, I don’t know – every intro class should read the Meditations.

    Alan – Sadly, the pizza in Iowa is more or less uniformly horrible 😉

    Matt – I like the idea of a punctum approach, with some hesitation. There’s a part of me that feels it’s strange to craft an introductory course according to my own idiosyncratic view of the discipline rather than hewing to some more agreed-upon sense of what constitutes a legitimate introduction to philosophy. But in the end, I guess that all an individual instructor can do is teach to his own experience.

  7. Matt

    I’d agree that any course needs a guiding theme or framework that should probably go beyond “texts that have meant a lot to me,” but I do think that the punctum approach could replace broad coverage within a given topic or framework. In other words, within a topic like “death,” one could cherry pick especially provocative or accessible texts, perhaps leaving out (or simply gesturing toward) particularly dense or inaccessible texts even if they are considered to be canonical within that topic.

    0f course, there’s a sweet spot that one should probably aim for here, one that introduces a few important texts but also leaves ample room for non-canonical texts. The main thing, I think, is to get away from the idea that an intro course is the same thing as a survey course.

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      The intro/survey distinction is helpful, though to my knowledge mostly nonexistent in philosophy. I took a ’19th-century philosophy’ course when I was an undergrad, but I think it was an anomaly. For most students of philosophy, I have a sense that an intro course is the only course of their career where they’re likely to encounter readings on a broad range of topics and from a broad range of eras/techniques. Philosophers (at least the ones I hang out with) are generally not all that interested in historicity, preferring instead to organize around ideas and arguments. But maybe this is a shortcoming.

  8. Scott Berkun

    A big fork is whether the course is the first step toward a major, or a course to help most people be better at thinking about things.

    They are not mutually exclusive, but from your outlines, you are thinking heavily about the former and are worrying about being comprehensive. Being comprehensive makes everyone miserable. Resist the urge.

    The best intro to Brooklyn would be to pick a few choice and representative places, make them fun and personal for your guests, and set them up in every way to want to come back for more.

    I think this is precisely the goal of any intro course on any subject, yet nearly every intro to philosophy syllabus I’ve seen utterly fails. This is often because the instructor is designing the intro course they want, or the department wants, rather than what any curious 19 year old, or ordinary person who has not studied philosophy for a decade, can possibly find interesting.

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Hi Scott – thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I agree that, to a large extent, this is an issue of whether the course is aimed at potential majors/minors or gen-ed-requirement-type folks. I would wager that the ratio will be 1:5 or 1:10 philosophy to non-philosophy. I know deep down that this is an argument for not trying so hard to be comprehensive, but there is a part of me – very likely the part of me that was in the 1/10 that would become a philosophy major! – that is striving toward the training of philosophers.

      On reflection, it’s easy to overstate the tension between what the students would like and what the department wants. While a department might have some idealistic notion about giving a truly comprehensive intro class to prepare students for scholarship in philosophy, what is really good for the department (and philosophy itself, for the most part) is to have more people interested in philosophy. Comprehensiveness is important, but it’s necessarily posterior to interest.

  9. Scott Berkun

    If the goal is more people interested in, and respectful of, the pursuit of philosophy, you should definitely check out some of the popular intro to philosophy texts for mainstream readers. Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy, and Phillip’s Socrates Cafe are both excellent. They are the first books I suggest to friends who say “I want to learn more about philosophy” and they succeed at introducing some key concepts in a fun, compelling and interesting way.

    They fail at any kind of comprehensiveness, and some of their distillations of classic philosophers wouldn’t meet academic standards, but they do achieve the primary goal of fueling outsiders to the field to want to learn more.

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