Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Good Taste in Argument

I had my first lecture today for the course I'm teaching this fall. I decided to try out Caleb's rule of thumb, i.e., don't pass out the syllabus until halfway through the period; I liked doing it that way. In my lecture, I suggested that part of the purpose of a intro phil. course with a historical approach is to give them good taste in arguments -- the ability not only to evaluate whether arguments are valid or sound, but to tell when they are excellent in another sense -- fruitful for thought, interesting as a starting point, etc. (In this sense, even an invalid argument can sometimes be a good argument in the sense of worthy of serious thought, because it might go wrong in an interesting way, or it might be a close, but inaccurate, approximation to a better argument.) This prudence or good taste requires three things:

(1) a broad base of experience in different kinds of argument, so you can make informed comparisons;
(2) the skills of discernment relevant to argument, i.e., the acquired ability to identify important moves, novel twists, and the like;
(3) good sense, understood as the self-critical fairmindedness that allows us to be objective and unbiased.

As I see it, one of the great benefits of taking a historical approach to philosophy is that it is the best way to develop this taste for excellent thought. It's the perfect approach for becoming a connoisseur of great reasoning, because it provides a great field for improving ourselves in the above three ways. And that's what I really want students to come away with: a broader base of experience with different kinds of argument; a better skill-set for discerning the features of those arguments; and a better sense of how to understand the arguments of others without being misled by hidden prejudices.

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