Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Does the Introductory Philosophy Course Cover Too Much?

Typical philosophy course chalkboard from the University of Chicago
In his blogpost Does the Introductory Physics Course Cover Too Much?, Rhett Allain writes:
The point is that even with the very first concept in introductory physics, there are many things that students must not only understand but master in order to progress. Learning physics isn’t like building a pyramid with introductory concepts at the bottom. No. Learning physics is like an upside down pyramid that gets bigger at the top. All of this mass at the top of the pyramid is being supported by these initial ideas. A small crack in these supporting ideas will bring down the whole thing.
As Allain explains, though he organizes his Intro course around three basic principles (momentum, work energy, and angular momentum), students can only learn these principles if they have already learned what these principles presuppose (vectors, rates of change, how to graph). In other words, the "basics" are not as basic as we professors tend to take for granted, and by taking the "basics" for granted we risk leaving students behind.

Allain therefore suggests that Intro to Physics be reorganized from the bottom up (rather than from the top down, such as by the demands of the other departments whose students are required to take Intro to Physics). This bottom-up approach begins by asking the seemingly most basic question—"why are students taking this course?"—and ends with the sober conclusion:
Alas, if this was a 3 credit hour course you probably wouldn’t get to torque. I think torque is cool, but it’s a stretch to do all the cool things in such a short time.
After reading Allain's blogpost, and after having recently reviewed my student evaluations from last semester, I'm now led to wonder about the three parallel concerns surrounding teaching Intro to Philosophy:
  1. What are the "basics" of Intro to Philosophy?
  2. What are the basics behind these "basics"?
  3. What is the "torque" or "cool thing" we should be willing to drop from Intro?

I would be fascinated (and greatly helped as a philosophy professor) to see how other philosophy professors answer these questions (and in particular how different the responses might be say from analytic and continental philosophy professors). 

Of course for philosophy, unlike physics, these questions are internal rather than external to philosophy (in other words, the question of how to teach philosophy is itself philosophy), for which reason our "upside down pyramid" might look a little different from that of physics.
Physics aims in one direction. Philosophy however is more "Ouroborical"...
Were I to attempt to answer these three questions, it might go something like this:
  1. Epistemology; Ethics; Aesthetics.
  2. Logic; Critical thinking; Writing.
  3. Non-traditional/canonical/Western philosophy.

Such answers of course, Ouroborically, raise new questions:
  1. Can one learn logic, critical thinking, and even writing without first learning epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics?
  2. What is the value of learning epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics if we are not also learning non-traditional/canonical/Western philosophy?
  3. If we were to learn non-traditional/canonical/Western philosophy, what impact would that have on both epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics on the one hand, and on logic, critical thinking, and writing on the other?

As you can see, I am now down the rabbit hole of philosophy, a rabbit hole I have been down many times before, for which reason I would greatly appreciate feedback from any other philosophy professors out there.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Pure Raw

Here's a little taste of Kant's Pure Raw:
You ever noticed that Idealists philosophize funny?  I mean, they all think that we can never through any possible experience become completely certain of the actuality of external objects! 
And don't even get me started on those fucking Empiricists!  They think they're better than Idealists, but they're just as immodest.  Have you been around an Empiricist right after they read Hume?  Woo boy do they puff up their chests and start audaciously denying whatever is beyond the sphere of their intuitive cognitions!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Detroit's Doors of Perception

"Knowledge is Power" at the Detroit Public Library...
From the Detroit Public Library's website:
Designed by architect Cass Gilbert, and partially funded by a gift from Andrew Carnegie, this stately Italian Renaissance style library of glistening white marble was called the most beautiful building in Detroit. In the 1950s, Detroit's population reached almost 2 million and the library's book collection was over 2.5 million volumes, requiring a major building expansion. On June 23, 1963 the Cass Avenue wings were opened to the public, adding 240,000 square feet to Main, doubling its size.
As often happens, Socrates and Plato are united as one...
Cicero and Caesar on the other hand...
From the Cass Gilbert Society website:
In 1913, the city of Detroit held a competition for the design of its new public library. Gilbert's design was chosen by a jury of three for its restrained Beaux-Arts design and its plan which arranged three reading rooms around a large central book delivery room. Although the commission was awarded in 1913, financial difficulties delayed construction. The cornerstone was laid in 1917, and the library finally opened in 1921. 
The library has been characterized as "a symbol of cultural life in Detroit." The building has symmetrical facades of white Vermont marble rising from terraces. At the second level, an arcaded loggia with fluted Ionic pilasters indicates the location of the major service areas on the interior. The barrel-vaulted hall has white marble walls adorned with murals by Edwin H. Blashfield. Arches in the east wall of the former delivery room, now Adam Strohm Hall, contain murals by Gari Melchers. The painted glass windows in this room were designed by Frederick J. Wiley. The fireplace in the former children's reading room has Pewabic tiles illustrating storybook characters. 
Aristotle and Alexander, likely before their falling out...
Augustine seems skeptical about Ambrose...
Sappho and Erinna of Telos, perhaps discussing even then the sad state of women in philosophy...
Aristophanes and Actor, perhaps discussing how to play Socrates in The Clouds...
The interior of the library isn't bad either, but that requires a post of its own...

Happy Father's Day

From my DeviantArt page...
Oedipus Complex Day, I mean Father's Day, was always one of Freud's favorite days. It was great for business...

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Satire of Philosophy by Washington Irving

You know a book is a satire when the author claims someone else wrote it...
On a recent trip to the wonderful used bookstore The Dawn Treader (admittedly the initial purpose of the trip was to get a bubble tea at TK WU next door), I happened upon Washington Irving's satirical first novel from 1809, Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York.

Is there anything that isn't funnier in German?
Not unlike Laurence Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (a book which inspired not only Irving to write his History, but Karl Marx to write Scorpion and Felix), Irving's History begins with some philosophical reflections on the origins of existence. However, whereas for Sterne this involved Shandy recounting the story of his own conception, for Irving this involved recounting the story of the philosophical conception of the Earth itself.

"Diedrich Knickerbocker Philosophizing"
As Irving writes:
It is a mortifying circumstance, which greatly perplexes many a pains taking philosopher, that nature often refuses to second his most profound and elaborate efforts; so that often after having invented one of the most ingenious and natural theories imaginable, she will have the perverseness to act directly in the teeth of his system, and flatly contradict his most favorite positions. This is a manifest and unmerited grievance, since it throws the censure of the vulgar and unlearned entirely upon the philosopher; whereas the fault is not to be ascribed to this theory, which is unquestionably correct, but to the waywardness of dame nature, who with the proverbial fickleness of her sex, is continually indulging in coquetries and caprices, and seems really to take pleasure in violating all philosophic rules, and jilting the most learned and indefatigable of her adorers. Thus it happened with respect to the foregoing satisfactory explanation of the motion of our planet; it appears that the centrifugal force has long ceased to operate, while its antagonist remains in undiminished potency: the world therefore, according to the theory as it originally stood, ought in strict propriety to tumble into the sun—Philosophers were convinced that it would do so, and awaited in anxious impatience, the fulfillment of their prognostications. But the untoward planet, pertinaciously continued her course, notwithstanding that she had reason, philosophy, and a whole university of learned professors opposed to her conduct. The philo's were all at a non plus, and it is apprehended they would never have fairly recovered from the slight and affront which they conceived offered to them by the world, had not a good natured professor kindly officiated as mediator between the parties, and effected a reconciliation. 
Finding the world would not accommodate itself to the theory, he wisely determined to accommodate the theory to the world: he therefore informed his brother philosophers, that the circular motion of the earth round the sun was no sooner endangered by the conflicting impulses above described, than it became a regular revolution, independent of the causes which gave it origin—in short, that madam earth having once taken it into her head to whirl round, like a young lady of spirit in a high dutch waltz, the duivel himself could not stop her. The whole board of professors of the university of Leyden joined in the opinion, being heartily glad of any explanation that would decently extricate them from their embarrassment—and immediately decreed the penalty of expulsion against all who should presume to question its correctness: the philosophers of all other nations gave an unqualified assent, and ever since that memorable era the world has been left to take her own course, and to revolve around the sun in such orbit as she thinks proper.
Irving goes on to give his reader "fair warning" that, as "an impartial historian," he feels that it is his "duty" to investigate the cosmological theories ("by which mankind have been so exceedingly edified and instructed") of such philosophers as Zenophanes, Strato, Pythagoras, Moschus (whose philosophy was "revived by Democritus of laughing memory, improved by Epicurus that king of good fellows, and modernized by the fanciful Descartes"), and Plato ("that temperate sage, who threw the cold water of philosophy on the form of sexual intercourse"), among many others. 

As Irving warns (and if you're going to put a "trigger warning" in your philosophy syllabi, this would make for a pretty good one):
...I am about to plunge for a chapter or two, into as complete a labyrinth as ever historian was perplexed withal; therefore I advise them to take fast hold of my skirts, and keep close at my heels, venturing neither to the right hand nor to the left, least they get bemired in a slough of unintelligible learning, or have their brains knocked out, by some of those hard Greek names which will be flying about in all directions. But should any of them be too indolent or chicken-hearted to accompany me in this perilous undertaking, they had bester take a short cut round, and wait for me at the beginning of some smoother chapter. 
Rather than be offended by Irving's mockery of philosophy, I think we should take it as a compliment. That a novelist would spend so much time joking about philosophers, and in a novel that was immensely popular, shows that there was a time in America when philosophy was part of the culture. 

So please, novelists, be inspired by Irving, and make fun of philosophers as much as you can (note: making fun of philosophers is not the same as making fun of philosophy, as the former requires reading philosophy, while the latter only requires hearing Neil deGrasse Tyson on a podcast). 

If people are laughing at philosophers, then there is a much greater chance that people will again laugh with philosophers as well.
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