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)
- 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.