The Problem with Philosophy Majors
WORDS BY ISAAC BAUEN
Standards and Requirements for Philosophy majors?
Currently a fundamental problem faces all philosophy majors here on campus. We don’t know what philosophy means. The meaning of philosophy is not understood by any one student amongst us. The university is creating a generation of students grounded in hearsay and opinion about what philosophy means.
How so? Because we cannot answer “what caused philosophy to emerge in Ancient Greece?” What’s missing is the study of Pre-Socratic thinking. With the Presocratics the ground for philosophy was laid for it to emerge. If we cannot answer this then what are we as students of ‘philosophy’ learning?
When your discipline means what it does, it’s a strange situation when you cannot explain what caused philosophy to be what it is.
What right do we have claiming we understood a word from our learnings, without answering, honestly, all among us, “what caused philosophy to emerge in Ancient Greece.” Without answering this and knowing the answer, we should all hop onto Sydney Student to change degrees.
The reason for this peculiar absence is, perhaps, rather straightforward. What formal requirements are there for philosophy majors? None. What standards are there for assessing philosophy majors? None. This needs to change.
What is to be learned from a major?
The aim of any major should be to understand the meaning of the discipline. Why is this any different when it comes to what philosophy is? To answer the question of what caused philosophy to emerge, it emerged in order to safeguard ‘wisdom’. Wisdom for the Ancient Greeks, from Thales to Parmenides, meant an experience of the world defined by wonder. A wondrous experience of the world in how it really is. Wisdom for the Greeks means an experienced and revealed truth of what there is. And philosophy begins with this experience of truth.
So, to attain this aim, of understanding what philosophy means, the study of ‘the history of philosophy’ is required. Why is the ‘history’ important, because the history of past thinkers is philosophy.
A big misconception about the meaning of philosophy is that philosophy is about rational argumentation, making a sound and persuasive argument. The proper name for this kind of discipline is what Plato called ‘sophistry’. Sophistry, meaning ‘one who practices the art of making others wise’. A sophist, from Plato’s time, would make others ‘wise’ by training them through argumentation alone to speak on any topic they liked. The purpose of argumentation is to win and persuade the approval of others.
Why is it sophistry to think learning philosophy is learning to argue well? Because the ‘court of appeal’ for ‘arguments’ is common sense, whereas, philosophy is about the ‘truth’ of what there is. Common sense and truth are not cut from the same cloth. Philosophy was born when Socrates living in 4th century BC Athens precisely refused any concession to common sense, against the sophists, with his persistent questions about “what is …”: love, justice, knowledge.
The word ‘philosophy’, first used by Heraclitus, means one who loves like a friend, who safeguards in a friendly way, wisdom. This safeguarding of wisdom only became meaningful against those who threatened it, the ‘sophists’, who as orators were paid to educate in opinion.
If ‘rational arguments’ aren’t the means of philosophy then what is?
The thinking that asks what the truth of our experience of the world is. Our ‘means’, our material are found in the thoughtful sayings of past thinkers, who take up this question of ‘truth’ and ‘the world’. The proper means of philosophy are, therefore, texts and not ‘arguments’. In philosophy, we only deal with texts of past thinkers and our own questions.
Moving on, what then can help us learn about the past thinkers in what they thought about the truth of what there is and how they did it?
Structure of the Major
Currently there are no mandatory units. This means students go from unit to unit without any objective learning aims and outcomes. Why is this a problem?
Lets take a simple example. I’m taking a subject on Renes Descartes, the founder of Modern philosophy. How am I meant to understand the material, Descartes’ Meditations, yet alone provide a meaningful response in my assessments without having a sound knowledge of Greek thought and Medieval thought?
Why is prior knowledge so important?
Because Descartes establishes what we now understand as modern science, ‘subjectivity’, ‘objectivity’, truth as certainty contra Greek and Medieval thought.
So, let me ask a question without knowledge about what Descartes is breaking from: will my thinking in the subject rely on the authority of the lecturer and course material or will I be able to think myself? The answer should be clear – without prior knowledge of philosophy, mainly Greek thought, philosophy is inaccessible to us students. We will be without the means to think and give meaningful responses.
I propose that mandatory units should be drawn from the four learning objectives, making up the core of the Major. For the remaining units, ‘minors’, will be any unit that is not directly covering the four core objectives. For instance, a course of ‘non-classical logic’, ‘Pragmatism’, ‘Practical ethics’ will all be minors.
· The fundamental thinkers – Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche. To become acquainted and understand what is distinctive in each and how philosophy transforms each time.
· The historical transformation of Greek philosophy into Medieval philosophy. To understand the beginning of metaphysics begins with the fusion of Christian theology and Aristotlean thinking.
· The fundamental difference between Greek philosophy and Modern philosophy. Appreciate and understand the radically different experiences of the world for the Greeks who spoke of physus from the Moderns who speak of nature.
· The beginning of Philosophy – Heraclitus and Parmenides. Learn that philosophy began from a Greek experience of the world based on aletheia, physus, logos.
These four should be formal criteria for each philosophy major to satisfy completion of study. With all of these being satisfied, a student will certainly be able to answer the question “what is philosophy?”.