What Not To Expect In A Philosophy Class


First things first: if this is your first time in a philosophy class, then welcome. I am glad you chose (or are thinking about choosing) philosophy (and this class in particular) to be a part of your education. I hope you will find philosophy as challenging, as interesting, and as worthwhile as I do, but I won't hold it against you if you don't.

As an instructor and a professional in the discipline, I feel I have a duty to provide you with some basic information in the hope of offsetting any wrong impressions or incorrect expectations you might have about taking a philosophy class. Consider what follows your fair warning about what the study of philosophy entails. We shall proceed by addressing three of the most common misconceptions about philosophy.

Misconception 1: I will not have to work hard in a philosophy class.

Many newcomers to philosophy sign up for a philosophy class thinking that it will be an easy "A". After, all, they think, philosophy is just made up by philosophers, it has no real grounding or subject matter, so how can there be any standard for performance? Nothing could be further from the truth. Philosophy, more than any other discipline, is about the real. It makes no assumptions, it uses no tools as intermediaries between the investigator and the object of investigation. All a philosopher has is the quality of her or his reason. For this reason alone philosophy would be difficult, but the situation is even worse. Not only are you required to think in a philosophy class, you are required to think in ways to which you are not accustomed, in which you have never attempted before, and for which, in all likelihood, your previous education has not prepared you. In philosophy we do not memorize and regurgitate facts, and there are no easy answers to questions to be learned. We do not, in most cases, learn general rules and then apply them to specific cases here either (logic is the exception). Philosophical (one might say more generally, critical) reasoning is a skill. It is a skill which you may find difficult to exercise even if you are a straight-A student. Do not expect to do well in this class unless you are prepared to think in radically different ways. If you believe that all the final answers to important questions are the province of science or religion or any other discipline, and you are not ready or willing to have that belief questioned, or if you just plain do not want to think, then do not study philosophy. Take something else. If, however, the prospect of uncharted territory appeals to you; if your sense of intellectual adventure is up to the challenge, and if you re not afraid of a little hard work, then welcome. You are in the right place.

Misconception 2: Philosophy has no application to real life.

This is a common misconception fueled by incompetent bookstore managers who seem to think that books about runes, crystals, and visions of Elvis are philosophy books. Do not be misled. Philosophy is not about things that go bump in the night. Its questions concern the most fundamental features of our experience as human beings. Such questions do not wear their immediate applicability on their sleeve, so to speak, but they are far from irrelevant to real life. Most undergraduate students judge the usefulness of a class in terms of its probable relationship to the job they expect to get when they graduate. This is a mistake. For one thing, most college graduates do not get the kind of jobs they think they re going to get upon leaving university. Many even find themselves working in fields other than their major field of study. Another problem with this way of judging usefulness is that it neglects an important fact: no matter what you end up doing, or how much money you end up making, your life is not just your job. The skills that you can learn in philosophy (e.g., how to generate acceptable, well reasoned solutions to problems with no easy answers) will be worth far more to you than any piece of information you ever memorize. Most problems in life are like philosophical problems. They occur under conditions of uncertainty and do not have easy, mechanically attainable answers. The best one can hope for with such problems is to generate a solution that is reasoned well, makes good sense given the facts, and is defensible when others question it. Philosophy is uniquely suited to honing your skill in doing this. Nevertheless, if all you are interested in is the shortest path to your degree, and if you sincerely believe that everything not related to your major is just a worthless square to be filled to get your degree, then do not study philosophy. In fact, don t study any humanities. Take something else. If, however, you wisely see the virtue of the useless; if you understand that your life can be enriched and made more complete by reflective activity; if you are interested in more than occupying a cubicle at a major corporation, hospital, or law firm; then welcome. You are in the right place.

Misconception 3: Philosophy is too hard for any one to do. The questions are impossible to answer so why even try?

In many ways this misconception has already been addressed, but a word or two is needed here. First of all, many philosophers could agree that the questions are impossible, but at the same time maintain that they are very, very important. Why? The questions are important because they set us a philosophical task. If we do not take the questions seriously, if we do not at least treat them as if they are answerable, then the philosophical enterprise generates none of the benefits mentioned in the previous sections. No human activity can be coherently engaged in without a goal to which it is directed. Even if the completion of our philosophical goal is beyond our grasp, we need to have the goal in order to reap the benefits of the activity. Furthermore, the jury is out on whether or not the questions we ask in philosophy really are impossible to answer. There is as at least as much reason to suppose that they are answerable than there is to suppose that they are not answerable. Here some would object: What about the thousands of years philosophers have been working with no apparent progress? My reply is twofold.

First this objection belies an igornance of the history of philosophy. There is progress. Just because no idea ever reaches the threshhold of 100 percent acceptance does not mean that no progress has been made. The same could be said of scientific theories.

Secondly, one must take into account that intellectual progress is not always measured in terms of an accumulation of factual knowledge as per the common, pop-culture conception of science. Progress is also measured by the paring away of mistakes, distractions, errors in reasoning, and red herrings. In this respect, philosophical progress can be like a sculpture in which philosophers make contributions in paring away some rock from the block of stone that will be the completed statue— in other words, by showing us how a particular confusion has kept us blind to the truth, and in then dispelling that confusion. Some even make a suggestion as to what the completed statue will eventually look like— they give us theories and suggest ways in which to continue the work of philosophy. Sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are not. None of them is right about everything, but most are right about something. Do not mistake the critique we will be engaging in for a condemnation of every philosopher we consider. That said, if you are unwilling to engage in critical examination of ideas; if you just want the answers told to you so you can write them on a test and then never think about them again; if you do not have the patience to do some of the work of philosophy, to try to understand why intelligent persons thought what they did even if they turned out to be wrong, then don t study philosophy. Take something else. On the other hand, if you are not terrified by the prospect of error, if you see that the usefulness in understanding the mistakes in others thinking lies in that by understanding it you will be able to avoid similar mistakes as well, then welcome. You are in the right place.

I hope this clears up any misconceptions you may have had. I sincerely hope you decide to stay, but I understand if you wish to go. For those of you that choose to stay, I call your attention to the bottom of the page to what I consider to be the motto of this class (of every class, really). It's faber est quisque fortunae suae. In Latin: everyone is the master of his or her own fate. To put that in colloquial terms, what you take away from this class will largely be up to you— not just in terms of your grade, but in terms of your overall experience. You have my sincerest commitment that I will work hard to make this a good class, to present the ideas in the clearest and most vivid, and hopefully, entertaining ways that I can. I cannot, however, do the work for you. If you do not at least temporarily take on these problems for yourself, if you do not struggle with the words of the philosophers yourself, then there is little I can do to help you understand. If you find philosophy difficult you are not alone, but don't let the difficulty of the material turn you away. Get help when you need it, and give it your best shot. I don't guarantee that you'll like this class, but if you put your sincere effort into it, I can say that you probably won't leave empty handed either.


Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License