Monday, December 12, 2011

On an Answer to a Quiz Question

I've recently finished grading one of the take-home tests I give for my Intro courses; it's a test on the history of philosophy, and is a rather difficult two-part test, so I throw in a lighter question or two. One of them is simply to name something they learned from the course that is not on the test. As you might expect, there's a wide variety of answers, but one answer I've come to expect, which is virtually always mentioned by one or two students, is that they were surprised to discover that there were any Christian philosophers. That is to say, any Christian philosophers ever. Sometimes I get a more generalized form, expressing surprise at the existence of religious philosophers of any sort.

They learn that such people have existed, of course, because I always have a medieval philosophy segment to the course, and all the philosophers there are Christian, Jewish, or Muslim and, because it is convenient for giving some order to the period, explicitly labeled as such. I think of this as being to some extent a vindication of teaching Introduction to Philosophy with a historical approach, despite the difficulties it introduces: had I not taught this course several times, and if I taught it by problem-units (free will, skepticism, etc.) rather than by historical sweep, it would never have occurred to me even to raise the point explicitly -- it's the sort of thing I ordinarily take completely for granted. And, whatever one may think about the interest of that point in general, this is a matter that is undeniably a point of interest to many students: I mean, there are students whose minds are seriously just blown by it, and all their preconceptions of philosophy smashed into bits by it.

One wonders what the background causes are that lead so many students to disassociate the concepts of philosophy and religion, but it's not an uncommon thing. The number of people who, on discovering (usually through different channels) that I'm both Christian and teach philosophy, have actually been taken aback, and puzzled about how that could possibly work, is extraordinary. It can't be any well-defined conception of philosophy. I find that most people, that is, most ordinary people going about business that has nothing to do with academia and have never taken a philosophy class before, have difficulty keeping philosophy and psychology straight. And (for instance) it's not difficult to find people whose conception of philosophy is that it is a sort of koan meditation; in their mind philosophy works by coming up with questions that have no possible answer -- not many possible answers that can't be narrowed down but no possible answers at all. (This is, incidentally, worth keeping in mind when one teaches philosophy, because such students can go through philosophy courses without ever being disabused of it, since they have no problem with saying that such questions can look like they have answers, or that people can think they are giving answers to them. But a lot that is puzzling about the way students respond to, say, trolley problems or skeptical scenarios suddenly makes sense if you assume that some of the students are assuming from the beginning that posing a trolley problem or skeptical scenario is like asking about the sound of one hand clapping. To them it's a category mistake to think that one can really get any farther than merely posing it.) But it is very, very common. Perhaps the heavy emphasis on skepticism that has been such a common staple of the modern undergraduate philosophy class is a contributing factor; but, again, we are talking about people who have never had an undergraduate philosophy class before, and whose acquaintance with the very term consists entirely of pop culture references and whatever might come up in ordinary conversation.


  1. Catherine Hodge9:16 AM

    As a philosophy professor, what sort of philosophical underpinning would you like to see a student have before they set foot in the college classroom? 

    My neighbor, who teaches humanities and literature, dragged herself over to my house the other day to pick up her daughter. "I've been grading papers," she explained wearily, "and my mind is full of bad language."

    "Do you mean profanity, or poor writing?" I wanted to know.

    "Well, both, but mostly poor writing. Most of these papers are so bad that when I get some that are well-written, I email the students to thank them."

  2. branemrys10:10 AM

    Well, I don't know that any specifically philosophical underpinning is necessary, or at least not much. We should start teaching logic as early as we start teaching mathematics, and it is a sign of social insanity that people can get all the way to college without ever having read any philosophy at all -- surely Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius or Plato's Apology or something of that (broadly ethical and highly literary) sort should have come up somewhere, if we were doing things properly. But for preparation I'd really settle just for some well-established classics -- Shakespeare and Austen would do, if nothing else.

    I remember the very first year I taught (besides student teaching in grad school) being crushed when, having prepared to illustrate a particular philosophical conception of happiness by referring (in a pretty general way) to Uncle Tom's Cabin, I discovered that nobody in the class had ever read it, or even knew the basic story. And that isn't a fluke; I pretty much have to assume that my students haven't read anything, because for practical purposes that's pretty much what it amounts to. I still refer to Uncle Tom's Cabin and other literary works, but it's always in the hope that they will read them rather than with any expectation that they have. At the college level you need something to work with -- you simply can't start from scratch. But with the students I get, while often nice and certainly not stupid, starting from scratch is about the only thing that would generally work. It exasperates me when people complain of John Stuart Mill, who is a very readable nineteenth-century writer, that he's hard to read because of his 'old English' -- I ask myself, What, honestly, am I to do in order to teach students who have difficulty reading even Modern English?

    Since one of my major projects is always a dialogue project, I do indeed get profanity from those of my students who have, shall we say, a devotion to realism in literature. It does seem like the writing gets worse every year, just as it seems like texting in class has become more and more of a problem every year.

  3. Joshua Townley10:18 AM

    Well, it looks like your task is set: translate Mill into text message lingo.

  4. branemrys10:35 AM

    :) Putting a sentence from Mill's utilitarianism through the Lingo2Word converter gives me:

    frm d dawn of ethos, d Q cncrnin d summum bonum, or watz d same thng, cncrnin d foundation of morality, hs bn accountd d main prob n speculativ thort, hs occupied d most giftd intellects, n dividd em N2 sects n schls, carying on a vigorous warfare agnst 1 nothA.

    I have to say, though, that I'm impressed that there's a text message term for 'philosophy'.

  5. Catherine Hodge12:18 PM

    All right, I'm the one in the back of the classroom raising my hand sheepishly to confess that I've not read Mill, nor Epictetus, nor yet Marcus Aurelius (though I did watch Gladiator?). And though I've since read Plato's Apology on my own initiative, I didn't do so in college. However, I did read Shakespeare and Austen and Stowe, so I guess that's something. Good thing I've got my own up-and-coming generation of young scholars on which to impress the learning I didn't have when I was their age.

    What of Mill's do you recommend for beginners?

  6. branemrys1:11 PM

    Any of Mill's major three are worth reading:


    On Liberty

    The Subjection of Women

    None of them are very long (in my Ethics class, I usually have the students read selections from the first and the first chapter of each of the next two). But the Autobiography, although a bit longer, might have more general interest.

    I didn't read Epictetus until college, either, although I had read both the Apology and selections from Marcus Aurelius on my own; it wasn't so much a comment about what I would have expected anyone to have been taught so much as a comment on what should be taught. Marcus Aurelius's Meditations are very, very easy to get into -- it's a collection of aphorisms and thoughts, and thus not very taxing to read. Practically anyone who can read can handle him in little sips, at least with a decent translation, although taking the whole thing probably would require at least high school proficiency.

    I can well imagine Marcus Aurelius watching Gladiator with horror, or the closest Stoic approximation to it -- although Richard Harris made a very passable Marcus Aurelius.

  7. Catherine Hodge2:21 PM

    I was about to click on the links you so helpfully provided, when it occured to me that if I were reading partly for my children's sake, maybe it would behoove me to actually hold a book as a good example. So I went to the library in search of Mill, and found him -- one copy of Utilitarianism in the politics section, where Plato's Republic resided in dusty splendor. (The politics section was chockablock with horrified tomes about the Rise of the Religious Right, by which we guess that our librarians skew somewhat to the left of the voting populace here in town.) I actually took a photo of the philosophy section, which I'll have to post on our blog for you -- underwhelming would be putting it mildly. I guess we'll rely on interlibrary loan for our future wisdom requirements.

    I devoted my evening to J.S. Mill, even forgoing making the cookies for the talent show, and I do have to say that although the man writes in modern English, he is fond enough of multi-layered sentence that I did end up reading parts aloud to be sure I'd caught his meaning. I'm generally hesitant to wax philosophical, since it seems to be a discipline in which one must speak very precisely if one wants to avoid being savaged, but I do recall you saying you were not a devotee of the "philosophy as bloodsport" mentality that is the hallmark of a certain institution of higher learning in Texas. So, let me say: friend, Mill punts shamelessly! I read the first chapter, and nodded along a bit, and even might have underlined a sentence or two if it had been my copy in which to underline. But as I went along, every time I expected him to finally lay out just why it is that utilitarianism is the philosophical be-all, or to fully answer the charges that have been made against the system, I would get a passage like so:

    "We are told that a utilitarian will be apt to make his own particular case an exception to moral rules, and, when under temptation, will see a utility in the breach of the rule, greater than he will see in its observance. But is utility the only creed which is able to furnish us with excuses for evil doing, and mean of cheating our own conscience? They are afforded in abundance by all doctrines which recognise as a fact in morals the existence of conflicting considerations; which all doctrines do, that have been believed by sane people. It is not the fault of any creed, but of the complicated nature of human affairs..."

    Now I was curious to see how he would deal with the question of subjective judgment, and I was a bit annoyed to see him kick the can like that. But that wasn't the only instance: I believe I read three or four sections to Brendan in which Mill essentially says, "Well, some people might make this charge against utilitarianism, but really, isn't this a problem with any moral framework? Your little dog, too, and obviously all people whose judgment is worth anything would agree with me." 

    Also, utilitarianism seems predicated on a perfectable physical world, and he simply isn't convincing that "most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits". It seems to me that he never rises to the challenge that although utilitarianism is a mostly practical way of making decisions, it isn't enough in itself to provide a complete moral framework. 

    Also, he focused a great deal on the "distinction between will and desire", but I think that the distinction between ACT and desire would have been more relevant. One can derive a quantity happiness from desiring something unpleasant while understanding that the act itself would bring unhappiness, which seems to cut into his argument that nothing is desired except [...]

  8. branemrys4:01 PM

    That's above and beyond the call of duty! I'm also impressed you remembered that discussion; I had forgotten it entirely.The better memory of youth, perhaps. :)

    I think you're pretty much right about Mill; the tendency to try to claim that something's not a philosophical problem for utilitarianism because it's a philosophical problem for everyone is definitely there, as well as the tendency to claim that rationality is on their side as a matter of obvious fact. It's an annoying feature of most of the classical utilitarians after Bentham, actually.

    Utilitarianism puts itself forward as a defense of utilitarianism, and it is still untopped as a first presentation of utilitarian views, but its status as a defense is complicated by a number of things.

    (1) To some extent the work is really a defense of Mill-style utilitarianism against Bentham-style utilitarianism (that's a great part of the whole discussion of quantity and quality, and higher and lower pleasures). He was essentially home-schooled himself by James Mill, who was a follower of Bentham; and Mill Sr. and Bentham tried to educate Mill Jr. on Benthamite principles. The primary problem was, as he himself argues elsewhere, that the Benthamites didn't have any sense of the full needs of human nature. He eventually had a sort of nervous breakdown, which he recovered from by reading Wordsworth. And since the inhumanity of Bentham's utilitarianism was a common criticism of utilitarianism, a lot of the work ends up being simply the argument that utilitarianism is not inconsistent with being human.

    (2) To some extent Mill is engaging with Plato. Mill is heavily influenced by Plato. (Since he was an over-achieving child prodigy pushed by a Benthamite parent, he started reading Plato, in the Greek, when he was a little kid.) And some of the work is an attempt to put Plato -- who occasionally sounds utilitarian but has some very anti-utilitarian features -- into utiliitarian dress. (This is where Mill gets his argument for how we determine what pleasures are higher and lower; and arguably it's what is going on in his whole argument that nothing is desired except happiness.) This makes for some obscure moves -- e.g., as a hedonist, he equates pleasure and happiness, but very noticeably he puts a lot of conceptual weight on the term happiness that doesn't have any obvious conceptual link to pleasure.

    (3) The relationship of this work to other works is highly controversial. One reason I have students read the first chapter of On Liberty is that lots of scholars have felt that his account of utilitarianism is inconsistent with his account of liberalism in that work. I don't think it is, but the fact that it can look like it is a sign that Mill is vague about a lot of things here.

  9. Catherine Hodge7:29 PM

    <span>"The better memory of youth, perhaps."</span>

    Heh. Only think what Alexander could have accomplished had he attained your advanced years. :)

    The thing about participating in the Great Conversations is that it helps to know who the speakers are. I think I'll leave the Utilitarians to stew in their happiness, and turn to Marcus Aurelius, whom I have just discovered to be excerpted in one of Brendan's old textbooks.

  10. branemrys8:48 PM

    I think that's actually probably  a good choice. There's a lot to be said for Mill, and it's good to know something of him, since he comes up, but I don't think it's hugely important to know an immense number of details. And while you can find people who read someone like Marcus Aurelius again and again throughout their lives, I don't think I've ever come across anyone who does that for Mill, whatever his good qualities.

    I don't know how much background you like to have in reading; the IEP article on the Emperor is short and to the point, if you want more context than the textbook gives.

  11. Catherine Hodge9:23 AM

    Thanks! i'm reading it now.


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