May 11, 2015

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Some Reflections on Teaching Modern Philosophy

I have just finished teaching the survey of early modern philosophy for the first time. Here at Valpo, this course is required for philosophy majors and minors and is offered at the 200 (sophomore) level. There are a lot of ways to teach a class like this, and a lot of opinions about which ways are better, so I wanted to offer here a description of what I did and how I think it worked. (If there's anything really surprising in my evaluations when I get them at the end of this week, I may come back and revisit some of these issues.)

Scope and Themes: Life After Teleology

The standard early modern course (the 'textbook' version) is Descartes to Kant with emphasis on rationalism vs. empiricism in epistemology. It seems to me that specialists in early modern philosophy by now agree that this narrative distorts a lot of the historical facts and philosophical debates under discussion. Furthermore, this approach leaves unclear just what makes a philosopher 'modern', and raises the question, why are we starting with Descartes? It is also problematic insofar as none of these philosophers was fundamentally motivated by epistemological concerns. So here's one of my starting assumptions: certainly rationalism vs. empiricism is one debate that goes on in early modern philosophy, but it's not what early modern philosophy is about and I didn't want to organize my course around it.

What makes a philosopher 'modern'? By the end of the 17th century, the moderns were regarded as an identifiable school both by themselves and by their opponents. The fact that they had opponents means that modern philosophy can't be merely a chronological thing - after all, there is an unbroken chain of Scholastic philosophy (mostly in Jesuit universities) stretching all the way up to the present! In my view, what makes a philosopher modern is that he or she regards the Medieval philosophical/theological worldview as having been in some sense overthrown by the scientific revolution. (Of course, only the moderns would say that there was such a thing as the Medieval worldview - this is a kind of self-serving historiography that shows up once the moderns start looking like a self-conscious school. But there are some points on which Medieval philosophers mostly agreed and which moderns, almost by definition, rejected.) Most modern philosophers want some new intellectual synthesis to rise from the ashes of Scholasticism, but some, like Pierre Bayle, thought that no such system was possible.

Now the question this raises is, exactly how did thinkers like Galileo and Bacon (allegedly) overthrow an entire worldview with their scientific methods and discoveries? The key here is the rejection of immanent natural teleology, and its replacement with the mechanistic picture. This upset Aristotelian views about how we gain knowledge of nature. Far more importantly, it upset traditional views about God, God's relation to nature, and human freedom. Naturally, these become key questions for the moderns.

Now this story - life after teleology, if you want to call it that - is not only much closer to the early modern philosophers' own self-conception, it's also much easier for students to engage. Here we have the sort of basic problems that get people into philosophy in the first place, questions about the world and our place in it, about free action and moral responsibility, about God. It was because the epistemology questions connected with these issues that the early modern philosophers themselves cared about epistemology.

Additionally, this allows for nice 'bookending': we start with Descartes who is trying to show that the 'new' (mechanistic, anti-teleological, anti-Aristotelian) philosophy can do what the Catholic Church says philosophy is supposed to do, namely, prove the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. We end with Kant's Canon of Pure Reason in which it is argued that these very same claims are totally beyond the reach of theoretical reason, and that's okay; we have to accept them as a matter of moral faith.

If a historical course is going to have any kind of unity or coherence, one is going to have to select themes and tell a story. This will necessarily involve narrative shaping and selectivity, and the story will necessarily be a simplification of the facts and ignore a lot of nuances. In this respect, the story I've just told is no different than the standard rationalist vs. empiricist narrative. But I claim that the early modern philosophers would be more likely to recognize themselves in this story and that it better represents their fundamental motivations. I also think it has the advantage of being more closely connected to issues students are likely to understand and care about.

Selecting Readings: A Modestly Revisionary Approach to the 'Canon'

Selecting readings is hard. There's a lot of material out there, and the selection of narrative and themes only partly determines what makes sense to include. In addition, one must confront the problem of the canon. I understand the problem of the canon, and the tension it creates for selection of readings, as follows. There are certain early modern philosophers who are frequently referenced in later philosophical literature, up to the present day, and students who have taken a survey of early modern philosophy would generally be expected to have some familiarity with these figures. On the other hand, there are at least four problems with which philosophers have gotten into this club:
  1. Some philosophers were so enormously influential in the early modern period that it is difficult to understand the 'canonical' figures without them, yet they were not widely read in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  2. Some philosophers have very intrinsically interesting and illuminating arguments and ideas, and it seems like sheer historical accident that they didn't have a bigger influence.
  3. Some philosophers failed to obtain 'canonical' status simply because they don't fit neatly into the 'epistemology from Descartes to Kant' narrative.
  4. Some philosophers were excluded from obtaining 'canonical' status due to systemic social injustices such as sexism.
I'm sure every scholar of early modern philosophy will have his or her own list of figures to put in each of these four categories. To give just a few examples, I'd put Malebranche and Bayle in category 1 (yes, I'm a Berkeley scholar, how did you guess?), Arnauld and William King in category 2 (a case could be made for putting both of them in 1, but they were not nearly as philosophically influential as Malebranche or Bayle), and Hobbes and Reid in category 3. The list of philosophers belonging to category 4 is, of course, quite long (Elisabeth of Bohemia, Anne Conway, Damaris Cudworth Masham, Catherine Trotter Cockburn, etc. etc. etc.)

If students are to have an accurate understanding of early modern philosophy (even if it's just an introductory level understanding) they had better know that there are other philosophers besides the canonical ones. Furthermore, insofar as the canon leads to misunderstanding of the historical and philosophical issues and also involves both accidental injustices and systemic (non-accidental) injustices, we don't want to perpetuate it unchanged to the next generation of scholars. So I don't think we can just go along with the canon.

On the other hand, students do have to be equipped to grasp the references to early modern philosophy they are likely to actually see in other philosophy classes and readings, so we can't throw out the canon utterly. Besides this, let's be clear on our criticism of the canon: the canonical philosophers surely are among the greatest philosophers of the period, it's just that there are lots of other philosophers with equal claim (in terms of the philosophical interest of their writings) who have been excluded for a variety of bad reasons. So given unlimited time, we would read all of the canonical philosophers and also a bunch of other people. But given one semester with lower-division students who can't process reams of philosophical material per week, what do we do?

I haven't come up with a fully satisfactory answer to that question, but it seems to me that three things have to be taken into account. First, it really is important to teach the material necessary for students to catch references to early modern philosophy in contemporary philosophical writings. Probably the three most important figures from this perspective are Descartes, Hume, and Kant. Second, though, it's important to put these thinkers in their context by showing both the figures who influenced them and the sorts of debates they had with their contemporaries. Third, we want to form a coherent overall narrative that gives students something not-too-complicated to latch onto, rather than a bunch of random disconnected trivia about who said what. The first consideration means that we just can't throw out the canon entirely: until the currently non-canonical philosophers get to be as influential as Hume, Hume gets priority. On the other hand, I said earlier that we don't want to just perpetuate the canon unchanged. It's not that we want to displace Hume, but we want to show the diversity of great philosophers who wrote in the early modern period. This of course goes under the second heading, but it's in tension with the third.

So here's the not-totally-happy compromise I came up with. I have three 'tiers' of philosophers. The first tier consisted of those philosophers whose systems we focused on understanding in detail (well, the level of detail appropriate to a lower division undergraduate course). The second tier consisted of philosophers whose systems we overviewed by way of background to the tier one philosophers. The third tier consisted of those philosophers we considered as interlocutors of the tier one philosophers, but whose systems we didn't delve into. I didn't make this system of tiers explicit to the students. I did try to emphasize that the selection of readings was not solely a judgment of philosophical merit, but also considered matters of historical influence, etc.

Here's my list of philosophers:

  1. Tier One: Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Kant

  2. Tier Two: Spinoza, Locke

  3. Tier Three: Galileo, Elisabeth, Malebranche, Berkeley, Reid, Mary Shepherd

Again, I'm not totally happy with this. There are plenty more people I'd like to squeeze in.

One thing that worked really well was reading the mind-body portion of the Descartes-Elisabeth correspondence and a selection from Malebranche's Search After Truth when we were covering Leibniz's "New System of Nature". Leibniz's summary of the dialectic here is admirably clear and the students got it:

I could not find any way of explaining how the body makes anything happen in the soul, or vice versa, or how one substance can communicate with another created substance. Descartes had given up the game at this point, as far as we can determine from his writings. But his disciples ... judged that we sense the qualities of bodies because God causes thoughts to arise in the soul on the occasion of motions of matter, and that when our soul, in turn, wishes to move the body, it is God who moves the body for it ... That is what they call the system of occasional causes, which has been made very fashionable by the beautiful reflections of the author of the Search After Truth (Ariew and Garber 142-143).

This was one place where I was very glad that I included readings outside the canon.

(Digression: Elisabeth's letters to Descartes were, at her insistence, withheld from publication in the 17th century. Does anyone know of any evidence bearing on the question whether Leibniz might have discussed the issue with Elisabeth, or whether she (or someone else) might have showed him her letters? Everything in this quote could have been inferred from Descartes's side of the correspondence.)

The Historical and the Philosophical

Another challenge in teaching history of philosophy is responsibly balancing the historical and the philosophical. (This is also an issue in research in the history of philosophy, of course.) I was a little less worried about being adequately philosophical in this class because all of the students had taken at least one philosophy class before and were likely to take more. Some students who take a historical course as their only philosophy course come away with misunderstandings of what philosophy is, or not seeing it's point. Even with students taking other philosophy classes, there is still a concern with helping them understand what's philosophical about history of philosophy.

To this end, I emphasize that our main aim is to consider whether we should be convinced by the philosophers' arguments, or suitably updated/improved versions. On each of my exams, I include a long essay question asking students to take sides in one of the philosophical debates under discussion. I also make them evaluate arguments for their papers. We also read a little bit of more recent philosophy influenced by the figures under discussion. I would have liked to do more of this but, again, you can only include so much. But the little bit was, I hope, enough to demonstrate the ongoing relevance of the ideas and arguments.

I think I may have overbalanced in this direction a bit this time around. One thing that happened was this: at the beginning of the semester, my students really struggled with extracting arguments from texts. Accordingly, I started putting even more emphasis on this than I ordinarily would (and it's one of the main things I like to emphasize to begin with). So almost every class, we would put a paragraph of text up on the projector and work as a class to identify the premises and get a valid argument. Then we think about which premise an opponent might attack.

The students really did get pretty good at this task. The problem is, you can't actually do this together in class unless the argument is found all at once in one paragraph. As a result, it became clear later in the semester that the students were having a lot of trouble getting the 'big picture' from the texts that they were reading, and perhaps even understanding why they were being told to read 20 pages when we were going to spend over half of our class time picking apart one paragraph. When I found this out, I had to rearrange to put more emphasis on big picture. (This is absolutely essential when dealing with Kant anyway.)

Next time, I think that, at least for reading Descartes's Meditations at the beginning, I'll assign the text in slightly bigger chunks (2 or 3 meditations at a time) and spend one whole class on an overview of that bigger chunk and then for the next class have no new reading and spend our time picking apart a few well-chosen paragraphs. That way we could (hopefully) get the foundation for both things right at the beginning.

Those are my thoughts so far. I'd be very interested to hear more about how others have done this, and whether my experience lines up with theirs.

(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad.)

Posted by Kenny at May 11, 2015 2:59 PM
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