16 January 2007

Proposed Philosophy Syllabus

In an earlier post, I requested help for putting together a syllabus for a little Introduction to Philosophy course I’ll be teaching in March/April. I was graced with many excellent comments & suggestions—thanks! So here I’ll post the course description & syllabus as they now stand (edited for brevity & relevance). I hope to use this blog as a forum for discussion once the class starts.

Advice is still requested!

This discussion, reading, & lecture class will look at the major concerns of philosophy in an engaging, entertaining, & enlightening way. We will ask What is philosophy? and examine the five foundational fields of philosophy: ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, & political philosophy. In other words, we’ll talk about how to determine right & wrong, sources and methods of knowledge, the nature of reality, the qualities of beauty, what is art, how to create the ideal state, what is the best form of government, & other topics of perennial interest. Through lively conversations, varied readings, & examinations of relevant selections from popular culture, we’ll attempt to bring the ideas of the ancient & timeless philosophers to life & to our own experience. We’ll be reading selections from Introducing Philosophy by Dave Robinson & Judy Groves & Republic by Plato. We’ll view selections from The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Life is Beautiful & other films, & listen to Also Sprach Zarathustra (the theme music for 2001), Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, “Eleanor Rigby,” “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” “American Dream” by Switchfoot, & other songs/pieces of music that illustrate the application of these big questions. We will spend some class periods working in hypothetical situations & applying the principles we’ve learned to them. These might include role-playing as a doctor, pastor, president, senator, teacher, etc. in ethical situations; creating an imaginary ideal society/government; enacting scenarios of absolute power; and so on. Parents should be aware that the class will regularly interact with big questions & controversial issues. We will plan to close each class with a Biblical evaluation of that day’s discussions, & apply at least one Scripture passage to each topic. The ideal class size would be no more than 15 students—but is there any such thing as an ideal class, & is it achievable in this sublunary sphere?

Week one: What is philosophy?
Definitions of the five foundational fields of philosophy: ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, & political philosophy.
Listen to “Eleanor Rigby,” talk about the meaning of life
Role-play scenarios of absolute power.
Watch selections from "The Man Who Could Work Miracles”
Listen to “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes & Loreena McKennit, talk about what you would do in this situation.

Week two: How to determine right & wrong
Read ___ from Introducing Philosophy
Read Gyges’ ring from Republic by Plato
Selections from Lord of the Rings
Readings from Neitzsche
Listen to Also Sprach Zarathustra
Role-playing as a doctor, pastor, president, etc. in ethical situations
Read Ten Commandments from Exodus 20; talk about the need for an absolute.

Week three: Sources and methods of knowledge
Read ___ from Introducing Philosophy
Define a priori & a postiori styles of reasoning; presuppositions, evidentialism & rationalism, etc.
as you can see, this week is still a little skimpy…

Week four: The nature of reality
Read Allegory of the Cave from Republic by Plato
Selections from The Matrix

Week five: The qualities of beauty, What is art?
Read __ from Introducing Philosophy
Selections from Life is Beautiful
Readings from My name is Asher Lev
Listen to “Bridge over Troubled Waters”

Week six: How to create the ideal state; What is the best form of government?
Listen to selections from Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony
Listen to “American Dream” by Switchfoot
Role-play creating an imaginary ideal society/government


Rosie Perera said...

Looks great. Glad to see you got some Simon & Garfunkel in there.

Here are some links to online resources on philosophy:

Guide to Philosophy on the Internet
Episteme Links

You might consider, as a class discussion, having your students work through one or more of Episcopal priest Joseph Fletcher's classic "situation ethics" examples. See Situation Ethics (Wikipedia). Then discuss whether this is a biblical view of morality. Being thrown a question from situation ethics in my first year post-college as a newly recommitted Christian really threw me for a loop. So it would be good to grapple with the idea in a class setting. With some distance and maturity in my faith now, I see that there are times when the call to love our neighbor trumps legalism. Even Jesus taught making exceptions to laws for a higher purpose (e.g., healing on the Sabbath). The trouble is the vagueness and subjectivity of determining when to transcend the law. I think two things will help. One is to realize that we can sometimes not be 100% certain what the right course of action is, and that's OK. The other is to make ethical decisions in community with the body of Christ whenever possible, as that will help check the erroneous/sinful nature of each of us.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks for these links, Rosie. Very helpful, & I’ve added them to the list I’m keeping of online resources for the students. I’ll especially look closely at the situational ethics one, as I’ll be making up a handout of situations to which the students will have to respond, saying what they would do & why, & what’s the Biblical approach to each.

Your advice is right on.

louisa said...

I loved reading about your class and it also cleared up for me how little i really know about philosophy. I have for a long time now thought of myself as someone who "doesn't like philosophy" (Donny is laughing at me: "Your saying you don't like philosophy is like my saying I don't like science: you can't stand the love of wisdom and I despise knowledge..." what a pair!)

So I'm thinking it all over (and maybe, as you suggested, hearing about someone's problems with the subject is helpful to a teacher of it).

I think those problems partly stem from only encountering philosophy when it is trespassing on areas that I (in my callowness) would judge to be more ably handled by science or religion. Philosophy always seemed to me to occupy an ineffective but longwinded spot between these two pillars.
The physicists (some of them at least) that I so admire have given me one-liner ammunition against the discipline:
J.J. Thomson: "Philosophy is the search for a shadow in a perfectly dark room." (he discovered the electron, which can be made to shine like a little star in a dark room, by contrast).
Heisenberg or von Weizsaecker: "Philosophy is the misuse of terminology invented just for this purpose."
But while I know that Thomson and many other Cantabridgian and otherwise British scientists are probably genuinely opposed to philosophy, Heisenberg and von Weizsaecker and many, many German and continental physicists certainly were not. In fact, I keep finding that Einstein, Bohr, and Pauli were rather more respectful of philosophy than I expected them to be, so the case from the point of view of the physicists is not as clear as I perhaps let myself believe.

Looking at your list of the disciplines in philosophy makes me realize that my bad experiences have been mostly within the domain of metaphysics, and there are all these other things that count as philosophy. As interesting as ethics and as important as political philosophy...
I forget that we owe the whole concept of American democracy to philosophizing!!!

What I realized, after spending these last few days ruminating on the subject, is that my major stumbling block with philosophy has been BAD WRITING. Aside from Plato's cave, which was presented to me probably in high school and made a big and lasting impression on me, i have been unlucky enough to only stumble across bad writing--reminding me of a brightly-lit drawing of a moth constructed out of gears and metal: endlessly clever, but takes the life and context out of the original subject.

But it's not like I have read so much philosophy.
In fact, in college the only philosophy class i took was on the philosophy of science--an exactly wrong choice! The poor professor (a young woman who had only recently started professing) was a muddled presenter of complex ideas in untidy handwriting straying all over the board. and my classmates were mostly pretentious philosophy majors who liked saying the word "quark"... because they thought it made them sound cutting-edge and scientific.
We discussed "can there be a feminist science?" for WEEKS!

but how ridiculous to ignore an entire discipline based on one negative experience!

I do believe that the most important thing about any subject is to learn it from someone who loves it; so I think your class will be lucky.

Ariel said...

Wow. Who wouldn't want to take this class?

Anonymous said...

That's so awesome!! I would so take this class!


Cato said...

In Week 6 you should have them read selections from Hobbes (e.g., the famous "nasty, brutish and short" part) and Locke. The Declaration of Independence is also a good choice. The best survey of political philosophy is 'History of Political Philosophy' edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (my old mentor). It has excellent short chapters summing up every major Western political philosopher in history.

As you are teaching from a Christian perspective, when discussing the perfect society or government, be certain to point out the dangers of utopianism, the desire to create a "perfect" society here on Earth. This drive has led to the deaths of literally hundreds of millions throughout history (in particular the 20th century, e.g., Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc.) Possibly a dash of Edmund Burke to elucidate this point.

Renee said...

I just read Sophie's World just last spring and enjoyed most of it. It's a bit tough-going in places, but would a worthwhile source to dip into with your students, and definitely a good extension for those who really get
into philosophy.

A few thoughts on other books: for ideal society think about The
. It's a quick read with very simple vocabulary, but it's got that great surprise dystopia thing going on. Brave New World is another great dystopia book, though more sophisticated.

And for a brilliant exploration of a Christian philosophy of art and
aesthetics see if you can get Calvin Seerveld's Rainbows in a Fallen World (it might be out of print, but Amazon or Ebay might have it). Probably too deep for your students en masse, but absolutely mind-blowing in its
depth and sophistication. There's another good book called Truth is Stranger than it Used to be by Walsh and Middleton, which is a good intro into Post-Modernism.