Problems With How Philosophy is Taught

As I’ve hinted before, I have a lot of problems with how philosophy is taught. The biggest one is that students are taught a vast amount of philosophy that is just wrong. I know it is difficult in philosophy to prove something objectively correct, but what we are taught should at the very least not be demonstrably wrong and/or worthless… and yet much of what I’m taught can’t stand up to even this very easy criterion.

For example, in an Ethics class we were taught Kant’s views on morality. He argues we should only do things that we can make into universal maxims. Does anyone take this seriously? Well, I know some people do, but why? I just hate how completely irrational the idea of “it’s only right to do something if it’s right for everyone to do it all the time” is – circumstances play a huge role in everything else we do, why the hell shouldn’t they in ethics? Face it, consequentialism is the only reasonable ethical system… If we aren’t actually doing good then how are we being good?  Furthermore, any moral system that recommends helping murderers and Nazis has got some serious issues.

Another, much less controversial example: in my Contemporary British & American Philosophy class we were taught  about Russell’s thoughts on “mnemic causation.” Mnemic causation is the idea of an event being caused by a past event; for example if a kid acts scared of fire now, because of him getting burned by fire 2 months ago, then that is mnemic causation (as opposed to a person throwing a bowling ball, where the movement of the bowling ball is caused by something directly preceeding it). Russell tries to argue that mnemic causation may be “fundamental”; that when a kid acts scared of fire, this may not be caused by his brain state (which was altered when he got burnt) but may somehow be caused directly by the past event; that him getting burnt by fire is somehow reaching through to the future and making him act scared of it. He says he leans against the possibility himself, and stresses that it is only a possibility, but he nonetheless devotes a whole lecture to it and tells us about how it could make psychology fundamentally different from physics.

Why should I have to learn about this? Mnemic causation is absurd; there’s no more reason to posit it than there is to posit any other kind of supernatural influence on our behaviour, and it’s been basically completely disproven by now.

Another example: In a Philosophy of the Environment class, we learned about “Deep Ecology” which argues that our sense experience (e.g. walking into a forest and feeling that it’s a beautiful, interconnected thing) is “more fundamental” than science, and because of this our sense experience should be trusted over science. We should not have to learn this. I don’t care if there are philosophers who really uphold this view: it’s still ridiculous and obviously wrong. Even if we concede that sense experiences are “more fundamental” than science, that has nothing to do with which is more accurate.

And of course we’re still taught Aristotle and Plato for some reason I can’t fathom.

So, why are we taught wrong philosophy? Usually because professors insist on teaching by philosopher, rather than by philosophy. I realize this is necessary to some extent because a philosopher’s ideas will tend to rely on and assume knowledge of their other ideas, but I refuse to accept that because of this we need to hear every single part of their philosophical picture; some parts of it will inevitably just be wrong (nobody’s perfect) and the rest of their picture will stand up just fine with the wrong parts cropped out; and if it doesn’t, then the entire picture is flawed anyway in which case it shouldn’t be taught at all.

There are three primary arguments in defense of teaching philosophers, wrong bits and all: these philosophers should be taught because they are are historically important, that the philosophers may be wrong on some points but they can still help “teach us how to think”, and that we don’t read philosophers for their arguments per se.

Given how often I hear the first reply, I feel I have to address it – that for example Plato should be taught because he was the first recorded philosopher, and he dealt with many of the problems philosophy deals with today, or that Kant should be taught because of the profound influence he has had on philosophical thought. I am disappointed that I need to reply to this at all; it should be obvious that being first or being influential does not make what someone has said any better or worse than it actually is. It may be important from a historical perspective, but if their sole importance is historical then that is no reason to spend years learning their ideas or reading their texts. Physics students do not spend years studying Aristotle’s account of physics. I’m sure Kant was influential, but this doesn’t make his ethics any less silly – and if there is a modification or development of some of his ethical ideas that isn’t silly then sure, teach me that, but you can safely leave out the bits where Kant claims that circumstances don’t matter, or where Kant says that lying is always wrong, and so on.

The second reply is that learning these wrong philosophers can help us learn how to think. This is wrong. You get good at something primarily by learning from or engaging with people who are already very good. This is universally true. From violin, to chess, to soccer, to physics, the teachers should always be ones who have a good understanding of the subject (even if they aren’t able to put that into practice well themselves, e.g. a coach who isn’t as fit as his players). How could learning and discussing bad philosophy possibly be a better teaching tool than learning and discussing good philosophy? I don’t improve at chess by playing against someone significantly worse than me, and similarly I don’t feel like I improve at philosophy by being repeatedly confronted with crappy ideas, especially not when I’m forced to learn all the intricate details that stem from the initial, obviously crap idea. Maybe if we just learned the bad idea and then learned why it’s wrong the excercise could have some small use since it could help us avoid common philosophical mistakes; this would be a lot faster too, since we’d get to skip all the intricacies that are based on a wrong foundation.

Another problem with teaching philosophers instead of philosophy is that students are forced to read from the original text of philosophers even though they were usually not good writers (by modern standards). For example, pretty much any philosopher born before the 19th century goes on, and on, and on, and on without getting to the point (or simply repeats the point about 8 times). Obviously it isn’t their fault; they are a product of their time. But since we can massively condense their work without losing any content, please, let’s do so. Forcing students to read 500-year-old english is no more excusable than forcing them to read Hegel in the original German. Plato can take ten pages to make an argument that should take 5 sentences; if we are keeping up the pretense that we are actually reading Plato for his philosophy then there is no good reason not to simply read summaries of his important arguments and ideas, rather than strict translations which preserve his excessive wordiness. If there are differing interpretations that are both good arguments then give a summary of each translation; not hard. And if you think that it’s important for philosophy students to be good at interpreting ancient, unclear writing then you have lost sight of what philosophy is supposed to be about.

And this leads us to the next problem with the approach to teaching philosophy, which is that we don’t actually read Plato for his arguments, do we? We read him like literature (in fact, my Ancient Greek Philosophy professor has even said this in class; although I’m sure he’d disagree with what I’ll say next). We don’t read him for the individual arguments he makes, which tend to be quite bad, but instead, because Plato is vague and extremely prolific in the ideas and frameworks he proposes, we see what we can read into Plato, like a game. I find it extremely troubling when I hear that there are disagreements over how to interpret some philosopher or other. The focus should not be what the philosopher thought, nor should finding a unique interpretation of a work be considered worthwhile in itself. The point of philosophy is to come up with useful ways of understanding life, good, and the world we live in, not to waste time wondering whether Hegel was right wing or left wing.

Ultimately it just isn’t worth it to put gargantuan effort into finding a way of interpreting Plato that seems pretty. The proper format for arguing philosophical ideas is broadly like this: you tell people your idea and why you think it’s good, then critics tell you why they think it’s bad, then you respond to that. Is there going to be any of this in an interpretation of Plato? No. It suddenly becomes more about finding interpretations of what Plato was saying rather than whether what Plato was saying is right, which is when we stop being philosophers and start being literary critics. As long as an interpretation isn’t obviously wrong, objecting to it seems to be considered unsporting. Ultimately the ideas that arise out of this kind of approach will be largely ineffectual, more aesthetic than practical.

So if I had to sum this up: Stop teaching me wrong, obsolete philosophy, and stop teaching it from the original text, which in addition to being wrong and obsolete will also be about five times as long as it needs to be and not nearly as clear as it could be.

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13 Responses to Problems With How Philosophy is Taught

  1. Tree. says:

    Fantastic post. My exact thoughts, just articulated more lengthy than I previously extrapolated.

  2. Wolf says:

    You’re pretty much an idiot.
    I recall my first seminar on the Republic.
    Some pot-head said: ‘whay are we reading this crap – it’s just a bunch of guys talking’
    You sound disturbingly like that guy except he had the excuse of only being one year out
    of highschool.

    • screwplato says:

      Give a reason for why you think I’m wrong or don’t bother posting.

      • encornetdelalune says:

        Saying something shouldn’t be taught just because you don’t agree with it, or it’s been proven “wrong” is a very weak argument.

        • screwplato says:

          Being bad or wrong are both very good reasons for something not being taught. Suggesting otherwise is stupid.

        • Tom says:

          I disagree completely. I think the author makes very good points. I majored in chemistry, not philosophy. In my organic chemistry class, we spent part of the first lecture learning about “vitalism,” the idea (which persisted into the 18th century) that organic compounds were intrinsically different from inorganic compounds and that only living things could produce organic compounds. Then we learned about how that had been proven wrong, and we spent the rest of the semester learning about concepts that were still relevant. I minored in math, and we spent no time at all discussing wrong math, or reading the original texts in which influential theorems were proven. So how come philosophy students alone spend so much time learning about outdated ideas, proposed by people long ago who had far less understanding of the universe than we do now, in the original texts, when many of these ideas are absurd?

          • Octavian says:

            Because Philosophy is not the same as science.

            Also there is no “wrong” maths. Provided you create a logically consistent model, any maths can be “right” (which leads into analytic philosophy).

            There is no “wrong” philosophy. Hell, that itself it a philosophical statement. The very claim “there is right and wrong philosophy” is in itself a philosophical claim.

          • Jody says:

            (Pardon pour les fautes de frappe, mais je viens justement d&eoqus;rn passer un autre pour cacher les restes du rouge, et j’ai un peu de mal ? écrire )

  3. Tom says:

    Without learning philosophers instead of philosophy, learning all the intricate details stemming from those philosophers’ wrong ideas, and having to read philosophers’ original texts, how would philosophy still manage to be a 4-year degree?

  4. George Watson says:

    Can you explain how it is that you know that most Philosophers before the 20th century,
    that seems to be what you are saying, are wrong and thus should be summarised at best and
    ignored for the most part ?

    Learning to develop a deep appreciation as for what previous generations held to be true or at
    least likely true will give you perspective. Surely you don’t think that only the Philosophy developed
    in the last 100 years is the only valuable/valid philosophy – or do you ?

  5. Octavian says:

    Whether you think they were “wrong” or not is irrelevant to the study of philosophy. You study philosophy to learn HOW to think not WHAT to think. Anyone can have opinions.

    I happen to think Plato was correct on many things, but you are correct in that his ideas are definitely foreign to the modern mind. The idea that this makes them “wrong” or “outdated” is just post-Enlightenment prejudice.

    The mark of an intelligent person (especially someone who seeks to participate in academia) is the ability and willingness to contemplate ideas without necessarily accepting them as truth.

  6. Me says:

    I loved this post. The point is that not everyone can devote years of their lives to reading every thought that every philosopher has ever had on a given subject. Yet, many of us are interested in learning about subjects such as, say, scientific realism. Why can’t philosophers write simple educational textbooks that would be accessible to, for instance, a freshman in high school. Or even younger. Small children have ideas about science, and those ideas are conveyed in books written for small children; why doesn’t philosophy do the same? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is probably the closest to a textbook presentation of philosophy, but it is a very high level presentation. Not for the young. Not for neophytes. And in response to Octavian: I don’t see how philosophy classes teach people how to think except perhaps by throwing examples of philosophers’ thoughts at us time and time again. Why not make “teaching how to think” an explicit exercise?

  7. damian3045 says:

    Learning philosophers is a good way to practice philosophy. It is like teaching a science class with nothing but experiments. Learning through experience is better than memorizing concepts.

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