Some Students are Satanists: Religion in the Philosophy Classroom

Religion may or may not be “the opium of the people,” as Karl Marx famously wrote, but students certainly like to talk about it in my philosophy classes at Santa Barbara City College. A recent “Does God Exist?” debate here had over a hundred in attendance and almost another hundred turned away. Such interest in religion at a secular institution makes sense to me. The students I had at a Catholic college didn’t want to talk much about religion. Also, in an excellent new philosophy podcast from Barry Lam called Hi Phi Nation, I learned that West Point cadets grow easily tired of war talk.

In my own classes I like to talk about religion as well. In fact, I love to talk about it. The comedian Marc Maron has spoken recently about God not being part of his upbringing. He rarely thinks about God; religion is not in his purview at all. In his words, he has never used nor understands what it really means to use God. I do. I was raised in a religious household, more specifically, a fundamentalist Christian one. So when I talk about God, and religion in general, I feel it. There is a ton of baggage, many associations. I can speak with authority about it and connect with religious and previously religious students, and even students who are newly contemplating a more spiritual life. Also, my own move away from religion came ever so gradually so I don’t have any obvious emotional scars.

But religion can be tricky to talk about, even for the experienced. About a year ago, I had a particularly unsettling experience. I made a lame and very quick joke about Satanism—I don’t even remember the details except that it was in reference to ethics. That evening I received the following email from a concerned student:

I am terribly disappointed with your attempt of a joke you made yesterday. Your wanton ignorance would not be a serious matter if you did not make destructive jokes about it with students who look to you as a role model.  Forgive me for being upset, but as a philosopher I hold you to higher standards concerning the addressing of religions. I am attaching a link to the Official Church of Satan website. I believe that it would be at least decent to research an ideology before you slander it.

This email had a quick and lasting effect on me. I learned three principal things almost immediately: first, that Satanism is a living religion (there are followers, including this student), second, followers of Satanism probably never see their religion depicted in a compassionate, understanding light, and third that I should not just pick and choose which religions can be made fun of (I would never make fun of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism in the classroom). But even while I realized my mistake(s), I did think that the student was overreacting with his charge of slander. So this was part of my subsequent email exchange with him:

I apologize for the joke. I will look further into Satanism. Thanks for the link. (I would add that a joke based in ignorance is not equivalent to slander. That is a serious accusation.)

We also spoke in person. I apologized again for my ignorance and informed the student that I read the website; he apologized for reacting so strongly. The rest of the semester with him went well.

Sometimes I deliberately avoid the subject of religion when I teach philosophy, and not simply because it is such a sensitive subject. Philosophical discussion need not and probably ought not to be bookmarked by religious concerns. The medieval Catholic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas offered one influential way to argue for this claim. He claimed that the assumptions and principles of the philosopher, that to which philosophical discussion and argument are ultimately derived, are in the public domain. They are things that everyone—religious or not—knows or can in principle know. Philosophical techniques, such as syllogistic logic, are also in principle agreeable to all thinkers, religious or not. This is correspondingly true of each of the sciences, where the most common assumptions are in the background and the proper principles or starting points of the particular science function relative to that science. By contrast, religious discourse ultimately goes back to assumptions or principles that are held to be true on the basis of faith. Such assumptions and principles are not in the public domain. So even when religion itself is the subject matter of philosophical discourse—as when we discuss God’s existence, divine foreknowledge, the relation between reason and faith, and between religion and ethics, to name just several—philosophical analysis employs its own techniques that are not constrained by religious commitments. Many philosophers today agree with Aquinas’ analysis, as do I. (Flipped the other way, consider that a religious studies course is probably best taught in a non-philosophical way; in other words, as a sociologist, historian, or anthropologist would teach it.)

I will end with an observation about religion in the philosophy classroom. Students—whether religious, non-religious, or anti-religious—sometimes expect me as their philosophy teacher to attack religion. Some, especially the anti-religious, anticipate and even salivate at the thought of a philosopher railing against the absurdity of religion and the religious. There is a perception among college students that philosophers are all religious skeptics or outright atheists. Just the other day, a student asked if there are any Christian philosophers. No doubt they’ve taken classes from such anti-religious philosophers or heard about their classes. Others, especially the religious, dread the thought of their philosophy teacher saying such things. Neither camp will find satisfaction in my classes, since I neither attack religion and the religious nor do I attack humanism (the rejection of religion) and the non-religious. I don’t even joke about Satanism anymore.





Socratic Method(s)


Consider the following letter to the editor from the well-known philosopher Simon Blackburn:

“Sir, I was a member of the then sub-faculty of philosophy in Oxford some 30 years ago when the chairman received a letter from the administration asking us to detail innovations in teaching methods we had recently made. His reply was that the right method of teaching philosophy was discovered by Socrates some 2,500 years ago, and we had no intention of changing it. We heard no more about it.” Professor Simon Blackburn

In reply to Blackburn’s chairman, I’m tempted to say: “How very un-Socratic of you!” But that’s too cute (even for this blog) and I’d probably be wrong anyway—in Plato’s dialogues at least, Socrates does indeed recommend his own method(s). My criticism of the chairman’s claim is more nuanced. I begin by showing that at least two distinct teaching methods can be and have been attributed to Socrates. Then I show that both methods, when taken literally, have their own distinctive shortcomings. My aim, however, is not to show that we, as teachers, should reject Socratic teaching, but rather that we utilize his teaching methods critically, with an awareness of their own problematic assumptions and potentially negative consequences. This too is Socratic.


This question itself is problematic, since Socrates employs more than one teaching method. Consider this encounter between Socrates and a couple of his “students.”

Socrates comes across two well-respected generals, Laches and Nicias. Naturally, he asks both about what it means to have courage. Initially, Laches confidently defines courage in the following way: “if someone is willing to stay in ranks and ward off the enemy and not flee, rest assured he is courageous.” Socrates, however, remembers something about the 479 B.C. battle of Plataea: “[T]hey say that the Spartans at Plataea, when they met troops using wicker shields, refused to stand and fight but fled, and when the Persians broke ranks, the Spartans [wheeled around] to fight like cavalry and so won the battle.” Laches is forced to rethink his original definition of courage. So he tries this: Courage is “a kind of perseverance of soul.” In other words, courage is a kind of endurance. Again, Socrates raises a problem with this definition: perseverance can be directed toward impulsive and foolish ends. Nicias, with the judicious guidance of Socrates, “comes to the rescue” by proposing that courage would have to involve knowledge not only of what things to fear and to be confident about, but also an awareness of good and evil, and could not always be limited to warfare. Socrates thus takes an initial definition of a concept and subjects it to criticism, trying to come to some knowledge about its meaning.

This encounter is typical of Socrates; however, what he is ultimately doing here can been interpreted differently. In other words, when it comes to his teaching style, at least two distinct methods are regularly attributed to Socrates. Let’s call one the Critical Thinking approach and the other the Truth Seeking approach.

C r i t i c a l  T h i n k i n g

Here’s a typical expression of the Critical Thinking approach: “The oldest, and still the most powerful, teaching tactic for fostering critical thinking is Socratic teaching. In Socratic teaching we focus on giving students questions, not answers. We model an inquiring, probing mind by continually probing into the subject with questions” (Foundation for Critical Thinking). There is no pre-determined argument or end-point to which the teacher attempts to lead the students. “Teachers” and “students” are seen almost as peers, engaged in the same pursuit of answers. The only essential difference between “teachers” and “students” is that the former has probed longer and has experienced that certain paths of inquiry are more promising than others. It’s easy to see Socrates in this light. For Socrates insisted many times that he was not a “teacher,” at least in the traditional sense of spoon-feeding knowledge to those who lack the knowledge themselves. In practical terms, this means no textbooks, no lectures, no Powerpoints, no exams, minimal note-taking, if any, and small classes.

T r u t h  S e e k i n g

Socrates engages in questioning others and himself in a search for truth. As demonstrated in his conversation with Laches and Nicias, he challenges the assumptions of their views by asking continual questions until a fallacy or contradiction is exposed. His aim, however, is far from destructive or subversive; one can easily see this conversation as part of a larger dialectic whose aim is to uncover the truth or at minimum get closer to it, however long this may take. Possible answers to what courage is are eliminated—including those offered by Laches and Nicias—thus narrowing the search for the meaning of courage. Let me explain.

Socrates is concerned with the knowledge of concepts such as courage, justice, and beauty. Since there is no recognized procedure or accepted method for coming to such knowledge, Socrates has to argue for his own method. In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Socrates does just that, by arguing that the answers to these questions are to be found within our souls. In fact, the word “education” comes from the verb “to educe,” to draw forth from within. Socrates’ method here is therefore specifically geared to help us retrieve these answers from within. It is then not surprising that he sometimes calls himself a “midwife of ideas.” Now, these answers are called definitions. A true definition is one that accurately describes the essence or nature of the thing to be defined; it is objectively true. For example, the true definition of courage captures the essence of courage. It doesn’t matter whether or not people agree or disagree with that definition. Its truth doesn’t depend on what we think or believe, or even if no one was ever courageous. Imagine Cowardly Earth, where no human ever shows courage in anything they do and no one has ever thought about courage. Nonetheless, courage possesses an eternal and unchangeable essence.

The Critical Thinking and Truth Seeking approaches, as described above, are certainly distinct from one another. Both teaching methods have their virtues, but only when taken in moderation. Here’s why.


When taken to its extreme, the Critical Thinking approach to teaching faces two problems. First, it can engender a “question everything” attitude, especially in beginning students. Even “Philosophy Talk,” an otherwise fantastic podcast out of Stanford University, introduces each show with the mantra: “The program that questions everything except your intelligence.” This attitude can easily be taken too far, and even the podcasters Ken Taylor and John Perry have no patience for those who question the value of equality, respect for others, and the like. But what if we question the very enterprise of questioning? Isn’t this the logical endpoint of the Critical Thinking approach? In other words, the Socratic Method (taken as immoderate critical thinking) carries the seeds of its own destruction. I observed a class once where I saw the spirit of inquiry die over the course of the semester, precisely because inquiry itself was questioned and was found pointless and wanting. The teacher and a single persistent student were helpless in resuscitating the others.

Second, using the critical thinking approach to teaching can engender complacency and even laziness in the teacher and ultimately frustration in the student. Consider what some have said about law school (at least American ones) in a well-known blog: “The Socratic method as a cruel game designed to let professors show off how clever they are while students struggle to tease out basic concepts from boring cases is well-established. It was the basic dispute between the Harvard casebook approach and the ‘shut the hell up and take notes’ approach that raged almost two hundred years ago.” Continuing, “The Socratic method is the method used by sage law professors to tease the law’s nuances out of the minds of their brilliant pupils. In practice, it leads to lazy law professors with little real world experience calling on whichever gunner feels like talking that day…. The classes consist of meandering discussions that often have no real point and leave students even more confused than before” (Above the Law). As you can imagine, this can be incredibly frustrating for students. I daresay that law school isn’t the only place where such complacency and frustration occur.

Socrates’ Truth Seeking approach, on the other hand, faces its own problems, for it makes two contentious assumptions. First, it assumes that there is a true definition (essence) of concepts such as courage, justice, and beauty to be discovered. But Ludwig Wittgenstein argues in his 1953 Philosophical Investigations that things which are believed to share one or more essential common features may actually be connected by a series of overlapping similarities, where no one feature is shared by all. Wittgenstein uses games to illustrate this idea.

“Consider for example,” Wittgenstein says in §66, “the proceedings that we call ‘games’ [e.g., card games, board games, ball games, and Olympic games] to look and see whether there is anything common to all.” “We can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; we can see how similarities crop up and disappear.” We want to say, “there must be something common among games, but we’d be wrong. “The result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.” Wittgenstein concludes by stating: “I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than family resemblances.” 

If examples of courageous acts are analogous to games in the sense that they too share no one essential feature in common—and when you see philosophers in action, it sure seems that they are analogous to games—then the Truth Seeking paradigm of Socratic inquiry faces a deep, perhaps fatal, problem.

Second, even if concepts such as courage have an essence (that is, the set of essential properties that all acts of courage share in common), whatever that essence is has been stripped of any capacity to mold itself to the circumstances, to change with the times, for it is the product of abstraction from concrete courageous things. Socrates himself realized that courage’s essence would have to be an abstract thing, or as he puts it, a permanent, changeless, and timeless Form or Idea. Nietzsche calls such abstractions “concept-mummies” in Twilight of the Idols:

You ask me which of the philosopher’ traits are really idiosyncrasies? For example, their lack of historical sense, their hatred of the very idea of becoming, their Egypticism. They think that they show their respect for a subject when they de-historicize it, when they universalize it… when they turn it into a mummy. All that philosophers have handled for thousands of years have been concept-mummies; nothing real escaped their grasp alive…. Death, change, old age, as well as procreation and growth, are to their minds objections—even refutations.

Never mind that Nietzsche tends to exaggerate; he has a point. Socrates, Plato, and a veritable treasure-trove of philosophers, de-contextualize concepts, as if the definition of courage is permanent, changeless, and timeless. But acts of courage themselves are not at all abstract; they are concrete, contextual to both circumstance and time, and varied.


Don’t get me wrong. I often employ the Socratic Method(s) in my classes. But I take both varieties—critical thinking and truth seeking—in moderation. As teachers, we don’t need to re-debate the morality of slavery, any more than geologists need to re-debate the shape of the earth. Neither do we need to take concepts such as courage to have essences; we can treat them as open concepts. We can continue to think critically and to seek the truth.

“The Teaching Hub”

At the 2017 APA Eastern Division Meeting held in Baltimore, Maryland, I attended a mini-conference on teaching. It had a nifty title: “The Teaching Hub.” I enjoyed it for the most part; however, two things became clear and concerning to me. First, the research/teaching divide in philosophy seems as alive as ever. The majority of graduate schools of philosophy in the U.S. still do not require their graduate students to take teaching seminars. Many philosophy departments still operate as if simply being a teaching assistant is sufficient to becoming a good teacher oneself. But of course it’s not; learning good teaching practices doesn’t come by osmosis alone. The lecturer for whom one is assisting may not be a model of stellar teaching. Also, lecturing well is not identical to running a smaller class well. At the mini-conference, a University of Chicago professor said that attendance was so low for a voluntary graduate teaching seminar he offered that the department eliminated it. He then noted that pedagogy is not that important anyway for Chicago grads. Fortunately, a professor from Harvard replied that given the job market in philosophy even Harvard Ph.D.s were not guaranteed of landing a job on research alone. To put things in perspective, the job market in philosophy is so tight that there were about 120 applications for my job at Santa Barbara City College.

Second, some recent trends in teaching philosophy seem not to fully take into account the diversity of college students, especially those in community colleges. “The Teaching Hub” offered a workshop on Team-Based Learning, or TBL for short. Here’s a short description of this teaching model:

Team-based learning (TBL) is a structured form of small-group learning that emphasizes student preparation out of class and application of knowledge in class. Students are organized strategically into diverse teams of 5-7 students that work together throughout the class.  Before each unit or module of the course, students prepare by reading prior to class.

In the first class of the module, students participate in a “Readiness Assurance Process,” or RAP. Specifically, students complete a test individually (the “individual Readiness Assurance Test,” or iRAT); and then complete the test with their group members (the “group Readiness Assurance Test,” or gRAT). Both the individual scores and the group scores contribute to the students’ grades. The tests are typically multiple choice, and students often complete the group test using a “scratch-off” sheet and score themselves, reducing grading time and promoting student discussion of correct answers.

After the students complete the group test, the instructor encourages teams to appeal questions that they got incorrect. The appeals process encourages students to review the material, evaluate their understanding, and defend the choice they made.

On initial inspection—apart from the fact that there are far too many acronyms (!)—the TBL model sounds promising. It emphasizes team work and is very learner-centered—both wonderful things in a classroom environment. However, to be successful, TBL requires a fundamental homogeneity among students. Let me explain. Reading prior to class is required for these group tests and activities to function well. But I have students who face real difficulty with readings done on a deadline. Some are homeless, or are working multiple jobs, are single parents, disabled (intellectually and/or physically), have mental health problems, in and out of the courts, etc. Of course, when I teach I try to get students to do the required readings, and I certainly talk about the readings, but the success of any particular class cannot be dependent on all or even most of my students actually doing the reading. However, successful group work under the TBL model is dependent on such completion. Now take the “individual Reading Assurance Test.” It is timed. Some of my disabled students physically cannot take in-classes quizzes, certainly not under a time constraint. Some emotionally can’t take such quizzes. They need assistance and go to an on-campus testing center to take quizzes and exams. Those who are deaf or cannot speak also cannot fully participate in group activities. A few group activities per semester can work fine, but TBL requires group work daily. This is just not feasible and therefore undermines inclusivity in the classroom.

There is another aspect of TBL that seems problematic to me. It requires careful “criterion-based,” “strategic” selection of groups, since these groups remain fixed for the whole quarter or semester. Here’s the exact wording from

In forming groups, we recommend trying to do three things. One is spreading assets and liabilities (i.e., background factors that are likely to make a difference in students’ performance in this course) across the teams. Assets are often such things as attitudes toward and/or performance in previous course work, course-related life experience; liabilities often include such factors as no (or poor) preparation in related courses, language barriers, etc. … A second objective of the team formation process is to avoid pre-existing, cohesive sub-groups (e.g., a group of three students from the same fraternity and three students who did not previously know each other would probably struggle). For these two reasons, teams should not be self-selected. Third, the process you use for team formation should foster the perception that none of the teams was given a special advantage. Thus, we recommend using a very public team formation process.

I am concerned a bit about the competitive atmosphere that having fixed teams would most likely engender, but two other things seem more problematic. First, I am concerned with the recommendation that the team formation process be “very public.” Here’s my worry: in a highly diverse group of students, the only way to properly ensure fairness among teams—that is, “spreading assets and liabilities”—would be to venture into criteria that may constitute an invasion of privacy. Where are you from? Is English your native language? What other classes have you taken? Second, initiating the semester with a veritable ranking of students as to whom we judge would be better at doing philosophy than others rankles me. As an experienced teacher, I have often seen a student who has never before taken a philosophy class, or is an ESL student, do fantastically well, far exceeding many of her peers. Any kind of pre-screening seems presumptuous and borders on plain rudeness.

I would also add that it isn’t only in community college classrooms where there is serious diversity, or should I say, more diversity than an initial inspection reveals. In other words, even in the most homogeneous of classes, there is more diversity than meets the eye. TBL may sound good “on paper,” but in the classroom, I’m not so sure.



One Advantage to Teaching Philosophy

One advantage—one distinct advantage—of teaching philosophy in the United States is that American students, by and large, don’t know philosophy from a hole in the ground. Or perhaps a cave. Teaching philosophy to freshmen is like trying to unchain the prisoners in Plato’s famous allegory; they’ve no idea what’s in store for them.

Now, you might reply, understandably enough, “Wait a short minute, Bobro, is it not much preferable to have students who already have some acquaintance with the subject matter? Imagine teaching mathematics to freshmen who don’t know long division or simple algebra. Moreover, why in the world would you as a philosopher want your students to be in a position analogous to Plato’s prisoners?! Recall that these prisoners resisted mightily to enlightenment.” Undoubtedly, there’s some wisdom behind this reply, though teaching math to students from scratch can surely be exhilarating. Recall Socrates’ conversation about geometry with the boy in Plato’s Meno. However, the advantage to which I refer is a unique one.

I cannot think of another subject taught in American colleges where most students enter class knowing nothing—or what practically amounts to nothing—about that subject on the first day of class. Math, biology, history, physics, art, sociology, English… name it, students know something about it. Or at least they think they know something about it; students in philosophy don’t even think they know what philosophy is. While the former subjects are either explicitly taught in K-12 schools or are used implicitly in the curriculum, philosophy is rarely taught in K-12 education in the United States. Philosophical thinking is also rarely exemplified. Take, for example, Euclidean geometry. Geometry is taught in middle and high schools, but are Euclid’s assumptions as found in his famous definitions and axioms discussed and critiqued? He defines a line as “breadthless length.” (Say that 10 times.) What does this mean? What is a line, really? A really existing thing or a purely theoretical construct? Have you ever encountered an exactly straight line? If not, then the sum of the interior angles of any triangles you’ve encountered has never actually been 180 degrees. Have you ever encountered a line? For if it’s truly breadthless, you couldn’t actually see it. Now, these are in fact philosophical questions that middle and high schoolers can certainly understand and even enjoy exploring. However, such inquiry is generally absent from American schools. (I daresay that if such questions were asked, more students would enjoy mathematics. But that’s for a subsequent post.)

In France, where Descartes is a cultural hero, all Lycée students read the Meditations, or so I’ve been told. In Germany, all students in Gymnasia read Kant. In England, I’ve seen philosophers go at it on primetime talk shows. Even though I’ve seen the Australian philosopher Peter Singer on The Colbert Report, and, many years ago, the long dead Irish Bishop and philosopher George Berkeley mentioned briefly on ABC’s daytime soap opera General Hospital, in the U.S., philosophers are far less visible in popular culture as they are, for instance, in European countries.

However, this one distinct advantage of teaching philosophy in the U.S. comes with a distinct drawback. Since so many students have no clue about philosophy until they take that first college course, that first teacher can have a disproportionate effect of that student’s relationship to philosophy. If the teacher is dogmatic, wishy-washy, overbearing, inattentive, boring, dispassionate, this can seriously turn a student off of philosophy, sometimes permanently. I’ve met several people who hate philosophy; typically, the explanation is that they have taken one class in philosophy and their teacher was horrible.

Let me issue a caveat. Technically, so far, my analysis is broadly accurate; pragmatically, my analysis is off-base. For even though pre-college American students are not exposed to philosophy proper, I believe that most of them have probably philosophized at some point. As children, many have asked and attempted to answer the deepest questions about any number of topics:

By not telling the truth, I just got what I so badly wanted. So what exactly is wrong with lying? Is it always wrong?

Where is great-grandma?! What is death?

When are we going to arrive? Does time actually slow down?

I think that there are a number of reasons why children stop philosophizing. First and probably foremost, there is parent, teacher, and even peer pressure to quit asking and attempting to answer the tough—annoyingly tough—”why” questions, rudimentary as such inquiry may have been. Such pressure is largely institutionalized. We are told from a very young age to listen to our elders, not to question them, except in an acceptable, namely superficial, fashion. A second reason, as I see it, is the early use of grades, often as early as first grade. Children, as a result, learn to play it safe and not take chances with challenging their teacher, lest they are downgraded and ranked lower than other students. A competitive, evaluated environment is antithetical to open and free inquiry. My best college students often went to schools that didn’t use grades, such as some charter and private schools, were homeschooled, or in some cases even unschooled.

So why is teaching neophytes an advantage? The newness of doing philosophy captivates students so much. Students get to do things they have never really been allowed to do before in a generally safe and accepting environment. They are allowed to question authority, whatever form it comes in, be it parent, family, tradition, culture, religion, or government. Indeed, they are able to question anything they want, including philosophy itself! Philosophy is the only discipline that allows practitioners to question their own practice; or to put it another way, philosophy potentially carries the seeds of its own destruction. This can get a bit out of hand, as you can well imagine, so sometimes I redirect the direction of the class. But the point is that students feel free to do so, and this is a wonderful feeling for them, and for the teacher. At least for this teacher. 


How much should I reveal about myself?

Two Mondays ago, 30 minutes before class I received word that my dear brother Cameron had two brain aneurysms and that one had ruptured during his sleep. He lives in Slovenia with his wife and son. I broke down and cried. Perhaps making the wrong decision, I chose to hold class, though for less than a full period. I dried my eyes, went for a walk, cried for a second time, dried my eyes, and went to my classroom. It was rough. I have no clue what I looked like, but teaching while in shock has minimal merit. It was a similar experience for the other two classes that day. Between classes and for the rest of the day and night I researched flights to Slovenia and tried to get further updates from Slovenian contacts and doctors. I had very little success. 

Very early the next morning, I learned that emergency surgery to drain all the blood from his brain cavity was performed. Cameron’s left side and his right eye were paralyzed. I was also told that the doctor had put Cameron’s chances of survival at 50/50. Can you imagine a zombie teaching a philosophy class? That image is of me. Nonetheless I managed to hold myself and both of my two classes together that day. I decided to fly to Slovenia. There was no way I wasn’t going to try to see my brother again. If he was going to die, I wanted to be by his side.  

The following day—again very early in the morning—I learned that Cameron had made a remarkable turnaround. His left side was no longer paralyzed. He was to be transferred from critical care to the neurology clinic. Signs were definitely looking up and Cameron’s doctors were highly pleased. 

On social media I learned of an anonymous student who complained about the quality of my teaching. That my voice was draining; that I didn’t seem to enjoy teaching. That student was onto something. I was literally in shock while I was teaching; I wasn’t present for my students. 

So the very next class I began by saying that it’s hard to know how much to reveal about my personal life as a teacher. I told them that in this case, however, I should say something, because my teaching has been adversely affected. I apologized for my being “out of it” the prior class and, without going into too much detail, explained why. I informed them that I may leave for Slovenia at any moment, depending on what news I received about my brother. And that if I space out for a second don’t be surprised—and to bear with me. 

I felt a real difference in the classroom. I had already suspected that students need to see their teachers as full people, and now that suspicion was clearly confirmed. The more and more I teach, it seems the more and more I reveal about myself. That’s not always a bad thing. I don’t believe that there’s some easy algorithm, or perhaps an algorithm at all, that can determine when and to what extent a teacher should reveal herself or himself to the class. Why did I choose to discuss aid to combat poverty this semester rather than the ethics of war as I did last semester? Why did I stop wearing a wedding ring last year? These are difficult questions, and I have no easy answers. However, I do know now that the wrong answer is just to keep a comfortable, “safe” distance from students at all times. 

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? 

Oldest and Youngest Days of Teaching

My oldest day as the “instructor of record” was in Seattle, August 1994, the year of Kurt Cobain’s death. My official title then was “predoctoral teaching associate.” My youngest day was in Santa Barbara, December 2015, the year of Donald Trump’s rise. I now carry the title of “full professor.” Here, I will describe both of those experiences, while utterly ignoring the 20-plus intermediate years. (“Youngest day” is a more accurate and less depressing way of referring to my latest day of teaching, because I take it that it’s the beginning of many more to come. It’s in reference to Jüngster Tag, the German term for Judgment Day.)


The course is Logic at the University of Washington, on the second floor of a brick building located roughly in the center of the large UW campus. I walk into the classroom a few minutes before the bell, carrying a black leather briefcase, Canadian-made. I wear a muted button-down, short sleeved shirt. It is probably plaid with red, white, and brown colors, and is certainly not tucked into my pants. Underneath is a t-shirt probably with some logo on it, known only to me. Since I didn’t own blue jeans in those days, I must be wearing black jeans. I wear leather, ankle-high shoes. Forget sneakers. My hair is of medium length, slightly unkempt. My face is shaven, with a visible scar on my chin.

I am confident, yet nervous. I know the material cold—and therefore employ only a outline of the agenda for the day—but have never before been solely responsible for the teaching, grading, and administration of a course, hence the nerves. I teach standing up, walking from side to side, making eye contact with each student as I lecture and ask questions. But I don’t teach in such a way that allows for open-ended discussion. In other words, I avoid some of the more nuanced aspects of logic, privileging material that is directly germane to the day’s lesson. Even though I know the assigned content well, I am not very confident in fielding questions that would take us into less familiar territory, where the textbook doesn’t venture. The students are probably none the wiser that they are being guided through well-charted waters, for there are subtle ways to keep the class “on course.” As a result, the students are by-and-large quiet. They are polite and focused at least. Most, if not all, take notes.

Of course, it being my first day, I can’t avoid some sort of mishap or unintended consequence. Mine is mechanical in nature. The room has a whiteboard and I am equipped with a marker; however, unbeknownst to me, until it was too late, it is not a dry erase marker. Only when the board is covered in logical symbols and rudimentary proofs, do I and my students realize that it is a permanent marker. Traces of my handwriting remain on that whiteboard for weeks until some genius custodian figures out a solution.

All told, the class goes well, but it is manifestly nothing to write home about. There is nothing that distinguishes it from a thousand other logic classes.


On the surface, everything looks basically the same. The class is full of quiet, focused students sitting in desks. Right on time, I walk in carrying the same leather briefcase, albeit worn and missing a strap. I wear a button-down, short sleeve shirt, this time black instead of plaid—again, not tucked in and over a t-shirt, probably with some band logo on the front. Where are all of my plaid shirts?  At any rate, I wear blue jeans this time, having gotten over my blue jean moratorium. And I’m wearing black leather ankle-high boots. Unsurprisingly, my hair is slightly unkempt, yet now my face holds a short, somewhat scruffy, beard. I walk back and forth, looking at students and making eye contact. I use no lecture notes.
So, superficially, the class may seem identical to the one 20 years prior, but it is manifestly not.

I feel so different—loose, not anxious, and spontaneous. I also act so different. For one, I tell more stories, having more to offer, but also less concerned that stories will derail student learning and waste “precious” class time. I also have in my mental storehouse stories that actually serve a pedagogical function. I bring these up when the time is right. Take, for instance, the commonly accepted “Principle of Explosion”: ex falso sequitur quodlibet—“from a falsehood, anything follows.” Many students of philosophy find this principle counterintuitive. To show that it’s perhaps not as counterintuitive as it first appears, I recount an Indian folktale about a cache of iron ore that was so sweet, mice ate it all up. This is of course patently absurd. The point of the folktale is that in a world where falsehoods obtain, anything can happen. Maybe the Principle of Explosion is not so counterintuitive after all. For another, I welcome any question related to logic and so don’t teach in such a regimented fashion. I still don’t use lecture notes, but neither do I use an outline. Students are visibly more relaxed. Many ask questions. Students talk more before and after class. Some even guess the identity of the band whose logo is featured on my partly covered t-shirt.


What explains the difference? It’s not simply “time and experience,” as this question is commonly answered, because there are teachers with many years beyond mine who remain mediocre in their profession. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s a genuine problem in academia. (Tenure is considered untouchable among academics, yet it engenders a situation where the mediocre, and sometimes worse, professors are also untouchable.) So, again, what explains the difference? I see two main reasons. First, I generally don’t complain about students. If there are problems in class, I tend to put the blame on myself. And I ask myself—and sometimes other professors—what can be done to fix the problem, instead of blaming it on my students. I take student evaluations very seriously. Some, of course, are misguided, silly, and some are just plain rude, but I believe that most are well-intentioned, and often are on target. My experience is that most students intend to improve the class with constructive criticism, not to attack the professor. Second, teaching is a complex enterprise, even an art. This doesn’t mean that anything goes—not all art is successful, right? I believe that all teachers can improve, and there are certain guidelines that help in that enterprise. But these are merely guidelines; there are no prescribed algorithms that turn someone into a good teacher. Otherwise, we’d probably all be.

Ultimately, there is something true in the adage that experience is needed to really become a great teacher. For simply being smart or clever is not sufficient, by any stretch of the imagination. But the requisite experience cannot be satisfied in terms of time alone.


Teaching Philosophy to Children 

Besides my own children–who are no longer “children”–I haven’t taught philosophy to children in a decade. Nonetheless, you may find my approach to teaching philosophy to the “young ones” instructive and perhaps even interesting. It was originally published in the online journal Analytic Teaching. The article is available here


Job Applications: Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Applications for college teaching jobs, whatever the discipline, typically require a “Statement of Teaching Philosophy.” Since my discipline happens to be Philosophy, perhaps my statement should instead read: “Statement of Teaching Philosophy Philosophy.” At any rate, here is mine from 2005:

My teaching philosophy is to involve students in a non-dogmatic, passionate, logically tight, and historically informed pursuit of wisdom whose main purposes are to learn how to think about and appreciate the mysteries of the universe and live morally in it.

An important element to this end is that students actually see a non-dogmatic, passionate, logically careful, and historically informed philosopher at work. If we praise Socrates, for instance, we must behave like Socrates. Students must also see that a philosopher looks for inspiration and ideas everywhere, even in the thoughts and experiences of those less knowledgeable and experienced. I have certainly learned from many of my students (even children) and will continue to do so. If I am unwilling to learn from my students, why should I expect them to want to learn from me? No one has a lock on wisdom.

As teachers, we must be keenly aware of our motivations. Let me recount a true story of my first course as the primary instructor. The usual plan is to be evaluated by the end of the quarter. But about two-thirds of the way into the quarter, I began to worry. What kind of “scores” would I receive from my students? Although the class was going reasonably well, how could I be sure that my students liked me? I already had good TA evaluations in previous logic classes, so why was I concerned in my first attempt at teaching solo? Eventually, my worries and rationalization so overcame my good sense, and I decided not to have my students evaluate me. Lo and behold, after coming to this decision, the class went brilliantly. My teaching became markedly better. I was relaxed. The students sensed this and opened up. There was a rapport between myself and my students that simply was not there before. What is the moral of this story? Simply this: as teachers, we must be aware of our motivations. Do we care more that our students learn or that they like us?

I now believe (whereas I did not previously) that if a class is not going well, it is most likely the fault of the teacher and not the students. Surely, I was the one to blame for the first part of that logic course. And thus, I take student evaluations very seriously. For the most part I find that they are helpful and perceptive. For example, in my modern philosophy classes, I now spend less time on substance and more on causality and personal identity. Also, student comments have confirmed that my decision to change the critical thinking text was the right one. I even bought some new clothes on a suggestion by one of my students! But regarding certain issues, my flexibility extends only so far.

I believe that the kinds of assignments we require of our students are vital to what we accomplish as teachers. And, because there are many objectives in teaching—developing skills, imparting knowledge, building self-confidence—we need to vary assignments accordingly. For example, take-home papers often provide students an opportunity to develop confidence. But students also need to express their ideas under the pressure of time and other distractions; hence, in-class examinations are needed as well. Moreover, I have found that in varying the kinds of assignments required I can really see the progress that each student is making. Some students are very comfortable taking a week to write a paper while others tend to do better under strict time-constraints.

Also, I am wary of pedagogical gimmicks and trends. Some of the pedagogical techniques I use or plan to use certainly sound gimmicky. For one, I sometimes require that each student write a dialogue with two or three characters, each of whom is supposed to represent one of the philosophers they have studied in the course. So, for example, in writing on early modern views of God’s relation to humans, a student might have Anne Conway and Spinoza as disputants in a trial with Leibniz as the judge. For another, I have used folktales from around the world to introduce students to philosophical ideas and problems before discussing the standard philosophical texts. But such techniques, though increasingly more common, are not, to my mind, gimmicky. Dialogues used to be a common form not only for essays but also for textbooks. The classic text on the theory of counterpoint in music, Steps to Parnassus, is written in dialogue form. It remains both a fascinating read and exceptionally clear. Students of philosophy still read Plato’s dialogues and find them, as a whole, to be deeply rewarding. The impact of such dialogues would surely be less if written in standard essay form. As a case in point, compare the interesting presentation in Berkeley’s Three Dialogues as opposed to his more pedestrian Principles of Human Knowledge. At the same time, sometimes I use folk stories as a way to introduce philosophical material. In my own life, my father, an immigrant from the Ukraine, told my family many Slavic folktales, a number of which are unfused with philosophical meaning. It is certainly telling that when I first heard of Leibniz’s complete concept theory of substance in college, I was neither surprised or confused as my classmates were. For I became aware of such an idea through a folktale in which a sorcerer Tsar had a book in which all the events—past, present, and future—of each of his subject’s lives were listed.

I have found certain techniques that really seem to benefit students. I have also learned that the input of students can only help and not hinder teaching. I am still learning and trust that this process with never stop. May I redescribe my teaching philosophy a few years down the road?

I received many interviews using this Statement of Teaching Philosophy. Perhaps this “statement” didn’t enhance my job application as a whole, but I do know it didn’t harm my chances. What do I think of it now? Well, I agree with my 2005 self; however, there are few things I would add. First, I would make clearer the point, paradoxical as it sounds, that students like us more when we are not so concerned that they like us! Second, many teachers don’t take student evaluations of their teaching very seriously. That’s a mistake. I believe that most students take evaluating their professor seriously. If anything, students back off of negative comments, so as not to jeopardize their professor’s job. I’m serious. Taking evaluations less than seriously is also a bit arrogant, too. Students can be remarkably accurate in their assessments. They can be remarkably inaccurate too! However, if a teacher consistently receives poor evaluations on the online site Rate My Professor, for instance, steer clear of that professor’s classes. Trust me. Third, I would point out that I hate to waste students’ time. Often they are paying good money for their education, while working part-time and sometimes full-time. A fun teacher with lots of stories is simply that, fun. Movies can also be a waste of time. In the time it takes to show The Matrix, for example, the students could learn a helluva lot about Spinoza. This is of course apart from the fact that most college students have already seen that movie. Fourth, I would discuss the surprising amount of diversity (in terms of culture, religion, interests, experiences, and race) found in any classroom, even in a classroom of students who “look” pretty much the same from the lectern perspective. Fifth, in the 2005 statement, I never provided examples of teaching gimmicks and trends. I won’t do it here, either. Can you think of some?

Chris Burden's "Metropolis"