Philosophy Without Argument

“Since what you teach is philosophy, what is philosophy?” I’ve already posted one response to this question, titled “Bullshitting With Parameters.” What follows are more serious, and much more detailed, thoughts on what I take philosophy to be (and not to be).

The American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars writes in “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. Under ‘things in the broadest possible sense’ I include such radically different items as not only ‘cabbages and kings,’ but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, to ‘know one’s way around’ with respect to all these things, not in that unreflective way in which the centipede of the story knew its way around before it faced the question, ‘how do I walk?,’ but in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred.” Philosophy involves serious reflection, no doubt; I remember reading in G. K. Chesterton somewhere that philosophy constitutes the deepest thinking one can do about any subject.

For this reason, philosophy is closely associated with argument. It is the “bread and butter” of philosophy. Some even go so far as to say that one only does philosophy when one asserts a conclusion on the basis of premises, often as part of a dialectic. This support with the use of premises can be direct or indirect. In direct arguments, the author asserts that the argument’s conclusion and premises are all true. Take St. Anselm’s famous ontological argument for God’s existence as an example of a direct argument:

  1. God is the most perfect conceivable being.
  2. If a thing doesn’t actually exist, that in itself is an imperfection.
  3. Now, if the most perfect conceivable being didn’t exist, we would be able to conceive of a more perfect being (namely one who does exist).


4.  The most perfect conceivable being, namely, God, must actually exist.


Reductio ad absurdum and conditional proofs, on the other hand, are indirect, since at least one premise is merely supposed. “Skeptical argument typically is ad hominem, that is, aimed at positions held by others, showing that there is something wrong with them in a way that does not depend on having a position of one’s own” (Julia Annas, Voices of Ancient Philosophy, 208). For example, the famous skeptic Sextus Empiricus “lets the premises be the dogmatist’s beliefs and then confines himself to internal criticisms in which he exposes contradictions or shows that his adversary’s position has implausible consequences” (Sorensen, Paradox, 153). An argument that Sextus Empiricus would appreciate is the Benedictine monk Gaunilo’s reply to Anselm:

  1. The Lost Island is the most perfect conceivable island.
  2. If a thing doesn’t actually exist, that in itself is an imperfection.
  3. Now, if the most perfect conceivable island didn’t exist, we would be able to conceive of a more perfect island (namely one that does exist).


  1. The most perfect conceivable island, namely, the Lost Island, must actually exist.

Gaunilo assumes for the sake of argument that these premises are true. We don’t know whether he in fact thinks they are true—the strength of his counterargument doesn’t depend on this at all. His purpose is to show that Anselm’s logic is faulty, for it shows that a non-existent being (the Lost Island) does in fact exist, which is absurd.

Philosophy’s close connection with argument, however, is sometimes greatly exaggerated. The following confession was offered on a well-known philosophy blog: “… I can honestly say that I learned to philosophize only after I abandoned my study of [Friedrich Nietzsche]—and that other aphorist, [Ludwig] Wittgenstein—to concentrate on folks like [Roderick] Chisholm, [Alvin] Plantinga, and [Peter] Van Inwagen. No arguments, no philosophy.”[1]

This is rather silly, on a couple of levels. First, Nietzsche does argue. His conclusions are usually not mere proclamations, though they may often sound like them. Rather, it is often the case that Nietzsche’s arguments are opaque or highly condensed or conflated—as he explains in Twilight of the Idols, “honest things, like honest men, do not carry their reasons in their hands …. It is indecent to show all five fingers” (Twilight of the Idols 5). What Ezra Pound attempts to do in his poetry, Nietzsche attempts to do in his philosophy: “it is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book” (Twilight of the Idols 51). And, to make his point even clearer, Nietzsche claims that “the worst readers of aphorisms are the author’s friends if they are intent on guessing back from the general to the particular instance to which the aphorism owes its origin; for with such pot-peeking they reduce the author’s whole effort to nothing; so that they deservedly gain, not a philosophic outlook or instruction, but—at best, or at worst—nothing more than the satisfaction of vulgar curiosity” (Mixed Opinions and Maxims 129).


Yet for all Nietzsche’s bombast, here’s a transparent argument from his own hand: “In Christianity neither morality nor religion has even a single point of contact with reality. Nothing but imaginary causes (‘God,’ ‘soul,’ ‘ego,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘free will’—for that matter, ‘unfree will’), nothing but imaginary effects (‘sin,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘grace,’ ‘punishment,’ ‘forgiveness of sins’). Intercourse between imaginary beings (‘God,’ ‘spirits,’ ‘souls’); an imaginary natural science (anthropocentric; no trace of any concept of natural causes); an imaginary psychology (nothing but self-misunderstandings, interpretations of agreeable or disagreeable general feelings) …” (The Antichrist 15). There is certainly nothing esoteric or aphoristic here; the reasoning behind his conclusion is laid bare for all to see.[2]

The case appears similar with Wittgenstein; sometimes he will come clean and offer a complete argument, but generally speaking transparent arguments are not his style. “As a student, Wittgenstein would think ferociously about a problem and then just proclaim his solution, rather like an edict from the czar.  [Bertrand] Russell chided him for not including the reasoning behind his conclusions. Wittgenstein wondered aloud whether, when he gave Russell a rose, he should give him the roots as well” (Sorensen, Paradox, 7).

Wittgenstein Banjo

Second, philosophy without argument, whether transparent or opaque, does have its place. I don’t mean arguments where all or some of premises are unstated. (Incidentally, such arguments are called enthymemes.) Rather, there are other ways “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” (Sellars) besides argument. On the question of the origin of philosophy, Diogenes Laertius, an ancient biographer of Greek philosophers, informs us that “the Gymnosophists and Druids … uttered their philosophy in riddles” (Sorensen, Paradox, 3). Sorensen himself notes, “The oldest philosophical questions evolved from folklore and show vestiges of the verbal games that generated them” (Sorensen, Paradox, 3). Consider this Chinese tale, or I guess more accurately, parable:

Chang Tzu Butterfly dream

No answer (conclusion) is given here. No conclusion is easily forthcoming either. This parable poses difficult questions, philosophical in nature since they require thinking about “dreams” and “reality” in the broadest possible sense of each term in the broadest possible way. Those with formal training in philosophy know that René Descartes famously takes up these questions in his Meditations. And surely he wasn’t the first, nor the last.

The following riddle from Africa requires similarly deep thinking about “justice.”

A man whose wife was dead had two sons and a daughter. During a famine he had only a bit of bread, and if he divided it among the three children, all would die. If he gave it all to one, the other two would die. To whom must he give the bread? (William R. Bascom, African Dilemma Tales, 90)

This riddle invites us to consider the consequences of determining the morality of an act based on its consequences. Or are there moral obligations—duties—that must be followed, whatever the consequences may be? How reliant should our determination of morality be on predictions of the future? These are philosophical questions, perennially part of the subject matter of ethics (and probably every ethics course), but there is absolutely no argument. We have no clue as to what answer the “author” would give. This is how one of my students responded to this riddle:

Given only the two options of giving one child the piece of bread and him or her living and dividing the bread amongst the three, one is faced with a difficult decision. Ultimately, the situation is a very unpleasant one that yields poor results in any case. If the father were to divide the bread all would die, this being the ultimate loss. Alternatively, if the father gave the bread to one child, who then survived, he or she would have to live with the guilt of being chosen over his or her siblings. However, one must believe that the child that lived would eventually develop in a rational being and when looking back would not feel guilt but would realize the gravity of the situation and would be forced to shed him or herself of any guilt because just like we should realize, in this situation there are only two options—either one child lives, or all die. And when faced with this conclusion the child would realize that his or her father made the right decision and he or she would perhaps cherish life even more and live a full life to respect his dead siblings. He or she would ultimately want him or her to be happy. Therefore, the father must choose to feed one child who would survive. (Bret Larson)

It’s interesting that Larson writes this from the child’s perspective. Also, he doesn’t consider which child. Does that even matter? How would you respond? Are you willing to accept, for instance, the conditions of the riddle? We are told that there are only two options, but in real life is this ever true?

Besides argument and riddle, philosophy comes in another form. I call it “sounds right” philosophy—the distilled wisdom of past generations. Take the oft-told tale of “Beauty and the Beast.” Besides being a good story, what is its main moral? Perhaps it is that something can be loved before it is lovable, or that beauty is not requisite for love. These are distinctly philosophical morals, however there is no argument here. At best, “Beauty and the Beast” constitutes an illustration of a claim that simply “sounds right.” Consider the following expressions of two distinct cultures sharing a similar message about education. The first is from the Republic of Georgia:

During a great storm at sea, a learned man heard the skipper giving his orders, but could not understand a word. When the danger was past, he asked the skipper in what language he had spoken. The sailor replied: “In my mother tongue, of course!” The scholar expressed his regret that a man should have wasted half his life without learning to speak grammatically and intelligibly. A few hours later the storm arose again, and this time the ship sprang a leak and began to founder. Then the skipper went to the scholar and asked if he could swim. The man of books replied that he had never learned. “I am sorry, sir, for you will lose your whole life. The ship will go to the bottom in a minute, and my crew and I shall swim ashore. You would have done well if you had spent a little of your time in learning to swim.” (Wardrop, 167f)

The following is an excerpt from a 17th century letter by a Native American elder explaining to the local “authorities” why young native tribesmen were ignoring scholarships offered to them by American universities.

[B]ut you, who are wise, must know that different Nations have different conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our Ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours. We have had some Experience of it. Several of our young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad Runners ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, nor Counsellors, they were totally good for nothing…. We will take Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them. (Drake, 77)

Both passages—one fictional, and one not—express not only the idea that wisdom or true education is useful, but also that what’s useful in one culture or environment may not be useful in another. What is the purpose of education if one can’t do the simplest things needed to survive in one’s circumstances? It is also interesting to consider the following question: Which do you prefer—the lore or the letter? Which is more philosophical? At any rate, neither express bona fide arguments.

Let me end with a couple of things said supposedly by the inimitable Wittgenstein: “a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious). Another time he said that a philosophical treatise might contain nothing but questions (without answers).”

[1] Robert Allen in the Leiter Reports,  May 17, 2009.

[2] And another argument, if for some reason you think that the above is Nietzsche’s only argument: “The schools have no more important task than to teach rigorous thinking, cautious judgment, and consistent inference; therefore they should leave alone whatever is not suitable for these operations: religion, for example. After all, they can be sure that later on man’s fogginess, habit, and need will slacken the bow of an all-too-taut thinking. But as far as the influence of the schools reaches, they should enforce what is essential and distinctive in man: ‘reason, and science, man’s very highest power’—so Goethe, at least, judges” (Human, All-Too-Human 265, 56f).


Philosophy With Argument

Some claim that the philosophy is just the practice of making and assessing arguments. I deny this claim, as evidenced in my earlier post, “Philosophy Without Argument.” Nonetheless, argumentation is an important, probably essential, component of philosophy. What does it mean to argue, and what does it mean to argue well?

Good Arguments 

What makes a good argument? First off, an argument is a passage made up of at least two statements, one of which (called the conclusion) the author intends to show is true on the basis of the other statements (called the premises). A statement is a declarative sentence; in other words, a claim that is either true or false. “Augustine once stole pears,” “It is morally wrong to steal fruit,” and “God exists” are all statements. Note how each is either true or false. The sentences, “Did Augustine once steal pears?” “Suppose that it is morally wrong to steal fruit,” and “God exists?!” are not statements. Note how none is either true or false. Here’s an example of an argument:

Augustine once stole pears. It is morally wrong to steal fruit. Therefore, Augustine once acted immorally.

How does one evaluate an argument? The famous first line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina goes like this: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Similarly, all cogent arguments are cogent in the same way. Two and only two conditions must be met: the argument must have good CONTENT and it must have good FORM. Good content means its premises are true, and good form means that the truth of the premises actually support the truth of the premises. Thus, a cogent thinker is able first to evaluate the truth of statements as objectively as possible; and second, to determine the truth relationship between two or more statements. It is also worth noting that these tasks should be performed independently of each other.

Consider this analogy. Say that you want to make a good sausage with a machine. You need good meat going in and the machine in good working order. If you put in good meat, you will get good sausage. Good pork, good bratwurst. Note, also, that whether or the meat is good or not has nothing to do with the working order of the machine. And whether the machine is in working order has nothing to do with the quality of the meat.

What do you think of the above Augustine argument? Here’s my take. Regarding the first premise, there’s reasonable evidence that Augustine did steal pears on at least one occasion. He himself confesses to this deed, plus there’s no good reason to doubt his veracity on this matter. To quote Book 2 of his Confessions: “There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night—having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was—a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree.” As for the second premise, whether the morality of actions is determined by goods valuable to humans, rights claimed and given, duties to others, or by the weight of consequences, taking the property of others without their voluntary, informed consent, namely, stealing, is morally wrong. Now, given that pears are a kind of fruit, if the premises are true, then it follows that the conclusion is also true. So, since both premises are probably true, and the conclusion is logically supported by the premises, I think that the Augustine argument is fairly cogent. Note also that my evaluation of the argument’s content was performed independently of my evaluation of its form.

Pear Tree by Klimt

Regarding content—that is, the truth of the premises—focus on the evidence for and against, and, if there are those with expertise on the given content, determine what those experts say and listen to them. Of course, this approach to evaluating content is nothing new. It was articulated by Socrates in the Theaetetus, among other Platonic dialogues. (See below.*) Now, I make clear to my students that I am not the authority on non-philosophical matters. If there is a question that clearly belongs to the domain of psychology—for example, “Is there such a thing as ESP?”—then study psychology or speak with a psychologist. Also, I tell students to drop the “how do we know anything?” attitude typical of philosophical novices. Reserve such questions for a class dedicated to epistemology. Or, I tell them, catch me outside of class time. To do ethics, for instance, you shouldn’t be caught up in the fog of skepticism, fun as it may be, and you need to get your facts straight. Doing philosophy in any useful, meaningful manner requires some minimal understanding of the world we live in. For example, people are starving in developing nations and those living in developed nations are partly causally responsible for this starvation. Fact. (Now, if you want to dispute this fact, go for it. Just not on my time.) Recognizing this, we can then move to the next question, which is an ethical one: Are those in developed nations partly morally responsible for assisting these starving people?


The basic idea behind good form is that your accepting the premises should convince you to accept the conclusion, or at least be more inclined to accept the conclusion. In other words, the premises actually support the conclusion.

To put this another way, imagine again a reliable sausage machine. If you put good meat into the machine, you are most likely to get good sausage. This is what an argument with good form does (though with statements, not meat!). For example:

All cats purr. Rocket is a cat. Therefore, Rocket purrs.

Now, you don’t know whether Rocket really is a cat. (He is, but you don’t know that.) Nor is it obvious that all cats purr. I once had a cat that just grunted. Nevertheless, when it comes to form, these questions are irrelevant. The question is this: If you deny the conclusion, can you still accept the premises? In this example, the answer is no. If Rocket doesn’t purr, then at least one of the premises is false.

Consider a variation on the Rocket theme where the argument clearly has bad form:

All cats purr. Rocket purrs. Therefore, Rocket is a cat.

It’s important to realize that arguments that have true premises (that is, good content) can still have bad form. Here’s an example of one:

Guinness is a kind of beer. Some beer is made with wild yeast. Therefore, Guinness is made with wild yeast.

Also, arguments can have good form yet have false premises (that is, bad content). Here’s an example:

All cheese is blue. Everything blue is moldy. Therefore, all cheese is moldy.

Apart from intuition, how does one determine that an argument has bad form? There are several methods, but for now just consider what I call the “counterexample technique.” To begin, understand that a form of reasoning cannot be good if it moves from true premises to a false conclusion. Consider the following argument:

If that bar serves Guinness, then the Irish will come. That bar doesn’t serve Guinness. Therefore, the Irish will not come.

Now, intuitively this argument appears to possess bad form. For even if both of the premises are true, Irish customers might come for other reasons. Perhaps the bar serves Murphy’s Irish Stout. Or perhaps they will come on “Thistle & Shamrock” nights.

But there’s another way to show that it’s invalid. First, figure out the form of the argument. Here it is:

If G then I. x is not G. Therefore, x is not I.

But isn’t there at least one argument of the same form that has true premises and a false conclusion? And since there is one, the Guinness argument has bad form. Here’s a counterexample of the same form:

If cats are dogs, then cats are animals. Rocket the cat is not a dog. Therefore, Rocket is not an animal.

To sum up: To employ the counterexample method of showing that an argument has logically bad form, produce another argument of the same form (a “substitution instance”) with obviously true premises and an obviously false conclusion.

Take another example. Consider the following argument from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, p. 229:

Everyone from Magical Maintenance wears navy blue robes. That bloke wears navy blue robes. Therefore, that bloke is from Magical Maintenance.

Intuitive: Even if everyone from Magical Maintenance wears navy blue robes, perhaps people from other departments in the Ministry of Magic also navy blue robes. That possibility has not been ruled out. To refute this argument using a counterexample, however, you need to find the form of the argument. It goes like this:

All M are N. x is N. Therefore, x is M.

Now, here’s a counterexample of the same form but with clearly true premises and a clearly false conclusion:

All dogs are mammals. My cat Rocket is a mammal. Therefore, Rocket is a dog.

It should now be clear that the original Harry Potter argument has bad form. Not surprisingly, it is Ron Weasley who offers this lousy argument. It is surprising, however, that Hermione failed to catch his mistake. Perhaps she was in love.

There is much more to be said about arguments, including the different kinds of arguments—deductive/inductive, a priori/a posteriori, etc.—but what’s said above is a start.

How does Socrates respond to Protagorean relativism?

Socrates certainly agrees with Protagoras that “[m]ost things actually are, for each person, the way they seem to him or her, for instance hot, dry, sweet, or anything of that sort.” In these kinds of cases at least, appearances constitute reality and knowledge is just perception. However, “if there are any questions on which it will concede that one person is superior to another, it will be about what’s healthy and unhealthy….” It is simply false that every human “knows what’s healthy for itself and is capable of curing itself.” Socrates also argues that “matters that concern the state” are also not relative to the individual. One city manager can be better and wiser than another.

So while it is reasonable to think “man” is the measure of immediate, intimate things, this is not true of future things. In such cases, some people judge more accurately than others. Relativism cannot account for experts: doctors, vintners, athletic trainers, cooks, lawyers, etc. A layman is certainly not a better judge than a vintner “when it’s a question of the future dryness or sweetness of wine.” And what makes the vintner’s judgment more accurate and authoritative is not because the vintner said so, but because the vintner understands some absolute truths about grape vines, water, weather, and land.

So humans are the measure of some things but certainly not all things.

SLO Down: Assessing Student Learning

Several years ago, I was the chief writer for the American Philosophical Association’s Statement on Outcomes Assessment. Its target audience is teachers of philosophy, especially those whose home institutions and/or government agencies expect (and sometimes demand) them to track and document student achievement. Much of it also applies to teachers in other disciplines. For your “pleasure,” here it is in all of its unabridged glory:


The purpose of this statement is threefold: to clarify the concept of Outcomes Assessment, to explain and illustrate how it is used, and to address concerns regarding its implementation.

Outcomes Assessment

The concept of Outcomes Assessment (OA) reflects an increasingly widespread desire to evaluate educational programs on the basis of clear and objective criteria. Its chief intent is to develop instruments that can measure the correspondence between the claims institutions make for their programs and what they actually achieve. It has come to be applied internationally at all levels of teaching and learning, from primary and secondary through higher education, and to entire institutions, degree programs and curricula, as well as to individual courses. OA typically focuses upon three factors: the student learning outcomes of a given course (SLOs), program (PSLOs), and institution (ISLOs); the means by which these outcomes are pursued; the degree to which these outcomes have been achieved by those who complete the program.

While assessment is not new, what is new is that assessment is now associated with accountability. In pursuit of accountability, accrediting organizations across the country have required that colleges and universities create assessment plans for their academic programs. Since accreditation is required both for the provision of federally guaranteed student loans and to ensure course transferability, administrators have directed their institutions to develop comprehensive plans for assessing student learning in ways that go beyond assigning grades for performance in courses. Other factors that have contributed to the pressures for accountability are loss of confidence in conventional grading systems due to grade inflation, doubts about the effectiveness of K-12 public education, and demands by state governments, businesses, and professional sectors that graduates exhibit greater readiness for the world of work. Institutions are expected to produce assessment results that reflect students’ mastery of both disciplinary content and skills. Thus, departments may be asked to demonstrate “objectively” the differences their degree programs make to the development of students’ abilities through their work in the discipline. In turn, instructors may be asked to formulate specific outcomes for each of their courses (and possibly programs), and to develop instruments that measure the degree to which students attain those outcomes.

It should be noted that there seems to be some concern on the part of college administrators to emphasize that the sole purpose of using and assessing SLOs is to improve student attainment of desired competencies; they are not to be used as a way of evaluating instructors and programs. Here’s a statement of assessment philosophy from a leading community college:

No individual faculty, staff member, instructional department or support program has the sole responsibility for ensuring that students will acquire one or more of the college’s ISLOs. Student attainment of the ISLOs should result from the collective learning experiences they engage in during their time at the college. Therefore, the assessment of ISLOs will not be used to evaluate any individual faculty or staff member or to measure the performance of any one instructional program or support department. The use and assessment of student performance in attaining the ISLOs is to provide the college community with information needed to increase the percentage of students that acquire the core learning competencies.

On the history of the outcomes assessment movement in the United States, see Barbara Wright’s article “More Art than Science: The Postsecondary Assessment Movement Today.”

The following two links comprise an explanation and defense of outcomes assessment:

OA in Practice

To some extent, philosophy courses and programs, as traditionally conceived and practiced, have defined student learning outcomes and means of assessing these outcomes. These typically include specific skills that students and majors in philosophy should acquire and refine, such as competence in applying the critical thinking standards of clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, and coherence. Most courses and programs also identify specific knowledge that students and majors should acquire, such as knowledge of the history of various philosophical debates, the main trends, traditions, concepts, terminology, etc. Syllabi and course outlines typically contain descriptions of what students are expected to learn in a course, the kinds of skills and competencies they are expected to demonstrate, and the nature of the instruments that will be used in assessing their demonstration of knowledge, skill, and competence. Outcomes normally are measured in philosophy courses by examinations and other written assignments that test whether students have mastered the objectives appropriate for the course and its level. Departments frequently establish curricula based on a consensus of their instructors regarding minimal standards of competence appropriate to given degree programs; and comprehensive examinations, written and oral, are sometimes used to decide whether students have attained that level of competence.

Currently, however, most philosophy courses and programs do not address or formulate student learning outcomes in ways that satisfy all of the expectations typical of the OA movement. Consider what are perhaps the main three expectations of OA: First, for each course, be it philosophy or physics, there are several outcomes that a student of the course should have demonstrably mastered (within a range from “inadequate” to “excellent”) by the end of the course. Second, the student learning outcomes for each kind of course in a particular department should be identical irrespective of who teaches the course. Accordingly, a student learning outcome should be articulated in such a way that the outcome can be achieved in a variety of ways, allowing for academic freedom, choice of text, and assessment methods. For example, it is unreasonable to have as a course student learning outcome (SLO) for Introduction to Ethics, “distinguish between Pufenforf’s and Kant’s views of moral duty,” as this would require all Introduction to Ethics courses to focus on this distinction. A more appropriate outcome would be: “identify the distinguishing features of the moral theories studied in the course.” Third, it should be possible to link or “map” the student learning outcomes to program and institutional student learning outcomes. For example, the SLO “identify the distinguishing features of the moral theories studied in the course” may be mapped onto the PSLO “demonstrate knowledge of the main concepts and theories of ethics.” In turn, this PSLO may be mapped onto the ISLO “define the issues, problems, or questions.” This is meant to ensure that each course itself furthers the aims of the program and the institution of which it is a part.

The following is an actual course description that is tailored to meet the expectations of OA:


In this course we will read classical and contemporary writings on such matters as good and evil, relativism, happiness, virtue, egoism, moral education, abortion, and social policy. We will seek to answer, using critical reasoning, a series of questions about these issues as raised by the course readings. In addition, we will engage each other in sustained discussion of these issues. Listed below are the outcomes a successful student will attain by the end of this course in ethics:

  1. Identify and define key philosophical terms studied in the course.
  2. Distinguish among the moral theories studied in the course.
  3. Apply moral theories to specific moral issues.
  4. Identify major points and arguments of an essay in moral philosophy.
  5. Critically analyze and evaluate moral arguments.

Notice how each of the outcomes specified here takes an active verb: identify, define, distinguish, apply, analyze, and evaluate. Student learning outcomes refer to what students can do; they are achieved and measurable competencies, in contrast to the objectives of the instructor, program, or institution. What the instructor, program, or institution intends to achieve can be unrealistic or simply too narrow, and students can fail to achieve them. Also, it is important to note the number of articulated SLOs. Though it is perhaps tempting to add more SLOs to this list, four to six SLOs for each course is quite common and frankly much more realistic. For instructors are asked not only to assess to what extent these outcomes have been met by each of their students, but also they are often asked to “map” their SLOs to program student learning outcomes (PSLOs) and institutional student learning outcomes (ISLOs). Each SLO should map onto at least one PSLO and at least one ISLO. So, for most instructors it is usually too unwieldy to implement more than six SLOs.

A good example of PSLOs can be found in the outcomes adopted by a Canadian program in Ethics. [Link is dead! But here is the content: ]

Learning is a complex process, and philosophical learning is no exception. There are cognitive, affective, and social dimensions, for learning involves not only knowledge and understanding, but also values, attitudes, and habits of mind that affect both academic success and performance beyond the classroom.

COGNITIVE (Knowledge and understanding)

  1. Demonstrate knowledge of the views of some historically important moral philosophers (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, Singer).
  2. Demonstrate knowledge of the main concepts and theories of ethics (e.g., egoism, altruism, rights, duties, utilitarianism, Kantianism, virtue ethics).
  3. Apply these concepts and theories to case studies and contemporary moral issues.
  4. Articulate an understanding of connections between reason and feeling and between cultural and intellectual traditions.
  5. Express conclusions with awareness of the degree to which these conclusions are supported by evidence.


  1. Demonstrate imaginative, creative, and reflective abilities by articulating philosophical insights.
  2. Present effectively in writing an extended argument on a topic of ethical importance.
  3. Articulate counter-arguments to one’s own position.
  4. Ask questions to clarify problems further.

SOCIAL (Values)

  1. Demonstrate openness and intellectual humility by approaching situations involving a conflict of views in a spirit of inquiry.
  2. Identify and reflect on values through analysis of case studies in such areas as justice, abortion, and the impact of humans on the environment.
  3. Reflect on one’s intellectual and intuitive responses to issues concerning ethical values.
  4. Demonstrate increasing awareness of the complexity of issues and of the necessity of examining issues from many different perspectives.

Such a philosophy program description in the OA mold will go on to specify what assessment techniques will be used to measure whether students have in fact matured sufficiently along these cognitive, affective, and social dimensions. These might include a comprehensive written and/or oral exam, a senior thesis or project, internship, narrative evaluations from faculty, and self-assessment. This might also include completion of a specific course or series of courses within the department’s offerings.

(More information on OA techniques and expectations can be found from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.)

It is no surprise that the above examples of SLOs and PSLOs were taken from different institutions, for the given SLOs are not clearly or meaningfully connected to the PLSOs that address learning along the social dimension. Even so, not only can an instructor add an SLO that more clearly addresses competencies along the social dimension, but also there may be other courses or opportunities (e.g., internships, senior projects) in her philosophy program that better address such competencies. There is no expectation that each course within a given program address all the PSLOs.

Naturally, institutional student learning outcomes tend to be even more numerous. Differences in program outcomes across disciplines must be accounted for. And again, there is no expectation that each program within a given institution address all the ISLOs. The following example of ISLOs is from a community college in California:


  1. Define the issues, problems, or questions.
  2. Seek, collect, and analyze data and relevant information including alternative approaches.
  3. Differentiate among facts, opinions, and biases.
  4. Synthesize and generate solutions, and identify possible outcomes.
  5. Use evidence and reasoning to support conclusions.


  1. Comprehend and interpret text.
  2. Create documents that communicate thoughts and information appropriate to the given context, purpose, and audience employing the conventions of standard English.
  3. Organize ideas and communicate orally in a way appropriate to audience, context, and purpose.
  4. Receive, attend to, interpret, and respond appropriately to verbal and/or nonverbal communication.
  5. Recognize and interpret images, graphic displays, and other forms of observable communication.


  1. Apply quantitative skills to the interpretation of data.
  2. Use graphs, symbols, and mathematical relationships to describe situations.
  3. Apply mathematical concepts to solve problems.
  4. Explain/articulate the scientific method to test theories, explanations, and hypotheses.


  1. Describe how the interactions among social, economic, political, cultural, environmental, and historic events affect the individual, society, and the environment.
  2. Explain how culture influences different beliefs, practices, and peoples.
  3. Recognize fine, literary, and performing arts as essential to the human experience.
  4. Identify the social and ethical responsibilities of the individual in society.


  1. Select and evaluate the accuracy, credibility, and relevance of information sources.
  2. Use technology effectively to organize, manage, integrate, create, and communicate information, and ideas.
  3. Evaluate critically how media is used to communicate information through visual messages.
  4. Identify the legal, ethical, social, and economic rights and responsibilities associates with the use of media.


  1. Develop, implement, and evaluate progress toward achieving personal, academic, and career goals.
  2. Demonstrate personal responsibility for choices, actions, and consequences, including but not limited to, attending classes, being punctual, and meeting deadlines.
  3. Demonstrate the ability to work effectively in a group setting.
  4. Demonstrate the ability to identify and use appropriate resources.

How should one “map” the five SLOs of the above Introduction to Ethics course with the above 25 ISLOs? The following guideline is typical: map a course SLO to one or more ISLO competencies only if instructors are directly measuring those competencies in this course and the connection between course SLO and ISLO competency is both clear and meaningful. Following this guideline yields this mapping:

1 2, 3
2 1
3 4
4 5, 6, 9
5 5, 7, 9, 14

If one then mapped the previously listed 13 PSLOs of the Ethics program with these ISLOs, the results would be something like the following:

1 1
2 1
3 6, 9
4 3
5 4, 5
6 7
7 7, 8
8 4
9 2, 4
10 19
11 11, 14
12 14
13 2, 11

Concerns regarding OA

  1. OA threatens to be an exercise in measuring what is easy, rather than a process of improving what philosophy instructors (and presumably even students) really care about. If philosophy courses and programs do satisfy the enormous pressure from various sources to find objective measures of learning outcomes, then there is a real danger that OA imperatives will create pressures to tailor the teaching of philosophy to things that admit of “before and after” measurement, to its serious detriment. So, for example, students who take philosophy courses dealing with different ways of thinking about such problems as the idea and existence of God, the relation of our minds to our bodies, the nature of truth, the conditions and limits of human knowledge, or the status of moral principles and concepts, should be more sophisticated in their thinking about these issues after taking the courses than they were at the outset. This should be discernible in both discussion and written work. It is only on the most superficial level of treatment of any such topics, however, that one can find specific matters admitting of before-and-after measurement (e.g., being able to identify, define and distinguish different arguments for the existence of God, conceptions of truth, types of knowledge, or different moral theories, or knowing who said what about them in the history of philosophy). And to make instruction in such matters the focus of philosophical education (in order to yield dramatic before-and- after results) would be to reduce it to a caricature of the development of any real sophistication in students with respect to these issues. The basic aim of education in philosophy is not and should not be primarily to impart information. Rather it is to help students learn to understand various kinds of deeply difficult intellectual problems, to interpret texts that address these problems, to analyze and criticize the arguments found in them, and to express themselves in ways that clarify and carry forward reflection upon them. The worry is that these kinds of abilities are not amenable (though others might be) to patterns of outcomes measurement typical of OA. It is not to be expected that student progress in philosophy can either be specified to a degree beyond what is already possible by means of an essay examination or a term paper, or given a purely quantitative expression. It is essential that those values inherent in and specific to the process of teaching and learning in philosophy not be lost. In short, the adoption of OA in philosophy might seem to undermine, rather than improve, the quality of instruction.

    Yet many, if not most, of those who use OA do not find this to be the case. First, the extent to which an outcome in philosophy is easy to measure seems to have little to do with the degree to which it is worthy of measurement. Learning outcomes in traditional symbolic logic courses are often in the “easy to measure” category but are certainly worth caring about. Second, there may not be such a large gap between the easy to measure and the difficult (some would say impossible) to measure outcomes. The above sample lists of SLOs and PSLOs can be used to illustrate this. At first glance, most would undoubtedly consider SLO 2 and PSLO 2 (both of which refer to the demonstration of knowledge of the main concepts and theories of ethics) to be amenable to “easy,” before-and-after measurement, since it is content and technique specific. Two straightforward exams, a beginning of term exam and an end of term exam would seem to suffice. Contrast this learning outcome with PSLO 12 (“reflect on one’s intellectual and intuitive responses to issues concerning ethical values”). Surely most would initially register this as difficult (perhaps impossible) to measure in a way helpful to OA. But this is to exaggerate the differences between outcomes 2 and 12. For in either case a rote answer might be given; there are certainly instructors who discuss in class “different intellectual and intuitive responses concerning ethical values.” The fact that a student holds an idea that others have held before her surely cannot be used against her when grading. In this sense, outcome 12 is similar to outcome 2, for how can the instructor tell in grading an exam or essay whether or not a student truly understands “the main concepts and theories of ethics” or is just recapitulating them on paper? This, however, suggests a solution that is often considered integral to the proper use of OA. Careful practitioners of OA use the student’s self-assessment along with evidence from her performance in essays and exams to measure such things as attitudinal changes, for instance, a commitment to using philosophical methods and ethical concepts in resolving issues of personal and professional importance to the student. Such an approach greatly increases the chances of measuring accurately both outcomes 2 and 12. It also serves to avoid easily quantifiable measures of assessment that do not adequately reflect the complexity of student learning.

    None of this is to say that all outcomes are or should be measured in similar ways. It is not obvious, for instance, that self-assessment is needed in logic. In fact, different outcomes may require different kinds of instruments of measurement. But this is surely not equivalent to saying that some outcomes are easy to measure and others practically impossible.

  2. At the time of this writing, there does not seem to be any rigorous research comparing different kinds of instruments for observing and measuring learning outcomes peculiar to philosophy. Controlled studies, where, for example, the same philosophy instructor articulates outcomes and regularly performs assessments in one of her ethics classes and not in another ethics class, do not seem to exist. However, it appears that there is much anecdotal evidence that outcomes like the ones expressed above can be achieved and demonstrated in a wide variety of learning activities. Learning activities range from written exams administered throughout the term, class discussions and quizzes, questions solicited by the instructor, group work on pre- selected or limited topics, essay assignments graded with a departmental rubric, and student self-assessment. That being said, the APA sees a need for further empirical research into the usefulness of different kinds of assessment instruments for measuring the outcomes of concern to philosophy courses and programs.


Note the above use of the phrase, “careful practitioners of OA.” Certainly OA can be used in a careless and damaging fashion, for instance, where only one kind of measurement is used or where the outcomes are entirely along the cognitive dimension while ignoring the affective and social dimensions. OA must not be treated as an end in itself, but rather as one (albeit important) means for educational improvement. Educational values should guide not only what instructors choose to assess but also how they do so, and those values can be made clear to students through the methods of OA. Assessment should be an ongoing process and not episodic, especially for majors continuing beyond the term. In the spirit of continual development, student progress toward the intended outcomes should be monitored. And, importantly, the assessment process itself should be regularly assessed. OA must also take into account the peculiarities of each discipline to which it is applied. The APA calls upon administrators to recognize that philosophy is fundamentally a matter of the cultivation and employment of analytic, interpretive, normative and critical abilities. Learning outcomes and assessment methods must be devised accordingly. It is recommended that special consideration should be given to the means of assessment already in place at an institution.

The APA recognizes the interest of public agencies in establishing ways of assessing the success of colleges and universities in carrying out their educational missions, and accomplishing their objectives. It seems possible to create assessment instruments for both students and programs that satisfy administrators yet at the same time avoid easy measures that do not sufficiently mirror the complexity and special nature of student learning in philosophy. The concept of Outcomes Assessment may be of some help in achieving these ends, but it must be applied carefully.