Non-Philosophers Teaching Philosophy


Several years ago, during an era of relative plenty, I [a history professor] tried to persuade our philosophy department to credit a new history course I was teaching on the Enlightenment. Neither the reading list, bursting with texts from Bacon and Locke to Montesquieu and Diderot, nor the publication of my own book on Hume and Rousseau undid the suspicion that a professional historian simply didn’t have the requisite philosophical chops to teach such a course. The course was confined to the history department, and I found cold comfort in the thought that none of those 18th-century thinkers had a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, takes up the subject of cross-listing courses in a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He sees the refusal to cross-list as a department’s way of protecting enrollments (and the funds that sometimes accompany them). But he also notes (as in the quoted passage above), that sometimes there are concerns about quality. In my experience, the latter is more common than the former. Philosophers worry that those who aren’t trained as philosophers will approach the authors and their ideas with insufficient rigor or depth. Is this a well-founded worry or just ego-gratifying elitism or…?

guest
8 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kareem Khalifa
6 years ago

I agree; worries are more often framed in terms of quality control than enrollments, and I suspect that the source of such worries varies considerably. At least part of it is informed by the (so-called) analytic-Continental divide, where many other fields that claim to be interested in philosophy have a different canon than most professional philosophers. (That doesn’t explain the particular example above, but I suspect that it informs philosophers’ general reticence to cross-list courses.)Report

Steve
Steve
6 years ago

The concern is often a valid one, and you can see it if you just switch the example in the other direction. A course on welfare economics taught by a philosopher is going to look very different than one taught by an economist. If the goal of the course is to train students in the way economists think, then the philosopher taught course will not be acceptable.

The related problem is that many non-philosophers include lots of things under the guise of philosophy, e.g. “cultural criticism.”Report

Kristina
Kristina
6 years ago

The example here sounds like merely elitism. I haven’t been around for that long, but in my experience there aren’t any other humanities departments trying to teach philosophy at my school (that is, they teach philosophy, but they aren’t asking to cross-list). But I would have no problem with the historian taught course in the post. The bigger quality concerns should arise when you have engineers and business school professors teaching their own ethics courses. So what if someone taught a course that focused on a more the Continental cannon, or was more about cultural studies? I think those things could enrich a philosophy major’s study, and I wouldn’t even mind if a student took only a course like that and forever thought that all philosophy was like that. But I hate to think that students come away from an ethics course thinking that it is merely about compliance with laws and regulations (which happens all the time).Report

Karl
Karl
6 years ago

I once sat in on a graduate course on philosophy of mathematics by a respected mathematician. It was horrible. He basically went through theorems he thought were philosophically interesting for reasons he was not able to articulate at all. He interspersed this by quoting philosophers like Hume and Kant, botching what they said, and just claimed not to understand them. He then returned to the theorems he thought were interesting. I learned a bit about interesting theorems, but nothing that contributed to my understanding any philosophical problems.
This is one anecdote, but I am now quite wary of someone who does not know how to do research in a field, who does not appreciate the problems and intellectual environment of a field, may have never taken a course or read a book in that field, and is then allowed to teach a course in that field.Report

Dale Miller
6 years ago

There’s another issue here, which is accreditation. My school is accredited by SACS, which is responsible for colleges and universities in the southern U.S. The basic SACS rule is that to teach a course in a given field you must have, at a minimum 18 graduate hours in that field. (The 18 hour rule assumes that you have an M.A. or Ph.D. in another field.) You can justify making exceptions to this rule in some cases based on something like a record of publications, which is how our political science department has justified cross-listing my political philosophy and philosophy of law courses. But if a historian with no record of publishing in philosophy journals came to us and asked us to cross-list an intellectual history course we’d probably have to say no, regardless of how many philosophers were on the syllabus and of our own judgment about the person’s philosophical chops.Report

Josh Parsons
6 years ago

I want to speak to another not clearly well-founded worry: that cross-listing is often denied due to a department’s desire to protect enrollments. No doubt this sometimes happens, but whether (a) there’s an incentive to do it, and (b) a department has the power to do it, depends on the administrative and budgeting structure of the university. One university I was at double-counted cross-listed papers for bums-on-seats purposes, which creates the opposite incentive. Once, my department was unexpectedly informed that a divisional committee had agreed to a cross-listing without consulting us.

To get anything to happen at the division / faculty / school / whatever the level above the department, at any university, in my experience, you have to start by building individual relationships with members of other departments, who can persuade their HoDs to stick up for the idea.Report

Kenny Pearce
6 years ago

Intellectual history is not the same thing as history of philosophy. To me, the question is, do the students actually DO any philosophy in the course (e.g., are they required to consider whether these arguments ought to lead to changes in their own views), or do they merely learn about some ideas people had long ago and the way those ideas influenced history and culture? If they are not doing the first thing at all, then it is not a philosophy class. That’s not to say that no course taught in the history department could possibly be a philosophy course, nor is it to say that philosophy students shouldn’t be able to apply some intellectual history courses toward their major. But if the course is to be listed as a philosophy course, it had better require doing some philosophy.Report

DivineWisdom
DivineWisdom
6 years ago

The sad thing is, it almost doesn’t matter anymore… Philosophy has fallen by the wayside in our society. Mainly due to the scientific and technical mindset, which has also caused much of the dehumanization of our lives. We need thinkers more than ever… real thinkers. Few know the joy of contemplating on such questions as What is beauty? Who am I? and What am I? Whether it takes weeks, months, years… the rewards of understanding are well worth the time and thought. That is real thinking and that is simply not taught in institutions. Nothing has had a more profound impact on my life and taught me how to think more so than these simple questions. However, in this day and age, you are called mad for doing so… ah-ha, but I call that divine madness! That is real gnosis!

Real thinking, as far as I can tell, is no longer taught in academia. In fact, it is shunned at every corner. Today whenever a teacher is cornered by a student who begins to think on his own and the student invariably asks, why is this subject important?… the teacher then quips, because it teaches you how to think. I say… liar! What does that say of philosophy then?! I have heard this many times from math teachers who claim, only math can teach you how to “think”… reducing a human being to a calculator teaches them nothing! I call that professor a liar and a charlatan! That answer is nothing more than a pathetic attempt to justify an existence even they themselves see little meaning in anymore… and to stop any thinking from actually happening! The only thinking that is “allowed” in academia, is what the instructor tells the student to think. That is not thinking, there is no thinking taking place there! To the autodidact, education is a system of imposed ignorance! They teach indoctrination and train students to be slaves to the institution! Am I truly to believe that all of these classes are designed for nothing more than to teach me how to think?! Well then, I say they are grossly inadequate at that! And the only thing, in my mind that even comes close, is philosophy. I suppose every teacher wishes they could be a philosopher, but most do not deserve to touch the hem of Plato’s garment!

Many of those claiming to be philosophers are merely philosophy historians, they teach rote memorization of historical facts and reduce entire schools of thought into simple minded conceptions… giving the student only a summary of what it is all about. But of course, the institutions will always be grossly inadequate to an autodidact. For the autodidact does not need their permission, nor approval to think and so he does. Throughout history, at times like these, gnosis is always rediscovered by those who seek the truth! When the lies and b#llsh!t become so thick is seeks to blind us all in darkness, the light of gnosis will spread to the darkest corners!Report