Approaches to Teaching Philosophy


Meandering through Aristotle’s On the Soul last week, I was struck by the rarity of the experience. Throughout my degree, the times I had been called upon to read the Greek classics were few and far between. In fact, I was hard-pressed to recall the last time a chunk of Plato—let alone a more minor name—had appeared in the prescribed reading.

That’s not to say this is necessarily a bad thing. Studying the works of Plato or Aristotle we can see the roots of the western philosophical tradition, and that the questions they wrestled with are not so different from those that concern us today. Nonetheless, I’m happy that my own experience as a Philosophy undergraduate hasn’t been that of trudging line by line—as the stereotype has it—through one ancient text after another.

As an academic subject, philosophy can be taught in a number of ways: through lectures, seminars, and independent reading; through writing essays and receiving feedback on them. Nonetheless, I think that the two main approaches can be easily sketched as text-based and subject-based.

Text-based learning depends on the close reading of a single, usually canonical text. For example, an entire course might be constructed around a careful examination of the arguments and positions set out in Plato’s Republic. There are clear advantages to this approach. Students learn to take on the weightiest of tomes and see how arguments and theories are constructed in great detail. In some sense, there is a sacrifice of breadth for depth.

Subject-based courses are usually broader, covering a range of texts and positions across a discipline. They can be historically minded, setting out a history of dominant positions and how they were overthrown, or they can attempt to paint a picture of the field as it stands today, depicting the tensions and fault lines across the subject. Often they do both. Close and careful examination of particular arguments play a large part here too, but the pieces that are the subject of the student’s scrutiny are generally shorter: single papers or chapters from a book. The student is exposed to a range of voices and opinions, covering more ground and gaining understanding of the field—but often at the expense of the full picture of a given thinker’s view.

The undergraduate study of philosophy is a blend of these two approaches, and with their obvious and contrasting merits, it’s clear that both are needed. However, this is an easy conclusion to draw—it’s harder to decide the proportions in which the two elements should be present.

Key to this discussion is a huge difference between school and university: in a university, the teachers are researchers. They not only have sufficient command of the material to convey an appropriate level of understanding to their charges, but are experts in their own right. From them, an undergraduate can learn about the state of their field as it currently exists, in all its breadth and complexity. They can experience philosophy not merely as the study of long-dead thinkers, but as a living, breathing discipline rife with controversy and opportunity.

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lovely! I was privileged enough to enjoy the text-based approach during my undergraduate career. I think if you’re interested enough in the subject matter, you slowly understand the broader schools of thought. Anyways, great post.

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