Exploring questions rather than shutting them down

Exploring questions rather than shutting them down
Everyday Philosophy

In my first year of university, the study of philosophy was divided into three subtopics. There were lectures and classes in logic, ethics, and then ‘general philosophy’ which was supposed to include everything else.

I showed up to my first lecture in the latter as a fresh-faced undergraduate eager for knowledge, and left it a spluttering mess. The spluttering only intensified as the weeks went by. The lecture series, you see, was structured as an introductory run-through of the history of philosophy. And it was a very particular version of that history.

The idea of a neutral introduction to philosophy sounds appealing”

Plato was an armchair guy, positing a ‘world of forms’ with no empirical basis. Aristotle was a little better, but his theory of purposive, goal-directed ‘final causes’ was a wacky attempt to do physics without the benefit of the scientific method. Nothing much happened for ages after the Greeks, then the medievals turned up, but they were too influenced by Christianity so didn’t make much progress. Then, at last – the enlightenment! Science! Empiricism! Materialism! What happened after that was basically a series of footnotes to David Hume: but if you can be a footnote to David Hume, why be anything else?

I exaggerate, but the slant was enough to leave me ranting to friends over lunch about how you couldn’t just write off the Greeks. “You couldn’t even understand what a triangle is if materialism was true!” I wailed. My being a massive dork aside, it’s interesting to look back on what bothered me most about the lecture series: its reliance on a controversial, contested narrative of the history of philosophy in what would be, for many, their first proper introduction to that history. An introductory lecture like this should be more neutral. But I’m now not so sure that my first-year self was correct.

The idea of a neutral introduction to philosophy sounds appealing. Rather than pushing one set of answers to the big questions, we should introduce people to the important ones, expose them to the best arguments on both sides of the question, and then teach them to think things through for themselves. It’s not that this picture is completely wrong: doing didactic instruction on what to think barely qualifies as philosophy. But notice that we’ve framed our neutral introduction with reference to the most important questions and the best arguments. But what are the most important questions? Trying to come up with a neutral answer to that is difficult. But you have to choose some answer: time is a limited resource and any introduction is going to have to exclude vastly more thinkers, ideas, and debates than it includes.

Things get even more difficult when you start talking about the best arguments on each side of those debates. We might be able to neutrally agree that ‘does God exist or not?’ is an important question, but should our intro focus on the design argument, the cosmological argument, or arguments from moral realism? We could just go with currently popular and influential arguments, but what if we think those are less important or interesting than ones that had more currency in the past? Favouring fashionable discussions would then just be enshrining the biases of our own age in the minds of the next generation. Making at least some judgments about importance and quality thus seems inescapable. Once you’re doing that, you’re not teaching philosophy neutrally.

If neutrality can’t be achieved, that seems like a very good reason not to worry about it. Again, that doesn’t mean we should just teach philosophy by blasting would-be learners with our own takes. But it does mean that it’s impossible to leave our own views about what matters at the door when introducing others to philosophy. Catholics thus shouldn’t be afraid to draw on the riches of our own intellectual tradition when introducing others to philosophy.

Part of that involves considering strong challenges to our own tradition, or at least acknowledging that they exist”

But how to do this without becoming didactic? Rather than neutrality, the aim should be something more like cultivating the virtues of intellectual honesty, humility, and curiosity.

When presenting those ideas which we think important and true, the aim should never be to shut down questions but to encourage deeper exploration of them. Part of that involves considering strong challenges to our own tradition, or at least acknowledging that they exist.

Nor should we be afraid of properly exploring those challenges. I am not the world’s biggest fan of David Hume’s argument against miracles: in fact I think it’s one of the most overrated arguments in all philosophy. But if I was teaching it, I’d try to present it in its strongest form, and I’d expose students to the many other philosophers who do find it convincing. Resorting to strawmanning or caricaturing an argument is never the right move: abandoning neutrality need not mean doing violence to the truth.