Legitimation for Intro to Philosophy

Note: I started writing an outline for this post before “How is This Course Intro to Philosophy?” was cross-posted to Daily Nous. I appreciate the comment thread there, which has provided useful material for fleshing out the outline.

In “How is This Course Intro to Philosophy?”, I recounted some (positive and negative) student reactions to the introductory course that I have been developing the last two semesters. This topical course covers language, epistemology, and the power structures related to race, gender, and disability. Borrowing the framework from Dotson (2012), I argued that these student reactions seem to function as legitimation on what really counts as intro to philosophy. However, I have not said much about the justifying norms that are being employed in this legitimation.

Legitimation, here, refers to practices and processes aimed at judging whether some belief, practice, and/or process conforms to accepted standards and patterns, i.e. justifying norms.” (Dotson 2012: 5)

Some professional philosophers’ reactions to that post have helped me to think more about the justifying norms at play. Especially helpful were the reactions from those who thought the course might be appropriate as an upper-level philosophy course, but not as an introduction to philosophy. This post tries to delineate three types of justifying norms for introduction to philosophy, which concern methodology, tradition, and topic.

Methodology

A standard philosophy syllabus construction tactic is to assign contrasting perspectives on a topic: one for affirmative action and another against, one for skepticism and another against, and so on. The pedagogical idea is that, by presenting dueling perspectives, students can better learn how to argue.

I think it is a fine tactic and continue to use it for many of my courses. But I don’t think it’s always appropriate. In the past, especially when the syllabus topics are relatively abstract, I have found that students can sometimes come away with the (false) idea that philosophy is just a game and there are no right answers. Moreover, there’s a danger of false equivalence. I don’t, for example, think that anyone who assigns an anti-colonialism text must also assign a pro-colonialism text. (But I also think that there can be reasonable disagreements about which debates rest on a false equivalence.)

But I think many think this tactic is not just important, but essential to intro to philosophy because they think of argumentation as the defining tool of philosophy. The dueling metaphor is—at least in my own educational experience—frequently used in order to portray philosophy as a battle of intellect, with arguments as weapons.

While I think argumentation is very important to philosophy, I think the dueling metaphor is also very limiting. Personally, I prefer to pursue philosophy as collaborative enterprise (which can include adversarial collaboration) that is much less about who can come up with clever arguments than much more about whether we can work together to uncover some timely and timeless truths. Sometimes that collaborative enterprise will involve arguments, but often it will also involve many other philosophical tools. As such, I am sympathetic to the ideas in that Costica Bradatan articulates in “Philosophy Needs a New Definition”:

But philosophy has never only been about rational argumentation. It would be the saddest thing if it were, and it would not have lasted that long. What makes philosophy such an endurable affair, in the West as well as in the East, is that it engages not only our cognition, but also our imagination, emotions, artistic sensibility, religious impulses — in short, our being complicated, messy, impure creatures.
[…]
What we badly need now is a liberal dose of humility. We should at last understand that philosophy comes under different guises, and by many names, that it never comes in a pure state but loves messiness and hybridity, that it gets entangled with the philosophers’ lives and earthiness. Such an act of humility wouldn’t impoverish philosophy at all. On the contrary, it would empower the philosophers and make philosophy a richer, more sophisticated, and more relevant affair.

So in my introductory course, I emphasize the importance of argumentation—believe it or not, I still ask my students to write papers that must have a thesis and support for that thesis—but I also emphasize other things philosophy can do, such as furnishing concepts to understand the world (again, recall Dotson’s culture of praxis). There are still disagreeing perspectives included, in discussion—for example, I ask students to critically assess Dotson’s terminology of “epistemic violence”—and in the texts assigned—for my heterodox academy readers, I assign an essay by my colleague that argues that my own university lacks ideological diversity. But, yes, it is not structured explicitly as a for-and-against course.

Perhaps you disagree with that pedagogical choice. That’s fine. But I don’t think it should be disqualifying for a course to count as intro to philosophy if it is not structured by the for-and-against tactic or, even, if it doesn’t emphasize argumentation as a defining feature of philosophy. To employ such a justifying norm for what counts as intro to philosophy is to replicate a (in my view, problematic) justifying norm for what counts as philosophy.

Tradition

A standard intro to philosophy syllabus construction tactic is to assign a sample of texts from “canonical” figures, such as Plato, Descartes, Hume, etc. Not all introductory courses do this; some problem- or topics-based courses eschew historical figures altogether. And not all introductory courses focus solely on the Western canon; for example, some might mix Western canonical figures with, say, Mengzi and Xunzi. However, I imagine, almost no one would say that course that is based on, say, Plato’s Theaetetus, Descartes’s Meditations, and Hume’s Inquiry does not count as intro to philosophy.

Now, we might employ a trusty philosophical tool: the thought experiment. Suppose there were an introductory course that is based on, say, the Analects, Mengzi, Xunzi, and Mozi. Some might be perfectly fine with that. (I am.) But imagine that there will be many cries of “that is not intro to philosophy, that is intro to Chinese philosophy.”

So it seems that when people ask for certain figures to be included in an intro syllabus, it is not only an appeal to the rich and varied history of philosophy, but an appeal to a very particular tradition. Indeed, it is a tradition that places a lot of importance on argumentation. As Nicholas Tampio articulates this perspective in “Not All Things Wise and Good are Philosophy”:

Philosophy originates in Plato’s Republic. It is a restless pursuit for truth through contentious dialogue. It takes place among ordinary human beings in cities, not sages and disciples on mountaintops, and it requires the fearless use of reason even in the face of established traditions or religious commitments.

I disagree with Tampio’s conception of philosophy. That is, I reject “originating in Plato’s Republic” as a justifying norm for what counts as philosophy. And so I don’t think it should be disqualifying for a course to count as intro to philosophy if it fails to include Plato’s Republic, or even any work that originates in Plato’s Republic. To employ such a justifying norm for what counts as intro to philosophy is to replicate a (in my view, problematic) justifying norm for what counts as philosophy.

Topic

A standard topic-based intro to philosophy syllabus construction tactic is to assign a sample of topics from recognizable philosophical subfields—a topic or two from epistemology, a topic or two from metaphysics, etc. Of course, even when one does so, it is not possible to cover all philosophical subfields. Indeed, it is not possible to cover all worthwhile topics from the subfields selected. One must pick and choose which topics to cover.

My introductory course does not do that. As I state in the syllabus, the topics chosen “introduce students to diverse areas of philosophy — philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology; ethics, political philosophy; philosophy of race, philosophy of gender, philosophy of disability — and, even more importantly, connections between them.” Yes, the topics are have to do with language and knowledge, but they also have to do with many other facets of philosophy.

When people worry that my introductory course is too narrow, I wonder what they have in mind. (There are, of course, many ways to operationalize broadness of a course. I think my course is narrow on some operationalizations but broad on others.) I suspect that, at least in some cases, people are implicitly or explicitly employing particular subfield demarcation scheme, one that is informed by and embedded in the Western philosophical tradition. Perhaps this is a scheme that considers epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion to be three distinct subfields but philosophy of race, gender, and disability to be just one subfield. Indeed, perhaps this is a scheme that considers epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion to be central to philosophy, but philosophy of race, philosophy of gender, and philosophy of disability to be peripheral to philosophy.

But even then, it is not as if there aren’t topics that cut across subfields in many intro to philosophy courses. Free will and determinism is probably the most notable one. But perhaps that is a recognizable exception because of its centrality to the Western philosophical tradition.

I don’t have strong views about how philosophy ought to be divided, and which subfields ought to be central and which ought to be periphery. Indeed, I don’t find such questions very worthwhile, outside of their sociological interest. But, as we have learned from Dotson, recognizable subfields and recognizable topics do function in the justifying norms of which research programs count as philosophy. And so, I worry that to employ a recognizable-subfield justifying norm for what counts as intro to philosophy is to replicate a (in my view, problematic) justifying norm for what counts as philosophy.

Notice, then, that all the justifying norms in the legitimation for intro to philosophy are, in one way or another, reproductions of justifying norms for philosophy. Perhaps this is just happy news for those who support the justifying norms for philosophy that Dotson criticizes. But I think the news should also be of particular interest to those who thought my course might be appropriate as an upper-level philosophy course, but not as an introduction to philosophy. Even when one rejects a global legitimation process, one might unintentionally reproduce it locally.

Pluralism, Practicality, Pedagogy

Let me be clear. I am not telling anyone else how they should teach intro to philosophy. The whole point of “How is This Course Intro to Philosophy?” is to advocate for pluralism regarding intro to philosophy. Some philosophers teach an entire intro just on Plato’s Republic. Some philosophers teach intro using speculative fiction. Some philosophers teach intro focusing on Smith, Hayek, Nozick, etc. None of them are disqualified as intro to philosophy, on my view, solely based on the assigned texts.

In fact, I grant that at many institutional contexts, it might not even be desirable or appropriate to teach my course as intro to philosophy. I have been something of an academic vagabond, having been at University of Michigan, Kansas State University, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, University of Leeds, and now University of Puget Sound. Each of these institutions differ dramatically on factors such as institution graduation requirements, philosophy’s place in the institution, departmental curriculum, student demographics, etc. So I intimately know that a course that works well at one institution may well work poorly at another. I think all of these are important practical factors to consider in whether to title a course like mine “Introduction to Philosophy”, or whether to even offer it at all. My minimal claim is only that my course ought to count as intro to philosophy.

In fact, I grant that my course might be a bad intro to philosophy. I mean, obviously I don’t think so. But, in addition to the practical factors, there are many pedagogical factors to consider, as brought out by the very constructive comments from Rob Gressis, MBW, and feminist epistemologist. There are considerations about teaching skills versus teaching content, considerations about motivating and challenging students, and so many others. There are costs and benefits to be paid for each choice one makes. No doubt attempting to achieve an optimal balance is what keeps many professional philosophers up at night as they design their intro courses. I’d like to think I have achieved a reasonably good balance within my institutional context, but I also concede that my confidence of that assessment is not very high and that my courses are (always) works in progress. There can be very reasonable disagreements on the best ways to balance different pedagogical considerations. However, again, my minimal claim is only that my course is really intro to philosophy.

I do want to close by noting two criticisms that I find very puzzling. Brian Leiter says that my course is “too specialized” and “too demanding”. Since whether a course is demanding depends on many aspects of course design that is not apparent from the texts assigned—such as assignments, expectations, conceptual scaffolding, etc.—I can only assume that Leiter means that the texts are too demanding. But I don’t really understand how Katharine Jenkins’s article on rape myths and domestic abuse myths is more demanding on students than Descartes’s Meditations (even the accessible EarlyModernText version!). Who of us has thought Meditations was an easy read? Similarly, I don’t really understand how a discussion of the injustices brought on by prevalent rape myths and domestic abuse myths in our society is more specialized than a discussion of the possibility that all our percepts are merely products of a powerful and cunning evil demon.

I am thankful for all the constructive criticisms, and they have given me much to think about. In my most self-aggrandizing moments, I hope that my post has encouraged philosophers who have such enthusiasm for this topic to consider how their intro courses balance the different practical and pedagogical factors. I know I am still working on that.


I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. My (somewhat outdated) academic website is liao.shen-yi.org. My views obviously don’t reflect anyone else’s.