Teaching Philosophy as the Search for Complication


Most students in philosophy classrooms in the United States are taking their first and only philosophy course. Why is it their only one?

There are lots of reasons, but here I’m just going to address one: students’ impression that philosophy is a waste of time. This is an opinion a few students have shared with me over the years, and one sees it thrown around a fair amount in various popular discussions of philosophy. Philosophy may ask interesting questions, but in most philosophy classrooms, these questions never get decisively settled. So what’s the point of all that philosophy? If all the proposed answers have problems, why bother going through them?

This is not an unreasonable view. In general, questions are for answering. And in most other college courses, questions are satisfactorily answered. But in philosophy courses—especially at the introductory levels—they are not, and it’s hard to see how they could be.

Thinking that philosophy is pointless may deter students from taking additional philosophy courses, or may get them to disengage from their current one.

What should philosophy professors do about this?

One thing I’ve tried over the past couple of years in my lower-level courses is a complete reframing in my account to the students of what we’re doing when we’re doing philosophy. One of the most important things studying philosophy can do, I tell them, is reveal that everything is much more complicated than they’ve been led to believe. This is in part evidenced by the astonishing range of questions we can raise about our beliefs, and by the surprising range of answers to these questions—answers which in turn raise further complications.

Framing philosophy as the search for complication turns aspects of philosophy courses that students tend to see as failures into successes.

For example, in my Contemporary Moral Problems course, which for many students is their first ever philosophy course, one topic I often cover is abortion. We read from authors who disagree with each other not just on the permissibility of abortion but also on what’s important in discussions of abortion. After this unit, students are left with more questions and uncertainty about abortion than before, realizing that certain moves they were led to think settle disputes over abortion really just get the conversation about it started. Philosophy has not shown them which position is correct. That could seem like a failure. But if the point of covering abortion was to show just how complicated an issue it is, then we see how we’ve ended up with a success.

I emphasize at the start of the term and repeatedly throughout it that our job as philosophers is to discover how much more complicated various matters are than what they’ve been told by politicians, the press, their families, their religious authorities. Lessons on various topics and arguments are organized to highlight the variety and difficulty of questions they raise. By downplaying the importance of coming to conclusive answers, not coming to them during the course is not seen as a disappointment.

What we do in philosophy courses at this level is like mapping a territory; it isn’t a problem when the map is more complicated than you thought it was going to be. And now you have a more accurate map to what we’re interested in exploring.

Does this work? I admit I don’t have concrete evidence that it does. I do seem to have had fewer instances of students complaining about the point of philosophy. And there seems to be broader and more consistent participation in class, perhaps owing to the class being more about questions and complications than on coming to have some position or another. As a teacher, I feel like I’m doing a better job: the course is unified around a defensible thesis, evidence for which accrues with each topic, that is valuable for the students to understand.

The idea of philosophy complicating matters is one that will be familiar to any philosopher, but I hadn’t seen it suggested as the organizing theme of a course, and thought I’d share my thoughts about and experience with it. Discussion welcome.

Victor Vasarely, “Tridim”


related: “The Intellectual Achievement of Creating Questions

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Matt K
Matt K
2 years ago

I agree. I frame my introductory classes as the introduction of puzzles or complications, not because we don’t think there are answer (we do), but to show that those answers are not going to be simple. The search for a complex answer to a complex question is not likely to be short, I tell them, so our first steps are to better understand the nature of the question and map out some approaches to answering it.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

I’m with you. I tell me intro students that a good philosophy class should leave you more confused about a subject than you were before you took it. I tell them that there is good confusion (gained from an understanding about why questions are much more complicated than we assume) and bad confusion (not understanding the arguments) and that if, at the end of the term, they tell me that they are more (good) confused than ever then I will feel as if I have done my job well. Report

Dustin Locke
Dustin Locke
2 years ago

I like this. But I think my main worry is that it will encourage students to allow their thinking and writing to be NEEDLESSLY complicated.

So much of what I try to do in a philosophy course is to encourage students to get to the heart(s) of things, to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’d fear that they’d misunderstand this as advice to the contrary.Report

Alan White
Alan White
2 years ago

Justin thanks so much for this.

WARNING: just one 101 idiosyncratic course precis follows that might be regarded as navel-gazing–YMMV and it may not be worth your while to read this.

I’ve argued–and published here and there–for decades that Intro is the most important course in the philosophy curriculum, and mainly for the reason you cite–it is the only course in philosophy that most students ever take. So it’s important to direct the course of study to best benefit our students.
My solution–the single-issue intro to philosophy–has always striven to accomplish that goal. It does so by showing how philosophy works, and invites students to philosophize and sharpen thinking skills by guiding them through a complicated issue that actually impacts their own lives.
My issue was free will. I started with a real case–John Hinckley’s not guilty by reason of insanity finding, and its practical results. Mind you I started this in the 80s, when JH was in a mental hospital but subject to release when found no longer a danger. It was convenient that his case lasted my whole career, only ending recently with his conditional release. (Remember we are talking about an attempted Presidential assassination.) But it made the point: someone absent controlled free will could not be held accountable for his actions. I contrasted that with Jeffrey Dahmer, who barely missed his own exoneration by a majority split jury vote on his free will ability to conform his behavior to the law. The cases are inherently interesting, but show that judgments about free will are not inconsequential.
That raises questions about why extreme forms of mental illness should constitute grounds for exoneration, and I used that to inquire about determinism and free will, taking a disease-causal model to introduce incompatibilism. In that inquiry I introduced spacetime diagrams to show that determinism might “lock in” local decisional futures for minds, but laying out technical. grounds for why such diagrams were empirically well-founded, distinguishing (e.g.) empirical from logical possibility as things to consider.
This all then led to the dilemma of determinism, and serious questions about how the law of excluded middle may lead to clarification and limitation of the logical possibilities for how causality and free will might work out.
Then the various free positions–including skepticism–were meticulously studied and applied to real-life situations, both in criminal justice and in personal life.
Do we find a real answer in all this? Of course not. But we find logical possibilities–and more importantly how one can determine for oneself the limits of such–and how those possibilities would play out in real life.
In other words–it’s complicated. That’s what I wanted my students to learn, and most importantly, that they can reason their way through it all. And maybe they can do the same for other complicated stuff.Report

PhilosopherGuy
Reply to  Alan White
2 years ago

Thank you for this. I’ve had it stuck in my mind for quite a while that this is how I might like to try teaching an intro course some time, but I had always deferred to the introductory breadth structure. This has inspired me to give it a shot. This seems to be potentially especially fruitful for courses labeled just as “Introduction to Philosophy” with no further specification.Report

V. Alan White
V. Alan White
Reply to  PhilosopherGuy
2 years ago

Philosopherguy (and anyone else) feel free to contact me about anything where I might help. You may find me through the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, Manitowoc Campus site. (It was formerly UW–Manitowoc.)Report

Chris
Chris
2 years ago

Thank for sharing this strategy, Justin!

I teach an ethical theory course for non-majors and have used a somewhat different heuristic. Instead of always stressing the differences, to create a kind of battle royale between the major theories, I try to also focus on the similarities and on what might be the elements of truth found in each theory.

The idea, then, is that we can maybe piece together ethical truth by finding things of value from the different viewpoints on offer, and so get to some truth and answers during the course. Different students will piece together their own preferred views somewhat differently, and these views are of course subject to critique and need to be defended. Yet, I have overall found that focusing on the positive works well for me.

On a practical level, this means somewhat less emphasis on the crazy counterexamples that cause trouble for different theories, and more emphasis on situations where each theory could be fruitfully applied to real-life issues.Report

Marcus
Marcus
Reply to  Chris
2 years ago

I did something similar when I taught an intro to ethics course. Although we discussed the ‘major ethical theories’ I framed them as providing different sorts of moral considerations. So rather than seeking the ‘correct theory’ we were working to become more sensitive to the moral landscape. And, to that end, we could have success in the class.Report

Martin Lenz
2 years ago

Many thanks for this! I tend to ‘sell’ complications as a *refinement* of the conceptual landscape or map. Your approach strikes me as a really great strategy, and it seems to have the added benefit of showing that disagreement (rather than attempts at rushed agreement or action) can be fruitful rather than painful, especially if students realize that, as you put it, “certain moves they were led to think settle disputes over abortion really just get the conversation about it started”.
Report

Louis
Louis
2 years ago

The OP suggests that in most college courses other than philosophy, questions are answered. But is that true of the humanities? I would have thought that a good undergrad history or literature course, while it may have a theme or through-line, will often focus on clashing interpretations, in the process raising questions that it declines to answer by refusing to tell students which interpretation is “the best.”Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
2 years ago

“Thinking that philosophy is pointless may deter students from taking additional philosophy courses, or may get them to disengage from their current one.”

There seems to be a presupposition that young adults should take more philosophy courses. Given the capitalist, market driven economy in which we work and the high price of tuition, young adults needs to get prepared for real careers. Philosophy is a luxury for the wealthy and not practical for most people. It should be kept as a small major for people planning on going to law school or running their dad’s company when he retires. It’s good to have some exposure to philosophy, but we don’t need to have more philosophy majors probably. Having said this, philosophy is the best of the humanities. So, maybe one could argue that all the English majors should really be doing philosophy, but honestly at the current tuition prices the humanities as a whole is just so over priced for the return that it’s hard to recommend a BA to anyone. Go for the BS. Report

Ian
Ian
Reply to  Postdoc
2 years ago

BS indeed.Report

Jerry dworkin
Jerry dworkin
2 years ago

Story about Harry Wolfson the great Harvard scholar of Jewish Philosophy. At the end of his course one of his students came up to him to complain about the course. “Professor Wolfson, at the end of this course I only knew a few things more than I knew before I took the course.” Wolfson replied, ” Then my course was a failure. My intent was that you should know a few less things.”Report

Chris Stephens
Chris Stephens
Reply to  Jerry dworkin
2 years ago

At the beginning of his introduction to philosophy textbook, Thinking Things Through, Clark Glymour tells the story about Morris Raphael Cohen: at the end of his introductory philosophy course, a student approaches Cohen and says “You have destroyed everything I believed in, but you have given me nothing to replace it.” Cohen supposedly replied “Sir, you will recall that one of the labors of Hercules was to clean the Augean stables. You will further recall that he was not required to refill them.”

And then Glymour goes on to say “I’m with the student.” His textbook is supposed to be geared around _results_ – what has philosophy actually discovered? It won’t surprise you to hear that his intro text has more formalism than most.Report

Paul Taborsky
Reply to  Chris Stephens
2 years ago

There is a story told by the twentieth century Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan about a course in the history of Chinese philosophy that he took in his first years as a student; it goes something like this (I’m paraphrasing and quoting from memory, as I don’t have the book from which this is taken to hand).

Feng recalls that the course was a full year course, meant to cover the history of Chinese philosophy in its entirety, from the earliest beginings to the end of the nineteenth century; yet by the new year break, they hadn’t even reached Confucius. At this point, Feng approached his professor and asked him how long it would actually take to finish the course. His professor replied, “In philosophy there is no such thing as finishing or not finishing. If you like, I could end this course with a single word. On the other hand, equally if you like, we could go on without end”.

Feng decided not to take another course with this professor!Report

Phillip Barron
2 years ago

My undergraduate advisor, the late Gary Matthews, called this perplexity. In one of his last books, he makes the case that developing your ability to be perplexed by a problem is not only rooted in history, but it is a continuing tradition and one of the most important things we do as philosophers. Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy – https://philpapers.org/rec/MATSPA-5 Gary’s teachings made a strong impression on me, and to this day, I see it as one of my responsibilities in the classroom to introduce students to the strategy and intellectual pleasure of being able to find what you call complications below the surface of a problem. My students generally appreciate this, and like you, I make the goal of finding perplexity explicit at the beginning of the semester.Report

Eric Steinhart
2 years ago

I like your idea for defending the value of philosophy. Most instructors aren’t you. I find time and again that instructors present philosophy as very dead stuff — we’re reading the Republic! Instructors who engage with the philosophical aspects of contemporary life get students to take more courses. As was mentioned here recently, there are ample ways to make philosophy relevant: Philosophy and Black Mirror (I show at least one BM episode in every class, often many). Philosophy and Rick & Morty. My metaphysics course makes extensive use of video games. Or philosophy of technology that engages with their real fears about automation and jobs. Or – the list is endless. But time after time, I see instructors walking to class with a big, heavy, thick book filled with dead people.Report

Tom Beakbane
9 months ago

Your personal philosophy sums up the perspectives I explain in this book: How to Understand Everything. The title is pompous but my message is that once one understands the oddities of the mind’s biology it becomes evident that our confidence in reason/ logic/ science is overblown. If any of your followers want a free digital copy they are welcome to contact me through this website. https://howtounderstandeverything.beakbane.com/ Report