Friday, 24 February 2012

My Ideal Philosophy Degree: What Makes a Philosopher?

Every now and then, I've tried to design my ideal philosophy degree. There would be a fair chunk of history, and not just the history of philosophy, but some economic, military, social and scientific history as well. If you don't know anything about seventeenth-century England, you won't get the context of all those debates about duty, obligations and virtue that the moralists had. Under post-modern capitalism those ideas are more or less a joke, but when the King can demand that you put a chunk of your money and people at risk in his latest idea for a war, and it's your duty to do so because he's the King and you swore an oath, then the idea of obligation and duty becomes very meaningful. As well as costly. And of course the debate was conducted in the abstract, because if they had named the issue openly, it would have been treason.

My ideal course would have a lot of history because that was the bit I didn't appreciate and missed when I studied the subject - and perhaps 'studied' implies rather more reading than I did. The students on my course should come away with  a party trick: some obscure - to the general public - school or philosopher that they can impress dinner-party guests and strangers forevermore. And they should have been put in the way of reading as many of the classics as we can expect an undergraduate to read - that's part of the bit where they get an education.

Which leaves the bit where they get an idea about what being a philosopher is about. Most of the people in philosophy departments are teachers and scholars. At some point, they decided they liked the academic life, they could network effectively in it, could work the system and also seemed to be quite good at understanding what Leibniz, or Roger Bacon, or Heidegger or whoever, was going on about. So they became scholars of that thinker. Others find they like a certain branch of the subject and enjoy the compare-and-contrast involved in teaching the thoughts of the creative philosophers. They have jobs in philosophy departments but they aren't necessarily philosophers.

What makes a philosopher is an attitude of informed scepticism, a distrust of authority and all its works and pronouncements, a respect for logical consistency and conceptual coherence (the philosopher's version of having a sense of style), the desire and ability to see the world more clearly than others do, and a desire to understand some part of the world on their own terms - or in the grand manner of Aristotle and Hegel, all of the world. Since the world is more complicated now that it was, and since there are more people and organisations making more self-interested and dubious claims than there ever were, and there are more branches of empirical knowledge and theoretical speculation than ever before, this is a larger task than it used to be, and takes a lot more background knowledge.

One starting point is the ability to identify bogus arguments and all the tricks of informal argument and presentation. Another is to have a guided tour round the follies and promotions (in the evil eighteenth-century sense of the word) of the past - you may rightly suspect a reference to Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds coming, and there it was. A couple of case-studies of the irrational behaviour of authority - the Lille-Reed affair, satanic ritual abuse, recovered memory - wouldn't go amiss, as would a brisk description of street con-tricks and Wall Street Ponzi schemes. I would want my students to feel confident enough to conclude that if, after careful examination and diligent enquiry into whatever it is, it still doesn't make sense, then it's a trick, an illusion, or just plain downright craziness.   

I've always thought that there should be three compulsory courses that run for the first two years: 1) The History of Philosophy and its Worldly Context, 2) Logic, Rhetoric and Epistemology, and 3) Law, Morality and Politics. Now I would add in the second year, 4) The Sceptical Citizen: Data, Statistics and Common Sense. The third year would have two projects: one would be an extended essay on the student's chosen party trick, and the second would be the examination of some recent scam, hype or madness. There are, after all, enough of them.

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