Are Philosophical Classics Too Difficult for Students? (guest post by Martin Lenz)

A crucial point of teaching is to convey means to find out where exactly the difficulties lie and why they arise. That requires all sorts of texts—primary, secondary, tertiary, etc.

A recent discussion on Twitter among philosophers prompts the following guest post* by Martin Lenz, professor of philosophy at the University of Groningen. A version of it first appeared at his blog, Handling Ideas.

[Corinne Wasmuht, “Bibliotheque CDG/BSL”]

Are Philosophical Classics Too Difficult for Students?
by Martin Lenz

Say you would like to learn something about Kant. Should you start by reading one of his books or rather get a good introduction to Kant?

Personally, I think it’s good to start with primary texts, get confused, ask questions, and then look at the introductions to see some of your questions discussed. Why? Well, I guess it’s better to have a genuine question before looking for answers. However, even before the latest controversy on Twitter (between Zena Hitz and Kevin Zollman, among others) took off, I have been confronted with quite different views. Taken as an opposition between extremes, you could ask whether you want to make philosophy about ideas or people (and their writings). It’s probably inevitable that philosophy ends up being about both, but there is still the question of what we should prioritise.

Arguably, if you expose students to the difficult original texts, you might frighten them off. Thus, Kevin Zollman writes:

If I wanted someone to learn about Kant, I would not send them to read Kant first. Kant is a terrible writer, and is impossible for a novice to understand.

Accordingly, he argues that what should be prioritised is the ideas. In response Zena Hitz raises a different educational worry:

You’re telling young people (and others) that serious reading is not for them, but only for special experts.

Accordingly, she argues for prioritising the original texts.

As Jef Delvaux shows in an extensive reflection, both views touch on deeper problems relating to epistemic justice. A crucial point in his discussion is that we never come purely to a primary text anyway. So an emphasis on the primary literature might be prone to a sort of “givenism” about original texts.

I think that all sides have a point, but when it comes to students wanting to learn about historical texts, there is no way around looking at the original. Let me illustrate my point with a little analogy:

Imagine you want to study music and your main instrument is guitar. It is with great excitement that you attend courses on the music of Bach, whom you adore. The first part is supposed to be on his organ works, but already the first day is a disappointment. Your instructor tells you that you shouldn’t listen to Bach’s organ pieces themselves, since they might be far too difficult. Instead you’re presented with a transcription for guitar. Well, that’s actually quite nice because this is indeed more accessible even if it sounds a bit odd. (Taken as an analogy to reading philosophy, this could be a translation of an original source.) But then you look at the sheets. What is this? “Well”, the instructor goes on, “I’ve reduced the accompaniment to the three basic chords. That makes it easier to reproduce it in the exam, too. And we’ll only look at the main melodic motif. In fact, let’s focus on the little motif around the tonic chord. So, if you can reproduce the C major arpeggio, that will be good enough. And it will be a good preparation for my master class on tonic chords in the pre-classic period.” Leaving this music school, you’ll never have listened to any Bach pieces, but you have wonderful three-chord transcriptions for guitar, and after your degree you can set out on writing three-chord pieces yourself. If only there were still people interested in Punk!

Of course, this is a bit hyperbolic. But the main point is that too much focus on cutting things to ‘student size’ will create an artificial entity that has no relation to anything outside the lecture hall. But while I thus agree with Zena Hitz that shunning the texts because of their difficulties sends all sorts of odd messages, I also think that this depends on the purpose at hand.

If you want to learn about Kant, you should read Kant just like you should listen to Bach himself. But what if you’re not really interested in Kant, but in a sort of Kantianism under discussion in a current debate? In this case, the purpose is not to study Kant, but some concepts deriving from a certain tradition. In this case, you might be more like a jazz player who is interested in building a vocabulary. Then you might be interested, for instance, in how Bach dealt with phrases over diminished chords and focus on this aspect first. Of course, philosophical education should comprise both a focus on texts and on ideas, but I’d prioritise them in accordance with different purposes.

That said, everything in philosophy is quite difficult. As I see it, a crucial point of teaching is to convey means to find out where exactly the difficulties lie and why they arise. That requires all sorts of texts—primary, secondary, tertiary, etc.

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