Teaching Philosophy

I’ve been spending a ton of time organizing curriculum and a semester-long schedule for a high school (senior-level) philosophy course that I am teaching this fall. It starts in two weeks, and I’m pretty excited to get a crack at teaching in a subject I find both meaningful and necessary.

In the first section of the course, assuming all goes to plan, we’ll be discussing what philosophy is, why it’s important, and how to determine whether we are thinking critically or not. I’ll be using several different resources and articles to make the point, but one of the main things I hope to use is Alan Jacobs’s How to Think — especially “The Thinking Person’s Checklist,” which he placed at the end of his book, but which summarizes his thoughts throughout the book nicely. Here are a few of my favorites on the list:

2. Value learning over debating. Don’t ‘talk for victory.’

6. Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuie cmmunity and can handle disagreement with equanimity.

7. Seek out the best and fairest minded people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.

11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing.

12. Be brave.

Those last two, in particular are extremely important. One of the values I hope to instill over the course of the beginning section of the course is having no fear when engaging in thought and conversation about a topic that might otherwise make us anxious, afraid, or angry. Not only do those emotional responses hamper good quality discourse, they prevent us from stepping away from ourselves and our biases and incapable of even remotely rational thought. The truth (whatever it might be) ought to make us excited, not scared. And an opinion that is contrary to ours (even if the conclusion fundamentally affects the way we currently view the world) is worth engaging with — otherwise, we are not honestly interested in the truth at all.

We haven’t touched necessarily on what philosophy is (my usual number one question when thinking about a subject), but we are a little closer, by following the rules above, to answering the question, “What is philosophy for?”

We’re All Kantians

The closer we get to Kierkegaard’s time, the closer we get to epistemologies that more closely reflect Kierkegaard’s understanding of religious  and ethical knowledge. Kant, for example, provides a sort of middle way — or perhaps a better way to say this is that he provides a method that transcends the boundaries set out by the rational and empirical models of knowledge from Descartes to Hume. If we’ll remember, Descartes tended towards a heavy rationalism — doubting what he could not know with certainty until he could ascertain knowledge a priori that couldn’t be doubted. From this point, he attempted to build a system (internally) that couldn’t be doubted, and that gave him clear, reliable knowledge of the exterior world.

Hume (and his philosophical forebears) essentially thought this was rubbish. Knowledge is only accessible via sense experience. There are many reasons he thought this, but suffice it to say that the only knowledge he thought was even valid was knowledge that we gain “sensibly.” Through experience with the external world, we gain impressions (the immediate experience of the object with which we are interacting), and our minds create “ideas” from those impressions. Those ideas are our mind’s re-creation of those impressions, allowing us to observe them, post-experience. One of the main problems that Hume faced here is that he couldn’t prove causation via purely empirical evidence. But since he refused to acknowledge the existence of a priori knowledge, and we can’t prove that an effect was caused by something prior to a specific event occurring via sense experience, we’re stuck saying we can’t prove causation. The best we can do is say that, based on observation, we can reasonably expect that event B will follow event A because, historically, that’s what has happened before.

Kant sought a middle way here, and was, I think relatively successful. In fact, I think he was so successful that most of us still operate under Kantian or neo-Kantian epistemological assumptions. His solution? We do bring prior (a priori) forms to our experience of the world, but those forms are void of content. What are these a priori forms? Primarily space and time, but also things like causation. When we experience the world, we never experience it outside of these forms. Therefore, while those forms are not empirically extant, we bring along those forms with us. Copleston, in his History of Philosophy, Vol. VI, likens it to a man wearing rose-tinted glasses that he cannot remove. This man can still experience the world, but he can experience it in no other way than as rose-tinted. Space, time, and causation, according to Kant, are our rose-tinted glasses. Why is this useful knowledge? Because, if we know that we experience it as such, we can make other claims about reality that we couldn’t have made before, and it can perhaps explain our experience of phenomena (things that exist and/or occur) that do not otherwise make sense under empirical or rational models of epistemology.

Now, this is a serious distillation of Kant’s system, and his arguments that get us here are dense. But it seems as if we can at least recognize that this form of understanding how and why we know things informs how we understand epistemology today. Later, I’ll talk about his discussion of the limits of human reason, and how his epistemological system determines what we can know in the ethico-religious sphere.

Who Cares about Accreditation?

Roger Olson on accreditation and private, religious universities:

My firsthand experience with accrediting agencies, societies and associations is that they seek to hold out accreditation or renewal of accreditation as the proverbial carrot on a stick to manipulate institutions of higher education to embrace their values.

What do I mean by ‘values?’ One clear, undeniable example is ‘measurable outcomes.’ To put it colloquially, the bean counter mentality has taken over. Every program, every course is now supposed to have measurable outcomes for students. This has created havoc, of course, with the liberal arts and is one reason, I believe, for the struggles colleges and universities in the U.S. are having over sustaining liberal arts education. How, for example, does one measure wisdom, maturity, acumen, insight, and appreciation of beauty (broadly defined) numerically? The value here is instrumentalism—the belief that education is primarily about functionality, skill, productivity, problem solving.

This discussion will continue to be one of importance for private universities in the next few years. In recent decades (perhaps since the GI Bill was created?), Americans have viewed higher education as a means to wealth and higher levels of production and societal status. This has further led us to shift our focus from liberal arts and humanities to degrees that bestow and signify technical skill (computer science, business, education, etc.).

That’s not to say I don’t believe that those areas of education are useless or need not be pursued. The question, really, is what is the purpose of higher education in the first place? Is it to create better workers in a society, to produce more wealth, to move up the chain just a little bit? Or is it to build wisdom and character and virtue? I addressed this a little bit in “The Non-Pragmatic Private University.”

Olson is right to be concerned that accreditation agencies have moved from simply making sure colleges do what they say they do to imposing values (curiously, American “pragmatic” values) upon colleges. Forcing colleges that attempt to teach philosophy (the love of wisdom), theology (the study of God), and the like, while also producing “measurable outcomes” in students necessarily changes both the subject matter and focus of the education in question. How do we confirm that students have gained a “love of wisdom” in a philosophy course? The answer, of course, is that we can’t. All those courses can do is attempt to create an atmosphere that encourages critical thought and engagement in students.

At their best, philosophy courses and degrees cannot give an account of a measurable outcome, and further cannot prove to society that they are somehow “useful” or “pragmatic.” They aren’t meant to be useful or pragmatic. They’re meant to change how people live and think and act. They’re meant to make us ask the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Unfortunately, that doesn’t neatly into the American dream of health, wealth, and prosperity. But it just might help create a more just and beautiful society.

Neither Rationalism Nor Empiricism

If Descartes’s rationalism leaves us with despair, Hume’s empiricism doesn’t provide us with anything more compelling.

A purely rationalist model like Descartes’s that finds its basis in radical doubt first leaves us with despair because we cannot have certain knowledge if we affirm that as a basis for our understanding of the world. Hume’s empirical system (we gain “ideas” via “impressions,” or, to put it a little more simply, any knowledge we gain about reality is gained via sense experience) leaves us with an inability to reasonably believe in the transcendent or the existence of ethical norms. How we ought to act is simply a matter or custom and the social nature of human beings.

That’s why Kierkegaard’s claim, a little less than a hundred years later, that “subjectivity is truth” is necessary. Ethico-religious truth isn’t actually knowable rationally or empirically. That realm of human life is off-limits to objectivity, because objectivity necessarily is disembodied. It’s also important to note that Kierkegaard was approving of both a form of rationalism and empiricism (I think this was likely due to a Kantian influence). He understood that the form of rationalism that affirms abstract truth (mathematics and necessary, logical assertions) and an empiricism that seems to bestow approximate knowledge of how the world functions and historical fact are good, necessary things.

We just can’t submit ethical and religious truth to the same level of inquiry, because they are categorically different spheres. “Knowing” these kinds of truth necessarily implies embodiment of those truths. If we don’t embody selflessness, for example, we reveal that we don’t know that selflessness is a worthwhile virtue. If we don’t embody Jesus, the same can be said. Kierkegaard attacked philosophical abstraction, but only at the service of honesty about our current ethical and religious states. This is a different kind of epistemology — a religious one, and one that doesn’t allow the modernist assumptions about the superiority of human rationality to set the standards for truth in all spheres.

All Descartes Can Give Us is Despair

In his history of philosophy, Frederick Copleston seeks to defend Descartes’s legacy against those who would argue that his methodical doubt is just an abstract attempt to arrive at certain knowledge. He writes:

The Cogito, ergo sum is therefore the indubitable truth on which Descartes proposes to found his philosophy… It is the first and most certain existential judgmenet. Descartes does not propose to build his philosophy on an abstract logical principle. In spite of anything which some critics may have said, his concern is not simply with essences or with possibilities: he is concerned with the existing reality, and his primary principle is an existential proposition.

A History of Philosophy IV, 93

Copleston’s (and by extension, Descartes’s) problem, however, is twofold. First, Descartes objectified existence, so that even if he built his philosophy and his understanding of the nature of reality and God and knowledge on an “existential principle,” he abstracted himself away from the reality of that existential principle. This very fact, the foundation of his thought (methodical, relentless doubt) led him away from subjectivity, which, for Kierkegaard is truth. For Descartes, his own existential reality may have served as the foundation for the rest of his philosophical enterprise, but (like God himself) existence was no more than a pragmatic detail, an afterthought to objectified, rationalized knowledge. (In fact, Descartes himself meant to write a moral philosophy, but never felt he was able to do so. Not surprising, given his obsession with method and abstracted knowledge.)

Second, I find it unlikely that anyone can proceed upon Descartes’s project without feeling some level of despair about the amount of certainty that one can obtain about the nature of reality, knowledge, and how we ought to act. Further, embarking upon such a project necessarily forces humans (if they are honest about where the project has led them) to infinitely regress into skepticism and either hedonism or despair. Lack of certainty about anything but our very existence (which is the only “accomplishment” the modern epistemological project provides) is the only outcome. Thus, Kierkegaard says we are met with the paradox of God (the infinite) in time and faith, the vehicle of a good human existence.

A Teleological Thesis

On its face, my thesis consists of exploring Kierkegaard’s models of epistemology and determining whether it would be a helpful model to appropriate in the present. I think it’s worth it for many reasons, especially because, as I’ve said previously, “Many of us spend more time building up mental frameworks to maintain our certainty that we are right and others are wrong than we do in living out our ethical and religious ideals we claim to believe.”

The deeper reason I’m focusing on Kierkegaard is because he’s helping me do what I mentioned in my recent post on teleological blogging. In other words, for something to be worth our time and energy and focus, we need to be able effectively answer two questions about that thing:

  1. What is this thing?
  2. What is this thing for?

My thesis is going to be a long-winded, academic treatment of the issue of religious epistemology, or what we can know about what we believe ethico-religiously. The questions I’ll end up asking (and attempting to answer) are (1) What is religious knowledge? and (2) What is religious knowledge for? I find the model of applying these two questions to a problem helpful, because it forces me to parse down the categories further, and helps me to think analytically and historically. For example, I cannot answer question 1 without first answering the question “What is knowledge?” in general. And then further, how do we justify the claim that we “know” something? What can we know with absolute certainty, and we can we only know approximately? And are those things that we “know” even knowable in those ways? Are there other types of knowledge (knowing “that” something is true vs. knowing “how” to do something)? How do we determine which things we say we “know” belong in which categories?

This is how my thesis gets built. Keep asking the questions until I get to a point of clarity. I cannot honestly say whether I’m even in complete agreement with Kierkegaard. He offers what I think is an extremely useful model through his Johannes Climacus literature, and I hope that it helps me to clarify my own thinking. But even more than that, I hope that it helps me to live my life in a truer way than I did before, and that he serves as a guide for living a more faithful, Christian life.

Maybe That’s Enough

There are some days when I feel like there is nothing to say. Today is one of those days.

I didn’t get much thinking done — I was busy, hands active, mind working — but not thinking. Perhaps life cannot always include reflection on topics I think are important. Sometimes, you just gotta… get through it. Work, build, cook, run, talk, eat, sleep.

And maybe that’s enough. Kierkegaard would probably say so. He argued that a life solely lived in an abstracted, self-reflective mode is no real life at all. In fact, it’s a failure to live.

Mr. Rogers Was a Failure

Over the weekend, Elaine and I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Its overwhelmingly positive critical reviews speak for themselves; I certainly was inspired and moved in ways I both did and didn’t anticipate. (Never mind that I choked up several times.)

A common theme throughout the film revolves around Mr. Rogers’s doubts about the work he engaged in during his long career. Not that he doubted whether the work itself was good, but whether it was effective. He seemed to be constantly concerned that what he did wasn’t good enough and wasn’t accomplishing enough for American culture. His work was an attempt at cultivating an alternative reality to that of the slapstick and violent television that existed in the 60s and 70s.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film shows Fred Rogers in a moment of sadness and silence after being asked to make TV spots a month after 9/11. He seems unsettled and unsure that doing the same kind of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood-style work will have any effect on the American public in the face of such a terrible tragedy. The camera shows him at the beginning of a take, sitting at a piano, attempting to collect his thoughts. You can see sadness and struggle radiating from him, as if he cannot decide whether what he is about to say will even matter.

I know that Fred Rogers dealt with these struggles all of his life (in another scene of the documentary, his wife reads an old journal entry that he wrote which detailed these doubts about his work). What I found most inspiring is that he just keep going. He seemed to know that there was no other option, no other course of action that he could take if he wanted to see a better world. Which makes the scene above that much more disturbing — the reality is, all of his work was simply inadequate.

This reality is something most of us are not willing to admit if we are engaged in bringing about a better world. The real, brute fact about life is that doing good work often requires obscurity (Fred Rogers was by no means obscure, though), and will probably not make a large difference. Good work — if it is truly good work — fails. This means doing good requires relentless, reckless, constant, irrational vigilance

That is a sobering thought, and one that requires us to have a nearly impossible kind of faith.

What Is This Thing? What Is This Thing For?

The more I think about current and future projects for myself, the more I also think that anything we do, or anything worth teaching or learning requires us to answer two extremely basic questions about that subject:

  1. What is this thing?
  2. What is this thing for?

Almost too basic. But I think we often fail to set parameters around whatever subject matter we might be interested in, so our thoughts become muddled and disjointed. We are then led down several different paths, all of which don’t seem to amount to anything. We are then further led to a sense of overwhelm or despair because the topic at hand seems too difficult or unwieldy. To be sure, the topic at hand probably is unwieldy — we should be able to mitigate such a problem, however, if we spending time in thought about the given subject.

To wit, a personal example: blogging. Since attempting to build the writing-once-a-day habit, I’ve also thought extensively about the two questions above.

  1. What is a blog? What is blogging?
  2. What is a blog for? What should the purpose of a (or, perhaps better, my) blog be?

It’s kind of like teleological blogging. I don’t want to seriously engage in this activity if I can’t determine its purpose. Alan Jacobs has helped me significantly in this area. This morning, he published two posts (“new uses for old blogs”, and “the blog garden”) that, although written specifically about his personal publishing/writing situation, spoke to this area for me. He has continued along the trail of thought he laid out in his digital commons article; namely, making a distinction between maintaining a personal digital space as a type of architecture as opposed to the metaphor of gardening. The gardening metaphor is not only useful, but helpful in a time when most of us interact with a web that was created by others, rather than building it ourselves. He writes in “the blog garden”:

For some time now I’ve been thinking of writing a book about John Ruskin. And I still might. But I’ve been led to consider such a book by gradually gathering drawings and quotes by Ruskin on this blog (there are also a few Ruskin entries at Text Patterns). Suppose that, instead of architecturally writing that book, I simply contented cultivating my Ruskin garden? (See this post for the architecture/gardening distinction.) More images and more quotations, more reflection on those images and quotations. What might emerge?

In some ways this would be a return to what I did a few years ago with my Gospel of the Trees site, which arose because what I wanted to say about trees just couldn’t be made to fit into a book, in part because it refused to become a linear narrative or argument and in part because it was so image-dependent and book publishers don’t like the cost of that. But the advantage of a tag over a standalone site is that each post can have other tags as well, which lead down other paths of reflection and information, in a Zettelkasten sort of way.

That was a long quote, but I hope the point comes across. Jacobs, rather than wanting to shoehorn his writing about Ruskin into the form of a book (which takes an extended period of deep reflection and focus — neither of which are “bad”), is considering gathering material and reflecting upon that material in meaningful ways through a tagging system that has the potential to lead both the author and the audience down numerous rabbit trails. The connections that can be made in this kind of process (rather than a book, which is most often a single-path endeavor) are many and can sometimes be surprising.


So, what do I want blogging to be for me? Maybe not something so serious as what Jacobs is attempting. That’s a full-fledged project that I don’t have time for. What I’m hoping for, instead, is the ability to make connections I wouldn’t have made otherwise (through a tagging system), and to cultivate my understanding of different topics in a disciplined, meaningful way.

God, the Cog in Our Systems

In my post on Tuesday (“Why We Need Kierkegaard”), I mentioned that Kierkegaard’s work is still important because he addresses how we currently interact with and frame our religious beliefs. Modern Christians tend to think that we need to be objectively certain about our religious beliefs, and that this is the most important aspect of the life of faith. The problem is, as I wrote in the previous post,

The more time we spend abstractly reflecting upon the historical truth of [a] claim, the easier it is for us to not live in relation to that claim, to not line up our lives with what that claim entails for our lives.

Being overly concerned with proving the veracity of the historical and logical veracity of our religious beliefs necessarily leads to an objectification of those beliefs. This “objectification” separates our existence from those beliefs, and what they might require of us.

This is not just a modern, American phenomenon. Kierkegaard was writing in 19th century Denmark, mostly in response to a group of philosopher-theologians that were heavily influenced by the philosophical work of Hegel. Hegel, in turn, was influenced by the modernist epistemological conversations preceding him — especially from Immanuel Kant, whose important work on knowledge and reason (Critique of Pure Reason) was meant to not only define the limits and nature of knowledge, but also to determine how we can best understand the relationship between human reason and the use of physical evidence to determine truth.

The line of philosophers in this conversation stretches back to the Greeks, but modern historians of philosophy often mark the beginning of the modern philosophical period with the work of René Descartes, whose work was a watershed in several ways. Descartes, like Kant, wanted to define the limits and nature of human knowledge. Through his work (especially in Discourse on the Method and Meditations), he sought to find a firm “foundation” for human knowledge, and after much internal struggle, found that the surest piece of knowledge he could have was of his own existence (hence, cogito, ergo sum, or I think, therefore I am). His goal was never really about chipping away at every piece of knowledge humans assume is certain though — rather, it was to find something firm on which he could build a system of knowledge. An important note to remember about Descartes’s project is that (according to Anthony Gottlieb, a historian of philosophy):

Descartes infers nothing from his own existence. Instead, he asks how he comes to possess this one certainty, so that he can then find others in the same way. The secret of that certainty is just that it involved a ‘clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting.’ Crucially, Descartes then introduces God… Descartes’s system of knowledge depends not on his own existence but on God’s.

The Dream of Enlightenment, 14

It’s here, I think, where Descartes makes his fatal error. God, for Descartes, becomes pragmatic. In all of his work up to this point, Descartes relates to God “objectively”: God is no more than a guarantor of human knowledge. In such a view of the world, and especially of human knowledge, how can one relate to God subjectively, then? Kierkegaard would question whether that’s possible, and I’m inclined to agree with him. The first modern philosopher that started the epistemological conversation (that we are still having!) inverted our relationship to God. The God who once required something of us, to whom we are subject, now becomes a cog (the biggest, most important cog, at least!) in our own human systems.