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


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

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


[Corinne Wasmuht, “Bibliotheque CDG/BSL”]

Are Philosophical Classics Too Difficult for Students?
by Martin Lenz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accordingly, she argues for prioritising the original texts.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Heath White
Heath White
7 months ago

I think you have to distinguish between two sources of difficulty. (1) The ideas are hard. Philosophy is deep stuff. (2) The writing is hard to read. The vocabulary is unusual. The sentences are too long and contain too many subordinate clauses.

A lot of philosophy suffers from both problems, but the solutions or coping mechanisms are different. If you really think your students can’t handle the first problem, then give them smaller pieces, or simplified presentations of the material perhaps in secondary sources. If you would like to give them full exposure to a philosopher’s ideas but the language is getting in the way, I strongly recommend Bennett’s paraphrases at earlymoderntexts.com.

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Martin Lenz
Reply to  Heath White
7 months ago

Thanks! That’s a good distinction. Ideally, students learn to work out for themselves which of those problems it is. This is why I hope to get students to develop *genuine* questions about the text. But this can’t be done if I try to anticipate their questions, and answer them before they are raised.Report

JV Gallagher
JV Gallagher
7 months ago

As an autodidact in Philosophy I have a nuanced view. However, here I just note that great thinkers of the past sometimes encounter other thinkers through secondary texts/interpretations, and sometimes that is sufficient. For example (afaik) Nietzsche’s knowledge of Spinoza was secondary for lack of access. And there is the example of Kojève who famously influenced an understanding of Hegel for a generation.

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PKF Davies
PKF Davies
7 months ago

After one year of undergraduate philosophy I took the first Critique on holiday to an island off the west coast of Ireland. I got through the first 150 pages sentence by sentence and then realised that I had no idea what was going on. After reading an introduction (I can’t remember which) I had at least an idea of the context and broad thrust of the work which enabled me to read the original and appraise it critically (I now have a PhD and have published on Kant-related topics). So my experience, since repeated with Hegel and Heidegger, is that an initial orientation can be really helpful.Report

Martin Lenz
Reply to  PKF Davies
7 months ago

Thanks – what an intriguing way into the CPR! I agree that such an initial orientation can be helpful. But I also wonder whether it wasn’t more helful for the fact that you actually tried hard and went through some confusion first. Report

PKF Davies
PKF Davies
Reply to  Martin Lenz
7 months ago

That could be true – though it didn’t feel like it at the time – and now it’s too late to tell. One size doesn’t fit all I suppose. Thanks for the postReport

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
7 months ago

Is it so outlandish to suggest that maybe Kant in particular is not accessible for people new to philosophy?

I currently teach two intro sections and our semester is centered around Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Is it still complex for students new to philosophy? Sure. But it isn’t totally inaccessible or incomprehensible to new students, and they tend to find the content interesting in my experience. They care about different virtues, what it is to be virtuous, and the possibility of living well and attaining happiness.

But just because this particular work of Aristotle is both challenging and accessible doesn’t mean that we should pick any original text from any author. Kant is utterly inaccessible and incomprehensible to someone who has never read philosophy before (shit, I still find him utterly inaccessible and incomprehensible), and I think making new students read his work is a great way to reaffirm negative generalizations about philosophers using indecipherable language to talk about seemingly nothing (seemingly nothing because it isn’t at all clear to a new philosophy reader what is being said or argued). Making people new to philosophy read Kant honestly just seems to me to be a bit sadistic.

I chose Nicomachean Ethics because it’s an accessible, original text of a great philosopher and its content is pertinent to life itself, especially the lives of young adults trying to find their way in the world. When picking a text for a course, the biggest consideration I have is that I want students to be able to get something out of it, and something that is relevant to their lives that they can take with them.Report

Martin Lenz
Reply to  Henri Perron
7 months ago

You’re certainly right that there are very different primary texts in that their accessibility differes greatly. My point is not to pick hard ones primarily or denying guidance. My point is merely to wait with guidance until students ask for it. Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
Reply to  Martin Lenz
7 months ago

I think waiting until students ask for guidance can be a bit precarious. I’ve found a lot of times, students are reluctant to ask. Perhaps out of embarrassment or shyness of some sort, it seems some would rather be totally confused in silence. (Especially if it’s the first week of class and they can still drop without penalty.)

I do agree with the general sentiment of what you say, though, to be sure. I like to prod a little bit, though, to see if I can elicit questions surround clarification or confusion. Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Henri Perron
7 months ago

For what it’s worth I give my students both the Groundwork (albeit the somewhat simplified Early Modern Texts version) and the Nicomachean Ethics and I’ve had at least as many complaints about the latter as the former if not more, though most students get something out of both. I honestly find this a weird example as the NE is a very hard text. Even when the writing isn’t incomprehensible Aristotle’s assumptions are often far different from ours, so even when it seems easy it’s often not. The NE’s also radically compressed so one has to do a lot of filling in the blanks for students to really get it. For all those reasons, I find students tend to make more mistakes with Aristotle than with say Mill or Kant since it’s easier to think one understands him when one doesn’t or to get the subtle but important points wrong. And of course some bits like the whole discussion of justice (which I don’t assign) are as incomprehensible as anything Kant ever wrote if not more so.Report

Nathaniel Goldberg
Nathaniel Goldberg
7 months ago

There are many reasons not to teach Kant, or at least the First Critique, to undergrads. I think about them every two years when I’m scheduled to teach it. (So far, I always have. But I may stop.) That Kant is a “terrible writer” isn’t one of them. From CPR:

We have now not only traveled through the land of pure understanding, and carefully inspected each part of it, but we have also surveyed it, and determined the place for each thing in it. This land, however, is an island, and enclosed in unalterable boundaries by nature itself. It is the land of truth (a charming name), surrounded by a broad and stormy ocean, the true seat of illusion, where many a fog bank and rapidly melting iceberg pretend to be new lands and, ceaselessly deceiving with empty hopes the voyager looking around for new discoveries, entwine him in adventures from which he can never escape and yet also never bring to an end. (A235–36/B294–95)
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Thomas
Thomas
Reply to  Nathaniel Goldberg
7 months ago

Is this supposed to be an example of non-terrible philosophy writing? To my mind, it sounds like Robinson Crusoe after he’s banged his head. For starters, I’ve read it three times and still don’t know much what is being said. For seconds, whatever it is supposed to convey, I wager could be conveyed in far fewer words and far more clearly.
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Will Anderson
Will Anderson
Reply to  Thomas
7 months ago

It reminds me of my first experience reading Deleuze & Guattari’s What is Philosophy in that I almost had to read the text like poetry. Report

Martin Lenz
Reply to  Nathaniel Goldberg
7 months ago

What a beautiful passage!Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Nathaniel Goldberg
7 months ago

Well done. You picked one of the only (if not the only) passages from the first Critique that is somewhat accessible. Sure, give intro students that. It won’t tell them anything about Kant’s ideas, but at least it won’t completely scare them off right away. In my first semester of graduate school, I took a seminar on the First Critique, taught by a brilliant teacher and Kant scholar (Jose Benardette). It was the toughest class I have ever taken, but, with huge amounts of hard work, I got quite a lot out of it. If I had tried to read the First Critique in my first term as an undergraduate, I would have got nothing at all out of it. Many primary texts, especially the Bennett versions, are suitable for undergraduate classes. The First Critique is definitely not. Assigning more than a few sentences of that in an introductory level undergraduate class is futile at best, and more likely sadistic pedagogical abuse. My opinion on this has nothing to do with any animosity to Kant’s ideas. I have a huge disdain for Kantian ethics, to which those who know me will attest, but that disdain doesn’t extend to other areas of Kant’s thoughts. I think the First Critique is brilliant. But Kant’s writing is truly abominable. He is undoubtedly the worst major writer in the analytic tradition (and its precursors). And for that, he gets some pretty stiff competition from the likes of McDowell (whom I would never assign in an intro-level class either).Report

TooAHistorianOfPhilosophy
TooAHistorianOfPhilosophy
7 months ago

I usually appreciate your postings very much, Martin Lenz. But I have to admit, I find your analogy flawed.
1. We want students to learn doing philosophy, also in the history of philosophy (I am a historian of philosophy too). The appropriate analogy would be learning an instrument. Nobody starts learning an instrument by playing Bach (whatever instrument it is). Starting with Kant himself in a first year course, might thus not be the best pedagogical approach. A graduate course might be different. In teaching history of philosophy to undergraduates, I see my role in guiding them to a fruitful dialogue with the authors I assign. This is often a step-by-step approach.
2. No text in the history of philosophy stands for itself. They are all embedded in a specific historical context. I thus believe that history of philosophy courses should start with a proper historical contextualization of the respective work/author/doctrine/issue. Learning about the broader context makes the philosophical concerns of Kant and co (or their theories) more accessible for students and also communicates a more accurate picture of the history of philosophy. The fixation on selected works (Kant’s epistemology not racial theory I suppose…) of single authors (mostly white European males) passes on the narrow conceptualization of the philosophical canon that excludes so many voices that were heard in the historical context, but not afterwards. Moreover, I have the experience that historical contextualization actually helps students to relate to the texts and to think about philosophical connections to today. Simply giving them the primary sources suggests that Kant should talk to them no matter what. It is like giving them an intellectual monument, not the living body (I admit there are limits though)…Report

Martin Lenz
Reply to  TooAHistorianOfPhilosophy
7 months ago

Thanks for your kind words and for engaging with the analogy, which I consider indeed central to my point.

Ad 1: Standards might differ, but if you want to *study* music or even musicology, you already have t have some command of your instrument(s). So I thought of someone who can play the guitar fairly well and now might be interested to take a course on Bach’s organ works. – (But even if we take the analogy your way: An aspiring learner might be highly motivated by listening to Bach. They might be much less motivated by listening to a reduced three-chord version of one of Bach’s pieces.)

Ad 2: Is the second issue also about the analogy? If yes, I’d say that music ought to be contextualised, too. But if the point is more about the fact that contextualisation helps, I’d repeat that this is true. My point would be merely this: There are indefinitely many contexts that one could refer to. If students have genuine questions, it’s easier to determine which form of contextualisation would help them. Report

Eric Steinhart
7 months ago

One serious problem here is a selection effect: most people on this site, and most people who teach philosophy, are really good at philosophy. That fact makes us very bad judges about the readability of philosophical texts. We should be asking the non-philosophers who need to learn philosophy.Report

Jonathan Olson
7 months ago

The analogy to Bach would be better if we could let Kant wash over us for an hour or two, as you can with Bach, and then start digging in. With music, we can capture everything at once, even if we don’t fully comprehend everything that is going on in the score. I don’t think there is any way to do that with philosophy, except by brief descriptions ahead of time. The analogy breaks down further at that point, because the brief descriptions will not capture the whole of the work. It would have helped me, though.Report

Martin Lenz
Reply to  Jonathan Olson
7 months ago

Thanks! The point about “washing over” really got me thinking. Now just two questions:
1) Is it true that we can’t let written works let wash over us in a relevant way. Compare you might find, say, Kant’s CPR really enticing. But rather than looking at the arguments, you might just be taken, thinking: ‘it’s so revealing, I’ll come back for the details later’. Would that qualify?
2) I grant that music can wash over us. But isn’t this “capturing everything at once” greatly determined by the musical background and education we have? Again, I might be completely taken by a highly complex piece on odd metres (say 9/8), but be unable to even recognise that it is in odd metres or count which metre it is in. Report

Dale E Miller
7 months ago

There seems to be a lot of missing nuance here. Students at what level? Students with what preexisting base of skills? Students with what level of motivation? At least in the U.S., the bulk of philosophy courses are required general education courses. So far as we’re thinking about them, the musical example goes a bit awry right from the start, with “Imagine you want to study music…” Suppose we change that to “Imagine that you’re being required to study music, in which you have no interest at all…” Of course, hopefully by the end of the term a decent portion of students have developed some interest. But the question of how best to introduce philosophical concepts to students with no preexisting interest or motivation and hence little willingness to struggle with challenging texts is different from that of how best to introduce those same concepts to more motivated students, especially if those students weren’t well prepared for challenging reading by their secondary education. I think that if someone is using primary sources in their lower-level courses with great success that’s wonderful. But let’s not make people who find that they get better results with a different approach feel guilty about it.
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Patternminds
7 months ago

Students should read an introductory text designed for their reading level.

This will give them an idea of what is going on even if they don’t have any great love for philosophy. If they do have it, then passionate and/or capable students can be sent off to look at originals or the kind of material which has formed the debate for the last 50 years or so ago.

I mostly read secondary literature in order to guide my understanding of the undergraduate texts. I read almost entirely secondary literature before I went to university.

There are some great works of literature in philosophy, but they almost require their own little stage and costumes: who was this person? who were they talking to? what was going on around them? These sort of questions are interesting and can enlighten the work, but it is a lot to ask when students may be coming into the class not knowing Plato from Pluto. Report

Cynthia Freeland
Cynthia Freeland
7 months ago

I hope you won’t mind if I copy here what I posted on a Facebook page on Greek and Roman philosophy following up on this very interesting post. I agreed it appears with TooAHistoriabn above.

I haven’t read the whole thread but just the stuff in Daily Nous. I do strongly feel in teaching ancient that original texts (in translation) are important. Plato is often pretty accessible but even things like the Euthyphro can be pretty challenging. I wouldn’t lead off with Timaeus or Parmenides but I did lead up to them. With Aristotle too I would choose original texts but very short selections we could go over in detail. Some Stoic readings are very very accessible and of course some not.
Continuing. What I found missing in retrospect in my ancient philosophy classes was zero attention to historical context. I had fantastic teachers but perhaps because they were much better-educated than I, they assumed we knew the whole context of Greek history, the Peloponnesian War, etc. it was only when I was lucky enough to have Jerry Schneewind for a course on early modern ethics that I realized how much of a difference an overview of the contemporary political context made to understanding the views of people like Hobbes and Spinoza. Now, maybe you don’t need a lot of historical context to understand someone like Kant, but surely some would be helpful. Writers like him, Aquinas, and Hegel aren’t just hard because they’re abstruse or bad writers, but because many of us, plus our students, know very little about their worlds.Report

Dan Bonevac
7 months ago

I agree with Cynthia—”original texts but very short selections”—because I find that, in general, students’ main trouble is grasping the structure of the ideas. They can read the text (well, maybe not Kant, but most of them), but they can’t identify the main ideas. Judicious editing helps a lot. I’ve taken to adding section headings and italicizing some crucial passages so they know where to focus their attention.Report

Joel David Hamkins
7 months ago

One of the principal cultural differences between mathematics and philosophy concerns this question and the use of primary sources. The fact is that in mathematics, researchers rarely use or consult the primary classical sources at all. Geometers are not generally reading Euclid; algebraists are not reading Galois; real analysts are not reading Newton and Leibniz. Rather, they are reading later writers who wrote on the same topics.

The point I would like to make is that they do so not because the classic texts are too difficult, or because the later texts are simplified treatments that are easier-to-digest, watered-down versions of the full classic-strength ideas. Rather, they do so because the later texts are simply better accounts of those ideas. Later writers often explain the same ideas better; they build more connections with other ideas; they present more uniform or more encompassing treatments; they are less concerned with irrelevant distractions from the earlier era; they provide more context. These improved accounts advance the subject. Often, the updated accounts correct what amount to errors in the classic texts. For example, consider Turing’s 1936 classic, “On computable numbers,” which begins with what is today considered to be a tempting but ultimately mistaken definition of computable numbers (see http://jdh.hamkins.org/alan-turing-on-computable-numbers/). The contemporary accounts of computable numbers get it right.

Because of my experience in mathematics, therefore, I would find a problem with the framing of the question, “Are Philosophical classics too difficult?” if this is meant to suggest that the classic texts would otherwise always be the best source for treatment of the ideas they treat. This is often true, to be sure, but it is not uniformly true, particularly in the more technical parts of philosophy and logic in which I work, where later writers often have far superior accounts.

My attitude is: use the best texts for the ideas you want to teach, whether these are classical or contemporary.Report

Whitney Sha
Whitney Sha
7 months ago

I think a lot also depends on the quality of the introduction/primer being used. Of course, all of us have come across introductions that misinterpret the source material, are laughably reductive, etc. But a lot of introductions actually cite large chunks of the source material while offering commentaries on them, which makes them function more like annotated copies than inferior, watered-down versions of the original. I’ve read a few titles in the “Very Short Introductions” series, and I consider them to do an excellent job in this arena. The best thing to then do, from the POV of scholarly responsibility, would be to go back to the primary source and read the cited sections in their full context so you get a fuller and more nuanced view of the topic. But I don’t think there’s anything objectionable about using introductory volumes as a starting point, and doing so may actually be preferable to jumping straight into the source material since the commentary can often provide background information about the philosophical issue at hand.Report

omi
omi
7 months ago

Reading difficult texts, both in their content and in their style (and if they’re form a different culture or time, they will be difficult at least in style), just is one of the primary, if not the primary way, of doing philosophy. Other than thinking and arguing about (or with) the texts, that’s pretty much what philosophy is, and you just can’t get around that (and what’s the fun of it anyway- if a philosophical text doesn’t confuse you, it probably isn’t making any deep point).

Thus, you should let your students grapple with the primary text as soon and as much as possible, and “as much as possible” includes choosing and censoring the material to the level of the student, but always with a view to challenging them and strengthening their philosophical muscles, as it were.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
7 months ago

Giving Kant to undergraduate students is cruel and unusual punishment.Report

Francis
Francis
7 months ago

Imo its all comes down to the vocabulary.
Notice how good professors are able to make the philosopher sound so simple but when you read the text you cant seem to understand. When students go into philosophy the difficulty always arises with the language. The language of philosophy must first be taught before introducing someone to a philosopher like meeting a new culture as is in the natural sciences.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
7 months ago

This is an interesting debate and I really appreciate Lenz’s post for setting it off. But I find that a lot of the discussion here commits the mistake that I find common to a lot of philosophers and I suppose academics in general, which is to assume that our undergraduates are graduate students in training. They’re not and the vast majority of them never will be grad students. So as much as “How can we get them to understand philosophical ideas?” we should also ask “What can we teach them in this course that will be useful to them if they never take another philosophy class again?” And I actually think that this latter question gives us a very good argument for teaching texts that are hard. One of the things we surely want students to get better at in college is understanding difficult and unfamiliar material; that sort of skill will serve them well in any job they have and its vital for life in general. They won’t do that if readings never challenge them. I teach at a community college and one of the problems I have with textbooks aimed at community college classes by publishers like Pearson and Cengage is that they tend to be written at a late elementary school or middle school level. Not only is that insulting to the intelligence of my students and a nasty bit of implicit classism it also cheats them out of what they should get in a college class. You simply don’t learn by never being challenged. Now there are limits. Things can’t be so hard students simply give up, and we have to take account of the differences in students levels of preparation (something that’s challenging for some might be simply beyond most). But a class that doesn’t have any bits that are occasionally “too hard” for students is probably just wasting their time. Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Sam Duncan
7 months ago

Sam,

I agree completely. I begin almost all of my philosophy classes with Plato’s Apology and emphasize Socrates’s lesson: human wisdom means recognizing how little we know about the most important things, and the examined life means trying to answer those important questions anyway. I tell students if they aren’t sometimes confused they aren’t paying attention, and I try – (how successful are we ever?) – to give students the tools they need to respond constructively to those points of confusion. Understanding what you can while recognizing that you don’t (yet?) understand it all is an important intellectual skill and it is one at the heart of good philosophical practice.

Of course, as Martin Lenz so aptly puts it below, that doesn’t mean everyone has to teach classical primary texts – and it certainly doesn’t mean that everyone has to teach Kant. But if we choose to teach something else, it should be because we’ve found something else to challenge students with.Report

Prof L
Prof L
7 months ago

My first year students read Kant and love it.
Sure, don’t start students off with the transcendental deduction, or the first Critique generally. I wouldn’t read the Prolegomena. But Kant has some great essays which are perfect for a short unit in an undergraduate course. Some examples:
An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?
Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim
Toward Perpetual Peace
There are others. These are perhaps more political/anthropological in orientation than other works. But they are not difficult to read or understand, as long as there is someone to help guide the students along. They are fun and timely, too.

I suspect (forgive me if I’m wrong) that when people say Kant is difficult for undergraduates to read, they just mean that Kant is difficult for them to read, and they aren’t going to teach him well. That’s not a criticism, necessarily: I would never assign Heidegger to first year students for that very reason—I’m bad at reading it, and so would be an incompetent teacher of it. But there are surely some professors out there with more facility with Heidegger, who would assign a bit of text, really open it up for the students, and the students would get a lot out of it. Don’t blame Kant, though. He’s not less comprehensible than an average contemporary philosopher for the undergrad. But he’s less comprehensible than the average contemporary philosopher for the average contemporary philosopher. I suspect that’s what’s going on here.
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Not harmed by Kant
Not harmed by Kant
7 months ago

At the large, decidedly non-elite Catholic institution I attended as an undergrad, reading selections of the First Critique as part of the extensive required history sequence was standard for majors. We all struggled and beat our heads against it and despairingly asked Kant what the hell he meant. I don’t know anyone from that program who would have wished we were reading regurgitations of Kant instead.

Big, classic books are difficult and demand a lot, and a good teacher can make muddling through them the experience of a lifetime. I’m glad I got to spend some formative years going toe-to-toe with the best humanity has had to offer. That my profs asked me to do that strikes me as nowhere in the vicinity of pedagogical malpractice. By the way, I remember reviewing once, as a student worker, major enrollment data at our own and other institutions. Who knows if it’s true anymore, but at the time, our philosophy department had far more majors than most of its counterparts, especially places that emphasize contemporary analytic philosophy. Make of that what you will. Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
7 months ago

Read Korsgaard for ethics and Ripstein for philosophy of law instead of Kant himself. Still challenging, not a middle school-level exegesis, and not needlessly anachronistic or dense. Put Kant’s original readings in ‘suggested readings ‘ and offer to discuss them in office hours if you want to leave the door open for future professors. I do not see a good argument for *requiring* *all* philosophy students in a course to spend their scarce time trudging through needlessly esoteric argumentation (especially at institutions that almost never produce future academics in the area). Report

Martin Lenz
7 months ago

Thanks for all your contributions! I’d just like to quote Maureen Eckert, who responded with the following comment on FB:

“Maybe I’m just so old and jaded that I find that this sort of complicated pedagogical question works itself out over years for people dedicated to their teaching, on individual bases.

I see my colleagues teach the ever-loving-hell out of the whole gamut of materials. I have been moved to tears at the profundity of a colleague playing YouTube videos. I have been astonished at the depth of interest a colleague inspires through close reading. I have, myself, performed an interpretive dance to explain the Apeiron of Anaximander.

It’s not the texts, classic or other, it’s us.”Report

LMB
LMB
7 months ago

One thing that I think we often don’t notice (because we are, as a group, people who are in the habit of reading closely and carefully) is that many or most of our students have been trained to read badly. I DO NOT mean that their teachers have taught them badly, I mean they have gone through their education largely using textbooks that are carefully designed to maximize info uptake with minimal effort on the part of the reader, which is also one reason why even very good students — perhaps *especially* the very good ones — don’t bother actually doing the reading very closely in those textbooks. They don’t have to, because textbooks are often designed so that the reader simply doesn’t *have* to read closely. They have signposts and summaries and guidance galore, which means that a smart skimmer can pick over the text backward from a chapter summary at the end to find the important stuff to put in their notes, and never has to do the hard work of making judgments about which content is important or relevant, or how different pieces of the presentation are related to each other (all practices of judgment that are indispensable to reading Kant or Aristotle or Mill or [fill in philosopher here] well).

When a reader habituated to texts with simple and obvious signposts encounters something quite different, they’ve got a bit of a challenge ahead — they need to do the work, as readers, that the text itself used to do for them. One reason I used to assign Aristotle and Plato and Mill and Kant and the like was NOT with the intention that students at the introductory level should come out of the reading with a clear understanding of the text (which is hard even for experts). Rather, I assigned that material with the goal of getting them to grapple with the text, to practice the work of trying to figure it out. At the intro level, I don’t need them to be comfortable with Kant. I need them to get comfortable with the work of trying to figure Kant out. THAT skill-set is what I want them to take forward into their future reading. It’s not like Intro (at least where I used to teach it) was the only time they’d encounter those thinkers, so not gaining a clear and perfect understanding (whatever THAT looks like) of a given philosopher from the reading the first time around wasn’t really a problem. Being able to grapple with hard text, though, is absolutely indispensable for future work, regardless of whose work they read. I did my part by giving them context, helping them with unfamiliar vocabulary, and providing reading strategies (etc.), and then using assignments that required them to dig in and work on the basic task of explaining what they read and using it in an argument.

I suspect that students don’t actually have all that much easier a time even with simplified summaries of classic texts — it depends on how those summaries are presented. If they’re offered with all of the textbook signposts, they’ll be great for improving immediate understanding, but they won’t necessarily help the student develop the skills needed to wrestle with the original going forward. Without the signposts, they’re only slightly less alien than the original, but often still quite difficult to read.

That said: One thing I did discover is that after they struggled, when I walked through things with my students, they understood it better than if I had just given them the summary beforehand. The struggle itself had value, and having someone then clarify it afterward made a big difference to how they understood it.
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Edward Calamia
Edward Calamia
7 months ago

Original text? For Kant the original ones are in German or Latin. I favor a three part text for study. Original language, translation, and paraphrase like the no fear Shakespeare. Report