The Teaching Workshop

The Teaching Workshop: The Point of Philosophy

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Question:You have a student who throws up his/her hands and proclaims, “There aren’t any answers! What’s the point of learning philosophy, when there’s always a problem with whatever you say!” How do you respond to this student?


From Nickolas Pappas:

When this comment is heartfelt I have a hard time responding to it. So the few remarks I do have to offer here are tentative and should be taken in that spirit.

I start by advising students not to blame philosophers for everything that happens when they talk about a topic.

An analogy: I was in a car with someone opposed to government. We approached a traffic slowdown, and as we inched toward the intersection he saw a police officer waving at vehicles. “Always happens,” the man in the car said. “Whenever there’s a jam, it was caused by somebody directing traffic.” To some degree this reversal of cause and effect resembles blaming philosophers for the traffic jams of thought that they’re so often in the middle of. Consider the possibility that the difficulty was already there, and we merely volunteered to direct the traffic.

There is truth in this analogy. You can say in general terms that human beings are able to ask questions for which no answer exists, and even for which we can’t agree on the method for arriving at an answer. Human language possesses an open-ended quality that seems to make this situation possible. Philosophical problems don’t begin with philosophers.

When replying this way, it helps to have specific questions in mind that people are gripped by without knowing how to talk about.

  • Does everyone else have the same mental experience I do?
  • Is there some difference between good music and bad music that would let me prove which was which?
  • Do we have free will?
  • Does God exist?

Philosophers more typically spend their time and training on finding productive ways of approaching these impossible subjects than on inventing them.

“And yet the traffic doesn’t seem to have gotten any better.”

I can think of a couple of responses, although they don’t work in unison. One is to say: “We’re already making progress here in the classroom.” Minimally, if you think every answer has problems, then you’re beginning to see that your assumptions on one side of a debate are as vulnerable to attack as the other side. More than that, you see how much more there is to the question than you’d thought. We have drawn distinctions and clarified terminology. This may not bring us to the end of the discussion, but we’re still a long way from the beginning.

Another approach is to say that as a historical matter, philosophy does change. Some questions that gripped early modern philosophers are no longer asked. There are identifiable cases in which philosophy as a subject has learned not to pursue a problem.

As I said, the second response makes a poor fit with the first. The appeal to how far students have come seems to assume that philosophical problems are eternal, whereas the appeal to the history of philosophy makes them seem more dependent on history.

Whichever reply you give, it is worth pointing out that the student’s complaint is already an advanced one. It responds to an undeniable feature of philosophy, namely that there is no authority among philosophers who can declare that a question is legitimate or not; that an answer has to begin with this or that premise; that we have to justify an answer using this or that method. Philosophy has no Supreme Court.

If you really want to get advanced – and this last reply is not suited to all audiences – imagine treating the frustrating state of affairs as an opportunity. It has happened in philosophy that two sides are dug into disagreement, and so fixed on the differences between them that they overlook points of agreement that they are both wrong about. And then a third party productively identifies the gap in everyone else’s reasoning.

What has everyone overlooked about:

  • the relationship between freedom and causal determinism;
  • religious experience;
  • the purpose of arguing over whether music is good or bad?

It’s not easy to bring fresh light to a debate that has been going on for hundreds of years. But even where looking for a misguided common assumption ends up reinforcing one side over the other rather than retiring the debate once and for all, that kind of fresh idea is still productive in philosophy.

So when a discussion appears to be going around in circles, imagine this not as a frustrating situation but a promising one. And in this sense, there’s no subject that encourages originality as philosophy does.

When I posed this question on Facebook it lead to an interesting discussion between Mark Schroeder and Samir Chopra excerpted here with their permission.

Mark Schroeder: I lay the groundwork for answering this student by defining philosophy on day one in terms of how hard the questions are, and by introducing the concept of need for closure in order to explain why it is okay to find it frustrating not to have a clean final answer. Then when it happens I can remind them of those things without a long digression.
Samir Chopra: In related terms I point out how philosophy deals with questions that are posed in such a way that answering them is hard, and it isn’t even clear how they can be answered. When a definitive method of answering the question comes about, we form a new discipline and give it a name (i.e. the natural sciences, sociology, psychology etc.). Philosophy remains stuck with the unanswerable questions but it continues to work on them to see if they can ever be answered. Alternatively, I say that these new disciplines form when some consensus emerges on how a particular question is to be answered.
Mark Schroeder: I think the point about definitive methods is correct; Scott Soames’s Stone piece has a nice metaphor for this of an expanding sphere that doesn’t carry the usual implications of the domain of philosophy constantly shrinking. And I think focusing on need for closure is important. Encountering the tolerance for uncertainty required for many sustained discussions in philosophy can be very alienating for some students, and it’s important that in defending philosophy we not come across as criticizing the frustration it is natural to feel.

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