Course Notes — A New Introduction to Philosophy Course

by Daniel A. Kaufman


The Fall 2019 semester has begun, so it is time to return to our long-running series, “Course Notes.”

This year I have unveiled a brand new version of Philosophy 110, our Introduction to Philosophy course, which I intend to feature in Course Notes, throughout the semester.

The course faces a series of challenges, all of which, in one way or another, stem from its being part of the university’s General Education curriculum. The significance of this is that in any given semester, over 90% of the students enrolled are doing so in order to satisfy a Gen Ed requirement and will never take another philosophy course again.  How best to design an Introduction to Philosophy class for such a population?  This has been the key question, since I began teaching the course at then-Southwest Missouri State University, in 1999, and I have answered it in a number of different ways: with a course designed topically, with representative readings from the most significant figures in the history of philosophy; with a course designed historically, with primary source readings designed to bring students from Plato and Aristotle all the way through to Ayer and Carnap; and even with a course on “Visions of Human Nature in the Western World,” reaching beyond philosophy, proper, into religion and literature, to give students a sense of the humanist thread that runs throughout the Western tradition, since antiquity.

These courses all had one thing in common, namely, a heavy emphasis on the reading of primary sources.  To me, this has been an almost sacred charge: the masterpieces of Western philosophy are not just cultural treasures but represent some of the greatest accomplishments of our civilization.  What could be more important, by way of general education, than introducing students to them?

This, of course, presumes that PHI 110 actually accomplishes this, and I would say that up through the mid- to late 2000’s, the various iterations of the course were successful in this regard.  The current student population, however, presents new challenges for teachers, and I no longer think this is the case.  Certainly, the last two or three years have left me increasingly skeptical.

For one thing, it has become quite clear that the students, overwhelmingly, are not doing the reading and that in good part, this is because they are no longer capable of reading these texts on their own.  Conversations with students about this suggests that it is due to a number of factors: (a) their high school educations no longer prepare them for extended, difficult reading; (b) they lack the most rudimentary historical knowledge required to situate these texts in the ways necessary for them to make sense; (c) they are incapable of reading older forms of English of the sort that one finds in, say, Hobbes or John Locke.

Students also have begun to plagiarize at an alarming rate, and for the most part, their cheating involves copying material from Wikipedia and other online encyclopedias.  They are easy to catch, because inevitably the material copied is inapt in some way or is so obviously not written by an introductory level student that it begs for a quick Google search, which inevitably finds the source.  Discussions with those whom I’ve caught (and to whom I am inclined to be kind, so long as they are honest and remorseful, which virtually all of them are) indicate that the reason is intimately connected to what we’ve just discussed: students are incapable of reading the material on their own and have almost as much difficulty making anything out of my oral presentation of it.  Furthermore, students’ thinking has become shortened and fragmented, so it is very difficult for them to follow extended lines of argument, consisting of multiple parts, and the result of all of this put together is panic, of which the rampant plagiarism is an expression.  It is rare if ever in a given semester that I encounter a student who plagiarizes maliciously.

Combine these two developments, and it is quite clear that the original purpose of the course is no longer being served.  Alas, I cannot fix the problems these two developments represent.  I cannot improve my students’ high school educations.  I cannot teach them how  to read.  I cannot fill in all the history they are missing, which would take an entire semester in itself.  So the course has to pursue a different, equally worthy, and still philosophy-relevant end.  Which is why this semester, I have embarked on the most experimental version of the course yet.

There will be no reading of texts, original or otherwise.  There will be no (direct, at any rate) discussion of the great masterpieces of the Western philosophical tradition (or of any other tradition).  There will be no attempt to teach students the historical course that Western philosophical discourse has followed since antiquity.

Instead, the course will focus entirely on philosophically significant subjects, with the aim of giving students a sense of the logical space around each and the different ways in which one might navigate that space, employing the distinctive methods and tools of philosophy.  The subjects I have chosen are as follows:


Personhood and Identity

Mind and Body






Value and Obligation

We have completed the unit on reasoning and are halfway through the unit on personhood and identity.  In coming just this far (two weeks into the semester), we have already had significant discussions regarding the following: inductive and deductive reasoning; validity and soundness; deductive rules of inference; the limits of formal logic, especially when applied to arguments conducted in ordinary language; conversational implicature and speech acts; theoretical and practical reasoning; reasons and causes; folk psychological/intentional explanations; reasons, actions, and normativity; the difference between ‘person’ and ‘human’; the role of personhood in ethics and law; the modern, “internal” conception of personhood versus the pre-modern “external” or social conception; and the relationship between the modern conception of personhood and liberal democracy.

After each lecture, I type up a comprehensive series of notes on our classroom discussions and post them on Blackboard (an online file document storage platform), for students to review.  They are the sole “materials” for the course and will constitute the totality of what students need to study, in order to take a series of exams that correspond to the units.  This makes the course essentially plagiarism proof — students will have little luck Googling “Dan Kaufman on personal identity” — and my hope is that the anxiety that would normally lead students to plagiarize will be mitigated by the fact that everything they read will consist of things they have already discussed, written in plain, contemporary English. By the end of the course, the class and I essentially will have composed an introductory level, highly accessible textbook.

Undoubtedly the course is an experiment and a radical one at that.  It will require more than one go around, before I can deem it a success or failure, and throughout this semester, I will be featuring a selection of the lectures as a part of our Course Notes feature, alongside lectures from the other course I am teaching, Philosophical Ideas in Literature, whose focus is the novels and short stories of Philip K. Dick.  I really hope that readers will find this semester’s Course Notes both entertaining and informative, and as always I look forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions!


65 responses to “Course Notes — A New Introduction to Philosophy Course”

  1. I read this piece with great interest. This paragraph might be the most important:

    “For one thing, it has become quite clear that the students, overwhelmingly, are not doing the reading and that in good part, this is because they are no longer capable of reading these texts on their own. Conversations with students about this suggests that it is due to a number of factors: (a) their high school educations no longer prepare them for extended, difficult reading; (b) they lack the most rudimentary historical knowledge required to situate these texts in the ways necessary for them to make sense; (c) they are incapable of reading older forms of English of the sort that one finds in, say, Hobbes or John Locke.”

    This is, quite simply, truly awful. I don’t expect to see love of books, learning and texts to be universal; clearly individuals have very different interests. But there has to be some institutional defense of those values so that they do not atrophy or become only the preserve of the smallest minority. One of the things I think is happening is that the values associated with these subjects are actually disparaged and demoted, both unconsciously and implicitly, as well as purposefully and explicitly. I think it is part of the downgrading of the humanities in general.

  2. Of course I agree with you. The trouble is that college is simply too late to apply any potential interventions. Hence, my “damage control” approach this time around.

    And yes, one of the consequences of all this is that the elites are going to become even more elite relative to the rest.

  3. This is a sad commentary on the academic abilities of today’s undergraduates. I’ve suspected for a while now, that young people are not reading books anymore due to the rise of the internet. Neither one of my two sons, who are in their late twenties, are interested in reading books, in spite of the fact that I read to them when they were young children. For your intro philsophy class I would have thought that selections from Plato might do the trick, not only because he is such a great writer, but also because he writes in the style of dialogues, which are tailor made for educational purposes. On the other hand, one can see why this might be especially a problem regarding contemporary philosophy, because it is so consistently badly written. Could there perhaps be some warranted blame here? Philosophy has become far too specialized in its practice today, which seems to me a bad trend that has turned off prospective adherents and led to mountains of superfluous books and articles. For great writing in twentieth century philosophy I would recommend, William James, Karl Popper, W. V. Quine, and Bertrand Russell.

  4. Since this represents a structural failure in society, might it be useful for universities to consider remediation in the first year, as these skills will be needed by the students before they graduate?

  5. One year is not remotely enough to make up for a decade of insufficient education. And the more you remediate, the less of the actual material gets taught, which means the value of tue degree is diminished.

    The only solution is (a) to repair public schooling in this country and (b) severely curtail young peoples’ use of online technology. There is zero political will to do either one.

  6. […] came across this depressing post from Daniel A. Kaufman, a professor teaching an introduction to philosophy course to undergraduates […]

  7. “severely curtail young peoples’ use of online technology” – the irony of history strikes again! 25 years ago, states and municipalities, usually at the urging of computer companies, who often supplied low cost materials, flooded schools with computers and computer training courses. This would make students “computer literate,” and thus better able to learn in STEM courses and get jobs in computer- centered professions, etc. – all of which was actually nonsense. Computer-literacy is useful in some STEM programs, but does not inspire one to interest in STEM programs, because there is no direct link between computer practices and STEM practices. But computer-literacy certainly helped develop the internet and social media – although at this point, social media has been so user friendly, it has generated its own literacy, and no longer needs any special knowledge concerning the technology used.

    Of course so much more went wrong in public education than this, yet it certainly contributed to the current dumbing down of America’s students.

  8. Saw this happening teaching English in the ’90s. We are no longer a culture of literature or books. I don’t know all the ways public education contributed to that, but clearly, at some point public educators reached the group-mind decision that the reading skills needed for complex texts was somehow behind the curve of the future. I’m sure some will rant about “leftism,” or even liberalism; but it was profit hungry companies who pushed for certain programs and materials for use in schools; it was certainly not liberals who raised their children to ignore evolution or contemporary cosmology. Frankly I think this group-mind decision was shared by most involved, with left concerns, right concerns, as well as simply capitalist concerns coming together to determine that students simply didn’t need to share a cultural heritage, didn’t need to participate as active citizens in a democratic republican form of government, didn’t need to hope for better futures or make long range plans for better lives.

    In that sense, it cannot be said that public education failed our students. In fact we get exactly the students that public education is now designed to produce. And the remedial programs Jonathan Gossage suggests, as well as the ‘retraining’ for laid-off workers, are not solutions to the problem, they are part of the problem, because they are presumed in advance by high school and college administrators when making decisions concerning exiting test scores and entrance requirements.

    It’s the whole system now; I’m not sure it can be repaired, it may require dismantling and replacement.

    I hope this experimental course works. However, having experienced this situation in the ’90s, and tried experimental curricula myself in response, I know there may be considerable push-back. Plagiarism is now an administrative presumption as well. It may not be the case that administrators – whether left or right – really want students to succeed. Indeed, the notion that a successful student, a good student, is a *learning* student may now seem rather out-of-date to them.

  9. Peter DO Smith

    I think your approach is a very useful one. It resembles that followed by Anthony Kenny, in his book titled ‘A New History of Western Philosophy‘, one of my favourites. He follows a quasi-historical approach, dividing the subject into four major historical periods but within each period he takes a topical approach, as you intend to do.

    I look forward to the rest of your course notes.

  10. Peter DO Smith

    Discussions with those whom I’ve caught (and to whom I am inclined to be kind,

    The man who described himself as obnoxious and combative reveals the kinder, gentler side of his nature 🙂

    I wonder though if that is a mistake. Just as we have ‘gateway’ drugs there are also ‘gateway’ misdemeanours. These same students come us in business and industry. It is not long before we start seeing instances of petty pilferage. They start to cheat on their timesheets. Their expense claims are inflated. They steal time from the company. They rise through the system to positions of power and they become corporate bullies. They write exploitative contracts and they devise means to exploit their customers. They bend the system to enrich themselves and impoverish others. The moral misdemeanours you are exposed to become the moral disasters that envelop us in the corporate world.

    I think there is much to be said of the ‘broken window’ policy that once characterised the actions of NY police.

  11. This made me reflect on my time in high school circa 1977-1979. Our family had moved to a small logging town on Vancouver Island. I did not know whether I wanted to go on to university or not, but I thought it wasn’t likely because I didn’t have the necessary math courses. I decided to try and take a lot of optional courses being offered at my new high school to see if I could push myself in a more academic direction. Courses like Western Civilization, Philosophy, Law, and Classical Music.

    I really liked these classes, especially Philosophy. If I remember correctly, it was an introductory survey class comprised of classical Greek philosophy, logic, critical thinking (identifying fallacies), and some contemporary moral philosophy. The class was quite relaxed, informal, and Socratic. We sat around a big round table and the teacher just started a conversation about a problem or current event, and then deftly tied it into how philosophers in the past thought about or tackled the same or similar problem. This helped inoculate us against the feeling that we already knew everything, or that our opinions had never been thought of by anyone else before.

    The first half or three quarters of the course was taken up with these informal classroom discussions and reading assignments. There weren’t any formal textbooks (except one by Joel Feinberg, which I can’t remember the name of), just an eclectic mix of books. Every so often, the teacher would bring in a philosophy prof from the local community college to talk to us about skepticism or free will, etc, depending on whatever came up doing a recent conversation in class. We didn’t actually get any writing assignments until the course was almost over. I guess the idea was that we needed to marinate in the ideas and the literature first before letting us loose doing any writing. I think it was a good pedagogical strategy. Who wants to have to read and mark the philosophical brain droppings of a bunch of 17 year olds before they even know what they are talking about?

    That high school philosophy class whetted my appetite for more. I started reading philosophy on my own (both Western and Eastern) and, although I didn’t go on to university right after high school (not until 6 years later), it opened my mind to a broader range of interests. I ended up majoring in Anthropology with a minor in Philosophy. I didn’t realize until many years after how unique that high school experience was, especially for a small town. None of my later friends had the chance to take philosophy in high school, as it just wasn’t offered in their big city high schools..

  12. ombhurbhuva

    Daniel Kaufman:
    Great concept and probably a lot more work for you than the standard citation and discussion.

    About general literacy:
    I get daily hits on a note I wrote on my blog about Hazlitt’s essay on ‘The feeling of Immortality in Youth’. Those visitors are from India. De Quincey hits come from there too. The poor deluded creatures are looking for some little wrinkle that will adorn a paper. I like to think that some prof in Lucknow is sighing ‘oh, not again’. Could it be that the Dodge Stage Coach has run the English Stage Coach off the road?

  13. davidlduffy

    Course sounds fun..Re Dick, Lem when he likes something

  14. Richard Groff

    I would like to say I’m surprised to hear that university level students are no longer competent enough as a group to read primary text, I’m not at all. I’m also hearing that here in Germany and from friends in France. Young people are simply not growing up in a reading culture anymore and I’m not confident that the future holds any real promise for liberal democracy.
    For those of us who can still read, would it be a terrible imposition to ask what the reading list used to be? I doubt I’m the only person who would be grateful for the “Kaufman Philosophy Canon”

  15. I wonder about the other 10%. Surely, I hope, not all of the Missouri freshmen lack the capacity to step back and contemplate a thread of argument. How will they find this kind of approach? Wish you luck; close to a no-win scenario.

  16. lif strand

    In 1992 I stopped watching TV almost entirely and ever since 1994 I have not owned a TV set. I don’t go to movies, don’t watch them on my electronic devices. I’m not boycotting, I’ve always preferred reading.

    The downside of not watching TV or movies is minor: I stand outside much of today’s shared cultural references. The benefit is that I am more able to view today’s culture from the outside.

    I have noticed that over time the editing of TV/movies/videos has become abrupt and choppy. I find it irritating, whereas it appears to be how people prefer to be fed their visual content. I also have noticed that bestseller fiction is mostly comprised of shortened and fragmented prose, with high action content and, alas, low complexity of literary flow. The mantra from writer gurus is always ‘show, not tell’. ‘Tell’, however, is where the literary beauty and depth of writing may unfold.

    I now wonder if the inability to follow extended lines of argument is based on people’s thinking minds having been trained by the shortened and fragmented visual content they are bombarded with since birth and reinforced on a daily basis.

    A second point I would like to make is that even as a philosophy major back in the day (and we’re talking way back) I wished the language of philosophy was less dense. I understand the value of learning concepts, labeling them, and then using the label for further development of arguments, but such an approach requires immersion in and dedication to philosophy to a degree the few can (or are willing to) maintain. It’s like speaking any language, or rather, failing to speak one. I used to be fluent in the language of philosophy, nowadays I am not. I’ve become so rusty that I find my even my own papers I wrote way back when to be too dense to parse.

    If the concepts of philosophy are what is important, then perhaps it is also important to talk about those concepts in today’s language. I know there is a feeling that it is a dumbing down of philosophy, but if philosophy is to be relevant in today’s world, doesn’t it have to be a living language, rather than a dead one that can never speak to and of who we are now?

  17. Hi Dan,

    I like this idea, given the realities of the student population. i have some questions for how you’re structuring your course:

    1. Do you start each class with a lecture and then things just develop their own momentum?

    2.To what extent do you plan each day? If you have a fairly structured lecture, do you come up with a note-taking guide for your students to use to help them know what parts of your lecture are the most important? Or do you think it’s important for students to figure this out for themselves? (And do you teach note-taking to them?)

    3. Do you have students review the previous class’s ideas at the beginning of each class?

    4. What are your exams like? Are they multiple-choice, short answer, essay, or something else?

    I know of a professor, Russ Roberts, who was anxious to teach students in such a way that they would learn how to transfer their knowledge to different contexts. Consequently, he would teach them economic concepts (e.g., opportunity cost) but then ask questions that he hadn’t taught them about at all, but that they could answer if they understood the concepts and could figure out how to apply them (e.g., “If California passes a law that makes it mandatory for supermarkets to charge consumers for each plastic bag they use, what will happen to the quality of the bags? Will it improve or decline? Why or why not?”) When Roberts did this, students complained furiously, arguing that it’s unfair of him to test them on things he hadn’t taught. Nevertheless, I thought it was a really cool idea.

    5. How have your students liked your approach so far? Do you ever do your own mid- or quarter-semester evaluations to get a sense of what students think is working or not working? (Arguably, though, students aren’t really in a position to evaluate how good a course is going, any more than patients are in a position to evaluate how good a doctor’s medical treatment is.)

  18. A few random thoughts.

    It’s not their fault. They are victims of the relentless dumbing down of the curriculum. Social media, the internet etc. certainly play a role, but the fact that the bar has been lowered too much is the main cause.

    It’s not only an American phenomenon. It’s happing where I live too. Reading comprehension in primary education is dramatically bad nowadays.

    The phenomenon is not new. In “Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless“ (1906) Robert Musil has a nice scene, in which the young Törless tries to read Kant and ends up immensely frustrated. The difference is the way this frustration is handled in contemporary education.

    It’s going to get worse before it improves. The same educators, education researchers, sociologists etc. who are responsible for the staggering drop of educational standards, are looking for a solution now (after having denied for years there was a problem, but OK …). And just like every cheap Marxist or neoliberal ideologue, they are convinced that they were right all the time. The problem is that the “modernization” of education didn’t go far enough!

    Everybody who actually stands in front of those pupils, knew we had it coming. My wife, who is a teacher of mathematics, told me 14 years ago that the new mathematical curriculum that was introduced, was going to be a disaster. And yes, a few years ago, a friend who teaches physics at a local university, told me that months are lost teaching first year students things that were considered basic mathematical knowledge not so long ago.


    I understand what you did and why you did it, but it’s sad nevertheless. You can learn quantum mechanics or relativity theory or mathematical analysis without reading the “original texts” by Heisenberg or Einstein or Lagrange, Weierstrass, Riemann etc., but the original text has a special place in philosophy. I never read the seminal article by Heisenberg on quantum mechanics, not because it’s too difficult but because it’s unnecessary. But I did read Heisenberg’s “Physics and Philosophy” because second-hand versions of it are rather crude or – what’s even worse – create a clarity that’s actually not there in the original text.

  19. Dan

    I recall a scene in an episode of an old TV series in which French detectives have to deal with a very difficult and sarcastic concierge. “We are police officers,” they say. “You have my sympathy, Messieurs,” she replies.

    It’s become a bit like that for academics. No respect.

    Anyway, I sympathize with your predicament.

    Social media, the internet etc. is obviously playing a big role, but the trends were evident well before the latest technologies took hold.

    My take is very similar to that of couvent2104…

    “It’s going to get worse before it improves. The same educators, education researchers, sociologists etc. who are [at least in part] responsible for the staggering drop of educational standards, are looking for a solution now (after having denied for years there was a problem, but OK …). And just like every cheap Marxist or neoliberal ideologue, they are convinced that they were right all the time. The problem is that the “modernization” of education didn’t go far enough!… I understand what you did and why you did it, but it’s sad nevertheless. You can learn quantum mechanics or relativity theory or mathematical analysis without reading the “original texts” by Heisenberg or Einstein or Lagrange, Weierstrass, Riemann etc., but the original text has a special place in philosophy. I never read the seminal article by Heisenberg on quantum mechanics, not because it’s too difficult but because it’s unnecessary. But I did read Heisenberg’s “Physics and Philosophy” because second-hand versions of it are rather crude or – what’s even worse – create a clarity that’s actually not there in the original text.”

    This is the line I would push also. But it is arguably more history of ideas than philosophy per se (though this depends perhaps on how you define philosophy).

  20. Hi Dan

    Some years ago I helped design and write a Philosophy curriculum for secondary schools in my part of Australia. The designers adopted an approach very much like the one you have now arrived at. Thirty per cent of the course is reasoning skills. Ethics plays a significant part, and metaphysical questions also get a run. We chose not to follow the historical approach common in UK schools.

    (For anyone interested the course is here:

    One key feature is the adoption of a “community of inquiry” teaching method. It is pretty much the class discussion method described by Joe Smith in his comment above. It has its origins in Peirce, Dewey and Lipman. See for example, Contrary to what some might expect, it has a strongly anti-relativistic effect on students. Give them the appropriate tools and settings and they soon see that proper standards of argument have to apply.

    Since it started in 2008 the course has run successfully in government and private schools, and continues to grow. Regrettably, though American philosophers showed the way forward, few US schools teach philosophy.


  21. Well thank you very much!

  22. Peter DO Smith

    600 million years ago a remarkable thing happened. Life acquired vision and that changed everything. Today about 30% of our cortex is devoted to vision, while only 8% is devoted to touch and 3% to smell.

    Viewing, watching, observing and assessing is fundamental to our nature. A short while ago(in evolutionary terms) we directed this ability to the problem of storing and retrieving information and writing was born. This spurred the cognitive revolution that is the basis of modern humankind. This happened because the brain is modified in very beneficial ways during childhood by the practice of reading and writing, multiplying cognitive ability.

    Written information enjoyed its short lived boom for one simple reason. We are narrative animals whose culture is transmitted by narrative. Writing enabled narrative transmission. The marriage of writing with narrative was a very powerful one.

    But this was not a ‘natural’ development because we evolved in the first place as viewers, watchers and observers. This is our true nature. Today we are returning to what we really are. This has been enabled by technology that records and transmits visual information. We are eagerly grasping at this and abandoning the written word.

    We are grasping at this so eagerly because the marriage of narrative with visually transmitted information is an order of magnitude more powerful than the marriage of narrative with written information. Our brains are primarily designed for the quick assessment of visual information. It penetrates our mind more readily, holds our attention more completely and is more fascinating, with the result that we are slowly abandoning reading.

    But there is a large price to be paid. We are losing the cognitive gains that reading/writing in childhood provided. And so teachers/lecturers/academics worldwide are all now reporting the same problems with their students.

    The global revenues from the printed and visual industries shows what is happening

    $ 143 bio – global book revenue
    $ 498 bio – global visual media revenue (TV: 265, film: 136, pornography: 97)

    There is no going back and the implications are slowly becoming apparent. Perhaps there are gains to be had but we will only know in a few generations time.

  23. I finally found a motv podcast to listen to . The one most recently interview with E. John Winner and you Dr Kaufman. I am lost in cultural studies and postmodern thought and I have lost my bearings. I have a B.A. In English from SFSU and many liberal arts associate degrees from community colleges here in Berkeley
    Is there a way to approach the subject in a way that leaves me grounded? Thank you
    Larry Buchalter
    Berkeley California

  24. I found this essay, “why books don’t work”, very interesting and provocative:

    I suspect that people around here will strongly disagree with it, and I’d be curious to hear why. If you don’t want to spend on time on it, the tl;dr version is this:

    Every medium contains within it implicit assumptions; one of the implicit assumptions of books is “transmissionism”, the idea that the best way to learn something is just to have it transmitted from one person (e.g., an author, or a lecturer) to another (e.g., a reader, or a listener). But this is not how learning works: people have to be active in order to learn. Consequently, reading books is not, for most people, a good way to learn. So we should try to change the way books are structured.

    Given that most people here think that students used to better at reading, then this suggests that people used to learn strategies to help them retain what they learned from reading, but, owing to the ubiquity of other media besides books — YouTube videos, texts, blogs, etc. — they have less need to develop such strategies to retain information, which makes books less useful ways of learning than they used to be.

  25. > But this is not how learning works: people have to be active in order to learn.

    No form of learning I know, supposes that people can learn everything by reading books or texts. I’m a child of the Age of the Texts but reading was far from the only thing we did. We had to be active: write papers and reports, do calculations and experiments, translate Cicero and Catullus, discuss ethical issues etc.

    A good case can be made for “rich” learning contexts, with video’s, discussions, hands-on experiences etc. And in some cases, video’s are more useful that texts. If you want to adjust the derailleur of your race bike, a youtube video is more useful than the manual provided by Shimano or Campagnolo.

    But we’re not talking about derailleurs here, we’re talking about philosophy. And in that case, learning contexts that seem to be “rich”, often aren’t. Philosophy is – almost by definition – a text-based discipline. Philosophy without reading texts – preferably the original ones – is like doing mathematics without proofs, calculations and formulas.

  26. I suspect that people around here will strongly disagree with it, and I’d be curious to hear why.

    I don’t actually disagree.

    Books do work — for some readers, but not for others.

    Books always worked for me (except when they didn’t). But they often don’t work for others.

    The main point is, I think, correct. Learning is hard work. And that work has to be done by the student, not by the teacher. So books can work when the student is sufficiently motivated. They don’t work when the motivation is not there. A human teacher can help here, provided that the negative motivation is not too strong.

    Books always worked for me when studying something that I wanted to learn. They didn’t work so well for studying something that didn’t actually interest me. Well, in the latter case, I guess they worked as a soporific.

  27. Well, I have had teachers (and I have myself done) the following: “read [essay so-and-so] by Tuesday and we’ll talk about it in Tuesday’s class session.” Now, when this happens, the result is usually this: many students don’t do the reading; most of those who do the reading don’t understand it; and so the professor spends his time explaining the essay to the students. The students then quickly get the message that there’s no point in reading: if you read, you won’t understand; if you don’t read, it will be explained. So, don’t read.

    In other words, a lot of professors have their students engage in an approach called “reading for understanding”: read this text, and try to understand it. However, this is extremely difficult for students, for the reasons specified in the article. They just don’t know how to understand it. Good readers will have figured out techniques for understanding things, but most students aren’t good readers, and haven’t been taught to read in a way that allows them to retain much information from what they read. Consequently, an approach I’ve heard recommended over “reading for understanding” is “reading for evaluation”: you read a text with a particular, well-defined goal in mind. E.g., “in _Meditation 2_, Descartes claims ‘I think, therefore I am.’ He clearly thinks this is important. But why does he think it’s so important? After all, we all already know we exist; so what is the point of announcing, ‘I think, therefore I am’? What problem does Descartes think this solves?”

    I’m not saying the particular question I just now came up with is one that will guide a good reading for understanding, but it helps students come in with a goal. They might still have trouble reading the text in a way that will allow them to achieve that goal, but it’s more manageable than just “read Meditation 2 and figure out what it’s about.”

    In other words, even if philosophy is thoroughly text-based (I’m not sure I agree, but I’m not sure I disagree), there are still a lot of things a teacher should do to help students learn how to approach a text, things that the text itself doesn’t help them do.

  28. alandtapper1950

    The question for me is about what is being evaluated. Are philosophy students to be evaluated on their ability to interpret texts? Descartes’ “Meditations” for example. Or on their ability to engage in arguments? For me the answer is obviously the latter.

    Taking this view means that I have to give a good mark for a well-argued essay that gets Descartes’ position quite wrong, and poor marks for an uncritical but accurate account of that position. I accept that consequence.

  29. Bunsen Burner

    What about podcasts? I have found I come away with understanding more salient points from a good podcast discussion than a book. Largely because my memory is too limited to remember everything in the book. Also people with expertise tend to concentrate on what’s important during a discussion

  30. In my experience, podcasts are more effective than lectures in helping me learn and retain information. I suspect this is for four reasons: (1) I’m almost always independently interested in the podcast i’m listening to; this is not as often the case with lectures; (2) podcasts are usually dialogues rather than monologues; consequently, one of the participants sometimes asks the question I want to ask, so I stay engaged (and dialogues are just more engaging than monologues anyway); (3) I can move my body around without offending anyone when I’m listening to a podcast; this isn’t usually the case with lectures; (4) I forgot the fourth reason, but it was probably great.

  31. Animal Symbolicum


    Any view that calls for penalizing a student who’s succeeded in faithfully representing the philosophical point of view of another human being should be rethought. Understanding another’s philosophical view is partially constitutive of understanding what its topic is, that is, what it’s a view of. So an inability to understand a philosophical point of view leads to commentary that is beside the point, no matter how cleverly argued. This is precisely what happens in journal philosophy: a wealth of merely clever moves made in the service of nothing except luxuriating in technicalities, appearing smart in front of one’s friends, and adding a feather to one’s plumage.

    But besides all that, people have a hard enough time understanding the views of others on day-to-day matters, let alone when it comes to understanding something so complicated as another’s philosophical view. Students are genuinely awful at faithfully representing the reasoning appearing in local investigative reports, even at faithfully paraphrasing a written news report. How can we expect them to faithfully represent a philosophical view? And how, then, can we expect them to say anything remotely interesting about the view if they don’t actually understand it? It takes care, discernment, and thoughtfulness to reconstruct in your own words someone else’s perception of things, especially if you’re antecedently opposed to or repulsed by that perception of things. I’m certainly not as good at it as I would like to be.

    So I think your view applies to students who are already competent in the art of faithfully representing a point of view different from their own. Sure, let the well-argued but off-topic essay get high marks, as long as I know I could bring the student to understand the sense in which her essay is off-topic, which I could do only if she can tell what counts as on-topic, which she can only do if she’s already pretty good at recovering another person’s perspective.

  32. Peter DO Smith

    that is very interesting to me because I have exactly the reverse experience. For example, the recent video discussion between you and Dan frustrated me immensely with its slow pace and the unnecessary padding. I feel the same way about all the video dialogues that Dan does. Mind you, I am not singling out Dan. This is generally true of the format.

    I can read through a transcript in a small fraction of the time and understand it far better. For the most part I don’t watch Dan’s video dialogues because I find them so time wasting. I fervently wish he would provide a transcript. There are lots of people on the Internet providing transcription services. They are inexpensive.

  33. I’m sorry you feel that way, Peter. BHTV produces and publishes the content, so if there was to be a transcript, they would have to do it.

    I enjoy watching the videos tremendously and given the numbers of viewers/listeners to the podcast, it seems many, many others do as well.

  34. Peter DO Smith

    I enjoy watching the videos tremendously and given the numbers of viewers/listeners to the podcast, it seems many, many others do as well.

    I accept that and the content is always great, actually excellent. I suppose it is just me. I am a reader, first and last. Books were an early substitute for my mother’s milk 🙂

    It has just occurred to me how apposite your remark is to the subject of your essay!

  35. s. wallerstein

    The thing about reading is that you get to meet an author you wouldn’t otherwise. You can meet Dan K. by watching his dialogues in YouTube, but the only way you can meet Plato is to read him or listen to someone read him out-loud.

    You can learn about Plato’s philosophy by listening to a lecture on him and I suppose that at least in theory a lecture on Plato could communicate a very accurate picture of Plato’s different theories, but the experience of meeting Plato through his texts seems valuable to me.

  36. That’s fascinating, Peter. Do you know of any examples of spoken discussions that you did find edifying? (The Chomsky-Foucault debate, maybe? The Russell-Copelston debate? Just throwing some possible examples out there.)

  37. Given what he wrote in the _Phaedrus_, I think Plato would have much preferred a diavlog about him than a lecture!

  38. Peter DO Smith

    Edward Feser and Robert Baronn come to mind. That choice of course reveals my interests. By and large though, if there is a transcript available I dive straight into that. But few people make transcripts available. And so I will only watch video dialogues if I feel strongly drawn to the subject and it offers me something new not otherwise available.

    I watched your debate with Dan because I sensed a strong tension between your two viewpoints and I wanted to see how that played out. I was not disappointed.

    The other day I wanted to replace the headlights on my car. I pulled up the relevant Youtube video and it showed me exactly how to do it. This is where video excels.

  39. Rob G

    Feser had a debate with Barron?? I’ll have to look this up.

  40. Well said! I think the key issue is whether you are right about this: “Understanding another’s philosophical view is partially constitutive of understanding what its topic is, that is, what it’s a view of. So an inability to understand a philosophical point of view leads to commentary that is beside the point, no matter how cleverly argued.” I don’t agree. “Partially” may be true but only very weakly so. “Beside the point” is way too strong a claim. “Cleverly” is a biased term. Anything “off-topic” would be a failure in my type of assessment.

    I will add that I very much value scholarship and the historical approach. But I would make it clear to students that philosophy is (in my view) about argument, and that’s what they will be evaluated on. If other teachers take your view, then fine. We just need to be clear about this.

  41. I was hoping someone else would make the point, since I have no interest in prolonged debate over the issue.

    The theory of reading, as transmission of information to be retained, introduced by rgressis derived from Matuschak, and which has figured predominately in this discussion, is simply wrong. Its recent iteration derived from cognitive Science an from certain Analytically defined communications theory, and from clinical education laboratory practices based on faulty – and false assumption. But it links back to Augustine, who actually never practiced it. (In de Magistor, his son treats the basic premise of Augustine’s theory as a joke, and Wittgenstein, uses it as his bete noir in the Philosophical Investigations. Because it is demonstrably wrong, both the language theory, and the transmission theory of reading derived from it. Consequently *no* ’empirical’ data intended to support it can do so, because this is gathered based upon faulty assumptions (rather like determining aforehand that dogs are feline, and then measuring all the behaviors they share with cats to support that.

    We read in many ways, and for many reasons. But the reading of difficult texts, which requires highly developed literacy skills, including the ability to engage a critical discussion with the *thought* of another, not just the ‘information’ ‘communicated,’ is not about either ‘transmission’ or ‘retention.’ If that’s how one attempts reading the Phenomenology of Spirit, or Joyce’s Ulysses or Moby Dick, or Kierkegaard or Gertrude Stein, or for that matter Shakespeare or Montaigne or even Augustine – one has not yet earned the right to read those texts. If the claim is that such texts are irrelevant, or reducible to ‘Spark Notes’ redaction, or are mere entertainment, than one is a Post-Modernist par excellence, dismissing the history of the West and advocating an ahistorical relativism where nothing matters but the current comment thread or podcast, where students need not struggle to learn for ‘knowledge’ = approved information – will be spoon-fed them.

    I like the “community of Inquiry” idea. I think education should be multi-faceted, it should present students who want to learn with a wide array of access into ideas and possibilities, including active participation in knowledge acquisition and reasoning in an arena of possible conflict and achieved consensus.

    But that is nothing to do with the reading of difficult texts – except insofar as certain students will struggle to achieve the literacy skills necessary to read difficult texts, learning in the process the need to appreciate and respect the past, the long conversation of Western Literature, which, for better or worse, delivers to us the intellectual conflicts and possibilities for consensus that we still struggle with today.

  42. Plato’s Socrates could recite Homer by Heart, and Plato wrote hundreds or pages working through ideas too difficult to express in dialogue – of which, toward the end, he obviously became aware. I think he would have been appalled at your postmodernist suggestion, with its implicit relativism. Not all dialogues are equal; and no immediate dialogue is equal to the concentration of thought required for the writing of a text meant to engage the mind of the reader in a holistic manner, rather than simply ‘transmitting’ ‘information.’

  43. One last thing. It may be claimed that the reading of the literacy skills necessary to read difficult texts was always something of a cultural scam – that’s BS. I was there. Perhaps not the majority, but a sizable percentage were able to acquire these skills in High School. If that wasn’t true, then my experience of discussions with fellow students over the reading of such texts, my experiences with High School grads with no intentions to attend college – including coworkers in various factories – were somehow false and illusory? I don’t buy that.

    There may never have been a time when “everyone could read Ulysses;” but there was a time when many people could learn Shakespeare or Plato or even Nietzsche. That time may have passed, and maybe we need new educational methodologies to account for that. But that doesn’t mean those literacy skills were “elitist’ or had no value.

    Those who cannot read the past will have no record of their future. There is no civilization that is not also a culture of literature.

  44. Peter DO Smith

    I am proficient at reading engineering drawings, electronic circuit diagrams and program source code. If you try to create any of these you start with an idea and a goal. But the finished product does not spring whole from the page. It is an incremental process that starts from a single, simple sentence or symbol in the middle of a white sheet of paper. It stares at you accusingly until you write something, anything, but as long as you write something down and continue doing so. And then we expand on it, adding incrementally, erasing, modifying and even starting again. And at last, the complete product exists, but that might take a long time.

    It happens this way because our brains have a severely limited ability to hold many ideas simultaneously in the foreground of our attention. We solve this problem by setting them down on paper, as it were, fixing them in place in ‘extended’ memory, so that we can build on them. We erect a cognitive building, brick by brick and floor by floor. This is a skill we acquire in childhood as we learn and practise reading/writing. Our mind learns to hold more things in the foreground but more importantly, it learns to transition quickly from the foreground to the periphery, seeing relationships and categories and rapidly seeing new contexts in their proper relationships. The more we read the more skilled we become at this. We become skilled at extended foreground processing.

    But the benefits don’t end there. As we read, the insights, values and experiences of others sink down our consciousness into our store of intuitions. The more we read the deeper, wider and more reliable is our store of intuitions. This matters a great seal because most of the time we assess matters and make decisions by appealing directly to our store of intuitions. This is a quick and efficient process.

    Thus two very important things happen when we practise reading and writing. We develop the skill of extended foreground processing and we create a deep and wide store of intuitions. But as reading declines our extended foreground processing shrinks and our store of intuitions shrink. The result is that we live life more episodically in a more reactive manner. Our ‘extended’ cortex is shrinking.

  45. Peter DO Smith

    Thus I was amused by the unintended irony of it all when Dan defended his video dialogues. Dan was defending an aspect of the process at work which is the underlying cause of the problems he decries in this essay.

  46. How are philosophy dialogues the underlying cause? I don’t get it.l

  47. Animal Symbolicum


    Thank you for forgiving me my hyperbole. You’re probably right about what the key issue is: I think “partially” is apt and importantly so, given (what I see as) the nature of the philosophical endeavor. We likely have different philosophies of philosophy, which is for a different conversation.

  48. Peter DO Smith

    How are philosophy dialogues the underlying cause? I don’t get it.l

    It is the fact that they are ‘video’ dialogues. Visual material is rapidly displacing reading. For example, the numbers I quoted earlier

    $ 143 bio – global book revenue
    $ 498 bio – global visual media revenue (TV: 265, film: 136, pornography: 97)

    As you said:
    I enjoy watching the videos tremendously and given the numbers of viewers/listeners to the podcast, it seems many, many others do as well.

    You neatly encapsulated the process!

    I explained earlier the great appeal of visual material and that it would inevitable displace reading. I maintain that the decline of reading results in changed cognitive development and that this explains the problems you describe in your essay. But you are the pedagogue so you have the final word on this.

    All of my circle of friends have largely stopped reading and now they only talk of the videos, TV series and films they have watched. They vigorously exchange their bootleg copies and there are usually a few 2 to 3 Terabyte hard disks in circulation with all the latest visual material on them. It is safe to assume that their children emulate their example. The rapid adoption of smartphones has accelerated this process.

  49. I suspect it is not long form, no effects, seated, recorded conversations that are undermining people’s reading.

  50. s. wallerstein

    Dan’s conversations in Youtube with Professor Gressis or with others are essentially the same as debates or dialogues that took place between two speakers back when I was in the university over 50 years ago, except that they are now accessible to many more listeners. Several times Dan’s dialogues in Youtube have stimulated me to read more so there is no contradiction between the YouTube dialogue format and reading. I recall rereading Mill’s On Liberty after a dialogue Dan did on liberalism and after his dialogue with Professor Leiter on Marx I spent some hours rereading texts from my old Marx and Engels anthology.

  51. Peter DO Smith

    I know that you are a prodigious reader and a prolific writer. No one would accuse you of contributing to the problem. Even so your liking for the format reflected the general change underway. You may not pay much attention to production quality but your video dialogues are nevertheless very engaging.

    When I watched the dialogue between you and Robert I found myself absorbing something of the personalities of the two of you, and this is why I enjoyed it. That is not surprising. We are made that way, to watchfully assess the personalities of our interlocutors and the video format allows us to do that more completely.

  52. Your last paragraph is interesting. Let me think about it a little before replying.

  53. Visual material is rapidly displacing reading.

    So I click on the video link. Then I click to start playing. And then, while listening, I use a different browser tab for other activities.

    That is to say, I use those videos about the same way as I use a podcast.

    What I find really annoying — instead of posting a short sentence, somebody posts a ridiculous video clip hinting at that short sentence.

  54. Not sure what my postmodernist suggestion is. My point was merely this:

    In the Phaedrus, Socrates decries writing, basically claiming that it gives rise to a sense of false wisdom and weakens the memory. Phaedrus comes to agree. One of the reasons why it gave rise to a false sense of wisdom is that it doesn’t allow you to question the speakers. And yet Plato, Socrates’ great student, decided to write this down! This suggests, then, that he didn’t fully agree with Socrates. But notice how he wrote the _Phaedrus_: he wrote it as a dialogue, which was a way that speakers could question the speakers. In other words, Socrates’ (and possibly Plato’s) point in the _Phaedrus_ was that reading brings with it a habit and an assumption: the habit is to offload one’s memory to something else (this is why it weakens memory–it incites people to stop practicing) and the assumption is that if you read the book you have knowledge (this is why it gives rise to false knowledge). But if you change your text to a dialogue rather than a monologue, you can overcome, to some degree the habit and the problem.

    This is why I thought that Plato would prefer people to have a dialogue about his works rather than a monologue. Thus, I see my suggestion as in line with Plato’s own thinking, at least at one point during his career, and so as much closer to pre-modern than post-modern.

  55. “I was hoping someone else would make the point, since I have no interest in prolonged debate over the issue.”

    OK, then I’ll stop after this comment. You can have the last word.

    “The theory of reading, as transmission of information to be retained, introduced by rgressis derived from Matuschak, and which has figured predominately in this discussion, is simply wrong.”

    Just to be clear: I and Matuschak think that transmissionism is a faulty theory of learning. Moreover, Matuschak never claimed that anyone supported transmissionism. His claim was that transmissionism is the implicit assumption underlying the way most books are written and the way most lectures are done. I guess you’re denying that it’s the implicit assumption underlying books and lectures?

  56. rgressis,
    thinking over the matter, I admit Imay have been a bit harsh in my remarks. Nonetheless, if you present Matuschak’s position correctly, with its clear dismissal of book learning and more highly developed literacy skills, is part of the post-modern condition in which we find ourselves – a reduction of knowledge to information, a rejection of the need to carry on traditions and need to be fully aware of the historic conditions under which they arose.

    And once knowledge is reduced to information, critical standards lose their strength and credibility – all information, just as such shares equal semiotic weight. Knowledge is a composite requiring careful construction.

    Plato represents an historical turning point in this discussion, because, although in his early Dialogues he sympathizes with Socrates’ evident distrust of written texts, he later found it necessary to write long, complicated texts in which to develop his ideas and consider their implications properly. Following the complicated process of this concentration of thought is not supposed to be easy. We teach ‘the ideas of Plato’ as bits of information only as introduction; But the full thought itself, and whatever knowledge we can acquire from it, must be found in the texts themselves.

  57. “I guess you’re denying that (transmissionism is) the implicit assumption underlying books and lectures?”

    I am denying that it is the only or the primary assumption underlying books and, yes, lectures as well. Books can be written, and read, in a process of thinking. What are the many uses we make of thinking? How do we share the process of thinking with others?

  58. Peter DO Smith

    yes, here is a talk with Matuschak where he makes just that point.

    Software Engineer Andy Matuschak talks about his essay “Why Books Don’t Work” with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Matuschak argues that most books rely on transmissionism, the idea that an author can share an idea in print and the reader will absorb it. And yet after reading a non-fiction book, most readers will struggle to remember any of the ideas in the book. Matuschak argues for a different approach to transmitting ideas via the web including different ways that authors or teachers can test for understanding that will increase the chances of retention and mastery of complex ideas.

    In this podcast Matuschak call transmissionism “a bit of a strawman in that nobody actually advocates for it”
    See also
    which discusses the traditional view, the cognitive view and the metacognitive view.

  59. If “transmisionism” is a straw-man in this discussion, why bother with it, since it is self-evidently misguided?

    “Matuschak argues that most books rely on transmissionism, the idea that an author can share an idea in print and the reader will absorb it.” Some would want that,but it is demonstrably untrue. “His claim was that transmissionism is the implicit assumption underlying the way most books are written and the way most lectures are done.” That’s also clearly untrue.

    So we seem to be arguing over which straw-men we need not discuss.

    Well… not sure how this discussion got so carried away into irrelevancies.

  60. Bunsen Burner

    One thing I’ve done is increase the playback speed of my podcasts. You can do the same with youtube. I find I can now listen at 1.5x the speed and still understand everything without being bothered by pauses and slow pacing. Of course every now and again you do come across a very fast talker…

  61. Peter DO Smith

    Almost 130 public libraries have closed in the last year in Britain while an extra 3,000 volunteers have been brought in to run remaining services, as the decade’s austerity pressures see local authorities continuing to apply swingeing cuts to budgets.

    As the decline in the use of libraries continues public bodies find it harder to justify the spending on them. The same story is being reported across the board in my own country. They are innovating in an attempt to reverse the trend but all they have achieved is to slow it down slightly. It is heartening that in so many areas friends of libraries organisations have been spontaneously formed. The local library is the heart of the community.

  62. Bunsen Burner

    ‘All of my circle of friends have largely stopped reading and now they only talk of the videos,…’

    I’ve found the same, and I’m ashamed to admit I’ve become like that as well. It’s so much easier to unwind at the end of the day with a movie or tv show instead of a book. I think it also has something to do with the fact that on most days I feel like I’ve already read more than a novel’s worth of stuff on the internet. I don’t think it’s so much that no one is reading, it’s that no one is reading long-form works for extended periods of time.

  63. That’s funny; I think mobile technology has made me read (and write) a lot more than I used to! That said, I’m constantly reading sites like this one or The Atlantic or Kindle or whatever; and I read in short clips, lots of different things. So perhaps the increase in reading is offset by declines in my ability to read well.

  64. You might want to read the article and listen to the podcast.

    Short answer to your question is this: no one consciously advocates for transmissionism, but nonetheless, the logic of the way books most books are written and the way most lectures are given implicitly commits people to transmissionism.

    It’s like with me: I say I endorse morality everywhere, but the way I live shows that I’m actually committed to something else.

  65. Anthony Couture

    This is a great experiment! You must figure out ways of getting honest evaluations and maximum feedback from students involved, even if they aren’t philosophy majors. I teach similar students in Canada and have a relevant experience in my Philosophy of Humour course in June 2019. I am using a Moodle system for electronic interface with an online section and an in-person section (total about 75 students). I record the in-person class on a digital voice recorder, and speak from my typed up lecture notes and other resources on Moodle. The online section then listens to the podcast, and all students are required to “practice argue” on forums, and reply to other students’ comments. I was using as my main support and excellent book by John Morreall called Comic Relief, but actually developing my own textbook (working title is Laughing-games in the Viral Joke World) by arguing for a more liberated theory of humor than Morreall (I have 12 chapters corresponding to the lectures, covering topics such as What is the purpose of a theory of humor? Diversity and Liberated Theories of Humor, Peanuts by Charles Schulz as Family Humor, The Impossible Ideal of Universal Laughter, Racism, Jokes, and Identity Politics, Culture Wars and “weaponized” humor in Politics, and Sexism, rape Jokes and Excremental Humor: the Reasonable quest for Healthy Humor, etc.). The culminating chapter is called “An Anarchist Theory of Humor” and defends an American-style comedy system with minimal control because laughter is “ungovernable” and comedy is protected from government by the individual human right to joke.–Due to outrageous plagiarism by Chinese business students working together on earlier assignments, I decided to make the final assignment absolutely UNPLAGARIZABLE (if that is a word) by focussing it on evaluating my essay An Anarchist Theory of Humor and 7 other short open source essays (including D. Kaufman on Epithets, and C. Sartwell on Hunting Humans). I failed a number of students because they simply did not or could not read my essay and submitted outside or irrelevant answers not based on my course. One desperate student appealed for a compasssionate pass, and I refused when I found fraud in her essay and excuses. She threatened a lawsuit against UPEI (where I teach), and UPEI’s lawyers instructed a Senate committee to REMOVE ME COMPLETELY from the case because I was BIASED (the marker was asking students to evaluate his own work and has an unfair conflict of interest). The case is still ongoing and two other colleagues have been selected to re-mark the essay, average the grade, then give that to the student. But now I am very wary about these experiments and creating my own textbook as it seems to require independent markers to keep bias out of the picture. You are also correct that most students appear to plagiarize out of panic rather than planning it from start. We need to declare a FIVE YEAR period of open experimentation by all university professors to figure out how we can best cope with all this automation and online education formats and a generation of highly distracted and vulnerable to temptation students.