“Be a philosopher, but, amid all your philosophy, be still a man.”

“What sort of philosopher do I want to be?” Let’s begin with the sort of philosopher I do not want to be.

It seems part of many folk traditions to criticize the establishment, or the so-called “sages,” or even the local culture. The Akan of Sierra Leone say, “If you become too wise, you say ‘Good Morning’ to a sheep” (Appiah, Proverbs of the Akans, 2007). There’s another Akan proverb: “If you were able to able to know all wisdom, a fool’s wisdom you would not be able to know anything about” (Appiah, 2007). Doesn’t folly have its place?


Consider “The Hermit Philosopher” from the Republic of Georgia. It criticizes the sage, not by defending folly as the above Akan proverb does, but by foisting folly on the shoulders of the sage.

There was once a wise man who loved solitude, and dwelt far away from other men, meditating on the vanities of the world. One day as he wandered among the greenery of his garden, the sage stopped before a large walnut tree covered with ripening nuts, and said, “Why is there such disharmony in nature? Here, for instance, is a walnut tree a hundred years old, and yet how small is its fruit: indeed it grows from year to year, but its fruit is always of the same size! On the other hand, there grow great pumpkins and melons on very small creeping plants. It would be much more fitting if the pumpkins grew on the walnut trees and the walnuts on the pumpkin beds. Why this lack of orderliness?” The sage thought deeply on the subject, and walked in the garden for a long time, till at last he felt sleepy. He lay down under the shady walnut tree, and was soon sleeping peacefully. In a short time, he felt a slight blow on the face, then a second, and then a third. As he opened his eyes, a ripe walnut fell on his nose. The sage leaped to his feet, and said: “Now I understand the secret of nature. If this tree had borne melons or pumpkins, my head would have been broken. From this moment forward let no one presume to find fault with Providence!” (Wardrop, 172f)

Many, especially philosophers, will easily recognize what is behind this tale—the so-called argument from design, probably the oldest and most famous of the numerous arguments for God’s existence. Roughly, it goes something like this:

(1) Nature everywhere exhibits orderly structures and processes.
(2) Orderly structures and processes are always the work of an intelligent personality.
(3) Nature is the work of an intelligent personality, that is, of God.

At first, this tale seems contrived and its moral obvious: it is intended as support for the argument from design. But is this right? Let’s look a bit deeper. The sage in the story assumes that nature is made for humans. The sage would most likely agree with the medieval scientist Paracelsus, who wrote: “It is God’s will that nothing remain unknown to man as he walks in the light of nature, for all things belonging to nature exist for the sake of man” (Quoted in Cottingham, 62).

However, is it not the height of absurdity to infer from the fact that the fruit of the walnut tree is small enough so as not to injure a human that the secret of nature is understood? Or, perhaps the height of arrogance since the “sage” assumes that nature is made for humans? I believe that this tale is a parody of the argument of design and the sage the object of ridicule. As such, there is nothing contrived or obvious about this folktale. Of course, a number of philosophical texts as well vigorously challenge the anthropocentric view of Paracelsus. For an excellent example, see Baruch Spinoza’s Appendix to Part I of his radical Ethics. And for a famous critique of the argument from design, see David Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion. It’s highly improbable that Spinoza and Hume were inspired by folktales, but the Georgian folktale reproduced above provides such a memorable way of dealing with these issues.

Spinoza drawing

I take it that one of the points of the tale is that the “sage” lacked patience, for he seemed impatient, perhaps even desperate, to find an answer to the deep questions about life. Impatience is problematic in itself, but the sage was also looking for a particular kind of answer, or as I like to put it, thinking under a banner. There are other legitimate possibilities that he didn’t even consider. For instance, the weight of a pumpkin can be much more easily supported on the ground than it can suspended in a tree. For those of you previously exposed to the history of philosophy, think about the philosophers you’ve encountered. Do any of them remind you of this hermit sage? Have you heard of “armchair” philosophy? Residing in his round tower overlooking his estate, Montaigne seems to have lamented his detachment from the world around him. On the other side of the coin, consider the case of Socrates, who philosophized day in and day out with others on the streets of Athens. Or Aristotle (the teacher of Alexander the Great) who thought of knowledge as a collective achievement? Descartes’ dreams and habit of sleeping-in are well-known, but he was also a famous mathematician and scientist, on the cutting edge of these disciplines, in contact with other mathematicians and scientists. Were these philosophers hermit sages? Surely not.

A particular sort of sage is critiqued in this folktale—a solitary, impatient, dogmatic, and anthropocentric one. Precisely the sort of sage I don’t want to be.

Ok, so what sort of sage do I want to be? I want to work with others (so far I’ve co-written two published philosophical articles), be patient (the deepest questions are not quickly answered and many will remain unanswered for the foreseeable future), be non-dogmatic (proceeds with a healthy dose of skepticism), and not unduly focused on human problems (there are many other sentient beings in the universe, including many of the animals we eat in hordes). There’s something else, too. I want to be a philosopher that’s engaged with others and plays an active role in public life. Tania Lombrozo writes clearly about this in a recent NPR blog, providing several excellent examples, and I very much sympathize with her thesis.

Lombrozo could have expressed her point in a different way entirely: that philosophy should go back to its roots. Ancient philosophers were, for the most part, not only regularly engaged in public life themselves, but also they championed such an approach to philosophy. Aristotle believed that humans were rational, social animals. To fulfill our function well (that is, to be virtuous) then humans must live rationally with others. Anyone who acts otherwise will not flourish, analogous to a tree whose roots have no access to water. The Stoics, including Epictetus and Seneca, were cosmopolitan (like it or not, we are citizens of the universe) and argued that to be a virtuous citizen meant to live harmoniously with all others.

Diogenes quote

To be clear, however, Aristotle and the Stoics also addressed thorny philosophical disputes that had little obvious connection or meaning to the public at large, disputes that were metaphysical or epistemological in character rather than ethical or political. They were systematic philosophers. But this doesn’t mitigate the fact that for them the philosopher is a social, political creature who should be concerned with living harmoniously together and in the world. (I would be amiss not to point out that while Leibniz never was a teacher, as suggested by the title of this blog, he was highly motivated to improve the public good. See my online article titled “The Optimistic Science of Leibniz.“) 

Though explained in an exaggerated manner, David Hume makes a helpful distinction.

In his Enquiry on Human Understanding, Hume speaks of two kinds of philosophy (and therefore of philosopher): the “easy and obvious” and the “abstruse.” Whereas the former is practical, memorable, and action-guiding, the latter is impractical, forgettable, and purely speculative. Hume writes that “the abstruse philosophy, being founded on a turn of mind which cannot enter into business and action, vanishes when the philosopher leaves the shade and comes into open day, nor can its principles easily retain any influence over our conduct and behavior. The feelings of our heart, the agitation of our passions, the vehemence of our affections, dissipate all its conclusions and reduce even the profound philosopher to a mere plebeian.” (Recall the above folktale about the “sage” under the walnut tree.)

Hume is confident not only that the abstruse will be overshadowed by the easy and obvious, but also that this is a good thing. He writes:

[It] must be confessed that the most durable as well as most just fame has been acquired by the easy philosophy and that abstract reasoners seem up to now to have enjoyed only a momentary reputation from the caprice or ignorance of their own age…. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present, but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed. La Bruyère passes the seas and still maintains his reputation. But the glory of Malebranche is confined to his own nation and to his own age. And Addison, perhaps, will be read with pleasure when Locke shall be entirely forgotten.

Now, Hume couldn’t have picked worse examples! Who today reads La Bruyére and Addison, much less studies them? Whereas Aristotle and Locke are ubiquitous. At any rate, Hume insists:

The mere philosopher is a character which is commonly but little acceptable in the world, as being supposed to contribute nothing either to the advantage or pleasure of society, while he lives remote from communication with mankind and is wrapped up in principles and notions equally remote from their comprehension.

I tend to agree. It is clear that Hume presents himself as not a “mere” philosopher, for by means of his own writings, he says, that “virtue becomes amiable, science agreeable, company instructive, and retirement entertaining.” What’s Hume’s point? “Be a philosopher, but, amid all your philosophy, be still a man.”

Back Camera
Hume in a toga(?!) in Edinburgh.

Students Who Don’t Give A Shit

“How does your ego handle the fact that some people really don’t give a shit about your lifetime academic pursuit?”

When I was an M.A. student in philosophy at King’s College London in ’90, some undergraduate students complained to me in confidence that if their philosophy professors discovered that they weren’t interested in becoming professional philosophers—these students were in fact interested only in obtaining a B.A., in whatever discipline—then they would be promptly failed. Hailing from the U.S., I was a bit shocked, where many students go to college simply to get a bachelor’s, and American professors generally don’t fail them for this reason. One explanation is straightforward: the percentage of British students who attend college is much lower than in the U.S., and was even more so in 1990. So those who go to college are expected to take it very seriously. Another explanation is that if an American professor did such a thing, she or he would be fired. At any rate, the result is that I, as a professor in the U.S., get many students who are really not interested in my chosen discipline. Moreover, I can’t just fail the apathetic ones.

Some students just don’t “give a shit” at all. When I encounter such a student, I typically react in one of three very different ways:

a) with sadness,

b) with indifference, or

c) with frustration.

Which reaction I have depends largely on why the student doesn’t give a shit.

Philosophy Lotion?

(Selling “Philosophy” on the Shopping Network!)

Let’s address reaction (a) first: sadness. Philosophy, at least initially, makes many students uncomfortable, especially students who have never questioned, or were not allowed to question, authority figures, such as parents and elders, about reality, religion, ethics, free will, and the like. At St. Anselm College, a Catholic college in New England where I taught for three years, I asked several classes about whether their parents or elders allowed them to question them on such matters. Very few students said yes. I believe that in one particular class only one student said yes, and to this day I remember his full name. (For what it’s worth, he’s now a Catholic priest.) The response at St. Anselm College was particularly extreme, but on my understanding of and my experience in American education, generally students are molded to question their teachers as little as possible, to listen and take good notes instead of engaging with teachers and peers, and of course to do well on standardized tests. Very little philosophy is offered, and very little philosophizing goes on, before college. One college roommate I had thought Plato was still alive. American education, by and large, is a system of inculcation rather than a pathway to satisfy a student’s curiosity and interests. As a result, American students have little understanding of what philosophers do. So the fact that almost all students at St. Anselm were raised Catholic is at best a partial explanation of the response I received. At any rate, it’s difficult to begin to philosophize if you’ve never experienced it, much less done it. And, because such students don’t have a clue about philosophy, it’s often the case that they also don’t give a shit about my discipline.

In cases where a student has no clue about what I do, my reaction is usually one of sadness. For this cluelessness means that the student has lived 17 years of their life with no real exposure to philosophy, all the while going to school. Education is mandatory in “The States”; if someone aged 5-17 is not going to a public or a private school, he or she had better be homeschooled. By the time they reach college, students are exposed to mathematics, literature, history, politics, religion, geography, biology, physics, chemistry, sociology, theater, art, and music. Given our obsession with earthquakes in California, students here also learn about geology. But for the most part students have never heard of René Descartes. Descartes is a national hero in France; all children know of him. Who in the U.S. knows of our own philosophers, such as William James or Willard Van Orman Quine? For the purposes of clarification, I am not insisting that philosophy be compulsory. Rather, I am lamenting the fact that while so many other subjects are required, why isn’t philosophy included on that list? (In fact, I am one of those wacky educational reformists who thinks that no subject should be compulsory, even philosophy, but that’s a topic for a future post.)

Let’s now look at (b): indifference. As a student, isn’t it great to have a teacher who is passionate about her or his chosen discipline? I’m passionate about mine. But it is a different matter entirely when a teacher desires every student in her or his class to share in this passion. “Isn’t math the greatest?!” Perhaps it is, but math isn’t for everyone. Nor is philosophy. One’s lifetime pursuit is not for everyone, nor should it be. To put this point another way, there’s some truth to Plato’s “noble lie” or “magnificent myth” of the metals.

In Book III of Plato’s Republic, Socrates says to Glaucon: “All of you in the city are certainly brothers,” we shall say to them in telling the tale [of the metals], “but the god, in fashioning those of you who are competent to rule, mixed gold in at their birth; this is why they are most honored; in auxiliaries, silver; iron in the farmers and bronze in the other craftsmen. So, because you’re all related, although for the most part you’ll produce offspring like yourselves, it sometimes happens that a silver child will be born from a golden parent, a golden child from a silver parent, and similarly all the others from each other. Therefore, the god commands the rulers first and foremost to be of nothing such good guardians and to keep over nothing so careful a watch as the children, seeing which of these metals is mixed in their souls. And, if a child of theirs should be born with an admixture of bronze or iron, by no manner of means are they to take pity on it, but shall assign the proper value to its nature and thrust it out among the craftsmen or the farmers; and, again, if from these men one should naturally grow who has an admixture of gold or silver, they will honor such ones and lead them up, some to the guardian group, others to the auxiliary, believing that there is an oracle that the city will be destroyed when an iron or bronze man is its guardian” (Plato, Republic, 415a-c).


Believing in this myth, Socrates predicts, “would have a good effect, making people more inclined to care for the State and one another.” Plato himself may or may not have taken this “magnificent myth” as truth; nonetheless, the good or harmony of his Republic depends on its citizens engaging in different roles. In other words, the ideal State is a socially stratified one, and most certainly not one where everyone is engaged in philosophy.

So, when a student understands the discipline of philosophy in a basic way, and has perhaps even taken prior classes in philosophy, but finds little that is galvanizing about it or personally useful, I tend to shrug my shoulders and think, “whatever.” In this case, my reaction, or lack thereof, is one of apathy. Again, my lifetime pursuit is not for everyone. I mean, who’s going to work on my car? The only exception is when it’s clear to me that a student has a particular penchant and/or affinity for philosophizing and has not yet recognized it as such. Some students believe mistakenly that philosophy is not their passion.

Finally, let’s consider reaction (c): frustration. Some students don’t give a shit about philosophy because they have been exposed to philosophy, or what they take to be philosophy, and have concluded that philosophy is shitty. There are a number of reasons why students join my class with such a view. Sometimes philosophy is required. For instance, all students at St. Anselm had to take three philosophy classes. At the Univ. of Washington, Practical Reasoning or Logic was required of many students, and the Philosophy Department took on the bulk of those classes. At SBCC, Introduction to Philosophy and Ethics satisfy certain requirements for many majors. Sometimes, albeit rarely, students take a class in order to challenge the professor. This isn’t so much a problem in philosophy, because not many students know about philosophy prior to college. But in some departments, such as Political Science, this is a serious problem. Conservative students will, on occasion, take a course from a known liberal professor in order to challenge her or his political views. Now, students who already think that philosophy is a waste of time, or some such, come in two groups—the quiet and the loud: those who keep their misgivings and cynicism about philosophy to themselves and silently simmer away in class, and those who are outspoken and want the whole class to know that they have problems with the discipline of philosophy. Regarding the former group—the quiet—I just do what I normally do, with the hope that my passion somehow rubs off on them and that my teaching “works its magic.” I know that this is pretty much a pipe-dream, but sometimes it actually works. During the semester or at the end, or even a year later, I’ve had students tell me that I changed their prejudices about philosophy. Regarding the latter group—the loud—well, then me just say that I relish a challenge. So when an outspoken naysayer, a critic of philosophy, takes my class, I admit that I tend to fight back. I will defend my chosen discipline against all comers. One way I do this is by preparing specially for the kinds of criticisms that I know I will receive. I come into class with a “game face,” similar to the kind of approach I took to refereeing soccer matches. I knew that opposing coaches, parents, and sometimes even players would challenge me. I was ready for them. Unbeknownst to them, I would actually look forward to matches. Bring it on.

Ultimately, students don’t give a shit about my “lifetime pursuit” for several different reasons. And depending on the reason, I react differently: sometimes with sadness, other times with indifference, and at others frustration. I do have hope that such students will change their minds, but I have no false hope about this. Some students will not change their minds, and that’s perfectly fine.

“Kings don’t want to be pheasants”: Some Thoughts On Writing

“Writing is cheaper than therapy or drugs” (Roxane Gay). Writing can be more pleasurable, too. The operative phrase here is of course “can be.” Analogous to the playing of a musical instrument (see my post Bullshitting With Parameters), following certain guidelines allows the author to write, paradoxically enough, more freely, and therefore more confidently and pleasurably. What follows are some of my guidelines on writing, specifically with regard to writing argumentative essays, based on a document I wrote specifically for my students:

Before turning in your paper, did you:

• Follow the instructions exactly? (Personally, I don’t really care if you do, but your grade will care.)

• Provide a thesis and inform the reader how you will defend your thesis?

• In defending your thesis, did you anticipate objections to your argument?

• Proofread carefully?

Eighteen Further Items 

(Note: Almost all of the following examples were gleaned from past students of mine. None was the product of autocorrect.)

1) When first writing a philosophical paper, or really any argumentative essay, I recommend that you write about an issue about which you have no strong opinion. For if you are “driven” to defend a particular viewpoint–that is, you write “under a banner”–it is often difficult to see the best case for the opposing viewpoint or represent the “other side” fairly. (When you gain more experience, by all means defend one of your strong opinions. However, you may find that the more you engage with issues in a philosophical manner, the fewer strong opinions you will have.)

2) Remember what an argument is: a conclusion that the author tries to back up (that is, show that it is true) with premises (that is, reasons or evidence). A good or strong argument is one where the premises given by the author actually do support the truth of the conclusion (and of course the premises are true or at least acceptable). A bad or weak argument is one where the given premises do not support the truth of the conclusion (and/or the premises are false). Accordingly, there are two and two ways in which to challenge an argument. You may challenge the form of the argument; that is, does the truth of the premises actually increase the likelihood that the conclusion is true? And you may challenge the content of the argument; that is, are the premises true? Note that the truth of the conclusion it is not logically germane to the critique of an argument. Doing so would blatantly beg the question at hand. Also, it’s just uncool. Don’t you hate it when–after offering someone else an argument–this person simply claims that your conclusion is absurd? Did this person even listen to your reasons?

3) It’s very tempting to want to make your conclusions broad or strong, but don’t exaggerate the breadth and strength of your claims. Assert only what’s you’ve backed up or (if the reader understands) can back up. A modest or weak claim nicely substantiated is much better than a strong claim that is not substantiated.

4) There is nothing wrong with using the first person. The argument against the first person usually goes like this: By using the third-person, the paper is rendered more objective, less subjective, and more authoritative. Really? Say that I believe that x is true based on the truth of y. I could express this belief of mine in at least three ways: (i) I hold that x because of y, or (ii) x is true because of y, or (iii) one should believe x because of y. Each of these statements seems equally “objective.” Now at least regarding the perception of objectivity, yes, (ii) and (iii) seem less subjective than (i). But then we have a solely rhetorical reason for rejecting (i). And this kind of reason has no logical or philosophical merit. Quoting Parker Palmer from The Courage to Teach: “The academic bias against subjectivity not only forces our students to write poorly (‘It is believed …,’ instead of ‘I believe …’) but also deforms their thinking about themselves and their world. In a single stroke, we delude our students into thinking that bad prose can turn opinions into facts.” That’s gospel.

5) Look at each one of your sentences, and ask yourself, “Does this make sense?” or “Would I say this to someone?” or “What if someone said this to me?” Take a gander at the following two sentences: “A man is a man like a squirrel is a squirrel”; and, “Life after death is a concept that flogs many people’s minds.” I can’t deny that I love these last two sentences, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to include them, or their kind, in a philosophy paper.

6) If a word or phrase works, use it. In other words, don’t vary words just because you think you’ve used them too often. With regard to writing philosophy, the thesaurus is more often your enemy than your friend. If in doubt, clarity, not style, should be your priority.

7) Critically listen; critically take notes. For example, in a paper on Descartes’ conception of God, a student wrote “God is an infant,” instead of “God is infinite.” In another paper, “blood curdling” became “blood cur tiling.” These students wrote down what they heard in class without really listening to me.

8) Now, in philosophy, the double or even triple negative is not that uncommon and certainly has its due place. But check out this seriously unclear quadruple negative: “Not that not seeing something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.” Here is a translation with only three negatives: “Just because one doesn’t see something, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.” Although this sentence contains three negatives, it is undoubtedly clear.

9) Interestingly enough, most grammar problems are in the first paragraph of a paper and especially in the first five lines. Don’t rely only on spell-checkers (or grammar-checkers). Try this sentence on for size: “Eye wood sea the hoarse if eye whir ewe.” And consider this ambiguous sentence: “These days steaks are rare at Sally’s Diner.” Nevertheless, grammar checkers can often find typos where spell-checkers cannot.

10) You think spelling doesn’t matter as long as the phonetics are fine? Well, check this sentence out: “Social Darwinism was the grassy noel of Darwin’s career.” The following example is even better. In relation to St. Augustine’s explanation for why he stole pears when he was young, someone wrote, “he committed the crime from pear pressure.”

11) ‘Weather’ refers to climatic conditions. For any other meaning, use ‘whether’.

12) Elmer Sprague, Persons and Their Bodies, quotes John Locke: “…contents himself to imploy [sic] the Principal Terms.” Don’t charge that someone is making a mistake unless you’re darn sure that they are! In Locke’s time, ‘imploy’ was the standard spelling. An American student wrote ‘sic’ after the word ‘practising’ in a British translation of Plato’s Apology. Need I explain?

13) It’s = it is. (It’s lovely outside, so let’s go swimming.) Its is the possessive. (I love the ocean; its power is awesome.) No exceptions!

14) If you mean “as follows,” use a colon.

15) The conditional is: “if … then …,” never “if … than ….”

16) The phrase is “one and the same,” not “one in the same.” Unless you’re inventing a new phrase, which is cool.

17) Consider this sentence: “Another one of my beliefs is, that feelings and fears of death are closely related to age.” Why the comma? This is such a common problem.

18) Consider another sentence: “Although, some people believe that after this life they go on to a better place, with no fear, no pain, no worries, and no problems.” It is a common problem to use ‘although’ and ‘even though’ instead of the more correct ‘but’ or ‘however’.

Some of the above items on writing might be more aptly described as “pet peeves,” but every professor has them. I certainly do. A student is well advised to become aware of such preferences. On writing an “argumentative” paper, Strunk’s Elements of Style covers many other items, and probably in a less pet peevish way. Richard Watson’s On Writing Philosophy is quite helpful, though difficult to understand in places. Plus, it is undoubtedly peevish.

Good luck!

Bullshitting With Parameters

Since I teach philosophy, it’s probably a good idea to describe what I take philosophy to be. It’s common knowledge that philosophy means “love of wisdom.” Yawn. But it starts to get a bit more interesting when we see that both love and wisdom can be understood in various ways. The Greek word philia suggests love of the friendship variety. Certainly most philosophers think of themselves as friends of wisdom; however, such a depiction is incomplete and potentially misleading. In Plato’s Socratic dialogue, The Symposium, or as I prefer it, The Drinking Party, love is depicted in several ways. Interestingly, the one Socrates himself prefers relates more to eros than to philia. His point is that philosophers are not merely friends (if they are friendly at all) to wisdom but that they are seekers of wisdom. Erotic love refers to the attempt to obtain something that one does not yet have. It is therefore an activity with an intended target. And, like eros, it is an unstable, even uncomfortable, state of being. (Put The Drinking Party on your reading list.)

What is this wisdom that philosophers seek? For one, it’s not mere information. I’m not a wiser person because I remember the past ten winners of the Great American Beer Festival. And it’s not because I know how to brew beer (though, as countless Benedictine monks can attest, that doesn’t hurt). And it’s not even finding out how yeast produces alcohol. Sorry, scientists. Seeking wisdom is not about remembering facts, or learning a craft, or mere empirical investigation. Wisdom gets at deeper issues of a metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical nature. Ethics, for instance, concerns how we should or ought to live with one another. Notice the should here. Philosophers are not really interested in investigating how we do live, or have lived, or will live. Let sociologists, historians, and anthropologists answer those questions. They’ll do a much better job anyway. Now, how we do live with each other is probably germane to the question of how we should live, but philosophers don’t take that for granted. 

Some would point out that answers to these deep questions have already been given via religion, culture, and tradition. Sure, Christian morality, with reference to the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule, and certain virtues, answers the question of how we should live with each other. So why does one need to investigate further, that is, to philosophize? A simple appeal to the answers provided by Christian morality is deeply unsatisfactory to a philosopher. For how do we know that such answers are correct? What makes an answer to our deepest questions correct, or at least better than other answers? Why should we believe that the Christian account of virtue is superior to that of Aristotle’s? Or Nietzsche’s, for that matter? Do not stay fixed on what others believe in order to resolve such issues. There’s an Akan proverb that registers in the same key: “A wise person, if we show them something above, looks on the ground.”

Consider the following Turkish folktale:

One day Nasreddin Khoja and a group of his neighbors were going somewhere together. They all rode upon their donkeys. When they came to a hill, Khoja noticed that his donkey was sweating. He got down from its back and whispered into its ear, “I am sorry that you are working so hard that you are sweating.” His neighbors noticed Khoja get down from his donkey’s back and whisper into its ear, and they were curious about this. “Khoja, what did you whisper to your donkey?” one of them asked. “I told my donkey I was sorry he had to work so hard that he sweated,” answered Khoja. All of his neighbors laughed, and one of them said, “Why did you do that? Donkeys do not understand human speech. They are not at all human.” Khoja replied, “What I have to do is what concerns me. I did what is expected of a human being, and I do not care whether or not he understood what I said.” (Quoted in Bobro, “Folktales and Philosophy for Children,” in Analytic Teaching 25, 2)

Most of us are able to identify with both parties, Khoja as well as his neighbors: the neighbors, since it is not normal to apologize to a labor animal or livestock, because of the widely accepted idea that such animals are inferior to humans and are here only for our purposes; and Khoja, because he is doing what he thinks is right even though it contradicts common belief and practice. But to really take seriously what Khoja says, to begin yourself to question the answers “given” to you by society is to engage in philosophy. This can get uncomfortable and can even set yourself up for ridicule, as it did for Khoja. (I’ve had students who thought that questioning was a sin. Well then, on that score, the practice of philosophy is downright sinful!)

I don’t believe that philosophizing is for everyone, but I do believe that each of us should at least once in our lives, place our beliefs, especially about ethics and religion, under the light of philosophical questioning. Sometimes I call it the skeptical microscope. This is precisely the point of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. He’s not asking the reader to “meditate” regularly on philosophical questions. It’s a call to place our most cherished beliefs under the skeptical microscope. At least once. If those cherished beliefs stand up to such scrutiny, fine, keep them. If they don’t, well then, you’d better be ready abandon them. Or at least suspend your belief. (It’s a bit more complicated than this, but you get the idea.)

After approximately 10 years of solid training, I knew that I had become a “philosopher.” As discussed above, this meant asking and answering (or attempting to answer) the deepest questions about related to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc.. Others would say that I had simply learned how to bullshit. I would correct them and point out that I had learned how to bullshit with parameters–albeit parameters that have been developed for millennia. (By parameters, I mean methods of investigation, techniques for evaluating arguments, conceptual distinctions, and also, terminology needed for clear expression and communication.) Don’t get me wrong. I have some admiration for bullshitters; in fact, it doesn’t come naturally to everyone, just as sitting down at a piano to play with no training and no understanding of piano-playing “rules” can be daunting, to say the least. In other words, to engage in an activity, ignorant of or deliberately in spite of the rules normally associated with that activity, is something that relatively few are naturally comfortable with doing. Now, it can be extremely difficult to learn those rules, but as with piano-playing, bullshitting becomes more pleasurable when there are parameters. Another interesting phenomenon occurs: at some point, this “bullshitting” no longer feels like bullshitting. At some point in developing one’s capacity to bullshit–I mean philosophize–about the deep questions, this philosophizing becomes relevant and even useful. 

To explain, here’s a history of my own relationship with bullshitting: 

My first three years of college were basically a bullshit fest for me. In class, I talked a lot; outside of class, I wrote a lot (very little of which had anything with the assigned readings). And I basically had no clue that most of what I spouted was actually bullshit. Consequently, I don’t freak out if a student doesn’t do the assigned readings. This doesn’t mean that the student isn’t interested in the subject matter or isn’t engaged in class. Still I wish that I had followed my professors’ instructions better. For when I went to graduate school, I had a lot of catching up to do. Bullshitting only gets you so far in such an environment. And if it does happen to succeed, you’re in a crappy graduate program. There are some; trust me. 

But, fortunately, my bullshitting was “called out” in my senior year, and not even by a professor in philosophy. I went to an English professor’s office hours to talk about some paper or project that was due soon. I’m not sure how it came about, but in talking about how I was doing, she noted that I knew something about most subjects, but nothing well. I was a dilettante. That struck home, because immediately I knew it was true. In college, one can slide by with dilettantism, and I was the prince of the dilettantes. 

Before this encounter, I never thought of my bullshit as such. After this encounter, I did. And so I vowed to focus on learning my chosen trade, philosophy. I needed discipline and direction; I could no longer just “wing it.” Of course, this is easier said than done and I still just wing it on occasion. 

So, today, when I encounter a student who clearly likes to bullshit and has gotten away with it because she or he knows enough to make it stick, I call them out too. I say words to this effect: You’re a bullshitter, which is cool. I can respect that. However, while it has worked up till now, at some point it won’t. Do the readings. Focus. Get some discipline. Learn the parameters of your discipline. And then your “bullshitting” will be even more pleasurable and, even better, might become relevant. 

(Photo courtesy of Chino Chasakara 2015)

The Tusk Question

“What do I really think when a student asks a dumb question?”

Let’s get something out of the way first. The cliché, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question”–taken in a literal way–was coined by someone with an overly active imagination or an overly charitable character. Consider the following example from one of my Ethics classes. The topic was reproductive cloning. We were speaking of the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer, where the DNA-containing nucleus of an ovum or egg cell is replaced with the DNA of a somatic or body cell of the animal that is desired to be cloned. After cell division is “jump-started,” the developing embryo–in this case, the “clone”–is transferred into the uterus of a surrogate mother. Now, some scientists, keen on bringing back extinct species, want to bring back the Wooly Mammoth using recently discovered Mammoth DNA. Provided the DNA is sufficiently intact, this can be done with reproductive cloning. (The movie Jurassic Park is not based entirely on fantasy.) One proviso, of course, is that both the egg cell provider and the surrogate mother would have to be from a living species, presumably an African Elephant. A student immediately raised his hand. “Yes?” I asked. The student replied, “What about the tusks?” After a moment’s hesitation, other students started laughing. I may have as well. (For my students: if you were present in my class that day, what was my reaction?) Let’s call it the Tusk Question.

To be fair, there are contexts in which the Tusk Question would not be a dumb question. For instance, there was a period of time–a long period of time–when we knew little about reproduction and fetal development. (“Back in the day” many scientists used to think that human sperm were tiny humans. It’s called preformationism, if you care.) Or when a student isn’t realistically expected to know that tusks grow after birth, or that African elephants have tusks. But this was a college student, and a relatively intelligent one at that.

It’s easy to get frustrated by dumb questions. One of my favorite professors at the University of Washington, Robert Coburn, who normally was the most imperturbable guy in the world, would on occasion get perturbed when faced with a dumb question. Sometimes he would reply as follows: “Just think about it for two seconds; I’m sure you’ll figure out the answer.” Just so you know, that is verbatim. Other teachers simply gloss over or even ignore outright the dumb question, especially when there are questions from other students.

I was seriously tempted to use Coburn’s approach in answer to the Tusk Question. Instead I used a gentler variation, by asking the student some simple questions: “When do tusks appear?” and the like. It only took a minute or less for the student to figure out that his original question was pretty dumb. And then he laughed at himself. That’s the approach I typically take. Often, though, I will ask the student to repeat the question or to restate it. Perhaps I’ve misheard or misinterpreted the question.

Some say that there’s no such thing as a dumb question; there are only dumb people. That in some context, any question can be perceptive and on point. For, as pointed out above, in some contexts, even the Tusk Question makes sense. There is some truth to the claim that it’s people who are stupid, not questions themselves. Let me tell you a true story. Once Elie Wiesel visited my local high school and gave a lecture in the auditorium. Student attendance was mandatory. He spoke eloquently and powerfully of his experiences as a prisoner in several concentration camps during World War II, including Auschwitz, and also of the Holocaust in general. When he finished, Wiesel called for questions from the largely student audience. One student near the front on the right hand side stood up and asked, “What is a Jew?” Wiesel became angry and proceeded to berate the student for what seemed like five minutes. He clearly presumed that the student was simply being an asshole. But I knew that student, and to this day, remember his name. He was a gentle soul. I knew, and many of my fellow students knew, that the question was sincere. He truly had no clue what a Jew was. Wiesel presumed that the student was intelligent. This was a faulty presumption and it naturally led him to berate the poor student. I want to make another point as well. Asking what it means to be a Jew is not a bad question. My grandmother was Jewish by blood, but was Eastern Orthodox by religion. Others are followers of Judaism but have no Jewish blood in their veins. “What is a Jew?” is a good question, though surely the student could have and should have introduced the question differently, since it’s also a sensitive question. He, however, simply wasn’t very intelligent.

I think we need to recognize that there are dumb questions as well as dumb people. But this doesn’t mean that as teachers our default approach is to treat students and their questions this way. What should the default approach be? I employ the Principle of Charity in class. If a student says something that can be interpreted in more than one way, interpret it in the way that presumes higher intelligence on the part of the student. I discuss this principle in class as something that we, as teachers and students, should employ when we engage with others. At the same time, charity only goes so far. Sometimes you’ve got to “call a spade a spade.”

20,000 Questions

Leibniz, the famous 17th century German polymath, seemingly did everything under the sun. One thing he never did was teach. Sure, he “taught” in the sense of explaining his ideas to others, but he never tutored anyone in the proper sense and certainly never taught a class of students. Perhaps he would have made an excellent teacher, but we’ll never know. If Leibniz was a polymath, I am a dilettante. However, there is one thing that keeps me from complete dilettantism: teaching, especially the teaching of philosophy. The content of this blog will be determined largely by the questions my students, friends, colleagues, and strangers ask of me regarding teaching in college. Throughout the life of this blog, I will answer as many as I can. In no particular order, here are some I have gathered:  

How is this applicable to my life? 

How can one teach a college student to think cogently on their own without professors infecting them with their bias and prejudice? 

Why did you decide to teach? Relatedly, how would you respond to the cliché: “those who can do those who can’t teach”?

What am I really thinking when people ask dumb questions?

How do you engage students uninterested in your subject?

How does your ego handle that some people really don’t give a shit about your lifetime academic pursuit? 

Does teaching twenty-somethings (mostly) make you really miss–or really really not miss–being in your twenties?

How do you write a good lesson plan? 

Is this going to be on the test?

Are you single? 

Does your curriculum ever get boring?

Why is teaching so undervalued and therefore so mediocre at many “institutions of higher learning”? 

What is your advice for choosing universities? For highschoolers, transfer students, and those going on to graduate school. 

What are reasons why you should study philosophy, and reasons why you shouldn’t? 

What did you learn teaching at a Catholic institution of learning? 

What improvements has philosophy made in the last century, and which ones should it make in the next? Same for pedagogy 



I’m a Professor of Philosophy at Santa Barbara City College, and have been since 2005. Prior to this teaching gig, I taught at the Univ. of Washington (Seattle), St. Anselm College (Manchester, New Hampshire), the Univ. of Southern Maine (Portland), and the Univ. of Southern Indiana (Evansville). I was taught, in chronological order, at Tulane Univ. (New Orleans, Louisiana), Santa Barbara City College, The Univ. of Arizona (Tucson), King’s College London, and the Univ. of Washington. At each of these “institutions of higher learning,” I had at least one excellent teacher. Let me give credit to them: a poetry teacher at Tulane whose name escapes me; Joe White at SBCC; Henning Jensen, Christia Mercer, and David Owen at UA; Tony Savile and David Lloyd-Thomas at King’s; and, Ken Clatterbaugh, Bob Coburn, David Keyt, and Cass Weller at UW. Not only did these teachers provide great training in their disciplines, but they also demonstrated to me what it takes to be an excellent teacher. It should also be mentioned that UW ran (and continues to run) a required weekly seminar for graduate students regarding the craft of teaching. I believe that all professors and future professors should go through such specialized training. Unfortunately, most have not. (It’s as if they think they can drive a Lamborghini on the Autobahn because they’ve driven a bumper car at an amusement park.) Speaking of which, I have had shitty teachers at each of these institutions, whom, let’s be honest, should have either worked hard to become better at their chosen profession or should have sought out another profession.

Both lucky and cursed, I was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California, and am the eldest of six children. Santa Barbara is a small city that behaves and feels that way, so I didn’t apply to any colleges in the area nor even in California. UCSB, for instance, was never on my learning radar. (In a subsequent blog, I will talk about how UCSB and similar institutions need to step up their teaching “game” if they want me to recommend them to prospective students.) I went to the most foreign city in the United States, namely, New Orleans, to study engineering. In many ways, I wasn’t prepared for the experience. I got in trouble, and officially was placed on both academic and disciplinary probation. Looking back, I should have gone to a smaller college with fewer distractions, but at the same time wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. (More on this in later blogs.)

Non-teaching activities that I engage in include music, cycling, and running. I am in an active punk band called Crying 4 Kafka. Our lyrics are provocative and have psychological and philosophical themes. I am a member of the Santa Barbara Cycling Club—one of the spandex crowd. When it comes to running, I am associated only with myself, though I’m starting to branch out. I used to fence a lot, but being that I live in Santa Barbara, it’s too much of an indoor sport. I have three children who will soon all be in college at the same time, probably too soon. Finally, I’d like to thank my partner, Elizabeth, with whom pedagogy is a common topic of conversation. She also edits my posts; any faults are of course my own.