A Guide for “Introduction to Philosophy”

A grad student recently asked for my thoughts and suggestions regarding how “Introduction to Philosophy” courses should be taught. Here are some of my remarks:

I think that the introductory classes are hard, partly because there isn’t much clarity regarding what exactly they are supposed to do or how this is supposed to be accomplished. There are extremely broad guidelines and little direction. In writing my article, I hope that I didn’t give the impression that I think every intro to philosophy class here is bad. I have actually heard of a few rather good intro courses. But what I wrote about in my column is what I have found to be the general experience of students. I actually asked some students in one of my seminars about their intro classes, and all of them said that they had horrible experiences.

I don’t think that it would be too helpful to provide proscriptions on content or reading material, although I think that suggestions can be helpful. I think that having a particular approach to learning and teaching is more important than having a canonical list of texts or topics. For instance, an “introduction to philosophy” is an odd thing. The only way to be introduced to philosophy, is to do actual philosophy, that is, to wonder at what is. I found a blog post by one teacher at Notre Dame very helpful: http://faculty.isi.org/blog/post/view/id/658/

There are a few things that are essential to a good course. First, the course needs to have some kind of narrative, something that holds all of the pieces together and that drives it to completion. At the same time, each course needs to have stand-alone value. Each unit should be valuable in and of itself. Every moment of the class should be of upmost value. A course in the liberal arts is not just something that you put in investment into for a return at the end. Rather, the “return” happens at every moment one is engaged in the philosophical act. A great course will have this act extended throughout every course meeting. To this end, the students need to feel engaged. It doesn’t help the students if they feel that the professor isn’t interesting or engaging. In a certain sense, the professor is a kind of actor, who works on a stage of the intellect.

I’ve been in a few mid-size lecture courses (about 50 students) where the professors have known the name of every student. I find this very helpful in making the students feel like they belong in the classroom. At the same time, it makes the students feel that they shouldn’t miss class, because the professor knows them. It’s a way of encouraging them to keep themselves accountable for class attendance. Some professors have also taken their students to coffee or lunch. If they have larger courses, they’ll split up the class into smaller groups to meet over coffee. This is a good way for you to get to know your students and for your students to get to know you.

For broad overviews of philosophy, I’ve appreciated Ralph McInerny’s “A Student’s Guide to Philosophy” and Etienne Gilson’s “History of Philosophy and Philosophical Education.” Both of these texts have a particular slant (they are both Thomistically-minded), so if you’re not inclined to this particular view it may not be too helpful. But I do think that the way they piece together a narrative of philosophy generally is very helpful.

For me, Plato’s allegory of the cave was very influential in my introduction to philosophy. I read it in high school and found it sufficiently accessible to a beginner. It gave me a particular perspective that I hadn’t considered before, and, in this way, it opened up my mind to a new kind of thinking. In an introductory class, each text should provide a similar kind of “opening.” The texts should be accessible to beginners, while challenging them at the same time. To this end, neither Kant nor Aristotle generally make for good “first texts,” although they can be taught to beginners with help. I don’t think that there is (or should be) a canonical list of “introductory books to philosophy.” I think that your course list should be largely driven by your narrative for the course. If the narrative is good, the texts will be good too.

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