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!