A Philosophy Course Based On Consensus, Not Conflict


In introductory college courses in the sciences and social sciences, and even some humanities disciplines like history, the material taught largely consists of basic claims, findings, and ideas that most of those in the discipline agree upon. Could there be such a course in philosophy?

That’s a question that an assistant professor of philosophy has been thinking about recently, as part of a response to the impression students tend to have of philosophy, that it’s “a jumbled collection of people’s opinions, into which they can throw their own two cents, get their B, and move on” (as he put it in a recent email). Here’s what he says:

The issues we discuss in a philosophy class are the most controversial ones. I think this is a double edged sword. Of course, it is “sexy” to do a class on abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, taxation, affirmative action, terrorism, and whatever other hot button issues there are. This is an effective way, I think, of attracting students to those courses. But at the same time, the result of this kind of syllabus is that the only experience students have with philosophy is with its controversies. (I think it might be especially valuable for this reason to teach articles that straddle traditional social divides, like Marquis on abortion, that faults both pro-lifers and -choicers.) A corollary is that students have been steeped in these uncomfortable and often acrimonious public controversies, and many of them have learned that it is polite to stay quiet, or to allow each his own, or that it is impolite to criticize others’ political views. The bumper sticker, “Don’t like abortions? Don’t get one” is an outrageous example of how so many people are confused about what is at stake, conflate personal preference with morality, and are content to settle for polite laissez-faire disagreement.

The outcome is that philosophy is seen as necessarily controverted, rather than a domain of consensus… Can we base a philosophy class around consensus, as we might in STEM classes, where students are receiving the settled truth? Perhaps logic or critical thinking classes resemble that: here just are the methods of logic; everyone agrees that they work; here’s what happen when they fail; memorize them as the settled canon; run some tests; and move on… 

I think it is helpful for students to realize that there is a lot more agreement and objectivity in philosophy, and a lot more controversy and subjectivity in science, than they think. This is perhaps the most obnoxious misconception that I routinely encounter… The problem is that in all of their prior classes in science, students encounter the settled truth of science. However, as students go to graduate school in the sciences, they learn [about the extent to which] science is a mysterious and convenient fiction. Meanwhile, as they progress in their graduate studies in philosophy, they learn that what they thought was mere opinion is as well grounded as much of the sciences. In philosophy, just as in science, there is a settled truth on a lot of matters, but the philosophy classes that are most common are those that present controversies. It is no wonder then that students would come away with disparate conceptions of the value and truth-aptness of science versus philosophy.

I’m curious what others think about the idea of a consensus-based philosophy course. What would be suitable material for such a course? Would it help with some of the misunderstandings of what philosophy is, and with some of the problems that arise from that misunderstanding?

Eva Hesse, “Accession II”

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William
William
4 years ago

What would such a course include? Some basic logic, some work in cognitive science maybe, basic (but not foundational) semantics, the fact that science isn’t all-encompassing to the exclusion of philosophy, certain realist theses, the possibility of a priori knowledge? Not very much of interest I would imagine. You wouldn’t be able to touch the mind-body problem, anything to do with morality or the meaning of life, etc.Report

William
William
Reply to  William
4 years ago

And those are all contested by many people, they just have the best chance of not being contested.Report

Jasmina
Jasmina
4 years ago

“a jumbled collection of people’s opinions, into which they can throw their own two cents, get their B, and move on” – they should study something else. On second thought: they should not study at all (which is exactly what they are doing, judging by this).Report

Thrasymachus
Thrasymachus
4 years ago

This is incredibly naive. There is nothing like a broad consensus in philosophy. At best the class identifies and christens a certain perspective as hegemonic in philosophical circles–great. I’m more likely to be turned off by a stupid collection of opinions than a series of disputes or arguments. The way to deal with that student is not to assert that, actually, they’re right, consensus is good, but that philosophy has it. Instead, you should instill the value of open discussion and argumentation, which the author rightly points out happens in all domains of legitimate inquiry.Report

Justin
Justin
4 years ago

The last paragraph gets at the main tension and might point towards a way forward. Rather than attempt to present some side of philosophy that is more “settled”, perhaps teach a philosophy course that contests the settled truths that are most easily overlooked. If, as you say, science is a “mysterious and convenient fiction” (a claim I’m inclined to agree with) teach the philosophical principles that might reveal scientific claims to be as contested as any philosophical claim. Teach how, rather than hinder our ability to act, this messiness opens up avenues for debate and critical reflection on the role science has or should have, and how philosophy can help us to form arguments and make decisions on how to move forward. This might not be what the author was originally imagining, but I know I would have benefited from this approach in my undergraduate education.Report

Patrick Lin
4 years ago

This is a good question, though I fear you won’t like my answer, which is: when philosophical questions have been “settled”, then they’re simply moved to the bucket we call “science.” For example: thousands of years ago, Democritus thought the world was made of atoms, and there was disagreement among philosophers. But when the means became available to empirically test the philosophical hypothesis, the question was answered, and philosophy becomes science (incl. psychology, medicine, etc.). So, you may be asking to teach a science class or, at best, philosophy of science.

What might be an easier list to compile at the hypotheses that philosophers generally agree are NOT true, though again this has really shifted to the purview of science now, for the most part. This list might include: Aristotelian physics, aether, alchemy, phlogiston, spontaneous generation, homunculus (love that word), tabula rasa theory of mind, four humours, Cartesian animals, Lamarckian evolution (though this is making a tiny and limited comeback now in science) , vitalism, and so on.

Of course, today, philosophers disagree on all sorts of things, such as: do we have free will? can machines think? does God exist? do we live in a simulation? and so on. I maintain that, most/all of these questions can /in principle/ be sufficiently settled, but not with the means we have today. Those means might look something like: some breakthrough in neuroscience, or maybe God reaches a hand down and does humanity a solid by squashing some key public figures, or the sky becomes pixelated and a giant nerd is revealed as simulation-runner. If that happens, then the questions are no longer interesting to philosophers and are kicked out of the club. Even value theory/ethics could be settled in principle, e.g., if God really does exist, showed himself, and explained ethics to us.

By the way, I wouldn’t even say logic is settled, given that we’re still grappling with quantum physics which strongly suggests that a quantum particle can be both x and not-x; this is a felony violation of the “law” of the excluded middle…Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Patrick Lin
4 years ago

Dialetheists rejects the Law of Excluded Middle.Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Good point. Buddhists today reject that logical principle, too. Assuming we mean agreement /today/, I guess the next questions would be: who counts as a philosopher (do Buddhist scholars count?), and when is a question settled enough (assuming we can never achieve total consensus)?Report

Nathan
Nathan
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Dialetheists don’t have to reject LEM, and many don’t. Graham Priest’s influential *In Contradiction* clearly endorses the Law of Excluded Middle. You probably have in mind the Law of Non-Contradiction instead (which they also don’t have to reject, but that’s a longer story).

Of course there *are* people who reject LEM, including the intuitionists (e.g. Brouwer, Heyting, Dummett, Tennant).Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Ryan states, “In philosophy, just as in science, there is a settled truth on a lot of matters”. It would help me a lot to hear some examples. It seems characteristic of philosophy that we don’t “settle” matters.Report

Maja Sidzinska
4 years ago

The trick is in teaching how to judge what to challenge and what to accept. Too often some students take “critical thinking” to mean that *everything* is open to debate. No matter how problematic and value-laden science is, we rely on it and take its finding as (pretty much) final extremely frequently: when we ride the bus, we implicitly accept whatever theory led to the development if its power source; when we take cold medicine we implicitly accept whatever scientific theory led to its development, etc. That doesn’t mean that certain scientific findings shouldn’t be challenged–they absolutely should and must. Again, the trick is judging “[the extent to which] science is a mysterious and convenient fiction.” Emphasis on THE EXTENT TO WHICH. And I would add, “the areas of which.”

At the same time, too often some students seem incapable of critical thinking even when a given idea/article/theory/”fact” begs for it. For instance, when there are good arguments on both sides of a debate, it seems impossible to get some to articulate on what grounds they prefer one set of arguments over another. This problem is not limited to students.

BTW, this: “The bumper sticker, “Don’t like abortions? Don’t get one” is an outrageous example of how so many people are confused about what is at stake, conflate personal preference with morality…” is not so very confused. There are numerous accounts of the way in which “personal preference” is coextensive with “morality” in the particular (!) case of abortion.Report

Daniel W
Daniel W
4 years ago

Speaking from the perspective of a mere matriculated BA, but what might help is fitting the paradigms of philosophy against other disciplines that were shaped by phil or how paradigms of phil were shaped by other disciplines. If we market one of the keys students can do with an education in philosophy is “how to think” (not referring to the normative ‘how’) then showing how thought can be done across the academy would be especially useful for the modern undergrad as a way to apply the many lenses philosophy provides. For example, one might track the role of logical positivism across the disciplines of political science and public administration, or work to identify the Aristotelian or Cartesian underpinnings of religious thought, or perhaps how the study of physics influenced phil’s ideas of the mind/soul. If we take the idea of concensus to mean how the students, practitioners, and masses took to certain ideas in their day, it might lessen the perception of philosophy as a war of ideas and little agreement and take it to a playing field that builds the idea as a fact even if the fact was mere fad.Report

Ethan Mills
Ethan Mills
4 years ago

Something like this can work in history of philosophy courses. While I concentrate on disagreement and generally think that’s helpful for students (i.e., learning how to disagree rationally and respectfully is important), it’s also worth stressing ideas that most people think are obvious today were not always obvious, e.g., the Presocratics on the universe as fundamentally understandable or that mathematics is fundamental to understanding reality (Pythagoreans). More subversively, it’s fun to try to see how the trajectory of thoughts on virtue in Plato and Aristotle could eventually lead to the rejection of things they personally accepted (e.g., slavery). When I teach early modern European philosophy, I stress that many basic values that American students now regard as obviously true concerning individual rights, democracy, etc. only became obvious to European and American intellectuals during this period. Likewise, a course in Chinese philosophy can show how Confucianism continues to influence life in East Asia. A course in Indian philosophy can show how concepts of duty in the Gita and elsewhere continue to influence South Asia though Gandhi and others (or more subversively how the intellectual diversity of India’s past belies the revisionist history of Hindu fundamentalists). All of this may not be “consensus” in the sense that every single person agrees (even less so cross-culturally), but one of the benefits of understanding the history of philosophy is to see that ideas some people think of as obvious today only became obvious through a process of disagreement and argument.Report

Dagny T. Melkorkason
Dagny T. Melkorkason
4 years ago

Clark Glymour, Thinking things through: an introduction to philosophical issues and achievements (The MIT Press, 2015) https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/thinking-things-through-0
does not attempt to cover a wide variety of traditions but it does present what the author argues are some successes. Part of the publisher’s description reads, “It is suitable for use in advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate classes in philosophy, and as an ancillary text for students in computer science and the natural sciences.”

The Table of Contents (not at the URL above) is:
I. The Idea of Proof (p. 1)
1. Proofs (p. 3)
2. Aristotle’s Theory of Demonstration and Proof (p. 33)
3. Ideas, Combinations, and the Mathematics of Thought (p. 63)
4. The Laws of Thought (p. 91)
5. Frege’s New Logical World (p. 111)
6. Modern Logic* (p. 135)
II. Experience, Knowledge, and Belief (p. 157)
7. Skepticism (p. 159)
8. Bayesian Solutions* (p. 183)
9. Kantian Solutions (p. 211)
10. Knowledge and Reliability (p. 239)
11. Decisions and Causes (p. 263)
III. Minds (p. 285)
12. Mind and Meaning (p. 287)
13. The Computable* (p. 311)
14. The Computational Concept of Mind (p. 347)
IV. Ethics (p. 373)
15. Moral Issues, Moral Tools, and Challenges to Ethical Theory (p. 375)
16. Moral and Political Theories (p. 395)
17. Ethics in the Real World (p. 431)
Afterword (p. 437)
Notes (p. 439)
Index (p. 443)Report

Nick
Nick
4 years ago

Perhaps we should look to subtle distinctions for examples of established successes. So, for example, distinctions between: kinds of statements (but not precisely on the border between kinds), entity and activity (but not on which if either is more fundamental), fact and opinion, description and prescription, consistency and coherence, belief and knowledge, moral and prudential, wrong and blameworthy / right and praiseworthy, argument and explanation, truth and validity, intending and foreseeing, belief and desire, for all x some y and there exists such that for all x…. One might design a course around ways in which making these distinctions (or others) helped to clarify confusions, break debate impasses, shape research programs, and so on–social contexts for philosophical concepts, or barber school (hair-splitting) for barbarians.Report

Owen Schaefer
Owen Schaefer
4 years ago

The initial question focused on controversies in applied ethics. But I think there are key areas of applied ethics that have significant consensus. Key aspects of research ethics, in particular, enjoy wide support: the importance of autonomy and choice; circumstances when that choice can be bypassed; the need for independent review; appropriate risk/benefit ratios; etc. One could find individual writers who doubt this or that aspect of the current consensus, but an intro course to research ethics could conceivably not get into such details.

Medical ethics, to a certain extent, also enjoys a good amount of consensus surrounding the professional ethical standards of physicians, nurses, etc. – though that may get further away from a true ‘philosophy’ course into one more appropriate for those professionals.

Finally, there is good amount of consensus on publication ethics, esp. concerning plagiarism, fraud, transparency, etc.

Of course, there are controversies in these topics as well. E.g., within publication ethics, witness the current controversies over retraction of offensive articles. Just as there are controversies in history or biology. But still it would be rather straightforward to develop a course that focused on areas of consensus.

All that having been said, I don’t believe any ethics course should focus *solely* on areas of consensus. Ethics, including applied ethics, should help students think critically. It’s hard to encourage critical thinking on a topic that’s already settled.Report

Griff
Griff
4 years ago

Maybe the point should be less to find philosophical topics/issues that have been “settled” but to take traditional debates and focus more heavily on what various accounts agree upon (and why) as opposed to simply setting them up as opposing viewpoints. It might then also be easier for students to see exactly where these accounts then diverge (and why).Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
4 years ago

I see a lot of truth in the OP’s description of the ‘impression’ that current students often have of philosophy. I actually think there’s an interesting discussion to be had here about disciplinarity, which is coming up against certain pressures in environments where ‘the future of the BA’ is said to be a problem. The recent post about Newcastle University, in Australia, is a case in point.Report

Justin Dale Sands
Justin Dale Sands
4 years ago

I think it could only work if you establish caveats and look at why tradions become traditions.

There is something like consensus which creates traditions such as analytic and continental philosophy. So, for example, you could teach a mid-level undergrad course on “what makes continental philosophy continental?” And go over hermeneutics, phenomenology, psychoanalytic thought, and so forth. But the caveat: you’d have to state that these are themes and not everyone agrees or approaches them the same way; yet that they address these themes makes them part of the tradition.

I suppose it could be critiqued in higher level courses, but it would fulfill the history of philosophy component of a BA philosophy program and the fact that the course can be critiqued gives students avenues for future study.Report

Jeremy
Jeremy
4 years ago

When I teach a ‘historical’ philosophy text, such as Plato’s Meno or Kant’s Groundwork, in my Intro to Philosophy course, I present what I take to be a plausible interpretation of the text that raises interesting questions. I present this interpretation as being incontestable–even though I know that any Plato scholar worth their salt could vigorously challenge my interpretation of Meno’s paradox. In my judgment, interpretive controversies in Plato scholarship are not worth discussing at any length in an Intro course. (Of course, if a student raises an interpretive challenge, we can discuss that after class.) It’s not that I teach this interpretation of Meno’s paradox because I take it to be ‘settled,’ ‘uncontroversial,’ or the ‘consensus view.’ Indeed, I am sure that the interpretation of Plato I give is simplistic. Rather, I simply take it to be good enough for achieving worthy pedagogical goals at the introductory level.

Perhaps, then, the question is not whether there could be a philosophy course that is “based on consensus.” (Indeed, the comparison to intro science courses makes it clear that those courses are not based on consensus either, unless I missed the memo about how physicists have settled on Newtonian mechanics.) The question that OP raises really is: Could there be an Intro to Philosophy course that achieves worthwhile pedagogical goals even though it avoids presenting philosophical controversy? Just as there could be an Intro to Physics course that achieves worthwhile pedagogical goals even though it avoids presenting scientific controversy, I think the answer in the case of Philosophy is ‘yes.’

Spend a week discussing Frege’s Puzzles, with the lesson being that reference does not determine linguistic meaning. (Or, if you’d prefer, spend a week covering arguments for the opposite conclusion.) Spend a few weeks discussing the Problem of Induction and presenting Popperian philosophy of science. It doesn’t give physicists a bad conscience to teach baby Newtonian physics, so why should philosophers let truth stand in the way of pedagogy?

(I do suspect, though, that things get dicey when we apply this pedagogy to ethics classes.)Report

Marcus
Marcus
4 years ago

I have contemplated the idea of teaching an intro to philosophy course as something like ‘A History of Radical Ideas’. I think this may fit with the basic thought of identifying consensus.
My thought was to take matters (generally normative matters) that we now largely agree are settled (the ‘we’ here is really the general public, not necessarily philosophers) – sexual equality, individual rights (that can be narrowed down – i.e., the right of free expression) – and examine the philosophical underpinnings of these ‘truths’, particularly in the context in which those philosophical debates were had. So, that might mean reading something like the Vindication of the Rights of Woman alongside the Vindication of the Rights of Beasts.

The overall point is to help students see the value of philosophy and the way it does make important progress (without thereby saying when it does it becomes ‘science’ in the standard way)

I also thought it’d be interesting to do this and then end with contemporary ‘radical ideas’ – animal rights for instance. The point being that students will have been set up throughout the course to realize that a ‘radical idea’ at the time can end up being obviously correct later and so perhaps we should take current radical ideas more seriouslyReport

Led
Led
4 years ago

I do not think the consensus model would work, but we can combat the impression of free-for-all opinion-fest. First step: help students get rid of pernicious and untenable views about “fact vs. opinion” and “subjective vs. objective.”Report