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Non-Canonical Texts and Teaching the History of Modern Philosophy: Why We Might as Well Go Ahead and Abandon the Survey – Part II

by Kristopher G. Phillips

In my previous post, I made a case for abandoning the survey approach to the teaching of modern philosophy. In place of the survey I proposed a philosophical skills-based approach that focuses on only three figures from the modern period. In the fall semester of 2016, I experimented with such an approach and found it quite successful. (syllabus) In this post I will describe my experience with this approach, outline its virtues and the challenges I faced. Additionally, I will offer some of the feedback my students gave me about the course, and ways in which I intend to improve the class in future iterations. In effect, I hope to offer a template for how to effectively abandon the modern survey.

In approaching the modern course, I decided to focus not on who I thought philosophy students should have heard of, but rather on what I wanted my students to be able to do: read the history of philosophy. In light of my concerns about surveys (a complete lack of depth, a bogus narrative, missing out on the systematicity of thought, the complete lack of women) I decided to attend to just a few philosophers with the intent of teaching students how to read modern philosophy carefully. While the course would focus on only three figures from the 17th and 18th centuries, thus robbing students of the breadth the traditional survey affords, I would leave my students in a better position to fill in the gaps themselves. If students know how to read writing from that era deeply, systematically, and carefully, then approaching the figures we did not address should be less of a problem for them going forward. In my view, it is easier to learn what the moderns had to say than it is to learn how to read them. Since I have only a semester to address this, I’d rather give students the skills to approach the philosophers than expose them to a bunch of philosophers they don’t really know how to approach. I’ll return to the breadth concern below.

Given the breadth of the topics 17th and 18th century philosophers touched upon, and the dense interconnections between them within their philosophical systems, it seemed prudent to select philosophers that were sufficiently rich in philosophical content and sufficiently different from one another both in terms of views and writing style. To that end I chose to focus on Descartes, Cavendish, and Hume. Each of these philosophers has interesting views on virtually everything, lived at different times, and Descartes and Hume represent two central figures from the traditional narrative. Margaret Cavendish provided a particularly compelling middle ground between the two both historically and philosophically. Highlighting her work also served to signal to students that philosophy is not comprised solely of the work of men. I mentioned in the prior post that Atherton’s anthology (which I think is excellent) seemed to be an afterthought to my students when I taught the survey. By placing Cavendish in the center of the semester, she was an equally prominent figure. I do not think that these are the only figures one can or should utilize; I’m sure one could effectively swap out any or all of these figures; I do think, however, that at least one woman should be prominently featured in the course.

For Descartes I assigned the students the Discourse, Dedicatory Letter to the Sorbonne & Preface to the Reader of the Meditations, the entirety of the Meditations (along with corresponding passages from the Objections and Replies), and part one of the Passions. Taking five weeks to address these provided the students an opportunity to slow down a little and really wrestle with how the projects did or did not fit together, where arguments might have changed, and to see the progression of Descartes’s philosophical views. We did not have to speed through the material, or limit our discussions to one narrow topic.

Following Descartes, we turned our attention to Cavendish. We read a tremendous amount of her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (including key sections from Parts I and II, and all of part III), and some selections from her Philosophical Letters. Cavendish is a compelling figure and reading her proved a significant challenge for the students. Despite the challenge of reading this material, Cavendish proved a favorite among the students. One student wrote “I loved reading Cavendish after Descartes, I think they fit really well together, you should keep those two for sure.” Another student noted, “while Cavendish was difficult to understand at times, she was really fun to study.”

We concluded with a discussion of Hume. For cost reasons (the Descartes and Cavendish texts were a little on pricey side) I required the students to purchase Hume’s Enquiry. I strongly recommended that the students read the corresponding passages from the Treatise and noted those passages on the syllabus. We focused our discussion of Hume on the text of the Enquiry, but many of my students went to the Treatise to find additional information for the exam on Hume, demonstrating that they were both interested enough in the problems we highlighted in the Enquiry to go looking for clarification in another text Hume wrote, and the ability to pull from different sources and distill a view about a philosophical problem.

Over the course of the semester I gave the students three take-home exams (one over each figure). They were to ground their answers in the text, and had to answer a few short-answer and one essay. The idea was to encourage them to hone the skills I was trying to teach them. I asked them to reconstruct arguments from the text, spelling out any background assumptions they thought were necessary to motivate the argument and showing me in the text where the philosopher seems committed to that assumption. In short, the exams were direct applications of the skills we were working to cultivate.

Students also had to complete a term-paper. I offered the students two options: a traditional research paper, about conference length, on any topic relevant to the modern period. Alternatively, students could elect to produce a scholarly book review of another text from the modern period. I provided them a list of works from modern philosophers (including, but not limited to: Hobbes, Bacon, Spinoza, Leibniz, Conway, Malebranche, Cudworth, Berkeley, Du Chatelet, and Kant), from which they could choose a text, read it, offer a brief summary and both a theory-internal and a theory-external objection. I provided them examples of scholarly reviews from NDPR. I found this a useful option for a few reasons. First, the book review option provides students the opportunity to once again practice the skills they worked on during the semester. Second, the book review option provided students the opportunity to get a little more breadth than they otherwise would have from the course material alone. Finally, the book review option afforded students the opportunity to write a shorter, more focused paper while not substantially limiting the amount of work required to complete the assignment. This went over really well—roughly 70% of the students took the book review option.

Over the course of the semester I noticed that my students were becoming more attentive readers, were spending more time carefully reading the texts and picking up on nuances present in the material that simply would not have been noticeable if we sped through more works. There were trade-offs, of course. I could only gesture to views Cavendish or Hume referred to (Malebranche, e.g.) and encouraged the students to explore them on their own. While the lack of breadth may seem a substantial negative, I think that breadth for the sake of breadth makes little sense. Students in my course walked out having heard of the “major” figures of the era, and possessing both a list of texts they should find and read, and the skills to read them on their own. I admit that I share the intuition that students should be exposed to a greater number of texts, but only to a certain extent. There may be value in making students skim a lot of work by a large number of authors, but I think we better serve our students by giving them the tools to carefully read that material on their own. In planning our classes, we have to make difficult decisions about what is essential. The skills that this class structure serves to develop help students who intend to continue to graduate school in philosophy beyond just studying the history of philosophy—deep reading of texts is not special to the history of modern philosophy. These skills are also broadly applicable beyond philosophy. Non-majors can apply this kind of attentive reading to any discipline they study. In light of these considerations, I think that sacrificing breadth for depth is the right move to make. We might as well abandon the survey.

Kristopher G. Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern Utah University. His research focuses on Descartes’s modal metaphysics and epistemology and the role it plays in his broader philosophical system (including free-will and the mind-body problem). He is also active in pre-college philosophy, having co-founded both the Iowa and Utah Lyceum projects and currently serves on the APA Committee for Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy. 

4 thoughts on “Non-Canonical Texts and Teaching the History of Modern Philosophy: Why We Might as Well Go Ahead and Abandon the Survey – Part II

  1. Great post. I defended a similar anti-canonical approach at the New Narratives Conference at Duke last year, and I am glad to see that there is convergent evolution of ideas on this. I will say that I prefer the Philosophical and Physical Opinions to the Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, because the ideas are expressed more systematically. In my experience, students who read the Observations first find themselves drowning a bit, because so much is presupposed.

  2. Thank you both for the comments. Sam: I agree that OEP is a bit much; it certainly seemed overwhelming to the students-. I’ll have to look into PPO for the next iteration. Is there any chance you’d be willing to send me your paper from the New Narratives Conference? I’d be curious to see what you have to say.
    Richard: Thank you! That’s a great resource!

  3. The book review option is a really great idea. I might have to try it sometime! I think it would be likely to work especially well if you are reading philosophers like Cavendish or Leibniz who reference their contemporaries quite a lot (so students may already be curious about a particular book).

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