Teaching Philosophy Backwards

Ethan Milne
Aug 13 · 5 min read

Most introductory courses in philosophy aren’t philosophy. It would be more appropriate to call them history of philosophy. I think this is damaging to our general perception of philosophy and will propose an alternative style of teaching philosophy — by doing it backwards.

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Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

Why introductory philosophy courses matter

It’s difficult to find stats on the breakdown of who takes intro philosophy courses. From what I know of Canadian universities — and I presume the same is true for their American counterparts — philosophy is often considered a “breadth” requirement for graduation. Students are required to take at least one philosophy course in order to graduate in the same way we need to take a couple second language courses and a few math courses.

Philosophy, while by no means an unpopular degree, is still only a small fraction of total majors. Given how large introductory philosophy classes are, I’m going to assume that the majority of people taking them aren’t philosophy majors — they’re at best philosophy minors, and more likely to be people in it for the breadth requirement.

In other words, introductory philosophy courses are probably the first and only experience people have with philosophy in their academic careers. So why do these courses teach so many outdated things?

Introductory philosophy courses as history

A standard course in philosophy might start with the Greeks — Socrates, Plato, maybe Diogenese if the professor likes to have fun. Eventually, it will move on to more recent philosophers like John Locke, Bentham, Kant, Neitzche. Next may be some fun thought experiments like Mary’s Room, and the Trolley Problem.

Students will be asked to understand the positions of these influential philosophers and answer multiple choice questions about how these thinkers might go about applying their stances to modern problems. If the class is small enough (or has enough Teaching Assistants), students may be expected to write an essay or article applying what they’ve learned — compiling a list of real life trolley problems, for example.

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The Trolley Problem

This is all well and good, but at no point have these students meaningfully engaged with philosophy. They have instead been taught to parrot the opinions of various famous philosophers and contort real-world situations to fit their various theories. Philosophy is about thinking, and this style of teaching seems designed to avoid engaging in the act of philosophy.

Cargo Cult Philosophy

In his book “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”, Richard Feynman — one of my science communication idols — proposes the notion of cargo cult science:

“In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he’s the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.” — Richard Feynman

I fear we’ve done the same with philosophy. Introductory philosophy courses give students the ability to imitate the methods of true philosophers and pretend to knowledge of how the field works — but is missing a fundamental element: actually thinking through your own original ideas.

A vision of philosophy’s future

Here’s what I’d like for philosophy’s future:

Redesign philosophy courses with a focus on getting students to meaningfully engage with philosophy. Have students find moral or epistemological dilemmas in their life and attempt to reason through them on their own. Only after this has been done should you begin introducing the thoughts of old philosophers. Only after students have sincerely made the effort to think for themselves should we give them the knowledge, terminology, and concepts that would let them defer to the thoughts of others.

The history of philosophy is interesting! But if the only experience students have with the field is the very first courses offered, why learn exactly what Socrates thinks when you can instead learn to do philosophy?

This is what I mean by teaching philosophy backwards. The build up to having original thought is first preceded by a seemingly endless string of factoids about the “greats”. We can and should flip that pattern to show people what philosophy can truly be like.

Limitations

Or: acknowledgements of uncharitability

This is perhaps the least charitable essay I’ve written to date. I believe what I’ve written but also think there are serious caveats that should be applied to my analysis and recommendation.

First, I’ve implicitly assumed that many old philosophers are outdated. I do think this is true — there’s nothing Socrates has said that others haven’t said better — but admit there is still a sizeable contingent of philosophers who do legitimately find enduring value in ancient philosophy. See, for instance: the modern stoic philosophers (Massimo Pigliucci is a good place to start).

Second, I’ve assumed that philosophy courses don’t already do what I’ve recommended. There isn’t a good source of data on this, so I can only offer my personal experience having been in many introduction to philosophy courses. The sentiment I’ve shared is also not uncommon. I’ve seen similar ideas pop up on philosophy blogs, the papers of other philosophers, and even TikTok — though typically as throwaway lines criticizing philosophy for its inordinate obsession with antiquity.

Third, I’ve assumed that my proposal would have material benefits. While it may appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities, I have zero reason to believe it would meaningfully improve the philosophy education of non-philosophers beyond an intuitive sense that actually doing something is better than learning about how others have done it. I also don’t really know if philosophy as a breadth requirement does anything for students right now. I’ve read enough about the knowledge retention of university students to know that most of what we’re taught is immediately forgotten by the end of the term — right after we’re done being tested. Maybe the right solution is to simply cut philosophy from breadth requirements on the grounds of it being a waste, but that’s another post for another time.

There’s obvious holes in my analysis, and likely a few more I’ve missed. Being the overconfident person I am, I’m still going to go ahead and say, as humbly as I can, that I’d like to see this attempted at least once and I’d like to see the results.

Ethan Milne

Written by

Current PhD student at the Ivey School of Business, researching consumer behaviour. I enjoy writing long-form explanations of niche academic books.

Ethan Milne

Written by

Current PhD student at the Ivey School of Business, researching consumer behaviour. I enjoy writing long-form explanations of niche academic books.

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