Introduction to Philosophy

How and what to teach in an introductory philosophy course?

I suppose, given the two basic approaches you mention, I’d be inclined to follow the first: the historical rather than the topical. The latter gives the impression that ideas come in neat and tidy little boxes, whereas in fact we can’t think well about being (ontology) without also thinking about knowing (epistemology), and our thoughts on these subjects at once presuppose and give rise to further thoughts about acting (ethics). I realize modern “academic” philosophy tends to divide all this up, but real philosophers didn’t, and don’t!

With that approach in mind, I would then go in search of those philosophical works, from the full range of periods you’re expected to cover, which best exemplify, and provoke, this sort of non-compartmentalized thinking. I wouldn’t go out of my way simply to avoid major figures—surely Kant, for example, has to show up somewhere—but I also wouldn’t be worried about fitting authors into my syllabus just because they’re found in most of your discipline’s canons. 

The specifics, of course, are where it gets tricky. Some works, such as The Republic, are obvious, and of course you won’t be surprised to learn that Boethius’s Consolation would likely show up on my list. But personal preference will at certain points have to be your guide, especially as you move into and beyond the modern period.

For myself, I might include E. F. Schumacher’s Guide for the Perplexed or (a real gem, in my opinion) Borna Bebek’s Third City—idiosyncratic though these choices might be—because they wonderfully suit the dialogical approach I’m suggesting. Or again, I can see myself using something of Barfield’s, or even P. D. Ouspensky. What links these otherwise so disparate works? They’re challenging, engaging, demanding—even upsetting—books, books that can force your students, at least the serious ones (the only ones that count), to consider themselves and the world afresh.

But that’s obviously not the whole story. Once you’ve figured out what authors and works would best suit, then comes the more difficult task of culling a chapter or two from each for your Reader. If it were my course, I’d would want to organize the selections not just chronologically—even though my overall approach is “historical”—but in such a way that Selection One leads to Selection Two and Two to Three and so on, so that students begin seeing how philosophers from different eras were nonetheless thinking together.

Needless to say, I’ve no idea at the moment, never having taught the course you’ve been assigned, how I would pull all this off. The key for me, though, would be how best to help young minds become personally, existentially interested in the Big Ideas, while at the same time showing them that everyone is perforce a philosopher, though only a very few are good at it!

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