Practical Questions About The Philosophy Curriculum


In a comment on a previous post, What’s “Core” and What’s “Peripheral” in Philosophy—and Why?, Brian Weatherson (Michigan) notes that there are “some practical questions that need answering from time to time.” They are:

  1. Which subfields of philosophy should a philosophy major be required to take courses in?
  2. Which subfields of philosophy should a PhD student be required to take courses in?
  3. Which subfields of philosophy is it a complete emergency if one’s department has no faculty who can work/teach/advise in?

Another commenter, William Lewis (Skidmore), requested a discussion of these questions, and that sounds like a good idea.

Major In Thinking

(from a poster by Christopher Pynes (NIU))

 

guest
66 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Richard Zach
5 years ago

Logic. 😉Report

George Gale
George Gale
5 years ago

I once did a visiting gig in an MA-granting department. This department offerred something like 6-7 different versions of intro ethics, all taught by different profs. But they offerred *no* baby logic course, nor even a ‘critical thinking’ course. IMHO, this dept. needed a flashing warning light attached to its website and departmental office.Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  George Gale
5 years ago

Although I share the sentiments expressed by George Gale, I can’t be the only one to be put off by calling a course “baby logic” can I? Critical Thinking is not ‘less than’ predicate logic in my mind. They are different courses that serve different functions. I don’t call ‘intro to ethics’ ‘baby ethics’ just because it isn’t meta-ethics.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

I think that departments should have a “diversity requirement” (or call it something else if you worry, as I often do, that the term ‘diversity’ offers a Band-Aid for significant structural and institutional change). Depending on the size of the department, a number of courses could be offered to fulfill this requirement, such as philosophy of race, philosophy of disability, feminist philosophy, queer theory, Indigenous philosophy, Asian and other non-western philosophies, and Africana philosophy.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

Oh god, no. That in itself would be a flashing warning away from that department. Anyone can be considered a political philosopher, even of left-wing issues if they themselves are not left-wing, but in those subfields you need to be a certain kind of person to be considered a philosopher of those things beyond just the philosophy itself. The last thing philosophy departments need are more subfields where the quality of your philosophy is affected by your demographic attributes rather than the philosophy itself.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

Anyone can write “false” and call it a day.

Are you saying that philosophers can be considered feminist philosophers without adopting the ideology therein? I’ve never heard of a feminist philosopher who was not themselves feminist. This requirement does not exist in political philosophy or anywhere else. But if you’re saying it’s not a requirement — that there is a feminist philosopher who isn’t feminist or aligned that way whatsoever and completely opposed to the mainstream of that subfield, I’d love to read them.Report

Anon.
Anon.
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

The closest thing you’ll find is Camille Paglia (though I think she currently resides on Leiter’s “Since when is X a philosopher?” list, along with Machiavelli and Strauss). She has a paper in the intro. anthology edited by Martinich, called “No Law in the Arena”: worth reading if you want a (somewhat) internal critique of feminism. If you are already familiar with Paglia, I don’t think anyone else who holds an actual academic position qualifies (though she does not teach in a philosophy department).Report

Adrian Piper
5 years ago

Re. Question 1: A philosophy major should be required to take courses in the following subfields:
Intro Logic
Symbolic Logic
Ancient Indian Philosophy
Ancient Greek & Roman Philosophy
Medieval Philosophy
Gang of Six (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume)
Kant
19th Century Philosophy
Metaphysics & Epistemology
Ethics & Political Philosophy [I would incorporate the diversity requirement here]
Philosophy of Science
Philosophy of Language

Re. Question 2: A Ph.D. student should be required to take courses in any one of the preceding subfields not taken at the undergraduate level, or that used syllabi considered unsatisfactory by the graduate department’s admissions committee.

Re. Question 3: See 1, above.Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

Taking one course in each of these areas would mean 12 total courses, and by writing “courses”, it suggests you have in mind possibly more than one in each (certainly, that would be required if a diversity requirement were to be “incorporated” into an ethics and political philosophy requirement, as opposed to simply replacing it). I don’t know of any undergrad program that requires more than 12 courses for its phil major, and I know of others that require fewer.

In practice, this would mean philosophy majors taking far more courses than they currently do, since people typically want to takes more than one course in areas they’re interested in (which, if anybody’s ever going to go to grad school, it’s hard to imagine doing without). So in practice, this would mean undergrad phil majors taking far more phil classes than they currently do, and probably significantly fewer majors.Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
Reply to  Daniel
5 years ago

A number of Canadian programs require 20 courses or more.Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  Grad Sockpuppet
5 years ago

Fair enough, I should’ve made clear I was referring to US programs, where my impression is that 12 is typically the max number of courses required within major for a humanities degree.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Daniel
5 years ago

Actually I meant to suggest a minimum of one course in each of the 12 areas. But it is true that a Gang of Six course is better divided into two (Rationalism and Empiricism). As for the diversity requirement, I don’t think this would necessarily require more than one ethics & political philosophy course. My Intro to Moral Philosophy course covered Plato’s *Euthyphro* and *Apology*, Aristotle’s *Ethics*, Hobbes’s *Leviathan*, Kant’s *Groundwork*, Mill’s *Utilitarianism*, Nietzsche’s *On the Genealogy of Morals*, and Rawls’ *Justice as Fairness: A Restatement*. Plato, Kant and Nietzsche provided really excellent springboards for discussions of racism, misogyny and other forms of discrimination. There wasn’t time to *assign* specific diversity readings in addition, but I did recommend them to students who wanted to pursue those topics in depth in their writing assignments (usually four per semester). I got some very interesting papers out of them. There was one fiery discussion applying Nietzsche’s Übermensch/Untermensch distinction to the dynamics of sexism that I’ll probably never forget.

And yes, it would mean that in addition to this required broad background, philosophy majors would have to take several electives in their chosen areas of concentration. But the broad required background I regard as a sine qua non for the philosophy major, regardless of whether they continue in the field or not.

As for the resulting number of majors, my experience is that majors recognize the value of philosophy the more of it they study. But of course we could provide a real boost to enrollment by requiring only that they watch “The Matrix”. The basic issue is how much of the discipline we are willing to sacrifice in order to appease the bean-counters.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

***Method A***

1. comprise a list of most influential journal articles in the last 10 years (you can use philosopher’s annual if you’re lazy)

2. attempt to correct for confirmation bias and equality bias (i.e. desire to not have proportionally too much of one subfield so you pick more from lesser-recognized fields to compensate)

3. create a chart of subfields based on % of articles

4. The proportion of those subfields is their relative importance and how much you should worry if a subfield is lacking in your department

***Method B***

1. comprise a list of top faculty (Leiter report has done this indirectly?)

2. note their subfield specialty

3. create a chart of subfields based on % of professors with that specialty

4..The proportion of those subfields is their relative importance and how much you should worry if a subfield is lacking in your department

***Method C***

1. poll professional philosophers

2. hope really hard that they don’t fall to Social Desirability Bias and list something that sounds good rather than what they actually thinkReport

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
5 years ago

Logic seems like an obvious and widely agreed-upon candidate. Ethics, epistemology, and (ancient or modern) philosophy also seem like good candidates, although I’m not certain they all pass 2’s muster, except perhaps disjunctively. I also tend to think that everyone should have a basic course in the philosophy of language, if only because it underwrites so much contemporary philosophy. Probably our more continentally-oriented colleagues would have some different suggestions of their own (maybe a survey of German Idealism, or phenomenology?). I’m on board with that, although I think they’ll struggle with 2 in the same way as my previous suggestions. In fact, I think that most suggestions will struggle with 2.

Here’s one that I think *should* be treated as “core”, and which *should* be taken to satisfy all 3 criteria, like logic: feminist theory. I think we and our students would all benefit from some mandatory introductory exposure to that subfield, and we would be better equipped for the way those issues arise in the non-academic world, too. I don’t think that it’ll *actually* get much agreement, but I think it *should*. I think we do ourselves and our students a great disservice by allowing them to leave us without any exposure whatsoever to the subfield. That’s not because they (or we) ought to agree with its arguments or conclusions, but because they (and we) ought to at least be minimally informed about its aims and claims, especially since they figure so prominently in the public sphere.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Grad Sockpuppet
5 years ago

“we would be better equipped for the way those issues arise in the non-academic world, too.”

…how?Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

By raising students’ awareness of when they are replicating in their own actions and relationships patterns of behavior that are both deeply instilled and also demonstrably irrational and/or unjust. Discovering the extent to which reactions they viewed as personal, individual and uniquely theirs is in fact nothing but conformist social programming can be both illuminating and motivationally effective in changing them.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

That seems like something that’s more psychology or sociology than philosophy, especially “patterns of behavior that are both deeply instilled and also demonstrably irrational and/or unjust” which sounds a lot more like Harvard Implicit than anything else. It’s unclear how very intro feminist theory would do those things you’re saying it does when we’re presumably just leaving students to walk away with the very bare conclusions from the theory. Something like “the extent to which reactions they viewed as personal, individual and uniquely theirs is in fact nothing but conformist social programming” — this is an empirical question; does philosophy deal with empirical methodology to that degree? Would the students actually know *why* this is the case, empirically, to the extent that they can demonstrate it rigorously, or would you just expect them to affirm the conclusion that this is so? I’ve read some of the stuff you’re talking about, but I don’t think it’s sufficient to do the things you’re saying it does.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

Perhaps we just have different conceptions of philosophy. I take analyses of states of affairs that soundly conclude to their irrationality or injustice to be a core philosophical activity. It’s one you not only assign readings about, but also practice in the classroom with your students. As to whether a course in feminist theory can do all that, why not take one and find out?Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

Because we’d have a better idea of what is meant when people refer to concepts like ‘privilege’ or ‘rape culture’ or even ‘trigger warnings’, and we could avoid some of the most egregious straw-men. Because we would have a somewhat more sophisticated understanding of the notion of ‘consent’ and the problems that attend it. Because we would have a better understanding of the origins of the discussions we have about the censorship of pornography, the condemnation of the depiction of women in popular media. Because we’d be a little more aware of how our biases can manifest themselves, and what we can do to combat them. Because we could have a more informed discussion of how to refer to transgendered people, and what to do about bathrooms. Because we’d be a little more skeptical of our genius narratives and our “great man” approach to teaching philosophy. Because it can introduce a healthy note of skepticism about social and cultural kinds, institutional concepts, and the desideratum of descriptivism.

Those, and other ways. I’m not saying that an introduction to feminist theory is necessary or sufficient for those things. Nor is an introduction to logic necessary (perhaps it isn’t even sufficient) to properly formulate or evaluate arguments. But they can help a lot, and I think that we owe it to our students (and to ourselves) to provide these kinds of shortcuts and information.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Grad Sockpuppet
5 years ago

The enthusiasm of anaphora in your reply makes me concerned that you’re more interested in the grandness of repeating sentences with “because” than the reasons following that word.

I mean, “a better idea of what is meant when people refer to concepts like ‘privilege’ or ‘rape culture’ or even ‘trigger warnings'”? I’m all for “a better idea” if that’s what you really mean, but this sounds suspiciously like something where “a better idea” means “think these concepts legitimate on their face”, since I’m doubting you want someone walking away thinking that these are more ridiculous concepts than before but with even greater familiarity with them.

And if the goal is “a little more aware of how our biases can manifest themselves” — why specifically sex bias? Social and cognitive psychology has been studying bias for decades. There are *so* many ways that people can be biased, and sex bias is one fragment. If recognizing bias is the goal, why not integrate philosophy with cognitive science instead, and cover the majority of known biases as opposed to a narrow range of them?Report

Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

I’m curious to get thoughts on curriculum standardization. When students take an introduction to philosophy course or a lower-level ethics course, what they end up encountering in the course can vary pretty significantly (even at the same college, never mind across colleges) based on the person teaching this course. You don’t see this kind of variance in introductions to biology, micro principles, or other introductory level college courses.

Any thoughts on whether we should moved to a more standardized curriculum generally, or whether the curriculum should be standardized (at least at the lower level) inside of a particular department or individual program?Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

I think your reply gets to the heart of this issue.

Some people hate this idea but, on the other hand, how is a student supposed to know they didn’t (or won’t) get completely screwed at their undergraduate institution? If I were a student about to declare a major in philosophy I’d like to know that my school is in some way representative of the field instead of just a hodgepodge of whatever the faculty decide to teach.Report

JDRox
JDRox
5 years ago

1. Ethics, Ancient, Modern, Logic, Metaphysics, Epistemology
2. Ethics, One or Two History (or a competency exam), Logic, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language
3. From an undergrad perspective: in addition to (1) political philosophy, “business ethics”, philosophy of religion, maybe philosophy of science. From a grad perspective: in addition to (2), a variety of history courses (incl. history of analytic), advanced logic, philosophy of science, political philosophy, philosophy of mind. I’m sure I’m overlooking some stuff.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

I find it difficult to understand how one even begins to think about these questions. (And the answers given don’t much help: for the most part they’re just lists of people’s own answers, without much indication of the underlying rationale.)

If anything unifies philosophy as a discipline, it’s a certain methodology, a certain way of approaching problems, and not really a particular subject matter. There’s no structural hierarchy whereby one part is required as a prerequisite for others: or rather, it’s itself a philosophically contested question what that structural hierarchy would look like, with any of Phil.Language, Phil.Mind, Epistemology, Metaphysics and Phil.Sci being at various times advanced as central to the discipline and at other times marginalised.

I can certainly see how to construct cohesive programs in philosophy that are more than just arbitrary collections of courses – but there are many such programs. For instance, in Oxford (where, as with the rest of the UK, you do pretty much 100% of your courses from your major, but where philosophy is always studied as a double or triple major), I have definite views as to what philosophy you should do as part of a Politics/Philosophy/Economics course, and what philosophy you should do as part of a Physics & Philosophy course – but they’re very different lists, with very little compulsory overlap.

So I’m not really sure we should be looking for a discipline-wide solution. Construct a program, or disjunctive list of programs, which your faculty regards as intellectually defensible, and recognise that lots of other choices would also be intellectually defensible. Pay attention to what students want but can’t do, or could do but don’t, and let things evolve. Recognise that your particular program’s structure has evolved in a path-dependent way.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Actually I thought most of my list (with the exceptions of Ancient Indian and Medieval Philosophy) was just the traditional discipline-wide solution. It’s *basically* the one I encountered in the institutions where I studied (three) and taught (six). But it’s true that all but one were in the U.S., and that there are very different programs in the UK and Europe. Still, I do think some degree of standardization would strengthen the field as a whole.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

So far this statement by David Wallace constitutes to my mind the wisest so far in this thread:

“If anything unifies philosophy as a discipline, it’s a certain methodology, a certain way of approaching problems, and not really a particular subject matter.”

Many years ago I abandoned a survey/content-based 101 for one that stresses developing understanding, argument, appreciating distinctions, basic logic, connection of concepts as relating to different contexts both theoretical and practical, etc., and all the while building a big-picture grasp of just one problem-area in philosophy. (I use the free will problem, but this “single-topic” approach can be adjusted to any number of such rich issues.) So in microcosm my intro course attempts to address as much of what Wallace is gesturing for whole programs. My motivation for my 101 course is strongly based on the presumption–no doubt true–that my 101 may well be the only philosophy course most of my students ever take. So it should reflect as fully as possible what philosophy attempts to do, and engage students in doing it.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

I don’t have a comment on the issue of precise curricula (other than to second everyone who has said “logic” as a requirement for undergrads), but do wish to note that many PhD programmes don’t involve coursework, so suggesting required courses for them is a bit moot.Report

annon_@
5 years ago

I graduated from a non-Western undergraduate program. The faculty consisted of philosophers from diverse traditions: the number of those majored in Eastern (history of) philosophy was almost equal to the number of those in Western history of philosophy, and there were as many ‘Continental’-oriented philosophers as there were ‘Analytic’-oriented philosophers. You can expect the bickering that they should have had gone through to determine the mandatory course list for undergraduates. Anyhow, the following is the list of the mandatory courses:

1. Logic: up to the soundness/completeness proof of FOL.
2. The introductory survey of the domestic history of philosophy
3. (The one added to the list after I graduated) Introductory ethics course covering contemporary (Western) ideas

The list is obviously far from being sufficient for any tradition. But many of my colleagues, especially those who pursued graduate studies, naturally came to determine their interests by the second or third year. For example, those who get interested in the contemporary Analytic tradition would take Philosophy of Language, Epistemology (yes, starting from Gettier et al), Metaphysics (yes, again that of Lewisian sort), Philosophy of Mind, etc.

The system evidently had a drawback; those who could not make up their mind and stick to a certain tradition sometimes complained about the ‘wide-yet-superficial’ curricula they had gone through. Still, when it comes to those who aspire for other careers after getting a bachelor degree in philosophy, this superficiality of the knowledge itself might not matter as long as they learned to ‘philosophieren’. Anyway, I think this is the kind of price that a philosophy department pursuing more diversity in its curricula needs to bear.Report

Grad student
Grad student
5 years ago

Really, the answers to all of 1-3 strike me as sociological, not philosophical. Departments need to have certain undergraduate courses in order to provide students with the background they will be assumed to have in virtue of having a philosophy degree (which is particularly important for students who go on to graduate school- there’s an open question whether undergraduate courses ought to be tailored for the tiny minority who do continue on, but that’s an issue for another day). Similarly, graduate courses need to provide grad students with the kind of education that will get them taken seriously by others in the field. And 3 is a result of 1 and 2. But none of this has anything to do with what’s philosophically central or core to the discipline- I like David Wallace’s claim that nothing really is. It’s just a sociological question about what other philosophers will take to be central, or at least take to be common knowledge, so as to allow graduates to function in the profession- which, of course, will differ based on where in the profession you end up.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

It’s telling how little concern there seems to be in regards to requiring instruction in continental philosophy.Report

Anonymous2
Anonymous2
Reply to  Anonymous
5 years ago

Say, what does it tell?Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Anonymous
5 years ago

Much of 19th Century philosophy comes from Continental Europe, and it is not difficult to incorporate some 20th Century philosophy readings from that part of the world into a thorough M&E, Political Philosophy or Philosophy of Language course. I don’t see the wisdom of treating it as a separate subject, provided that the same general methodology (reasoning, analysis, argumentation, etc.) can be applied as well there as in any other required philosophy course.Report

anongradstudent
anongradstudent
5 years ago

I sure hope the bizarre logic fetishism fades the further we get from the Russell era. Truth tables and derivations and fallacy fallacies are not nearly as helpful as otherwise-careful philosophers seem to think they are. If we renamed it “a probably failed attempt to resolve an obscure question in mathematics 101” and “a definitely failed attempt to identify a neutral and abstract procedure for evaluation 102” no one would want to take those classes.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  anongradstudent
5 years ago

Hmm. Aristotle thought formal logic was pretty important. So did Saint Thomas. So did Kant. So did Hegel. So did Frege. So did Wittgenstein. I’m not sure getting far from the Russell era is going to make any difference.Report

anongradstudent
anongradstudent
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

Ha, you’re exactly right, and my aspersions were too quick. Though getting away from the Russell era should mean at least that we get rid of at least one failed attempt to make use of the formal work.

And I’m curious to see the pointless introductory lectures from Kant on truth tables, not-very-well-understood fallacies, and sentential derivations undergrads will neither understand nor use again.Report

Nicole Wyatt
Nicole Wyatt
Reply to  anongradstudent
5 years ago

This sounds to me like the sort of required logic class you get when you don’t actually have any logicians or philosophers of logic in the department. Put it in the hands of an expert and the technical material gets set in its philosophical context. (Fallacies are not even on the menu for the required logic class(es) at either my PhD institution or my current one.)Report

MrMister
MrMister
Reply to  anongradstudent
5 years ago

I fetishize logic as much as the next right-thinking philosopher, and I am suitably horrified by the thought of a philosophy program that didn’t require baby logic and offer more, but I do wonder about why it’s a standard part of graduate training (as much as I can tell) to take logic through completeness. My sense is that completeness as a result is in an awkward spot, where it’s pretty trivial for anyone who actually wants to go on in logic but rather arcane and irrelevant for anyone who doesn’t. If we are thinking about the opportunity costs, I wonder if we might consider other ‘formal methods’ classes that might be more useful for philosophers generally–maybe some modal logic, some probability math, some linguistics, some statistics, some empirical science, etc., that might take its place. In my own case, at least, almost anything off that list would have been more relevant to me than my brief ability to reproduce a completeness proof wound up being. Still, n=1 and everything.Report

Richard Zach
Reply to  MrMister
5 years ago

This (including the links at the bottom) may be of interest. It’s now ten years old but I don’t think much has changed.

http://www.ucalgary.ca/aslcle/sf05Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Richard Zach
5 years ago

This is a great link. The ASL presentations and associated discussion pages are extremely useful. *These* are the issues that should be debated, not whether logic is relevant to philosophy at all (although the Arana paper speaks authoritatively even to that question).Report

anongradstudent
anongradstudent
Reply to  Richard Zach
5 years ago

Fantastic! Thanks so much!Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

I’m skeptical of claims that this is a question that requires a general, discipline wide, answer, or that a conversation about these matters will be productive. Sure, individual departments will grapple with these issues, and the answers they come up with will be dependent on the preferences and abilities of their faculty, but why should this localized approach be considered a bad thing?

It seems that there is some anxiety that refusing to provide a general answer to what counts as philosophy’s core either reveals a fundamental flaw inherent in philosophy or reveals that departments who fail to require some courses are Getting Philosophy Wrong.

Why not just let many flowers bloom (or, if you prefer, allow many intradepartmental battles to rage on)? The claim that we ought to hammer out some best practices guidelines for philosophy majors strikes me as rather…corporate.Report

Timothy Stock
Timothy Stock
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

I agree with the “many flowers” approach. I studied nothing but history of philosophy and German and French philosophy in undergrad but then managed to make my way with reasonable success through requirements previously foreign to me (analytic meta-ethics, logic and analytic epistemology) in an analytically strong PhD program. Our own (B.A. only) program focuses its requirements on methods, a sophomore and then senior seminar focus on textual analysis, others on library research, others on logic and analysis of argument. Beyond this we have 4 very broad categories in M/E, Value theory, Diversity and History designed to offer loose groupings of very different courses. Many small pluralistic departments may find it beneficial to put maximum flexibility into the undergrad curriculum rather than game specific conceptions of pre-disciplinary training (which is inevitably going to underserve the 80-90% of students who will go on to some other field, and may be of dubious service to those who wish to go on.) I also think, in the spirit of the previous post, that B.A.s should be distinctive and interestingly different across the philosophy landscape. One other tidbit for thought … perhaps something like an “applied” category that would cover philosophy of education or social/political or philosophy of science or bio-ethics in a practical context could be something that would greatly benefit our students moving forward.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

One reason not to let too many flowers bloom is that this makes it too easy for an administration to cancel any one of them arbitrarily. If you send the message that there is no well-defined core knowledge or skills base that identifies the field as a whole and distinguishes it from other fields, you then can’t argue that any particular course in that field is essential for a proper undergraduate education at any and all accredited academic institutions.

I also don’t think it’s responsible to one’s students to localize one’s approach too much. The fact is that historically, there *is* a commonly held knowledge and skills base in philosophy. Students need to know what that is so that they can participate in its further evolution.

But a deeper reason to go for the corporate alternative is the pleasure of sharing that commonly held knowledge and skills base with your fellow philosophers, wherever they are (this is what makes it essential to separate philosophers from one another at integrated social events, or at least make them swear not to talk philosophy in the presence of other people).Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

Well, I’d rather an administrator cancel one undersubscribed course than shut down a whole department. Having some standard philosophy curriculum would encourage more dangerous forms of administrator malfeasance, I fear. Part of the strength of American higher education arose out of its tradition of faculty governance, and curricular decisions are best made by local faculty. I don’t want whiny undergraduates, power hungry governors, or a committee of Philosophers Who Know Best making these determinations; I trust my fellow philosophers to decide what the curriculum for their institution and their students should look like.

At this point in philosophy’s history, I don’t think you can be so sanguine in making claims about its common subject matter. Even the assertion that we share a common method seems doubtful. Someone working today in formal epistemology is doing something very, very different than someone working in continental aesthetics, for example. And that’s just fine. At least potentially, philosophy is stronger because of its diversity.

As far as pleasure and shared knowledge goes, I’m not sure what to make of your claims. I did take graduate courses in a wide variety of subjects far outside my own, but I don’t think my grad course in the philosophy of science, say, provided me with rich conversational resources to draw upon when sitting next to a philosopher of physics at dinner. In part, this is because my memory of the course is hazy, but more importantly, philosophy has become so specialized you need far more than a few grad courses in some field to be conversant in its main debates.

Personally, I think dinners with philosophers would be far more enjoyable if philosophers became more knowledgable about (or even interested in) high and low culture *outside of* professional philosophy. I fear the real reason you shouldn’t sit philosophers next to one another is because they will bore the rest of the table with endless professional gossip of the kind that still draws people to Leiter’s blog (e.g., who are the rising stars in the profession, what are the Most Important Conferences to attend, who is sitting on a job offer from where, which philosopher will be the next to face sexual harassment charges, and so on).Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

I would certainly agree that IF a formal epistemologist and a continental aesthetician have no shared tradition of knowledge and skills in common, then they won’t be able to talk shop at dinner.

They also won’t be able to talk strategy when faced with department cutbacks or closures. Without such a shared tradition and training, what would be their argument to their administration against relocating the formal epistemologist to the statistics department and the continental aesthetician to the comp lit department? Or cutting both positions, since they merely replicate positions already filled in each of those two respective other departments? Iterate that reasoning for each distinguishable position in the philosophy department (e.g. the Ancient Greek & Roman specialist to classics, or cut the position entirely; the philosopher of mind to the psych department, or cut the position entirely; the specialist in early modern philosophy to the history department, or cut the position entirely; the logician to the math department, or cut the position entirely; etc.), and the rationale for having a philosophy department at all begins to fade.

Should your formal epistemologist and your continental aesthetician happen to be in different philosophy departments, they will have even less reason to make common cause against departmental cutbacks or closures in either of them. Of course it’s very nice that “[You] trust [your] fellow philosophers to decide what the curriculum for their institution and their students should look like,” as long as you don’t expect your “committee of Philosophers Who Know Best,” with whom you have no skills or knowledge base in common, to intervene when it is your position or department that is on the chopping block.

What gives the discipline of philosophy its distinctive identity is precisely the shared knowledge and skills – and memory – that the very traditional undergraduate major requirements I listed impart to each successive generation of philosophy students (too bad the burning of the Library of Alexandria obscured the connection between this tradition and Ancient Indian Philosophy, but that is recoverable). Professional philosophers can either defend that tradition, or let it, and their jobs, slip away.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

You are presenting a false dichotomy: either we have one standardized curriculum for all majors and PhD students or we dissolve into a state of complete atomistic vulnerability in which we are unable to communicate or work together.

Sorry, but I reject this. No other field in the humanities has a standardized curriculum, and they seem to do just fine. Moreover, I never suggested that there shouldn’t be distribution requirements; instead, I asserted that these are best determined by the faculty who will be teaching the courses.

I don’t know what the fate of philosophy will be, but I’m confident that the combined anxiety and arrogance of those who would wrest curricular decisions from faculty cannot be good for the field. It is this same anxiety and arrogance that motivates people to dismiss some work done by philosophers as “not philosophy” and keeps the field focused on a narrow range of questions.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

As I did not present a dichotomy at all, I won’t comment on your further remarks that falsely presuppose it.Report

PeteJ
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

—“It seems that there is some anxiety that refusing to provide a general answer to what counts as philosophy’s core either reveals a fundamental flaw inherent in philosophy or reveals that departments who fail to require some courses are Getting Philosophy Wrong. ”

I liked this comment and feel that such anxiety is justified. But I don’t think philosophy can be flawed, just the way we do it. Agree about flowers.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

While these questions are important, there are other, related, impediments to adequate philosophical training. Many smaller undergraduate departments in the USA will often struggle to offer more than one or two courses for majors per semester. Multiple sections of bread and butter service courses, such as Intro, Ethics, Logic, and Critical Thinking, dominate the schedule. At some schools, even more specialized historical or systematic courses will do double duty fulfilling core requirements for large enrollments of captive non-philosophy students. Of course, this is a plus for faculty who get to teach in their AOS and it allows for at least a nominal “philosophy major” curriculum. Meanwhile, the few majors in such courses suffer the double humiliation of sitting among large numbers of students who think philosophy is a waste of time and being taught watered-down material suitable for a general student population. This is enough to make even students who like philosophy not want to major in it.Report

harry b
5 years ago

This is one of the more bizarre threads I have read.
99% of philosophy majors will not go to graduate school (I hope we can increase that percentage by getting more people into the major). The question of what classes a major should take is answered by asking: i) given what they are likely to do, in the world (as workers, citizens, parents, lovers, friends…) what can philosophy contribute to them doing it better, or contribute to influencing them to do something different (more valuable for the world/more enjoyable for them)? and ii) what will it be intrinsically valuable for them to study?Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  harry b
5 years ago

Harry: I am tempted to agree, but I do have to wonder – on what basis should we be confident that the philosophy major really does have something to contribute to what those students are likely to do in the world?

If it’s based on a track record, isn’t that a track record of philosophy departments run traditionally by faculty with the sorts of attitudes and concerns expressed above? And, in any case, isn’t that track record at least partially undermined by the failure of academic humanists – including philosophers – to do a better job reflecting on and managing our place within the university?Report

Alex
Alex
Reply to  harry b
5 years ago

Interesting. Do those same criteria work for other all other disciplines? Other disciplines for which most majors do not go on to pursue further education or employment in exactly that field? Just humanities disciplines? Or just philosophy?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  harry b
5 years ago

Replying to Harry b:

(i) assuming they need to think clearly, read critically, analyse arguments, and write clearly, philosophy can teach them to do it better.
(ii) pretty much any bit of philosophy that you think is inherently sensible and interesting (and can be made to seem that way to students) will achieve (i).

That links back to my earlier comment, in fact: just as philosophy (I think) is unified by “a certain methodology, a certain way of approaching problems”, so that methodology and way of approaching problems (and the associated reading and writing skills) is the main thing (I think) that philosophy has to teach students.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

David, I really wish I could agree with you that (i) and (ii) are sufficient in addition to being necessary, but I just can’t. (i) and (ii) address solely the essential question of philosophical methodology, and of course you are completely right about its centrality and defining role for philosophy. But undergraduates who do not go on in philosophy also need to know something about its core *content*, and about the historical and contemporary dialogues through which the fundamental philosophical issues have been addressed and clarified by different thinkers at different times and places.

This can provide a very useful source of inspiration, for example, for politicians thinking about justice or the distribution of social goods or freedom of information; for lawyers and judges thinking about causation, responsibility, or evidential warrant; for scientists thinking about anomaly or first causes or the value of intersubjective confirmation; for business people thinking about human potential or transparency or corruption. Really, the list of pressing contemporary issues on which it pays to consult the great thinkers of the past is endless.

But then there is also the importance of philosophy for those who carry it outside the academy in making it unnecessary for them to reinvent the wheel. Scientists who propound Theories of Everything without having read the Upanishads or the Pre-Socratics or Schopenhauer or Kuhn, cognitive scientists who propose theories of cognitive organization without having read Kant, jurisprudential rulings on criminal intent that show no understanding of action theory, all make me wince. They also make me sad at how much time and taxpayer money they could have saved with just a bit more attention to philosophy in their undergraduate educations. That list is pretty endless, too.

So although (ii) is true, I just don’t think it will help much if the arguments about which philosophy BAs are to “think clearly, read critically, analyse …, and write clearly” are themselves trite, or uninformed, or uninspired, or unoriginal, or superficial, or otherwise inadequate to the task at hand. Familiarity with the core philosophical issues and their history can help remedy those deficits, too.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

Well, since I’m sceptical that philosophy *has* a core content, I’m obviously going to disagree.

But let me come at it indirectly. You criticise (as one of several examples): “Scientists who propound Theories of Everything without having read the Upanishads or the Pre-Socratics or Schopenhauer or Kuhn”. I’m happy to stipulate that those scientists would indeed have benefitted from all four (I’m only familiar with one myself). But I could write my own list of what philosophy I’d want scientists to read, and while it overlaps with yours (on Kuhn) it’s largely very different. (And we can’t just conjoin our lists, because predominantly these scientists need to study science rather than philosophy: however silly one might look propounding a Theory of Everything without having read the pre-Socratics, one looks a lot sillier having not studied quantum field theory!)

Now, because this is a fairly delineated question, we could probably have an interesting discussion as to what the *best* such list for this particular situation is, and maybe even reach a consensus (though I’m relatively sanguine about the way scientists talk about Theories of Everything, at least when not doing popular science, so perhaps not). But that consensus is going to be very specific to that particular group; it isn’t going to generate a core curriculum for philosophy majors. And going through all the (indefinitely many) various special cases in which philosophy is useful, and conjoining them, is again going to make an unmanageably large syllabus, unless everything is read so quickly and so superficially as to give little time to actually develop philosophical *skills*.Report

PeteJ
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

“…however silly one might look propounding a Theory of Everything without having read the pre-Socratics, one looks a lot sillier having not studied quantum field theory!).”

David – Not so, I feel. The writers of the Upanishads do not seem silly, and yet they present a theory of everything. It would stand independently of quantum field theory, even if the latter would be perfectly consistent with it.

I suppose it would all depend on how we define ‘theory of everything’.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

@Petej: “I suppose it would all depend on how we define ‘theory of everything’.”

Indeed so, but in this context (Adrian was talking about scientists propounding a Theory of Everything) I take it we’re after a *scientific* theory. In which case, reproducing the empirical predictions of QFT is going to be a necessary condition. I seriously doubt anything in the Upanishads can do that.

(But I don’t thereby want to claim that they “seem silly”. My observation was in the present tense: right now, in 2015, trying to advance a (scientific) theory of everything without knowing any QFT is silly. At previous stages of scientific and philosophical understanding, not so much.)Report

PeteJ
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

.

Fair enough. I struggle to see how a theory of everything can be ‘scientific’ when such a theory would necessarily be metaphysical, but then we would have to get into a discussion of the definition of ‘scientific’. Definitions, definitions…Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I would have to take your point on the difficulty of gaining consensus on a list of what scientists should read, and also on the unmanageability of having to generate such a list for each and every special case in which philosophy can be useful outside the field; and yet again on the even more unmanageable task of creating a meta-syllabus by conjoining all of those lists. Granted.

But I think we can avoid that task. My list, which, in a shameless appeal to authority, I shall henceforth refer to as the *enhanced traditional discipline-wide solution*, or ETDWS, does not require that we create from scratch such a meta-syllabus of individualized lists of readings for all scientists under every circumstance. Rather, the ETDWS offers a set of course requirements for *undergraduate philosophy majors in general*, including budding Theorists of Everything, such that each course offers its own syllabus, based on its instructor’s judgment about what specifically, within the ETDWS parameters, it should contain. A benefit of the ETDWS is that the strong history sequence at its core makes it unnecessary for *us* to embark on the laborious process of culling the personalized syllabi you describe, because the history of philosophy itself has already done most (not all) of that work for us (not all of it because, for example, Hildegard von Bingen isn’t usually included in the Medieval syllabus).

The ETDWS is an all-purpose philosophy major that can be conjoined with several different alternatives, depending on the particular interests of the student: Those who want to go on in philosophy supplement it with philosophy electives; whereas those who want to go on in science (or law, or business, or whatever) conjoin it to, for example, the requirements for a physics major, to create a double major (and yes, that’s a lot of work, but it’s doable at five courses per academic semester over four years, and besides it’s fun work). So our budding Theorist of Everything discovers by taking that history sequence what Theories of Everything have already been proposed, criticized, and thought worthy of further discussion or elaboration by previous generations of thinkers; and also learns how to think about the ways in which they, in turn, can be improved upon or replaced.

That is, our budding Theorist of Everything comes to see that her curiosity and drive to join the debate thereby joins her to an ongoing, transhistorical dialogue that extends backward to the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Pre-Socratics, through the Greeks, Romans, Church Fathers, Medieval Jewish and Arabic philosophers, Rationalists, Empiricists, Kant, 19th Century Idealists, early modern and contemporary philosophers of science (of course including Kuhn), and forward into an open-ended future in which she is a participant in that debate. Conjoining that intellectual odyssey with hands-on study of quantum field theory would have to be a fantastic journey for any student … and one in which, while underway, she develops in depth the philosophical skills and methodology we both agree are essential.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

It sounds a great course (albeit a bit demanding if the students are going to have time to critically engage with the texts and look at some secondary literature). But the issue isn’t whether it’s *a* good course; it’s whether it’s *the* good course. Mine would look fairly different (I’ve myself read less than half of what’s on your course).

(On the specific issue of a Theory of Everything, I’m sceptical of really finding continuity; notwithstanding the excesses of some bits of popular science, “Theory of Everything” in physics means something specific: a unified theory that has general relativity and the Standard Model of particle physics as limiting cases. But that’s not germane to the broader discussion.)Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I would encourage the students to critically engage with the texts in class lecture and discussion, and make them research and discuss the secondary literature in their paper assignments.

What would be on your list that (1) would be suitable for philosophy majors *in general* (i.e. assuming they don’t know at the outset what they’ll ultimately want to do with it); and (2) has, like the ETDWS, stood the test of time? I’ll read your list if you read mine!

A Theory of Everything *now* must have general relativity and the Standard Model of particle physics as limiting cases. But the TOE analogue to be found in Kant of course relied rather on Newtonian physics and a basically Scholastic conception of particles. Discovering how we got from there to here would be a consequence of the ETDWS for a philosophy/physics double major.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Well, I’m sceptical of the idea that there ought to be a unique core curriculum (at least for double-majors) so I’m not sure I buy your (1). And I’m cautious about (2) also: most philosophy of contemporary physics hasn’t had a chance to stand the test of time, because the physics it’s engaging with is comparatively new, but I’d still want physics-and-philosophy double-majors to read some of it.

But beyond that, I think translation issues between the US and the UK (and Oxford in particular) make it hard for me to make specific suggestions. Ask me in a couple of years when I’ve got used to the US(C) system.

On Theories of Everything: I think we’re talking past each other. I don’t think what contemporary physics means by a ToE is just some continuation of a long-sought-after goal; I think it’s an absolutely specific technical project defined by particular features of the post-1979 theoretical-physics state of the art. Identifying it as part of some world-historical narrative risks overreading certain popularisations. (If “theory of everything” means “single theory that underlies all our various observations”, then the Standard Model is (arguably) already astonishingly close to a Theory of Everything, but that’s not what physicists have in mind.)Report

GradStudent
GradStudent
5 years ago

I’ve spent far too much time thinking about the courses I would offer if I were asked to design an undergraduate philosophy curriculum, given that I’m just a graduate student. I’m sure there are many considerations I haven’t thought of, but to me this seems reasonable:

Intro courses: FOL and courses that non-majors are/would be interested in (maybe things like applied ethics)

Mid/level courses: overview ethics (normative and meta), overview epistemology, overview metaphysics. Perhaps id rotate offering one each semester. Ancient philosophy, modern philosophy, history of analytic (also offering one per semester). Maybe also offer and rotate political philosophy, Phil of science and Phil of language

Upper-level: more specialized courses depending on what profs are interested in. Feminist philosophy, analytic/synthetic distinction, metalogic, etc.

As for requirements, I’d require FOL, a course (nor necessarily the overview course) in ethics, metaphysics and epistemology, 2 courses in history of philosophy, at least 1 advanced course and the appropiate number of courses required by the university. But, as I said, I’m sure there are many considerations I haven’t considered.Report

RPForsberg
RPForsberg
5 years ago

What does “subfields” mean? To me, ‘fields’ means epistemology, metaphysics, etc… But then there are historical periods that comprise a coherent whole, such as Classical Modern, Modern, etc.. So, given my issue here are my suggestions:

Fields: Logic, Greek Philosophy, Classical Philosophy (Descartes to Kant), and Modern (20th C to present). yes, maybe I am requiring too much, but the Jesuits got to me in my education – more rather than less is good. These are for PhD’s.

Foe majors I would recommend simply the history of philosophy normally done in survey courses as a background to anything they decide to do later. After all, how can one function in the present (philosophically) without knowing the past?

Emergency subfield lacks?? Hmmm…that seems a very subjective question. Analytic philosophers versus continental philosophers would disagree. So, as a teacher, I’d have to say that if you have no one to teach the history of philosophy in general, that’s not good. Say, the overview of how we got from the Pre-Socratics to present, and logic, if you lack these I don’t know where you go from there. The basics of philosophy are its history and methods.Report

PeteJ
5 years ago

–” (If “theory of everything” means “single theory that underlies all our various observations”, then the Standard Model is (arguably) already astonishingly close to a Theory of Everything, but that’s not what physicists have in mind.)”

Off-topic, but I just had to comment and note that the Standard Madel does not explain observations, just what is observed, while any TOE would have to do more. Your point about the dangers of confusing a philosophical TOE with a more restricted scientific ‘Theory of Some Things’ seems a crucial one.Report