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 answer so).”

[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 not 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.

Grade Me Grade Me Grade Me

On the first day of class, whether it be Logic, Ethics, or Modern Philosophy, I inform my students that it is possible for every one of them to receive a grade of A. A 90% or above for the class guarantees a grade in the A range. The phenomenon of every student earning an A as a final grade has never transpired in any of my hundreds of classes over the years, and probably never will. Though it’s been close on a couple of occasions, it’s not like I teach Italian conversation! In principle, however, it’s possible. (I sincerely hope it happens, though I won’t water down the requirements of the class in order to facilitate this outcome.) Let me defend this grading policy against detractors.

Grading Muddy Waters
There are teachers who apply a “bell curve” using “normal distribution”; they believe that assigning grades ought to be principally a function of how a student’s performance compares to others in the same class. Grading on a bell curve entails that that the mean grade is a C, and there are as many Fs as As, and as many Ds as Bs, no matter how well the class performed overall. Why do professors use the bell curve? I think the usual justification falls along these following lines: “No way are all, or even most, of my students worthy of an A. This college admits mostly ‘C’ students, so I will ensure that the average for my class is also a C.” At St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, where I taught for 3 years, this was the explicit and expressed approach of the Dean of Students. If any teacher had a class with a higher average grade than that of a C, that teacher would have to justify it in writing to the Dean. I have two objections to bell curving grades as a pedagogical practice. First, it’s cruel. Second, it’s logically suspect. 

Bell Curves are Cruel

Here’s a true story, too often repeated in college classes across this country. The teacher uses a straight bell curve. Student x gets a B on the first exam. She is happy. Students who received the lowest 10% of scores received Fs. All students who received an F subsequently drop. Time for the second exam. Student x performs just as well in relation to other students as she did on the first exam, but because a bell curve is used, she receives a C. She is a little concerned. Again, the students who received Fs drop. Now, there’s a third grading assignment. Student x performs equally well in relation to the others but receives a D. Now, however, it’s too late to drop without receiving a F for the course! That’s just cruel on the part of the professor.

Bell Curves are Logically Suspect

Consider RUNNING. Suppose that you are the fastest runner on the planet. Even Usain Bolt is left in the dust kicked up by your spikes. Now imagine that overnight an ethereal substance from space enters the Earth’s atmosphere. It has an interesting and unique property: it causes one to become very fast. Say every human on the planet breathes in this ether, except for poor you. The following day, as a consequence, everyone is faster than you. Your overweight, chain-smoking, neighbor with bad knees is now faster than you. Are you now a slow runner? Most definitely, even though you haven’t lost a step.

Now consider KISSING. Say you meet someone for a romantic dinner. It goes extremely well; you fancy each other. You two kiss. It is undeniably pleasurable; both of you enjoy it immensely. Your kissing partner exclaims afterwards, “My oh my, you’re a good kisser!” You go to sleep happy. Now, suppose that strange fumes arise from deep volcanic activity in the Earth. These fumes have a distinctive and intriguing characteristic: those who inhale become good kissers. Really good kissers. However, you happen to be sleeping someplace where the fumes didn’t reach. But everyone else is lucky enough to inhale these fumes. And so, as a result, everyone becomes a better kisser than you. Would that mean that you are no longer a good kisser? That overnight, due to no fault of your own, you became a shitty kisser? (If you care, in the technical language of philosophy, that is called a Cambridge change.) No, it would simply mean that you’re worse than all the others! You’re still good though—bad kissers aren’t required to exist for there to exist good kissers. You just now live in a world where everyone happens to be a good kisser. (The intention here is not to illuminate what it means to be a good kisser. I’m trying to set it up such that whatever it takes to be a good kisser is now “granted” to the inhaler of the kissing fumes. This may include the ability to affect the perception and experience of the other party! Now kissing is sounding creepy, but hopefully you get the idea. I should also add that if the kissing analogy doesn’t grab you, there are other analogies that can be used in its stead.)


GRADING is more like kissing than it is like running—in my book at least. I imagine that it’s possible for everyone in the world to be good kissers. Was it pleasurable? Did your partner enjoy the kiss? That’s what counts. Just like in my class where everyone can get an A. Did the student learn the material? Did the student achieve over 90% for the course? If so, give that student a grade in the A range, even if it turns out that everyone else in the class is a bit more excellent.

In conclusion, kissing shouldn’t be graded on a bell curve; nor should performance in a college class.

Thinking Objectively; Or, How Not To Turn Your Students Into Tools

“How can one teach college students to think objectively on their own without professors infecting them with their bias and prejudice?”

To the above question, this is my initial or “knee-jerk” reaction: This worry about students turning into clones of their intellectually corrupt professors is often expressed, but it is overblown. Many college students already do think relatively objectively on their own. (More on this perhaps startling statement in a later post.) All that’s needed for such students is honing and practice. Now, such students aren’t likely to start thinking less objectively because they encounter a biased professor, even one they must endure for a full semester. As a teacher who hears many stories about other teachers, for the most part, I hear students complaining about teachers who wear their bias and prejudice on their sleeves. If there is undue influence from teacher to student, it tends to be much more subtle. I venture to say that transference of bias or prejudice will typically happen only when the student is unaware that the professor is biased or prejudiced. Give students at least that much credit! Suppose that I’m prejudiced against homosexuals and believe that any homosexual act is sinful. And suppose further that I don’t take seriously any argument that purports to defend the morality of homosexual behavior, simply because that argument reaches a conclusion contrary to my own. Most students will see through me like a searchlight through a cheap tent. I think that in some cases students are more aware of a bias in a teacher than the teacher himself or herself. (This is one reason I take student evaluations seriously. More on this in a later post.) A non-biased teacher, on the other hand, will take seriously arguments for and against positions that he or she personally, even passionately, holds. (Obviously, there are limits to this. No teacher worth having will debate the shape of the earth or the morality of interracial dating.) And for those students who don’t think objectively—they come to class clothed in their own bias and prejudice—what’s the chance of them abandoning these garments? It’s not very high. If you doubt this answer, ask any political science professor.

Socrates Bill and Ted

Thinking Objectively

I like my knee-jerk reaction, but here’s another response that is a bit more thoughtful. Thinking objectively is to think in a non-biased, non-prejudicial, even-handed, fair manner. As such, the claims, methods, and conclusions of objective inquiry should not be influenced by personal interests, particular perspectives, or community bias, among other relevant considerations. Objectivity is usually taken as an ideal for inquiry, and as an essential characteristic of knowledge-seeking across many disciplines, including physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, sociology, psychology, and, of course, philosophy. It is crucial, however, that we do not include in the definition of objectivity that it avoid all interests and value commitments, since holding objectivity as an ideal in knowledge-seeking is itself a value commitment! (Let’s call interest-free and value-free objectivity “absolute objectivity.”) Also, in recent times, absolute objectivity as an ideal in knowledge-seeking has been challenged in terms of both its value and its achievability. Let me explain.

Consider first of the value of absolute objectivity. Objectivity as such requires knowledge-seekers to make no value judgments whatsoever. But imagine, for instance, a scientist making no value judgments. This is—for all intents and purposes, absurd. A scientist needs to make “methodological value judgments—about appropriate sample size, models, reliable data, and so on—even to do their work. Obviously, scientists ought not remain neutral about issues such as whether the earth is flat, whether anthropogenic climate change exists, or whether they should allow biomedical ethics codes in their experiments. No good researchers are neutral about poor research and poor ethics” (Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Tainted: How Philosophy of Science Can Expose Bad Science, 215). Some, most notably feminist philosophers of science, have also argued that the goal of absolute objectivity may itself be a cultural artifact, albeit a pervasive, institutionalized one. Regarding the achievability of absolute objectivity, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that “the prospects for [inquiry] providing a non-perspectival ‘view from nowhere’ or for proceeding in a way uninformed by human goals and values are fairly slim.”

It should now be clear that I am no fan of absolute objectivity. However, I do consider objectivity (of a less strict variety) to be an ideal for inquiry. The above description of scientists making methodological value judgments is compatible with objective inquiry. Now, I noted above that many students already do think relatively objectively on their own. What do I do for the others?

My philosophy professors were also not defenders of absolute objectivity. To a man—and most were men—they carefully followed certain standards, standards which they believed were better than other standards. They rejected relativism, especially scientific and ethical relativism. Certain methodological, ethical, and logical standards governed their inquiry. As students, we were taught to learn and implement them in our own philosophical inquiries. Even while my professors considered competing arguments with gusto, they also ranked these arguments with equal gusto. But even while undoubtedly committed to the view that some arguments are objectively better than others, they would rarely offer their own considered position or suggest that the matter was closed to further inquiry. The model exemplar of this approach is probably Socrates. (Check out this video demonstrating Socrates at his “best.” It is based off of Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro.)


The Non-Committal Approach

My philosophical training took place primarily at three institutions: University of Arizona, King’s College London, and University of Washington. As mentioned above, my professors rarely, if ever, articulated their own personal views on any matter of philosophical significance. For instance, if a professor discussed the issue of abortion, he or she would never to express his or her personal opinion on the matter. Never. Of course, arguments were articulated, evaluated, and ranked. But since the debate is not closed—there are relatively powerful arguments both for and against abortion—one argument being ranked relatively better than the other doesn’t automatically settle the debate. Perhaps there are better arguments that haven’t yet been offered. As a student in these departments, you could never be sure what the professor believed. In some cases, you’d get the sense that perhaps the professor had no opinion on the matter.

Let’s call this the Non-Committal Approach. Justification for the Non-Committal Approach is simple and straightforward: a good way to ensure that one’s students approach a controversial topic in a non-biased fashion and argue objectively about that topic is for them to have no clue as to the personal beliefs of the person whose authority they respect or whom they look up to, or simply the person who grades or evaluates them. If a student knows the personal views of his or her professor, her own views risks being colored as a consequence. The student will be tempted to mimic or parrot the professor, or at minimum be unduly influenced. The Non-Committal Approach remains the most common approach taken by those who teach in philosophy departments. For all intents and purposes, Socrates has won.

When I was a fledgling teacher, I was fully committed to the Non-Committal Approach, and I acted on it. I would articulate and defend the competing sides of a controversial topic as ably and fairly as I could. And I would leave it at that. Consequently, I’ve had students who swore I was a Catholic (peruse my Rate My Professor comments), others who believed that I was a Stoic, a dualist, a determinist. (You didn’t hear it here, but the truth is that I’m none of these.)

I now believe that the Non-Committal Approach is too simplistic, even naive. And it has a serious drawback. Let me explain. Students often come away from a Non-Committal philosophy professor with the view that what all philosophers do is to question, and not provide answers to these questions. For every answer offered in class is promptly questioned, or as it may appear, attacked. This understandably leads students to the conclusion that philosophers are naysayers and even destroyers of ideas, not those with positive positions, that is, builders. Some philosophers are of course principally destructive thinkers (which I think is really the “easy” way to do philosophy), but most are constructive in their outlook. Or, philosophers can easily be seen to be wishy-washy or  “philosofickle,” a term coined by my brother; in other words, changeable, even unpredictable, in their views. If you adopt the Non-Committal Approach, well, then, don’t be surprised when you’re seen by your students to have no commitments. Why is this a serious drawback? Philosophy, or in whatever discipline you wish to adopt the Non-Committal Approach, will be perceived by students as having nothing to add to knowledge, much less anything to add to the improvement of human existence. It will be seen instead as a destructive discipline, or at best, a discipline where all you do is to learn how to “critically think.” That simply doesn’t cut it.

My Approach

So what is my own approach? Usually I don’t state my own views upfront, for doing so tends to stifle discussion. Typically, I begin by addressing all competing sides to a controversial topic–to exhaust the logical space, as it were. I field student questions. I let students address each other’s arguments. At this point, what I do looks like the Non-Committal Approach in action. However, after initial discussion and student input, then often I will offer my own view on the matter. In other words, my own opinion typically emerges only when adjudicating between the different sides. Sometimes, albeit rarely, I “give away” my view right from the start. For instance, I’ve been known to tell my students of my proclivity toward vegetarianism before discussing the morality of eating animals. On such occasions, I deliberately avoid suspense in terms of where I’m going, similar to how a good argumentative essay proceeds. An argumentative essay that does not inform the reader right away of its thesis (the position to be defended) can be incredibly annoying and even confusing to read. If suspense is desired, there will still be some suspense in terms of how the thesis will be defended. There are topics on which I haven’t made up my mind, for instance, on the morality of reproductive cloning. But I think it’s important to make to clear to my students that my stance has not yet been formed, that I’m still working through the intricacies of the debate. Or to point out that I need more information. Students need to see their philosophy professor at work too, struggling with the same issues they are. Again, though, it’s just as important to state on which topics I do have views–that I, as a philosopher, have actually made some progress on some important issues. Philosophy, and other disciplines, need to be seen as making some progress. And, let’s be honest, haven’t they?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Spinoza drawing

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

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

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

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

Diogenes quote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Students Who Don’t Give A Shit

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

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

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

a) with sadness,

b) with indifference, or

c) with frustration.

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

Philosophy Lotion?

(Selling “Philosophy” on the Shopping Network!)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Before turning in your paper, did you:

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

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

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

• Proofread carefully?

Eighteen Further Items 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Bullshitting With Parameters

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

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

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

Consider the following Turkish folktale:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo courtesy of Chino Chasakara 2015)

The Tusk Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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