I’ve had many philosophy professors. They’re styles of teaching were as diverse as their subjects. One professor walked in to the room with a book and simply started explaining the book sentence for sentence until the class was over. He never made us prepare anything because ”we wouldn’t understand it on our own anyway.” And he was right. Another teacher would have us make assignments every week to reflect on the text we read for that class. He wanted us to engage with the authors and be critical. Another teacher would simply pose questions and let the students handle the flow of the class while he chaperoned us. I’m sure most people have an idea of what philosophy is and how one should teach it. In this article I want to show that all these teachers, while completely different in style, gave great lectures.There are in fact two kinds of philosophy classes. The first is a necessary building block and aims at teaching students about a philosopher. This kind of class has a literary nature. It’s goal is to enter a philosopher’s world and understand from within. The second kind of class is more critical. It serves to discuss and criticize a text, to question its argumentation and principles. A good philosophical education requires both kinds of classes.
One needs a solid foundation in the philosophical tradition. Knowledge of the debates throughout history, including their merits and problems, are crucial to understand the course of the philosophy’s history. A good student can crawl inside the mind and time of a philosopher and understand why an idea seemed fundamentally true to an author. In this kind of class you learn to think from within a philosopher. As I said before this is more of a historical approach to philosophy. While there is always a certain amount of interpretation, the aim is to reconstruct the philosopher’s original idea. The first teacher I described would be best fit for this kind of class, the last one would do a horrible job.
The second kind of class is what most people see as ‘real’ philosophy. This is the class which takes a critical stand towards its subject. The second and third kind of teacher I described would be best for this class. Its aim is to form an educated critical stance toward an author and their ideas. But it is important to first understand what the author meant and then analyse it according to your own standards. In this class it is also important to engage with the text and discuss it with your peers, as they will no doubt have had different experiences while reading. The professor is in this case best suited to staying in the background. He should steer the discussion in the right direction if necessary and maybe highlight important notes and thoughts.
An example of the first class is one that teaches about the different branches of philosophy. The second could be a class about the possibility of Plato’s republic in modern Europe. It is important to understand that both classes are necessary for a good philosophy education. While people always have ideas about a text, one needs to be able to push them aside and first get a clear understanding of an author’s point. In this regard philosophy is also a very technical discipline. Carefully reading texts and finding their original meaning is a big part of a philosopher’s job. Likewise a philosophical education is not only about forming opinions.