Teaching Philosophy as a Way of Life (guest post)
The following is a guest post* by Stephen Angle, Steven Horst, and Tushar Irani, philosophy professors at Wesleyan University, about their team-taught course, “Living a Good Life” which was featured in The New York Times earlier this year, and about the idea of teaching “philosophy as a way of life.”
Teaching Philosophy as a Way of Life
by Stephen Angle, Steven Horst, and Tushar Irani
This past fall, the three of us designed and co-taught a new intro-level philosophy course at Wesleyan, “Living a Good Life,” structured around the topic of philosophy as a way of life (PWOL). This followed initiatives that each of us had undertaken individually over the past several years in developing small PWOL first-year seminars that reflected our interests and areas of expertise. The idea of a large team-taught course arose naturally from the success of those endeavors, as well as student demand for such courses. The plan was to co-teach a course that provided a mashup of what had worked for each of us, pooling our shared knowledge of and familiarity with Classical Eastern and Western philosophy, while also offering students an introduction to the discipline of philosophy generally. With thanks to Justin for this invitation, we thought we’d provide in this post some background to our course and its design process, along with our experiences now the semester’s come to an end.
The study of philosophy as a way of life has been a burgeoning field of inquiry for scholars of ancient philosophy over the last few decades, inspired initially by the work of Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault in the Continental tradition, and more recently in the Anglophone world by Martha Nussbaum, Alexander Nehamas, John Sellars, and John Cooper. A range of studies have followed these works, many focused on the Western tradition, though the topic has also become an area of interest for scholars working on later periods in the history of philosophy, as well as in contemporary work on non-Western philosophy and comparative philosophy (here, here, and here). A forthcoming book series on the topic and several titles aimed at a general audience, including OUP’s current “Guides to the Good Life” series and a number of trade books, suggest the field is only growing.
PWOL-themed courses have also recently made their way into university curricula and appear to offer a particularly good introduction to philosophy for a diverse set of undergraduate students. Our efforts in creating a new high-enrollment PWOL course this semester were greatly aided by a Mellon Initiative for Effective Instruction run through the University of Notre Dame’s Philosophy as a Way of Life project, from which we received a grant over the summer of 2020 to construct our course from the ground up. Notre Dame itself has provided a model of PWOL instruction with its successful “God and the Good Life” course, featuring a comprehensive website and interactive syllabus that inspired us in our own course design. Given the constraints on teaching in the fall of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, we were especially interested in creating a course adaptable enough to accommodate in-person, hybrid, and remote learning, and to make use of pedagogical methods and technology that would provide students with an accessible introduction to philosophy.
The precise format of a PWOL course can vary and allows for considerable flexibility depending on a department’s curricular needs and strengths, as well as an instructor’s own interests. At Wesleyan we have an open curriculum with the result that most of the students in our courses are self-selecting. While our philosophy major is robust in terms of numbers, attracting students from underrepresented groups to the major and to our intro-level courses has been a challenge, a problem by now well known across the discipline.
In our case, there were three primary goals that guided the design of our course:
- To present philosophy, not only as an intellectual discipline with its own characteristic analytic methods and questions, but as a way of seeking a better life through philosophical cultivation.
- To assign—in addition to traditional academic readings, lectures, discussion, and assignments—immersive exercises inspired by things found in diverse classical philosophical traditions.
- To apply philosophical methods and the views found in various philosophical traditions in the service of self-examination and reflection.
Unlike the topic-based approach of other PWOL courses, our course took a more historically-inflected approach by acquainting students with conceptions of the good life developed by Confucianism, Aristotle, Daoism, and Stoicism. After an initial unit introducing the study of philosophy as a way of life, we divided the rest of the course into four core historical units that provided students with a basic conversance with each tradition.
Each unit of the course was organized around plenary lecture sessions and breakout discussion sessions, but the most innovative feature involved a series of immersive exercises that gave students experience putting philosophical approaches to living well into practice. Some exercises involved students constructing “Desire Maps” that mapped means-ends relationships between their desires. In the four historical units of the course, drawing on the success of “Stoic Week” developed by the Modern Stoicism project, we devised and assigned for each unit a sequence of week-long “Live Like a Philosopher” practices for students to complete on Confucianism, Aristotle, Daoism, and Stoicism. A consistent takeaway in teaching this course and our previous PWOL courses at Wesleyan has been the number of students who single out these exercises as helping them form a deeper understanding of the theories and arguments they study.
Despite the non-ideal teaching conditions this past fall, we have found this course to be an excellent way to provide an entry point into philosophy for students who lack exposure to the subject. In addition to familiarizing them with the field of moral psychology, we’ve been able to discuss issues in metaphysics and epistemology, debates concerning the nature of free will, and topics like moral particularism, situationism, and implicit bias. A historically-inflected PWOL course is also highly versatile in enabling the close study of a variety of diverse traditions and philosophical views of the good life. We can imagine in the future, for example, swapping out one of our core units for a unit on Buddhism or Existentialism.
Our class this fall was fully enrolled with 60 students, with 50 more on the waitlist at the start of semester. About half the class were first-years who had little to no familiarity with philosophy as a discipline, yet we found that approaching the subject from a PWOL angle allowed us to do many of the things we typically do in an intro-level course, such as exercises in argument analysis, as well as try out new and less orthodox pedagogical techniques—in addition to the “Live Like a Philosopher” weeks, we also experimented with having weekly student-facilitated “Dialogue Sessions,” a model again pioneered by Notre Dame. One of the most welcome consequences of teaching this course has been an almost exact 50/50 ratio of men and women, and a far more diverse population of students than we typically see in our intro-level courses. And all of this while also bringing less-commonly-taught traditions in the history of philosophy into contact with figures in the Western canon.
As we hope the links we’ve shared above show, there is clearly some robust discussion occurring in our discipline on many aspects of PWOL research and pedagogy. Our experience this semester emphasizes the ways in which participatory exercises can lead simultaneously to a deeper understanding of and critical engagement with historical texts and to transformations of behavior and attitudes that students find revealing and valuable. In fact, these twin aspects of PWOL pedagogy are mutually reinforcing. We look forward to continuing to adapt and grow our course, and to conversations with many of you about how to show all our students how significant philosophy is for their lives.
[art: Roy Lichtenstein, “Landscape with Philosopher” (detail)]
I hope this doesn’t come across too brutish/brazenly, but is there something about this that is redundant, or “re-inventing the wheel”?
What I mean is, *of course* philosophy is, arguably first and foremost and above all, concerned with living well or living a good life. Is that not what wide-eyed freshmen entering their first philosophy class expect/hope for? Is it not what they ought to hope for and get out of their first philosophy course?
Now, philosophy has been taken in a plethora of different directions and intro courses tend to reflect that. Kudos to these professors for “reinstating” and reaffirming this “original” (or “fundamental”– scare quotes because I’m not totally sure these are the most correct words to use here) purpose or subject matter of philosophy for their intro students — but there’s something alarmingly striking to me that this is not the norm or is even somehow seen as avant-garde. On the contrary, it seems more like some sort of purpose is being *restored* to philosophy, and again, kudos to these professors for that.
But is this not an approach or disposition that ought to be kept in mind for many other philosophy courses beyond 100-level?
I currently use Nicomachean Ethics as the text for my intro courses for this very reason (among others). I use just this one text — in my course and now here, in this post, as an example — because this text is in itself concerned centrally with living a good life. It isn’t that part of the text is concerned with living a good life, that a certain section is relevant to that purpose; rather, *the entire work* is centered around what it is to live well. EN is, of course, not alone in this regard.
All of this said, I suppose my question is this: is this some sort of special, pioneering thing being done or is it some sort of “obvious” task or mission or obligation tied up with philosophy that has by-and-large been set aside, put on the shelf to collect dust? Either way, again, kudos to the philosophers who put this course together (which, from its content/readings listed above, seems to be quite expansive and seriously dedicated to this philosophical mission of exploring the question of living well) but is there not a more alarming question — or dare I say, accusation — staring us contemporary philosophers and teachers in the face that their work (and its now highly-reported and good attention drawing status) brings to the fore? Are we as a field, and especially as teachers of into to philosophy courses, failing to do something essential and proper to our discipline and the needs of our communities?Report
Great to see a class like this, with a focus on philosophy as a way of life and taking a comparative approach. I would have _loved_ a class like this when I was in college. I feel tremendous gratitude that this kind of teaching is available for the young people now, and hope it grows. Thank you!
That said, it also seems important to be honest with the students and with ourselves (and with the New York Times) about the ways in which philosophy conceived this way is deeply in tension with the modern university. Not just because of neo-liberalism or conservative attacks, though those are real. The deeper question is: how does philosophy as a way of life relate to philosophy as a profession? Suppose a student loves this class and studies more with these professors, becomes a philosophy major and goes to grad school. What kind of philosophy of life practices will then be part of their graduate training, and so seen as part of their job expertise? I can’t see there would be any. Sure, the grad student, like any professor, can do those practices in their life and relate it to the practices of the historical philosophers. But, this is disjointed from their actual training they are getting. It’s like someone going to a modern medical school can also practice ancient, holistic conceptions of medicine that they learn on their own or in a different holistic medical school – but it seems important to tell the patients that this combination is an “innovation” that they are doing, not something that is just how doctors treated medicine in the past.
By necessity a course like this is an innovation, not just of how to teach philosophy in the modern day, but of the philosophy that is being taught. A student meditating for a week while reading the Buddha, or reflecting on Descartes’ meditations one per day doesn’t mean the student is doing what those philosophers did back then. The image that we can now just continue what they did back then – as if there is an essence of philosophy as a way of life – seems false. The stoics, the taoists, the buddhists, etc. merged in their own ways philosophy as therapy, as conceptual analysis, as politically engaged.
My point is the converse of Henri Perron’s above. His comment seems to be that a course like this should be the norm since it should be obvious this is what philosophy. Point taken. But it is not at all obvious what it is to do philosophy as a way of life in the modern world – both in terms of the technological disruptions we are going through, and also the globalization and merging of philosophical traditions. A course like this strikes me like Einstein teaching relativity to freshman. A course like this requires deeply and openly challenging the status quo of academic philosophy, taking on the prestiguous departments in the profession who control the jobs and who don’t think of philosophy this way at all. In this sense, I worry deeply that the class might give students a really skewed picture of how much work and innovation they need to do to pursue what is being promised them. Combining this kind of innovative work with a pie in the sky liberal arts college idealism of philosophy and the college experience can create a laziness in the students, when the present moment requires them to think outside the box of not just their parents but also of past and current philosophers. Perhaps the teachers are being open about that; I hope so.Report
I don’t know, Bharath. I’m generally on board with your views about the need for academic philosophy to diversify the perspectives it incentivizes, and in the directions you indicate. But at the same time, I don’t think graduate-level study in philosophy should be aimed at fostering the good life, or reflection on the good life, in the way undergraduate instruction in philosophy can at times be. Maybe if the educational system of the university was organized differently from the ground up. But philosophical inquiry today is the product of extended conversations occurring over centuries, and for the last few centuries those conversations have taken place inside the university system. Given the detail with which different positions have been worked out, it takes many years of focused study on specialized topics to be able to contribute competently to these conversations. Think about the technical skill and historical background one must have in order to be able to publish essays defending realism for the alethic modalities, for instance, or a non-representational account of the perception of others’ mental states.
We could advocate for changing the conversation and prioritizing the teaching of philosophy life practices (as you helpfully describe it) at the graduate level, but I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. For one thing, there are profound questions about the nature of the world and our minds wrapped up in positions on, say, modal realism and non-representational theories of mind-reading; if philosophers aren’t going to tackle those questions, who will? Second, there’s already a space for contemporary philosophers to devote research into questions of the good life, and no shortage of essays and books on the subject.
Third, I don’t think it’s the place of graduate education to foster life practices, or reflection on life practices, in graduate students. There’s a place for that sort of thing at the undergraduate education, to a certain extent, but I don’t see it at the graduate level. Relatedly, I’m not very keen on the thought of professors in philosophy developing the kind of mentoring relationships necessary for graduate study, but where those relationships are focused on examining life practices. Bluntly, I wouldn’t want to pattern my life after some of the habits I’ve seen among some of the philosophers I know. Academic philosophers are, on the whole, a curious lot, and I don’t think we’re the model for mentoring in that kind of mode.
These last two concerns are correlated with the current state of the university system, and for that reason they would perhaps not be a problem if the system were reorganized. But insofar as there’s already a place for those philosophers so inclined to devote themselves to these sorts of questions, and there’s plenty of other important work to do in philosophy today, I don’t think the absence of an institution-wide devotion to investigating the good life is a concern.
But I agree that a course like the one in the OP is valuable in part because of the contemporary situation, and especially our need to teach people how to reflect on and critically relate themselves to the technological &etc. disruptions we’re facing today. Kudos to Angle, Horst, and Irani for this project, and thanks for sharing. It looks fascinating, and I plan to adapt parts of into my teaching. I’m particularly curious to see how the immersive exercises work, and what kind of framing was used to help students put themselves into the positions of philosophers with different points of view.Report
Thanks to Henri, Bharath, and Preston for these reflections! I would agree that it is tricky to think about the role the PWOL should play in graduate education, but my colleagues and I agree that it is apt to tie discussions of PWOL to questions about the nature of the discipline and the modern university. Early in the course we assigned a couple chapters from Socrates Tenured in order to discuss exactly this, discussing with our students the way that Frodeman and Briggle’s notion of “meso-level philosophy” connects to the practical roles as socio-politically engaged individuals that Confucian philosophers, for example, might seem to exemplify.
A few summers ago I co-ran an NEH Institute called “Reviving Philosophy as a Way of Life.” One of the striking things about the experience was the degree to which the participants felt that they were returning — for many, after a long absence — to what had gotten them interested in philosophy at the beginning. I’m not denying that there are important goods that come from rigorous, “disciplined” inquiry of the kind that dominates the profession now. (For what it’s worth, Frodeman and Briggle don’t beny this, either.) But the emphasis of our research, teaching, and lives as philosophers tilts very strongly in the direction of such inquiry — for all sorts of familiar reasons — and perhaps we should strive to adjust that balance.
We’d be happy to follow up with anyone who has questions, comments, or suggestions about the immersive exercises — complete details of what we did are on the course website!Report
Preston, What you are suggesting seems to separate undergraduate teaching from graduate training in a radical way (btw, posting this as a separate comment as the reply button wasn’t working.) Yes, discussions of modal realism or theories of perception involve a great deal of specialization (I tend to oscillate on how worthwhile they are; but agree people need freedom to pursue what they want). Also yes, need to be wary of taking professors in grad school as gurus. But, this course is integrating _the practices of philosophies_ of stoicism, taoism, etc into the class: not just talking about them, but giving the students practice of what it is to integrate them into one’s life. This kind of practice too is very specialized and takes a great deal of work – no less than what goes into discussions of modal realism. This is different from writing books on ethics or the good life – akin to the difference between writing manuals for being an athlete and actually being an athlete.
Not trying to downplay your point. In fact, I think your point is exactly what proponents of this kind of class need to confront more openly – in the profession and with their students. The dichotomy here between undergrad teaching and grad education is real – like that between teaching phil in a liberal arts college like Wesleyan and teaching at NYU. This shows that there is no such thing as “the academic way of doing philosophy”, but even in the last 100 years there has been a schism in academic philosophy – between the prestiguous departments which place grad students (and where Quine or Sellars rather than Seneca or Emerson get taught) and the majority of smaller depts teaching philosophy, where students seek a more “ancient” conception of philosophy as self-transformation. The question of what to do with this dichotomy applies as much to the professors of this course, as to a professor teaching modal realism at Princeton.
What is amazing is _how little_ this problem is discussed. I think it’s because the research depts and the teaching depts have an implicit agreement. By blurring the boundary, the research depts get to keep the social prestige of philosophy as wisdom (when their “research” has nothing to with wisdom) , and the same blurring keeps the teaching depts to have the prestige of being connected to the latest research. But the burden of this double illusion falls on the students who presume that there is a natural link between undergrad education and grad education – I was someone who mistakenly assumed that, and it took me years of confusion to work myself out of it. And no professor at the research depts I got my BA and PhD at, nor my colleagues when I taught at a liberal arts college, helped me figure it out – they were all too invested in fostering the illusion. So while I admire this course, it’s not enough unless it also helps the students tackle the reality of philosophy education in the modern world and its tensions.Report
Hi Bharath. I suppose I don’t see that it’s so radical to distinguish undergraduate exposure to the good life through study of Stoicism and Confucianism, say, and the graduate study of modal realism or non-representational theories of mind-reading. They’re devoted to different aspects of the perennial questions we face, just as an introductory astronomy course is devoted to explaining large-scale features of the universe that courses in quantum mechanics and general relativity make no mention of.
At any rate, I can’t speak for other people but in my own experience with places like those at which Quine and Sellars taught, there’s a fair amount of reflection on the good life already at work. So I’m not convinced the dichotomy you talk about actually exists. And because I don’t want to turn this into a defense of one doctrine or another, I won’t mention Michael Thompson’s stuff on life and action as Aristotelian categories of cognition conditioning the possibility of knowing persons and organisms, Brandom’s work on Hegel’s understanding of modernity as a process we’re still working our way through, or the self-reflective agency animating Engstrom’s study of Kant. But I will say you become a better person just walking around after John McDowell and watching that man live his life.
Either way, I don’t think it’s controversial that an institution producing work like Baier’s “Doing Things with Others: The Mental Commons”, Korsgaard’s “Self-Constitution in the Ethics of Plato and Kant”, or Sellars’ “Reason and the Art of Living in Plato” is contributing to the study of the good life in a profound way.
Could philosophers be doing more of that? Sure. But there are opportunity costs for everything, and the work being done is, on the whole, substantial in addressing those perennial questions. So I do not share the assessment that academic philosophers are laboring under a “double illusion” whereby teaching schools and research schools place a “burden” on students. I think we should be unqualifiedly pleased at and interested in the fact that courses like this are being taught to undergraduates today. I hope they catch on.Report
Preston, I greatly admire the work of Korsgaard, McDowell, Thompson and others (though their silence about basic issues in the profession – like a global perspective in philosophy and the jobs situation – seems to me a big mistake and speaks against their wisdom). But if an undergrad takes a course like in the post here (where they treat the philosophical exercises that stoics did, for example, as philosophy) and want to do that kind of philosophy at a deeper level, getting a PhD with Korsgaard or McDowell is just not the way to do it. Seems you agree as much when you say philosophy as way of life (PWOL) is good for the undergrad level. But the thing is, there are places where they do pursue PWOL at a deeper level – it’s just not in academia mostly. For example, with settings with teachers like the Dalai Lama or Thomas Merton – or in less religious settings, in a meditation class or a retreat with spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle. To modify your analogy of astronomy, a PWOL intro class like this has ties to advanced courses in both the physics department and the philosophy department, but where the physics and philosophy professors pretend like the other dept doesn’t exist. This is a deep institutional question raised by a course like this: what is being taught in the course is pursued further in churches or in new age communities as much as it is pursued in phil grad departments, and in many ways grad school is a detriment insofar as the professors there like McDowell aren’t teaching any philosophical exercises other than thinking broadly construed.
The tension here is not new. In the west, it goes back at least to the differences between Plato and the skeptics in how they found Socrates inspiring. Socrates’ philosophy lends itself as much to an academic life as it does to non-academic life – and so there is no one way of exemplifying philosophy. More recently, with the rise of the modern university, this was the tension between Kant/Hegel and Kierkegaard/Schopenhaur (the tension is right there in the name of the philosophy building at Harvard – named after Emerson but, try as Cavell did, isn’t taught there). I think the assumption that PWOL is good for the undergrads but not for grad school covers over this deep tension – who does it, where, with what qualifications (if any), with what audience are all open questions, and not settled by contingencies of university administration.
My sense is the public is hungry for PWOL, but academic philosophy broadly is not situated to provide it (it is too focused on providing other important things like McDowell’s “Mind and World”). We merely have to look at the socio-political situation of the humanities to see how much a text like this isn’t speaking to the public – they are esoteric texts, even if it doesn’t feel that way in grad school or at a phil conference. A course like this is trying to change this. Saying it is good for the undergrads undervalues the depth of the change it represents to the profession. If the profession survives in academia, it will be through courses like this. But I suspect it still won’t be enough. Students inspired by a course like this might find new ways to do PWOL with the broader society outside academia – that might be the great contribution of this kind of course.Report
Hi Bharath. I suspect we’re not so far apart. In my remark yesterday, I almost referenced modes of pedagogy associated with the Dalai Lama. I participated (minimally) in a crash-course in philosophy of science at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India last summer, set up by the Dalai Lama with Emory University in the 90s. But that’s a special kind of instruction, and if you enter higher education with a Laman (?) attitude in almost any other context today you’re bound to be frustrated. And for good reason, I think. But we’re way off the topic of the OP, so I’ll leave it at that.Report
Hi Preston, That’s very interesting about your course at the Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Not sure why you say that is a “special kind of instruction” and that this is way off the topic of the OP. It seems very much the issue at hand. There is a clear connection between the kind of practices the course in the OP is teaching, and at least some of the practices one learns at a Buddhist monastery. A student in this intro class might very well explore “further studies” not only at a philosophy PhD program but also at, say, a Buddhist monastery, and the millennia of intellectual and consciousness-changing traditions that is a part of. Which raises the question: what is the relation between a Buddhist (or Christian, etc) monastery further studies and the further studies one gains at a university PhD program? Yes, if one tries to bring the two together as institutions are now, one is bound to be frustrated. How to respond to that frustration is I think the broader issue raised by this kind of course.
The modern university philosophy department is a particular construction of the last 250 years – and came about in a time of (a) the industrial revolution and (b) western dominance. Now both of those are ending or changing radically, and so the “package” of a university education as it was even, say, 50 years ago, is now being dispersed in all sorts of ways. This means a lot of the boundaries and conceptualizations that went with philosophy in the academia of the last two centuries can now also be questioned and reevaluted. That is a great thing. My sense is people need to buckle up, it’s going to get bumpy for everyone – academics and non-academics alike. From that turmoil new conceptions of philosophy and ways of organizing our society can emerge.Report
I find all the comments interesting and thought provoking. I am left wondering whether it would be clarifying to consider two themes: First, whether the question about undergraduate vs graduate education, and that between selective philosophy graduate schools vs liberal arts schools, could both be reframed in terms of the history of the meaning of philosophy within the history of philosophy? Philosophy as a way of life with purposes connected with living well, being happy, and realizing wisdom, vs. philosophy as a specific discipline with specific methods and contents and concerns. These aspects historically were for the most part aligned but seem to have increasingly split with the trends in the west that solidified universities as academic [and lately professional] institutions, and decentered philosophies connection with christianity on the one hand and psychology on the other. Marxism and existentialism [just think kierkegaard here] were the first challenge to this split. Second, consider the void left in the west when in addition, rightly or wrongly, people aren’t finding satisfactory ways of living in spite of increase freedom to choose their lives, and rightly or wrongly the orientations and touchstones of conventions and traditional christian and judaic frameworks no longer give their lives purpose or a path to meaning or salvation? This is the space that we see popular psychology and psychoanalysis try to fill, leading recently to all those courses on the ‘psychology of happiness’, and also the space where individuals have drifted towards yoga and buddhism as practices, and even not surprisingly, philosophical ways of living. Philosophy can fill a significant role here, but cannot unless it can connect to the individual directly. Philosophical counseling has tried this, but tends to be only half serious, or a consultation rather than a way of life. ‘Philosophy as a way of life’ might be a path here but it is unclear how it would relate to ‘philosophy as an academic profession’. I don’t think such an approach is by definition always introductory or cannot be as advanced as any philosophy graduate program. Just consider that Plato thought such a life would include study of metaphysics and epistemology. In tibetan buddhism, there is advanced philosophical study, but in a context of ethical and meditative practice to make it real and to deepen ones understanding. I am not sure what is possible for us in our secular world where all traditions have been decenteredReport
The course sounds interesting as way of reflection on certain kinds of perennial philosophical issues, but the idea of philosophy as a way of life or or as a guide to a way of life runs into serious difficulties, to my mind.
The only ‘way of life’ directly relevant to modern philosophy is the academic way of life, or, more broadly, that of teaching, research, writing, and reflection, whether done within the academy or without. That is the way of life that modern academic philosophy trains one for, because that is what one does, as a philosophy student, and that is what the modern university makes possible. Ways of life, after all, do not exist on their own. There would be no point in training to become a Buddhist monk, for example, if there were no Buddhist sangha, etc.
Furthermore, philosophy is no longer needed as a justification for the legitimacy of secular reflection, as it might have been for those raised in an era when religious institutions had a stronger grip on intellectual life, which might have been the case for Hadot, who, let us not forget, left the priesthood over a conflict with its views on modernity.
Thus, what’s the point of teaching about a way of life if it is not to be used as intellectual justification for a way of life that already exists, or is not provided for by the institutions doing the teaching? If the first is no longer necessary, and the second is to go beyond what is already the case, the only way to make philosophy relevant to the ‘good life’ again would be to bring back to philosophy those sorts of social structures that made such ways of achieving the good life possible to begin with, i.e. the church, the monastery, the temple, or the philosophical sect. One’s teachers would become gurus, and philosophy classes would become akin to therapy sessions, or more likely, since it is always the institution that is more important, training sessions with the goal of inducing one to becoming a member of the group or institution concerned.
That, after all, is what being a Confucian, a Mohist, a Stoic or a Jansenist meant being, in the past. Some might welcome the return of such ways of life to philosophy, but others might be wary of the inevitable trade-offs that such changes might entail.Report
Chiming in with Steve to say thanks for these comments! To Henri’s first question: one of the things that’s become apparent in the back-and-forth in this thread is that there isn’t in fact much agreement on what “the wheel” is when it comes to philosophy. But it would be a mistake in any event to think of our course as attempting a reinvention of the discipline. We tried to be clear about what we hoped this course would provide students by compiling a list of goals during the design stages over the summer with the help of our friends at Notre Dame. You can find that list under “Course Vision” on the website.
It’s also worth emphasizing the population of students a course such as this one is designed to serve. The vast majority of undergrads who take an intro-level philosophy course have little to no interest in what happens in academic philosophy, and many come into our classes feeling no great need to understand or examine too deeply the topics, texts, and debates that enliven us in our research — certainly not to the degree necessary to sustain them through graduate study. And that’s just fine. Still, we think the study of philosophy and the methods of inquiry, argumentation, and analysis that are the tools of our trade can help students develop a better grip on the questions that do occupy them. As we say in the OP, structuring a course around the topic of the good life provides an effective point of entry for such study, engaging a variety of students we don’t generally attract to our intro-level courses.
So the main aim here in presenting philosophy from a PWOL angle is a purely protreptic one, which requires meeting students where they already are. In terms of Leslie’s helpful framing of things above — “philosophy as a way of life with purposes connected with living well, being happy, and realizing wisdom vs. philosophy as a specific discipline with specific methods and contents and concerns” — I see the former as a means of getting students into the latter. Some of our students may go on to major in philosophy and a smaller subset may consider pursuing graduate study in the subject, at which point a talk about philosophy in its professionalized form would be worth having. It may well be that people attracted to philosophy primarily as a guide to the good life are best served, for the reasons Bharath and Paul suggest, looking to institutions and communities other than the modern academy to pursue that interest further, and hopefully a course like this one can give students a few tools and conceptual resources to do this in a novel way.
All the same, I don’t see teaching philosophy in a PWOL mode working at cross purposes with doing philosophy in a more disciplinary mode. Regarding the immersive exercises: it’s best to regard them as having a pedagogical function in offering students another evaluative lens through which to consider the views and arguments they encounter in classic texts. In my experience this has always led to a better understanding of the views themselves, similar to how a lab augments a student’s understanding of a theory in organic chemistry. It’s an added benefit when students find the philosophical ideas they’re exploring have an impact on their sense of what it means to live well. Many of them do find this, which is great and (especially during a year like this last one) we welcome it. But it’s also equally fine given the nature of philosophy as a no-holds-barred mode of inquiry for students to consider and reject all the approaches to the good life they study in a course such as ours, including the idea of PWOL itself. Either way, they’d be doing philosophy.Report
Excellent and really thoughtful post, Tushar. Thanks for that. And congrats to you and the Steves on such an exciting course! It’s fascinating all around.Report
I finally had time to look over the course in detail. It’s very well-structured, and online resources are put to good use (the “Cancel Ancient Philosophy?” midterm debate looks like it was a blast). I have a couple of questions about how the course is run. Most of my teaching now is entirely online, so that’s the angle I’m approaching this from.
First, I see that you’re using Perusall for the readings. Perusall bills itself, among other things, as a way of engaging with students by encouraging them to annotate texts so that instructors can respond to their questions. Did the students tend to do that? And did you find there was much peer-to-peer interaction there?
Second, it seems like you were able to have students interact online with Zoom, and that you had regular breakout sessions. Other than Persuall, I didn’t see any text-based or discussion board interactive work. If they were employed and I missed them, did you find they were successful, or favorably comparable to the Zoom meetings?
I love the immersive exercises, and I’d like to port something similar into some of my courses. One of the universities I teach for has 8-week terms, however, and many of the students are active-duty military. For this reason, I worry that the once-per-day schedule for the immersive exercises would be too much to ask. Did you find that the completion rate for the daily journal entries was close to total? Any thoughts about how this part of the course worked?
Finally, any general thoughts about things you’ll do differently the next time you teach the course? And thank you for making this material available and open for discussion!Report
A few responses to Preston’s specific questions. Student engagement with one another via Perusall was quite robust — lots of threads,not just one-off remarks. It’s a really fascinating platform more generally, providing visibility to how students are thinking about the texts in a fashion that I have never experienced as clearly. And it’s designed to be scaleable — it can be used with pretty much any number of students.
We went back and forth on whether to have an asynchronous discussion board. All three of us have used them in past classes, with varying results, often depending on how tightly they are integrated to the rest of the class. In this case, we decided that (1) there were enough moving parts already, and (2) we thought the students would have a decent about of live/synchronous possibilities for discussion — especially because of the weekly dialog sessions — so we decided against a discussion board. In a slightly different set-up, it might be a good idea. (Keep in mind that more than 3/4 of our students were on campus and most of them attending in-person.)
I think that the immersive exercises are pretty flexible. In a few cases we gave students more than one day to work on a given exercises, and that idea could be adapted to providing more time for students in non-traditional learning environments. The significant majority of our students turned in virtually all of the journal entries on time, though there was some flakiness here and there, and some issues inevitably arose. For all but one or two students, they were able to keep up enough with the pace of the exercises. We don’t yet have access to our teaching evaluations, but based on other kinds of feedback and our observation, I think we all think that the exercises (including the journaling) were at the center of what made the class work.
We haven’t quite had time yet to have a real post-mortem conversation, but right now I don’t think there are any big things that we’ll change next time around. Thanks for the questions and comments!Report
Thank you for the follow up, Stephen. In addition to the immersive exercises, it sounds like Perusall is worth giving a run in some of the courses I teach.Report