What I should bring to class…

A new semester has just begun. As a teacher, apart from copies of the syllabus and markers, what should I remember to bring to class?

I’ve got to remember that I must remain connected to that which I teach. I must not stand at a distance from the subject matter. I must be at or in the subject, touching it, even while fully realizing that I will never know all the material relevant to subject at hand. It’s important not to pretend—and isn’t that what it is?—to have such complete knowledge. Pretension will inevitably be found out.

When I teach a subject in which I’ve published, as in Modern Philosophy, it’s easy to be “in” that subject and to remain connected to it. I can teach Modern in the way that I talk to my cycling buddies about cycling. However, say I’m teaching Ancient. I’ve never published in the field. But philosophy in the Modern period was of course influenced by ancient philosophers, so I do have some connection to the Ancient period. Also, I was enthralled by Greek mythology as a child.

I’ve got to remember that being a good teacher cannot be dissociated from being a good person. Let’s begin with a simple example. Say a student has an overall class percentage of 79.5%. Round up! Why? Because why assume that you graded perfectly fairly and accurately on all the grades that made up that total of 79.5%? Be humble. Good people don’t assume that they always get it right. A person is not a push-over either. Listen, be flexible, but have clear limits and standards. Have high expectations, but don’t be an ass about it. When it comes to take-home essays, for instance, let students submit a draft. But only one. Allow make-up exams. Many factors in a student’s life—beyond their control—can adversely affect attendance.

A good person also listens mainly not for weaknesses in what other people say and write, but for strengths. Isn’t this how you treat your friends? Now, I’m not saying that your students are your friends (though ideally some should are) but you should respect them similarly. Respect calls for charity, confirmation, and constructive criticism. Or put it this way: your students are not your enemies. So don’t treat them as such.

 I’ve got to remember to change things up if need be—to experiment. It can be risky, to be sure; but inflexibility and stagnation should both be avoided. Take a straightforward example. Over the years, I’ve used several different textbooks for Symbolic Logic. Here’s the complete list, if memory serves:

  • Lemmon, Elementary Logic
  • Etchemendy, First-Order Logic
  • Bonevac, Simple Logic
  • Hurley, Introductory Logic
  • Arthur, Natural Deduction

Every time I switch it’s a serious hassle, not least to students who try to sell their copies back to the college bookstore. But don’t settle for the mediocre status quo, just because it’s easier. It’s tempting to “play it safe,” but why teach x when you know x is problematic? In such a case, how connected to the subject can you really be? In the case of my prior Logic textbooks, I was dissatisfied and so were my students. Sometimes I was dissatisfied simply because my students were.

I’ve got to remember to be myself, to be authentic. I’m sure that all teachers can vividly remember their most memorable teachers and to speak to their impressive qualities. Recall those classes you loved to attend. The teachers of those classes changed your relationship to teaching in amazing ways. However, none of this means that you should  imitate this teacher. (Imagine Van Morrison imitating David Bowie, or conversely.) There are great, powerful lecturers—more aptly called orators—yet oration may not accord with your particular strengths. Maybe your strength is not oration but discussion; you yourself may get bored by your own lectures! Recall the great orator teachers in your past. Many would be lost in a seminar or discussion-oriented environment.

I think of myself as a hands-on lecturer, who leaves lots of space throughout for questions and discussion. I like engaging in conversations outside the classroom, so why not in it as well? Also, since I can get intense, especially when discussing heavy philosophical topics, part of my pedagogy is to tell lame jokes to lighten the mood. But that’s also just me—I am both intense and goofy, though usually not at the same time… The class period tends not to go well when I go overboard on lecturing, or when I attempt to go 100% discussion, or when I remain consistently intense or serious.

Finally, I’ve got to remember not to be presumptuous. Don’t assume your students are distracted, uninterested, or brain-dead. This is what disaffected, jaded, or love-to-complain teachers often do. Making such assumptions only ensures that you will treat your students as such. How is this helpful? For you will then try to “spoon feed” them, placing bits of data in their “dead” brains. Instead, ask questions, challenge and provoke them. So, even if they are in fact initially distracted, uninterested, or brain-dead, they may not remain so. Also, bear in mind that a student may appear distracted, uninterested, and even brain-dead, but appearances can deceive. I recall being a student…

There is pervasive cynicism about students among teachers. I believe that it’s largely a defense tactic. It’s difficult to be a good teacher, especially day-in and day-out, so it’s tempting to blame students for this difficulty. Sure, some of this blame is accurately placed; but again, even if so, this doesn’t serve to solve the problem.

OK, I’ve got to remember all these things. It’s time to teach.



Out Of Simplicity, Find Clutter

Einstein once said, “Out of clutter, find simplicity”—it’s important to recognize order and patterns in the apparently complex. “In discord, find harmony,” he continued. Einstein utilized this maxim to guide his own investigation of the physical universe. Yet it is undoubtedly a valuable maxim for all disciplines, including philosophy, for it is an essential feature of logic. As a teacher of philosophy, then, part of my job is to simplify the clutter. But, as I will show, part of my job is also to “clutter up” what appears to be simple, to find discord in what appears harmonious. I begin with simplification.

Consider the following passage:

What is the highest human good, namely, the most valuable thing for humans, such as you and me? Let’s begin with commonplace examples of things that may appear to offer much value, but actually represent lesser human goods. Consider, for instance, lots of money or assets, i.e., wealth; it is not sought except for the sake of something else, of itself it brings us no good, but only when we use it, whether for the support of the body or for some similar purpose. Now the highest good is sought for its own, and not for another’s sake. In other words, the most valuable thing must be intrinsically valuable. Wealth is thus not a human’s highest good, for, as shown above, it is not intrinsically valuable.

Seemingly convoluted, the above passage offers a fairly straightforward argument:

(1) Wealth brings us good only when we use it.


(2) Wealth is not sought except for the sake of something else.

(3) The highest human good is sought only for its own sake.


(4) Wealth is not a highest human good.

The above argument was found in the original passage by extracting any logically extraneous detail and then expressing what remains as clearly as possible. Now the argument is ready to be checked for soundness, using the tools of logic.

In philosophy, however, the converse of Einstein’s maxim—”Out of simplicity, find clutter”—is equally valuable. For too often, what appears simple, straightforward, or consonant is not. Let me explain.

The philosopher Spinoza spoke of how there would be no disagreement among people if only they used terms univocally. Say that you and I disagree vehemently about the existence of God. Yet, maintained Spinoza, you and I would agree about God, provided that you and I actually meant the same thing by ‘God’. People may think that they are speaking of the same thing, because they are using the same words. But often they aren’t, and so confusion and disagreement reigns. Spinoza himself was called both a man “intoxicated by God” and an atheist. That’s why he began his Ethics with a set of definitions, upon which we can generate further truths and of course consensus on those truths. Spinoza may have been overly optimistic regarding the prospect of human agreement over controversial matters, nevertheless, for there to be any possibility of such agreement, clear communication is paramount.

To that effect, defining terms very carefully is crucial in philosophical discourse. Integral to this task is the making of distinctions between terms; that is, to disambiguate easily or often ambiguated terms. Here are some particularly salient distinctions that philosophers love to talk about:

  • appearance/reality
  • ambiguity/vagueness
  • analytic/synthetic
  • apriori/aposteriori
  • categorical/hypothetical
  • contrary/contradictory
  • determinism/fatalism
  • efficient/final/material/formal
  • endure/perdure
  • eternity/sempiternity
  • induction/deduction
  • intension/extension
  • necessary/contingent
  • necessarily/always
  • noumenal/phenomenal
  • transeunt/immanent
  • per se/per accidens
  • providence/praevidence
  • substantival/adjectival
  • tautologous/contingent/contradictory
  • type/token
  • use/mention

For the sake of time, I will discuss just one of these distinctions—the one between determinism and fatalism.


“Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice.” (Richard Russo, Empire Falls)

In ancient Greek writings, the two distinct positions of determinism and fatalism were not often disambiguated, since the same term, moira (μοῖρα), seems to apply to each.  Moira comes from meros, “part or lot,” and moros, “fate or doom.” Even today, the English terms and phrases “fate,” “doom,” “destiny,” “one’s lot,” “what is determined to happen,” “what is predetermined,” and “what is predestined,” are often used interchangeably and loosely.

(Tapestry by Pat Taylor and Fiona Abercrombie, from the drawing Three Fates by Henry Moore)

Let’s begin by describing a brand of determinism offered by those ancient Greek and Roman philosophers called Stoics. Stoics believed that everything that is or comes to be in the universe has a cause: there is nothing that is uncaused. Everything is but a link in the infinite chain of causes. If this were not the case, the universe would be unpredictable, chaotic, and disunified. Indeed, the universe was thought by many Stoics to be an organic unity.

The Stoics distinguished between several kinds of cause: initiating, contributory, sustaining, and constitutive. But what is true of all of these causes that it is impossible that, when all of the circumstances surrounding both the cause and that for which it is a cause are identical, the result would sometimes turn out in a particular way and sometimes would not. For, insisted the Stoics, if this were to happen, then there would have to exist some change without a cause. In other words, according to the Stoics: same initial conditions, same result.

None of this, however, points to the doctrine of fatalism, strictly speaking. Rather, the Stoics tended to defend what philosophers now call determinism.

So what is fatalism and how does it differ from determinism? To explain, consider the case of Oedipus, the mythical Theban king and subject of Sophocles’ tragedy. The oracle of Apollo said to King Laius, “If you beget a child, the one who is born will slay you, and all your house will wade in blood.” Eventually, this came to pass. His son, Oedipus, wound up killing Laius and marrying his mother Jocasta, not at all knowing that he committed patricide and incest.

(King and Queen by Henry Moore)

Determinists say that if the oracle of Apollo had not made such a prophecy to Laius, none of the things that came about would have done so. If the oracle had not prophesied thusly, Laius would not have abandoned his son and his son would have known that Laius was his father and so would not have killed him nor married his mother. Everything is part of the “chain of causes,” including the prophecy. Yet the oracle did utter the prophecy, so Oedipus’ patricide and incest were both causally inevitable.

However, imagine a response to the case of Oedipus that went like this: Oepidus was going to murder his father and have sex with his mother whether or not the oracle uttered the prophecy. Such a response diverges greatly from the above deterministic one; it is the response of a fatalist.

Here’s the difference in a nutshell: determinism means that given the same initial conditions, the same results will occur; fatalism means that at least some events will occur, no matter the initial conditions. No wonder then that physicists tend to be determinists but not fatalists while Christians tend to be fatalists but not determinists. No matter what you or I do from here on out, Christians believe, Christ will return. Whereas many physicists believe that what you and I do does causally affect the future. Our actions do make a difference. The kicker, of course, is that our actions are themselves entirely causally dependent on and determined by past events.

So the next time you hear someone speak of or write about fate, ask yourself: What exactly is this person referring to? Or is she or he using it in a loose or ambiguous way?