Sunday, February 07, 2010

Response to philosophy frustration

This is a response to some frustrations which a student expressed to me, and which are, I think, typical of a lot of people who are introduced to the subject. If you've taught philosophy for any length of time, you know where this student is coming from.

I know that philosophy, by its nature, can be frustrating, and it requires somewhat different skills than what you might be accustomed to using in other classes. I make no apologies for that; the discipline of philosophy is what it is.

There is a common conception when students come to philosophy classes that everything falls into two general categories, fact and opinion. If it is a matter of fact, we can settle it by some broadly scientific method. If it is a matter of opinion, then different people have different opinions, and we are all entitled to our opinions. Philosophical questions are all matters of opinion, and therefore there is something absurd and perhaps even offensive about grading a philosophy paper.

I think this neat division of everything into two boxes, fact and opinion, which we learned all the way back to fourth grade at least, is a distortion of the truth. Just because we cannot settle a question to everyone's satisfaction through a well-defined method doesn't mean that there can't be better or worse reasons for believing what we do, or that we shouldn't be aware of the reasons for and against what we believe. Whether it is worthwhile to spend time working through one's world-view and putting a lot of reflection into that, or whether there are other, more adequate uses for a person's time is not something I can answer for someone else.

But people do have decisions to make that affect their lives. They have to decide whether to become actively involved in one of the world's major religions, and for Western religions, this invariably involves belief in the existence of God. They have to decide what they think is real. They have to decide what sources of knowledge they can rely on, and what sources they should call into question. They have to decide by what rules they decide what is right and wrong. And they have to decide whether they really think they have a free will, and also whether they are the persons who have an eternity to look forward to, or whether it all ends with the grave.

Even if you have decided all these questions in your own mind, others around you are making those decisions, and I take it you are in conversation with them.

As for grading philosophy papers, I do not grade papers in philosophy on the basis of whether I agree with the person's beliefs. Two things I look for are 1) How clearly you state your own position, and 2) The extent to which you carefully reflect on and articulate why you believe what you do as opposed to what others believe.

I wouldn't have ended up in the job that I have if I didn't think that philosophy was a valuable enterprise. I cannot make that judgment for other people. However, since we're in a philosophy class, we have to do the philosophy curriculum. After 23 years of teaching experience, I can tell you that you are not alone in your philosophy frustrations.


13 comments:

Stephen S. said...

Excellent thoughts. The comments on the 'two box' view of positions taken is quite illuminating. Thanks for sharing this!

Steven said...

What was the problem with this student?

Also, when you teach philosophy classes, do you ever come to conclusions about issues, or do you simply throw up the arguments and show strengths and weaknesses? More specifically, do you suggest to your students that some view is true, for instance, theism?

For instance, when I took a general introduction to philosophy class, the professor argued against a number of views: theism, libertarianism and compatibilism, a theory of personal identity that allows for continued existence after the destruction of the body, any epistemology that allows for knowledge other than a prior introspective beliefs, etc. The conclusion we drew was that God didn't exist, for instance.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to piggyback Steven's question.

I guess I just don't understand how someone can use philosophy to vindicate their belief, be it atheism or theism... it seems that every argument gets caught up in a torrent of defeaters, and defeater-defeaters, and the original simple premise ends up so scattered and complicated that it's a shell of it's former self. I can understand that the point is to perhaps present the most persuasive philosophy, but it seems nearly every philosophical argument is quite far from being persuasive since they all seem to have crucial objections.

Dan said...

Former student of Vic's here. Taken a few PHI classes in my time, including a World Religons intro class taught by Dr. Reppert. From my point of view as a student, his was by far the least biased. I don't recall ever having him posit a single system as pure truth and he was very diligent about exposing the strengths and weeknesses of every philosophical system or method we discussed. As such, I learned much more about objective philosophical thinking during that class than during any other class I took as an undergrad.

Anonymous said...

To Anon@6:56am.

You echo the thoughts of Peter Van Inwagen, who basically said that philosophy never has or likely will ever settle much of anything. And he himself is a respected philosopher. Giving a way trade secrets, that fellow!

The advantage of philosophy is that you at least start to see just how rife the world is with philosophy, even in areas you'd think it normally doesn't come up in.

Tom said...

In my opinion, everything is an opinion. Even "facts" such as 2+2 = 4.

That statement is true only because somebody created a system, defined operations and axioms such that the statement comes out true. Math/logic is a game with the rules made up by humans. It so happens that math is more useful than playing with symbols on paper, it can successfully be applied to domains that involve the material world. Still it's hardly universal. We invented dozens of different kids of math that are useful for different things, are true in some areas but not others. If you draw a triangle on a globe its angles will not add up to 180. If you take two clouds and group them with other two clouds you will end up with one cloud not four.

So even with such indisputable facts as math it's up to a human mind to come up with the rules of the game, how the facts should be measured, applied and judged.

I hope someone will still judge this to be somewhat on topic :)

Victor Reppert said...

I posted my response because I believed that what frustrates this particular student also frustrates others. Anything specific to her case was left out of my reply here.

Given a strict fact/opinion dichotomy, I can understand why someone might conclude that philosophy papers cannot reasonably be graded.

Interestingly enough, in the secular academic classroom, atheist instructors sometimes assume the right to be dogmatic atheists and to make it their aim to deconvert students from their religious beliefs. Christians who are equally aggressive in advocating their beliefs are, I think, more liable to have complaints about it taken seriously by administrators and department chairmen.

I am somewhat leery of getting people to believe something on my authority, because there are so many other people out there who can use their authority to get people to believe the opposite. But I do make sure that everyone gets the idea that one can think carefully for a lifetime about these issues and remain a Christian. Since I've been blogging, I tell students to read my blog if they want to know what I believe, but that my first responsibility is to teach the subject matter, not Reppertism.

In a way, I am reacting to something they haven't encountered yet, the dogmatic atheist instructor who leaves the impression that all Christians are idiots.

I like using debates like Craig-Jesseph and Craig-Parsons because you get to see two sides in action, and you get to see a reasonably good representation of both sides. That way no one can complain that they didn't get their side represented.

tuosico said...

Anon 9:27

Thanks for your reply! I guess from here though I have a hard time seeing how any belief can be put forth as a persuasive argument. I think I can sympathize slightly with the scientism types here(there's a first!) when they're rather scornful of being told that in the end the big question comes down to philosophy and not science, since philosophy can't really answer much of anything. It'll probably sound silly, but it's kind of hard for me to believe that theism is just another "well, that's the way I see it" philosophy, it just doesn't gel well with the idea that religious beliefs hold a truth.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon is right that much philosophy consists of counterarguments. But the best philosophers develop substantive positive theories or at least point in their direction. E.g., Kant, Putnam, Plato, Frege. Your least-common-denominator philosopher can make a living trying to refute the Churchlands, but the Churchlands make a living articulating an alternative vision of the mind. That's what seems to distinguish the truly influential from the mere responder.

The influential ones make substantive new theories, and then the piddlers hack around at the underbrush.

I'd put Fodor, Putnam, Sellars, Dretske, Churchlands in the class of recent philosophers that have set the course in modern philosophy of mind. Chalmers, Nagel, and others have not done too much positive, but try to point out limitations of one particular view (hacking at the underbrush) without providing a substantive theory of their own.

On the other hand, the discovery of basic errors, that underbrush cleaning function, is crucial and important and helpful in philosophy. Philosophers preserve an awareness of fallacies and typical mistakes (e.g., equating sense and reference...Steven), and these mistakes come up so naturally in intelligent people that it is an invaluable intellectual service.

Blue Devil Knight said...

One of my favorite quotes in philosophy, from one of my favorite philosophers:
"Refutations are not very interesting. It is better to attempt to do what one reproaches others for not bringing forth."

Blue Devil Knight said...

Sorry forgot to mention that quote is from Maurice Merleau Ponty.

Anonymous said...

If what the Churchlands do counts as "articulating" in philosophy, it just goes to illustrate what a joke-in-practice philosophy tends to be. A very large part of their gimmick lies in promising that they can't deliver the goods, but maybe someday someone else can.

Now, they can be influential. But so what? Influential's a low bar to reach, especially when one looks at the history of philosophy (modern and ancient) and sees what a diversity of views have been influential over time. It's as good an argument for the decisiveness of philosophy as the pervasiveness of certain fads is an argument for the reliability of fads. Art deco uber alles!

Steven said...

I don't think I was ever equating sense and reference, BDK.