It Sometimes Begins with Emerson

I just did this survey, “put together by the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) and the APA Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy.” (You have to be an APA member to take it.)

It was fun. It gave me a chance to reflect on my first encounter with philosophy, which, contrary to the old saw, didn’t begin with Ayn Rand. It began in a high school English class on American literature, where we read Emerson and Thoreau. I’m not sure contemporary analytic philosophers would regard either of the two as real philosophers, but whatever you call them, they were my first contact with anything describable as philosophy.* I found them pretty enthralling, and still do. As it happens, I’m re-reading Walden for the first time in a couple of decades, and enjoying it immensely. One of my undergraduate teachers, George Kateb, predicted to me back then that I would one day forsake Ayn Rand and return home to the American Transcendentalists. I was offended at the time, but by George, he was right.

I went to a WASPy private high school with an old and venerable past. One of the school’s legendary teachers was a gentleman whom I’d never met named Herbert F. Hahn, who’d written a self-published book, The Great Philosophers: Men of Ideas (1977)–a clear, cogent summary of the history of “Western” philosophy from Plato to Sartre. I was surprised to discover that despite its obscurity, the book is currently available on Amazon, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. I mean, if I can buy moist cat food through Amazon, why not an obscure self-published philosophy book?

Like all philosophical (“philosophical”) teenagers, I was for awhile an existentialist, and also (for a week) a Buddhist. I read some Sartre and Camus, but my real love was Hermann Hesse–this despite never having smoked a single joint in my life. (Trying to be candid here, but not sure which of these confessions is worse than the other.) I seem to remember that my favorite Hesse novel was Narcissus and Goldmund, but despite having re-read it a few years ago, I don’t remember a single thing about it; honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking either time. I also managed during this existentialist phase to work my way through William Barrett’s Irrational Man, whose chapter on Sartre (freedom-as-negation) still strikes me as profound, consoling, and as offering useful guidance for a police interrogation.

The point of the APA/PLATO survey is to create a database on early introductions to philosophy in the hopes of developing programs that introduce K-12 students to philosophy. Philosophy for Children is now a thing, and particularly so in New Jersey, as the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC), “the world’s oldest organization devoted to young people’s philosophical practice,” happens to be housed on the campus of the Garden State’s own Montclair State University. I have friends and colleagues who work at IAPC, and respect what they do, but have to confess to being of two minds on the idea of introducing kids to philosophy, because–wait for it–I kinda think they’re too young for it. Granted, this avowal comes from a guy who also thinks that six-year-olds should be disabused of their belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. But hey, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, so give it a rest.

“Too young”? Cringeworthy, I know. It’s the kind of phrase you use when you’ve gotten old and crotchety,  own property, have a mortgage to pay, and have basically given up on life, but I guess my view is that philosophy is a second-order subject that presupposes a fair bit of first-order knowledge that K-12 students don’t have. So maybe it makes more sense to teach them some first-order stuff before they do philosophy? My own preference is that K-12 students get a firm grounding in natural science, statistics, history, economics, and law (not just mush-milk “civics,” but real law, i.e., criminal procedure) before they get started on philosophy. I’m also inclined to think, a la Nicomachean Ethics I.3, that K-12 students lack the practical experience of the world that philosophy (or at least practical philosophy) demands. “Let no one ignorant of the mortgage application process enter here.”

On the other hand, I’m not sure I would ever have read Emerson or Thoreau had I not first read them and fallen in love with them in high school. That’s a pleasure I wouldn’t want to deprive someone of (or as a high school teacher might put it, a pleasure of which I wouldn’t want to deprive someone). And the whole point of existentialism is not to need any experience of anything beyond your freewheeling self: you have radical freedom, if you have it at all, whether you have a 30-year home mortgage and 401(k) or not. So maybe a K-12 dose of philosophy, at least through literature, isn’t such a bad idea. Going out on a limb here, but maybe every teenager should read “Self-Reliance,” The Stranger, and/or Steppenwolf. (?)

That said, I also think that K-12 students should be reading the Bible and Qur’an, not merely as “literature,” but as the religious texts they are. I’ve actually been saying that to deaf ears for almost thirty years, but try to get the idea past the average career-obsessed helicopter parent, ideologically charged PTA/Board of Ed, or myopic school superintendent. “Religion belongs at home,” comes the holier-than-thou response–a claim made by no religion ever. But give the kids one little whiff of holy war, martyrdom, or jihad, and there goes your fucking job, so I don’t see high school teachers teaching these wonderful texts any time soon. I raise the point (in case you were wondering) because religion is an excellent gateway drug to philosophy, so you’d think there might be takers on that score. But I doubt there are.

Well, I’m done. Since we’re talking philosophy here, it’s entirely fair of me to leave you with an inconclusive antinomy or trilemma or whatever it is I’ve just left you in.

I’m curious how PoT readers first got introduced to philosophy. Feel free to share. Come on, it’s not self-indulgent if everybody does it. And after all, as Emerson puts it in “The American Scholar”: “The actions and events of our childhood and youth are now matters of calmest observation. They lie like fair pictures in the air.” Right? What could go wrong?

*Actually, there’s a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on American Transcendentalism and on Emerson, but I’m not sure whether that really contradicts what I say in the post. I mean, SEP’s got an entry on Ayn Rand, so we’re not exactly dealing with a reliable source here.

**As I wrote that, this study happened to pop into my inbox. Again, not really sure it contradicts what I’m saying, but could hardly pass up an opportunity to cite the most recent issue of Analytic Teaching and Philosophy Praxis.

87 thoughts on “It Sometimes Begins with Emerson

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. “I’m not sure contemporary analytic philosophers would regard either of the two as real philosophers”

    There’s an Emersonian sub-subculture within the contemporary Wittgensteinian subculture — with Cavell being the most prominent influence.

    “I kinda think they’re too young for it”

    Have you read Gareth Matthews’ book “Philosophy and the Young Child”? He argues that philosophy is a continuation of a childlike form of inquiry that philosophers, unlike everyone else, fortunately fail to get socialised out of.

    “One of my undergraduate teachers, George Kateb, predicted to me back then that I would one day forsake Ayn Rand and return home to the American Transcendentalists.”

    Do you think Voltairine de Cleyre counts as a Transcendentalist? This essay of hers in particular reminds me of Emerson:

    though I get an Emersonian vibe from these two as well:

    She had a much stronger pessimistic streak in her than Emerson did, though, I’d say.

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    • I haven’t read Matthews’ book, but a couple of friends and colleagues worked with him and continue to work in developing ways to present philosophy to children. What I know of their work, and of children, strongly inclines me to agree with the general idea that philosophy is a continuation of childlike inquiry. But what I know of the material also suggests that they don’t try to teach philosophy to children in the way that most immediately comes to mind — viz., by trying to do with 12 year olds what we try to do in Intro to Philosophy. I suspect that Irfan’s worry about philosophy’s second-order character requiring a good deal of first-order knowledge applies here, too, but I’m cautiously optimistic that the movement to do philosophy for children can do good things that are actually philosophical. It’s just unlikely to come in the form of, say, reading Descartes’ Meditations, which is what I will be doing with a bunch of 12th graders come January.

      I’ll see whether I can entice some folks who know more about this than I do to offer their insights here.

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      • I certainly agree that what we do in Intro to Philosophy wouldn’t work with most 12-year-olds.

        (Though there’s a depressing sense in which it doesn’t work with most college students either. Still, I’d expect it to work better, and more often, with college students than with 12-year-olds, sure.)

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        • I was going to say the same as David, and then going to add the same as Roderick’s parenthetical. I may have taught Intro Philosophy twice or three times in the last decade. I avoid it now like the plague. Will explain in response to David’s long comment below.


    • I have not, alas, read Cavell, Matthews, or Voltairine de Cleyre (or even very much Wittgenstein). So yes, basically, I am illiterate, but I’ll read V de C soon and see what I think. Thanks for the suggestions.


    • Speaking of an Emersonian subculture within analytic philosophy, a post by Dan Moller (Maryland), at BHL:

      The core of libertarianism, on [my] view, isn’t a fear of “second-handers” or infringements on sacrosanct rights; it’s resistance to the idea that I may shift my misfortunes onto others without remainder. And because all this strikes me as quite different from the kind of story you get in Ayn Rand or Robert Nozick, I think of it as having a “New England” flavor, the inspiration being figures like Emerson and Thoreau, who emphasized self-reliance and “governing least,” though of course the vocabulary and taxonomy aren’t important.


  3. “I…have to confess to being of two minds on the idea of introducing kids to philosophy, because–wait for it–I kinda think they’re too young for it.”

    As you know, I teach philosophy to 12th graders. I agree with you.

    First, however, a qualification. I’ve always agreed with Aristotle in principle about the study of ethics being inappropriate for young people, not only because they lack the first-order experience but because they tend to live by their feelings and aren’t likely to take philosophy seriously as a guide to living. I stress ‘in principle,’ though, because in the past I’d have leaned more heavily on the bit where he says “it doesn’t matter whether he’s young in years or in character; the defect doesn’t depend on time, but on living,” interpreted as allowing for exceptions. Unlike some scholars, I did not suppose that by ‘young’ Aristotle meant ‘younger than 18,’ but something more expansive. When I taught the Ethics to college freshmen, I would point out to them that they were included, and that Aristotle wouldn’t expect them to put anything they learned into practical effect. It still seemed worth teaching, though. I think it was.

    12th graders are only a little younger than most of the college students I taught, but the apparent difference in their receptions of the Nicomachean Ethics surpassed my expectations. I was able to present it in ways that usually led, at least eventually, to fairly good discussions. But I at no point had any sense whatsoever that Aristotle was getting any real purchase on their practical intellects. They have enough first-order experience to understand what the book is talking about most of the time, but I was struck not only by how much more their tendency to live according to their feelings prevented them from really engaging with the book in a serious way, but by how their relative lack of experience impacted their understanding of it, especially their sense — well, lack of a sense — that there was anything at stake. I know several of the students, were they to read this, would be offended at my suggestion that they just haven’t lived enough yet to appreciate Aristotle. They’ve gone through some fairly adult experiences, so they have a real point. But my point is not that they lack experience and so can’t understand ethics, but that they haven’t yet accumulated enough mature experience, and perhaps not enough distance from mature experience, to be able to appreciate intuitively and in some detail why, say, an account of voluntary action is of the utmost importance for ethics, or why it is by no means obvious how we should understand voluntary action. They can grasp the concepts just fine, at least when they’re clearly explained, but it is not so easy for them to see the point of much of what Aristotle talks about. Of course when they ask, as some incessantly do, “why is this important?” they can understand the answers I give. But I rarely or never got the sense that anything in Aristotle appeared to them as important or profound, even importantly or profoundly wrong.

    At the same time, some students find some philosophy gripping and significant. The pattern that seems to emerge is that they find it gripping and significant when two conditions are met: (i) they actually have accumulated enough relevant experience, and have acquired enough distance on it, to see how the philosophical idea applies to their own lives in a concrete way while retaining its generality, and (ii) the philosophy in question is expressed in emotionally engaging ways. It’s no surprise, for instance, that while none of my students has found Aristotle or Aquinas deep, several of them, including some I would not describe as unusually reflective or thoughtful, have found parts of Plato and Boethius mind-blowing in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any college student find anything mind-blowing. Examples: Plato’s image, in Republic IX, of the soul as a conjunction of a human, a lion, and a many-headed beast that we can make grow in size and strength by overfeeding and indulging or make tame and gentle by feeding selectively and appropriately was, according to one student, “the most profound thing I’ve ever heard”; to another, Boethius’ quasi-Stoic ideas that external goods are never really ours and that our happiness will never be secure so long as we place it in external goods had a similar impact. I’ll spare you details, but what I know of these students’ lives makes neither case at all surprising. Notably, however, the Plato example is cast in the form of a vivid and symbolically rich image, while the points in the Consolation are set in the dramatic framework of Boethius’ own misfortunes and impending death. These ideas, but not others, spoke to these students, but not to others, not only because the students in question had experiences that made the ideas seem, well, real, but because the texts convey them in ways that make them more emotionally engaging than much of anything we could find in Aristotle or Aquinas.

    So it’s no surprise that high school students often find existentialism profound, not only because there are certain features of American teenage experience that make the themes of existentialist philosophy resonate, but because the philosophy is presented to them in a form that engages their emotions. Roderick has written elsewhere about how he thinks Rand’s appeal to many has a similar explanation, and the same might be true for some students of Emerson and Thoreau (but not my students; they read Walden in 11th grade, and virtually all of them either hate it or are indifferent to it).

    If I’m right that teenagers respond fully to philosophy only when they can see it as speaking directly to their own experience and that they tend to see it that way most easily when it’s presented in more concrete, emotionally engaging ways, then there seem to be two possible ways to respond. One would be to abandon any expectation, or even much hope, that they will respond fully to philosophy, and to aim instead at giving them a broad intellectual grasp of some of the central questions and ideas in the history of philosophy. Another would be to select the philosophy we ask them to read with these features in mind, and so to read Camus or Sartre or even, dare I say it, Rand rather than Aristotle, Aquinas, or Mill. To some extent, there’s nothing we can do to make up for a lack of experience; reading Dostoevsky with 10th graders last year showed me that. But reading Dostoevsky with 10th graders also showed me that it’s possible to have genuinely philosophical discussions with 10th graders if the catalyst for the discussion is something so vividly engaging as Dostoevsky.

    I also suspect, though, that we can get pretty far with kids, even much younger kids, in the more abstract and less immediately practical areas of philosophy by de-emphasizing complex texts and the analysis of argument in favor of problem-focused puzzles and thought experiments. I did a bit of that last year in less formal contexts; I had them try to think through puzzles of endurance through time with the ship of Theseus, I had them try to think through the difference between numerical and qualitative identity with thought experiments about the tables in our room, I had them think about universals and particulars by passing around a bunch of quarters and drawing a bunch of circles; I walked them through a simplified version of a Cartesian skeptical scenario. I’d say those exercises were moderately successful in that each time a genuinely philosophical discussion ensued, though rarely so well as I’d have expected it to in a college classroom — students either lack the usual intuitions altogether or simply do not see, on reflection, distinctions that they very plainly draw in first-order discourse. I also worry a great deal that the problem-focused approach leads very quickly to the conclusion that philosophy is just about puzzles that nobody knows how to solve, and so is not a serious intellectual discipline. Admittedly, persistent philosophical disagreement poses problems for philosophy’s epistemic status that might not arise for mathematics and the sciences, but I’m inclined to think that the only way to show that philosophy is in fact a serious intellectual discipline is to have people read serious philosophy.

    My most reflective students have genuinely philosophical questions as live questions. The difficulty is finding a way to get them to take philosophical answers, and philosophical modes of inquiry, seriously. I’m afraid existentialist novels don’t really do that. But they may in fact lead to more fruitful philosophical engagement later on than vastly superior philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas do.

    As for how I first got introduced to philosophy, I’m not sure I can really remember. I was always exceedingly reflective and liked to sit around and talk about ‘deep’ things with friends, and somehow I got it into my head from a fairly early age that I’d like to take some philosophy classes in college. I read a brief excerpt from Plato at some point in high school but it made no real impression. For most of high school I hung out mostly with people four to ten years older than me, some of whom vaguely and sophomorically talked about philosophy among other topics. I was intensely interested in religion, primarily in an anti-Christian, Buddhism-is-cool way, but I didn’t read any philosophy. My girlfriend’s mom was a sociologist who got me vaguely interested in Marxism, but of a more narrowly political sort. So I don’t think any of that was philosophy, though it wasn’t a bad preparation for philosophy. When I finally got serious about school, I decided to take only classes that I was actually interested in for a year. The first term I was serious, I took a Classics course called ‘Human Aspirations Among the Greeks and Romans’ and the survey of modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant. I liked the philosophy a lot, but the Classics course was the one that changed my life. We read a number of Platonic dialogues, but the one that really did it for me was the Gorgias. At the time, it felt like it forced me to get serious about ethics and either reject relativism or face its consequences; in hindsight, I think its biggest impact was compelling me to begin thinking philosophically about those questions and everything else. I had been thinking about philosophical topics since I was a kid, certainly more than most people I knew of my age, but in a very impressionistic, half-baked, emotionally driven way. Plato didn’t make me a Platonist, at least not at first, but especially in conjunction with the modern philosophy class, he made me get serious about reasoning and argument. At the same time, I fell in love with Greek literature more generally, and once I started taking Greek I was hooked. I only gradually began to focus more on philosophy, and even then went through a phase reading a lot of Nietzsche and Plato and hardly any contemporary philosophy; I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Sophocles. But in some way that I can’t really remember I got turned on to reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue, and that book transformed my whole outlook on everything. Some time not long after I read The Fragility of Goodness, initially I think for its chapters on tragedy. MacIntyre and Nussbaum sent me to Aristotle, which sent me further into contemporary neo-Aristotelianism, which was my bridge into contemporary philosophy more broadly.

    It’s no accident, I suppose, that even I started off with less abstract and technical stuff before I could get deep enough into philosophy to appreciate Aristotle. But I think it also matters that by the time I was studying philosophy seriously, I was 23 years old and had accumulated a fair amount more experience than most college students (I didn’t start seriously in college until I was 21, hence didn’t graduate until I was 25). Recently I had a conversation with a graduate student who took my Greek and Roman ethics class as a freshman and later tried to read the NE in Greek with me informally, but could never really get into Aristotelian ethics. On going back to the NE for the graduate comprehensive exams, it now seemed like a different book, and it finally made sense why people think it’s a great book with profound significance to real life, far more intuitively relevant than Kant or Mill. That’s the difference experience — and, maybe Aristotle should have said, personal reflection on experience — makes.

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    • I was a weird kid, of course; but during my high school years I was intensely gripped, both intellectually and practically, by philosophical puzzlings about free will, causality, reductionism, etc. before I was even fully aware that this was philosophy. Then of course I read Rand and became passionately interested in philosophy. But during my high school years I read not only Rand but also Emerson, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre — mainly the fiction of the last two, but in senior year of high school I also took a course at the local college on 20th-century French philosophy (in French, which made it a tough slog). We read bits of Sartre, Foucault, Barthes, Levi-Strauss, and I forget who else. While I tended to find them wrong-headed, I enjoyed them more than a good young Randian should; in any case, I was intensely interested and engaged. My high-school counselors noted that I really “came out of my shell” during my last two years; much of that had to do with Rand and Sartre together encouraging me to explore wider ranges of options.

      No doubt I owe much of this to my mother, who frequently engaged me in intellectual discussion (though her own philosophical reading had been slight; when she later described to me the “philosophy course” she’d taken in college, I discovered that the professor had delivered a crapfest — a course devoted to the description of various views with no account of the arguments for or against them, and no reading of primary texts). When I was a little kid, she taped “cogito ergo sum” to my bathroom mirror and explained what it meant. On the other hand, she did that because it seemed like the kind of thing I would be interested in — though also because in her own childhood she’d been gripped by philosophical questions too. When I was very young, maybe in first grade, she and I debated whether anything that had a beginning had to have an ending; she said yes, I said no (because I believed in an infinite future but couldn’t make sense of an infinite past); I introduced as evidence the number series that starts with 0 and proceeds to infinity, but she countered by teaching me about negative numbers, which I learned about from her before I ever learned about them in grade school.

      In high school I also took a course on European history, and while we didn’t read any philosophy, there was a fair bit of material on the influence of philosophy ON history, as well as of what I would now call philosophy OF history — for example, we discussed whether history should be understood in terms of broad, long-range processes or specific, history-changing events. Of course I didn’t remotely have enough information to discuss those issues competently, though I took a side vigorously nonetheless; but in any case I found the questions engaging.

      When I first read Plato’s Republic in freshman year of college, I was fascinated and electrified; I kept wanting to insert myself into the conversation and explain to Socrates and Thrasymachus why they were both giving lousy arguments. (I’d be more charitable to those arguments today.) And when I discovered analytic philosophy (which Rand had sternly warned against), the rigourous standards of argumentation reminded me of geometrical proofs, which I had also loved.

      In any case, my point is that in my youth I was always interested in philosophy, both as an intellectual matter and as providing guidance as to how I might live and act. I very much wish there’d been a formal philosophy class for me to take!

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      • To clarify: the Emerson and Thoreau that I read was for a high school class, as were some of Sartre’s plays. Rand and Nietzsche I read on my own. I can’t remember how I came across Camus.


        • There’s an odd thing about commenting here that I’ve been meaning to mention. Once I’ve posted a comment, if I then try to post a second comment I can’t do it unless I first log out and then log in again. I blame Irfan.


          • “For the educated person seeks utility on each platform to the extent that the nature of the platform allows; for apparently, it is just as mistaken to demand user friendliness of WordPress as it is to expect thoughtful conversation on Twitter.” —Nicomachean Ethics I.3, 1094b23ff, tr. Khawaja.

            Another oddity: for reasons I don’t understand, I have to manually approve each of your comments as they appear. To fix this, let me send you an invitation to become an Author. Should you accept, the “log out/log in/manually approve each comment” problem will (I surmise) disappear. You’ll also be able to post rather than merely comment, i.e., engage in first-order productive work rather than function as a parasite on the productive work of others, who merely permit you to do so from the sanction of the victim.


    • (Responding to DJR): Yeah, I completely agree with just about all of that. I only have two things to add, which I’ll break up into two separate comments.

      I mentioned in the original post that I happened to be re-reading Walden for the first time in decades. The last time may well have been 11th grade, at least for reading it cover to cover. While reading it, I imagined assigning it someday in class, and vetoed the idea after maybe the first page. I’ll have to ask around the English Department to see whether they assign it, and how it goes over with their students. Maybe I can induce John Holt, PoT’s resident professor of literature, to join the conversation.

      I think there’s a ready answer why students hate Walden, but the ready answer produces a puzzle of its own–a variant on the puzzle implicit in just about every comment here. In order to appreciate Walden, it seems to me you need at least two of the following three things:

      1. A purely aesthetic love for well-crafted prose, along with the patience required to appreciate it.
      2. A deep sense of disenchantment at or disillusionment with technology, capitalism, and the other well-hyped trappings of Civilization, along with the need to seek confirmation from someone who shares your disenchantment with those things.
      3. A love of the outdoors seeking quasi-poetic affirmation in well-crafted prose.

      In a sense, though different, (1) and (3) overlap. I guess they all overlap.

      In my experience, both high school and college students tend to lack at least two of the three listed things. I may be over-generalizing a bit, so consider that a report on the students I know. That said, “students I know” includes students at about 10 institutions across 24 years, ranging in age from 16 to 60. I teach the usual 18-21 year old college cohort, but also teach high school students from nearby high schools who are allowed to take college courses,. And then I teach working adults in our adult education program. I’m also in a master’s program with MA/PsyD/BSN students in their 20s and 30s. Maybe that’s an unrepresentative sample, and maybe there’s a student or two or three in there who satisfies the three conditions, but on the whole, no.

      The more likely scenario:

      1*. Students don’t give a shit about well-crafted prose, chiefly because they get no joy from reading in the first place. (A student in one of my Honors classes put this to me in a bluntly candid way: “I hate books, and I hate reading.” This is from the Honors section.) The idea of reading anything irritates them. The idea of reading Thoreau’s elaborate, allusive, densely packed sentences drives them insane with rage and impatience.

      2*. Students love technology and the capitalism that delivers it to their doors. Without technology, there is no PornHub. Without PornHub, life loses its savor or meaning. What more needs to be said?

      Forget Walden: the idea of just putting the fucking phone down for five minutes is too much for them. I once criticized the idea of texting while driving on the grounds that it was dangerous. A student expressed indignation: “It’s not dangerous! I do it all the time!” I said, “Just wait until you get into an accident.” Response: “I have. What’s the big deal? Insurance paid for it.” A student of this description just regards Thoreau as a freak of the sort that used to exist “back in the day.” You need peace and quiet to read Thoreau. Where, today, would you find it? Imagine reading Thoreau in a gym while riding a stationary bike with ear buds plugged into Michael Buble, and five TVs blaring down at you with Fox, MSNBC, ESPN, whatever. What would the point be?

      3*. I guess there are environmentally-conscious students on campus who love the outdoors. Given (1), I somehow doubt even these students would care for Thoreau’s take on the outdoors, but in my experience, outdoorsy students are the exception, not the rule. I teach urban and suburban students who could care less about the outdoors: it’s not where the action is. When we had a philosophy major at Felician, my colleague George Abaunza and I would, usually around mid-autumn, take students camping at High Point State Park, a state park about an hour north of campus at the New Jersey/Pennsylvania/New York border (decidedly his idea, not mine). Yes, some students got something out of it, but on the whole, there was a real “What the fuck are we doing here?” aspect to the trip. George did maybe ten of these, and I did maybe eight, but eventually I just said: enough. I can’t handle this any more. (Some of the header photos on the blog were taken on Felician camping trips–probably obvious which ones.)

      Interestingly, we got a somewhat better response when we took students to the poorest parts of Nicaragua to do “service learning,” i.e., charitable work in schools and orphanages. The reason was obvious: students were able to deal with the primitive conditions because there was a clear practical purpose to the trip. (And they were able to return to first-world conditions back at the hotel when the day’s work was done.) It’s one thing to endure third-world conditions if you’re helping the poor in a third-world country, but why would you endure third-world conditions just to be out “in nature” doing nothing?

      So here is the real point of my rant. It’s something of a puzzle that despite all this, we dutifully insist on having 11th graders read Thoreau’s Walden. It seems a foregone conclusion that it won’t work. So why do it? Should we just stop? Or induce high school English teachers to stop?

      And yet it worked for me, in an odd, idiosyncratic sense of “worked.” It worked well enough to induce me to hold on to my collection of Thoreau’s essays and read him again decades later.

      Reading Thoreau at age 49, I find myself a little mystified by what I could conceivably have gotten out of reading Walden at age 16 or 17. I suspect that it was some odd combination of (1) and (3). I don’t recall having any particular view of technology back then, but did “espouse” (if that’s the right word) a dogmatically anti-capitalist stance at the time. So maybe that’s what made me amenable to Thoreau (or to Walden). I still own the same copy of Walden now as I did then, and can see what I underlined or check-marked when I read it in the 1980s, but there doesn’t appear to be any clear pattern to it.

      I suspect that, living in North Jersey, I had a quasi-aesthetic reaction to many of the same sorts of things that Thoreau was observing in western Massachusetts, and was yearning for some sort of prose-poetic description of of it all appropriate to (what I took to be) the grandeur of the setting. In later years, the revulsion for capitalism was really a reaction to the more outre parts of Objectivism, along with the time I spent “living” with “primitive” people, e.g., the Bedouins in the West Bank. (I didn’t really “live with them” so much as observe their lives from afar.) It’s not so much that I wanted to exchange their lifestyle for mine as that observation of them clarified the virtues of simplicity-in-living, which is the real point of Walden.

      All this to express the same ambivalence about teaching Thoreau as others have expressed about teaching philosophy generally. On the one hand, it seems pointless. On the other hand, perhaps it has a point. I still can’t come to a fully defensible position on this that integrates every relevant fact.


    • (Second response to DJR): There’s another somewhat paradoxical variant on a “youth is not a suitable student” of practical philosophy, which I call premature dogmatic aging. I often get students who are one step beyond the students you’ve described, who incessantly demand an answer to “Why does this matter?” This next step consists in having answered that question to one’s own satisfaction by being quite sure that none of it does matter.

      These students will come to university with one and only one thing on their minds: they want job X; job X (they’ve heard) requires a college degree in major X*; so they want to take classes in X*. That’s it. They are paying Big Bucks to take classes in X* in order to get job X. To ask them to do anything beyond this is an outrage–a fraud, a swindle, a conspiracy, a waste of their time and money, an attempt to subvert their legitimate aims in life. They’re utterly convinced that the entire General Education Curriculum is there to “enrich” the faculty teaching it. This comes from students who want to do nothing more than get their degree, conceived of as a meaningless piece of paper, to make money.

      What you get in these cases is a fake version of worldly wise wisdom. Students who have zero job experience and know absolutely nothing about anything are zealously sure that they know exactly what they need to know and do to land “the dream job” that has been waiting there in amber since they emerged from the womb. So their stock response to anything they don’t want to read, write, or think about is: “this has nothing to do with my major,” where the tacit assumption is that the classes within their chosen major supply the Key to all Mysteries when it comes to the job market.

      You might at first charitably think that there is something to this line of thought. I did, at first. Hard experience taught me otherwise: there is nothing to this line of thought. It’s an expression of pure ignorance and episteme-phobia all the way down. What’s most offensive about it is that it’s an expression of total immaturity masquerading as hard-won wisdom–except that there’s no wisdom there at all, hard-won or fortuitous.

      I encounter students bound for the Police Academy who literally (literally) think that all they need to know to be a good cop is how to rack a Glock, how to aim it, and how to hit the target (where every shot is a kill shot). Police work is just…killing people. They don’t need to know how to read, how to write, how to think, how to speak, how to do basic statistics (to read criminology), how to deal with people, or know anything about the diversity of people they’re apt to deal with. No. They’ll learn it all “on the job.” I had a student tell me the other day that he thought that he regarded the entire judicial and legislative system as a pointless expression of systemic “corruption”; in an ideal world, cops would write the laws, enforce the laws, judge the laws, and I guess, be the laws. How cops would write the laws despite not knowing how to read or write, I don’t know. More to the point, neither did he.

      I’ve had nursing students complain about having to take statistics, “which has nothing to do with my major.” It may or may not come as a surprise that, in my experience, surprisingly large numbers of nursing students are anti-vaxxers. I mean, after all, “My friend Meghan’s son got a tetanus shot, and is on the autism spectrum…”

      Etc. I could keep going. The problem here is that we’re dealing with a problem of maturity related to philosophical pedagogy (actually, to learning as such), but not one that the relevant students are simply apt to grow out of. In my experience, either they don’t grow out of it, or you have to shock them out of it. By “shock them out of it,” I mean: you have to hit them over the head with some version of “You have no fucking idea what you’re talking about–not about knowledge, not about the job market, not about the connection between them, and not about life itself.” This method has obvious risks: you alienate a lot of students, you drive others farther into dogmatism, and you induce others to complain about you to the Dean, the Provost, the President, and/or the cops. But no gentler method has any hope of working at all.

      That said, I do find that some older students, and many military veterans (at least one who’ve served abroad, not ones who’ve spent their time in state-side bureaucracies) either get cured of the problem, or perhaps didn’t have it in the first place. These tend to be the best students I have.

      The upshot here can be expressed in a joke I recently heard. What’s the difference between a Jewish pessimist and a Jewish optimist?

      The Jewish pessimist says, “Things can’t get any worse!”

      The Jewish optimist says, “Yes, they can!”

      Substitute “pedagogical” for “Jewish,” and I think the optimists have it about right.


        • This might be the place to tell you that your contribution to that event has been a great inspiration to me at various points. Chalk it up, perhaps, to Irfan’s “need to seek confirmation from someone who shares your disenchantment,” but I still periodically read that piece to regain my bearings. Kelly Dean Jolley’s lecture is also good, but, perhaps simply because it lacks the Aristotelian piety, doesn’t quite do it for me as much.

          I sympathize with students who are concerned about the role that their education, particularly their college education, will play or fail to play in preparing them for financially rewarding careers. Many ‘good’ colleges are far too expensive, and for students who have to take on loads of debt to get a degree, majoring in Classics or Philosophy can understandably be a hard sell even when they feel drawn to it. I think such students underestimate the amount they can do to ‘build up their resumes’ while majoring in something ‘impractical’ as well as overestimating the impact that a particular major will have, as opposed to particular skill sets that they can document. For many students, though, the problem isn’t with majoring in this or that, it’s with the relatively low likelihood that their college degree will set them up for jobs that pay well enough for them to pay off their loans comfortably. Yet of course, if they don’t have a college degree, their prospects will be pretty limited. So I don’t think the real problem has much to do with this or that major, but many students seem to persist in the thought that humanities majors differ from most others available at a university in preparing students less for jobs — as though a psych major qualifies you to work as a psychologist, or a bio major qualifies you to work as a biologist.

          Of course, the deeper problem is not with students who might like to major in something like philosophy but feel compelled not to for economic reasons, it’s with students who don’t see the point in studying things like philosophy because they supposedly aren’t going to help them get jobs. Here I think Irfan’s experience, teaching in a school with many students in professional programs, differs a great deal from mine, teaching in liberal arts colleges. It’s a mistake to suppose that a nurse only needs to study nursing or that a cop only needs to studying copping, but it is a more plausible mistake to make given the narrowly professional focus of the degree. Where I’ve taught, there have been some business and engineering majors who looked at their degrees that way, but there’s typically been a greater appreciation for the utility of a broader range of subjects — utility, though, and still utility pretty narrowly conceived. Maybe the way to put it is that in a university, students tend to be mystified by why they should study these subjects or majors to prepare for a career, because virtually none of the subjects or majors correspond to a particular career, while in a professional program, most of the courses do correspond to a particular career, and then the mystery becomes why they have to do these other things.

          I’d say most of my high school students are similar to the liberal arts university students in that respect: they appreciate that most of the subjects they study have some usefulness for careers, and they just struggle with the idea that the particular content of those courses is useful: there’s not much doubt that writing and speaking are useful skills, there’s just doubt that reading Aristotle is useful at all. There’s also a pretty broadly shared culture of respect for the idea that our curriculum is supposed to help them become intellectually well-rounded and to be thoughtful, responsible citizens. I suspect there’s also a good deal of cynicism about that part, perhaps mostly because many of them think that they are already perfectly capable of being thoughtful, responsible citizens and do not need to read Aquinas for that purpose.

          Of course one reason why they think so, if they do, is that they’re partially right. If we really restricted the goals of our curriculum to useful skills for work and virtues of thoughtful citizenship, there would be no special reason to read Aristotle or Aquinas, or Thoreau or Dostoevsky, no reason to require music, drama, and art, and probably no reason to make all of the students take calculus either. There’s ultimately no justification for a liberal arts curriculum that stops short of the sorts of things Roderick says in ‘The Temple.’

          I have considered having my students read those two lectures at the beginning of next year. I’m now considering having them read them this year to start off the second semester.


    • Thanks for the invite! (A well as for a previous invite I somehow missed until just now.) That seems to have worked, although it was a bit complicated because WordPress kept telling me I already had an account but wouldn’t initially let me … oh well, the details aren’t important. I prevailed. Though the process seems to have turned my face to stone.

      What you fail to realise, however, is that you have simply facilitated easier parasitism on my part. Thanks for the sanction, dude.


  4. So DJR just looped me in here. I’ve got a pre-K ethics curriculum coming out in March ( It comes out of work with 4yo’s at my college’s lab school. My take on this conversation is that Aristotle’s assumptions that ethical inquiry requires substantial prior habituation and detachment from the emotions of youth are “the hobgoblin of little minds”. If children cannot sit still and calmly discuss texts of little literary merit (I too love EN, but I doubt even Aristotle himself would claim it to be a good read), then give them good literature and let the crawl around while they think through it. Or better yet, structure games and art projects that will scaffold those discussions ( With all due respect, there’s little in EN’s main account of individual virtues that I’ve not been able to find in picture books and get 4yo’s discussing in meaningful ways. One of my co-authors for the ethics curriculum, Sharon Carnahan, contextualizes all of this against current work in developmental psychology. As she puts it, “Young children know a heck of a lot about friendship.” One of my favorites was a time when we used “A mother for Choco” to raise questions about what makes a family and how a family differs from friends. One grip responsed, “If there’s a family then there’s love, but if there’s love, it’s not always a family. It’s love and something else that makes a family.” They’re also pretty sharp when it comes to talk about bravery.
    From the standpoint of moral psychology, I suspect the root cause is that Aristotle sees emotions as part of our animal and thus not human nature— something to be subdued by reason. That’s probably just not very accurate. Sure, Plato goes off on a tangent in the middle of Republic about people not engaging in philosophy until middle age. But the great weight of the Platonic corpus suggests a push to integrate reason and appetite. This, in turn, makes sense of why you get so many young interlocutors in Plato’s works. As with Plato, so with Platonsits. To see the framing and literary stuff in Boethius as window dressing is to lose sight of the point, which is to reorder the whole soul toward eternal being (i.e. the end goal of all that ranging curriuclum in Republic). My own “serious work” is on Augustine, who is perhaps the master of integrating mind and will, philosophy and rhetoric. As for philosophy as a 2nd-order subject, I quite agree. But it doesn’t follow that it supposes 1st-order CONTENT. Sure, more philosophy PhDs have studied calculus, but let’s be honest: how many of us remember any of it? The earliest surviving statement of the medieval trivium and quadrivium as prep for philosophy comes in Augustine’s dialogue, De ordine. As soon as he gets it out, though, he says that those in a hurry can skip 5 subjects and just do dialectic and arithmetic. Or one or the other. Or just skip all of it and attend to unity in the world around us. Scholars love ignoring this bit. My take: philosophy is a 2nd-order activity which presuppose 1st-order ACTIVITY. But it’s possible to be very active without ever getting to concrete content ( Okay, DJR, I hope there’s something in there like what you were going for!

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    • ” Aristotle sees emotions as part of our animal and thus not human nature— something to be subdued by reason.”

      I think that’s closer to Plato’s view than to Aristotle’s (although Plato’s view is complicated too). While Aristotle is certainly influenced by Plato, he differs from him in treating emotions as belonging simultaneously to the nonrational and to the rational parts of the soul (specifically to the lower portion of the rational soul and the higher portion of the nonrational soul); see NE I.13. His reason for departing from Plato on this point is actually borrowed from Plato, namely that our emotions are capable of responding to reason in ways that non-rational impulses aren’t; thus he draws an un-Platonic conclusion from Platonic premises.

      Further, in his account of the virtues (NE II-V) Aristotle treats the contributions of reason and emotion as equally crucial; just as ethical virtues, while belonging to the higher-nonrational and lower-rational part, don’t count as being ethical virtues unless they are informed by practical wisdom, so practical wisdom, though belonging to the higher-rational part, doesn’t count as practical wisdom unless it is informed by the ethical virtues. The emotions thus play a much more central role, indeed even I would argue a partly cognitive role, for Aristotle than they do for Plato; I see Aristotle as an early proponent of “emotional intelligence.”

      One might (somewhat anachronistically) describe Aristotle as striving to find a middle path between the (mostly) stark reason/emotion dualism of Plato, and the Stoic (and proto-Sartrean) view of emotions as purely voluntary and purely cognitive (though also invariably erroneous) mental states; but the result is a view friendlier to emotions than either the Platonic or the Stoic view.

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    • That’s a travesty of Aristotle’s moral psychology, you dirty Augustinian, but the rest is fascinating and helpful. I suspect that a good bit rides on what we think we’re trying to do when we set out to do philosophy. One way of thinking about philosophy focuses on the process and the tools of rational argument and abstract conceptual analysis, and as Roderick notes above, it can be extremely difficult to get college students to do that sort of thing well, let alone 5 year olds. Another way of thinking of philosophy focuses more on content areas: ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics are philosophy, whereas biology and history and music aren’t. From my own limited experience with young kids and from what you say here, I have a relatively easy time seeing how even 4 year olds could be brought to think and discuss philosophical topics productively. In fact, I think it might be easier for young kids than for, say, 10th-12th graders, because the younger ones are often still more open-minded and intuitively questioning, and they’re more accustomed to intellectual discomfort – indeed, they sometimes seem simply not to find certain kinds of questions and puzzles intellectually uncomfortable at all that teenagers and even many adults recoil from immediately.

      But what happens to 4 year olds when you present them with, say, dilemmas about free-will and determinism? I have struggled to get some of my students even to understand the dilemmas, let alone to think plausibly about how to respond to them. One pattern I’ve identified is that I have to be prepared to offer up an apparently plausible alternative to almost any idea or argument we encounter, because otherwise the majority of them will find it obvious or trivial; by contrast, my students in college classes would more often resist the ideas and arguments and present alternatives themselves, so that my role was usually to defend the text’s position. I have a few reliable contrarians in my class now, but their contrarianism often takes the form of proclaiming some text or idea stupid or pointless without much in the way of incisive argument to support that assessment.

      I usually fixate on how different high school students are from college students, but maybe I should be more impressed by how different they are from 4 year olds.

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      • Well, I’ve been called a lot of things but this was the first for “dirty Augustinian.” At any rate, points taken.
        Let’s start with moral psychology. If “subduing emotion” is a bit strong, how about “training” it the way we would a pet? I just reread EN1.13 (thanks for pointing this out, Roderick). All I’m seeing is talk of the appetitive part “obeying reason as one does a father.” So the connection to children seems clear. This also strikes me as applying equally well to a horse. Isn’t the point here that reason can influence the appetitive but not the nutritive part? You can train a horse but you can’t train a tree. That said, you can’t really engage a horse in philosophical conversation. If you could, they would be functionally human. So I guess it comes to how height a view of non-human animals you have. I’m fine to go along with granting a very high view: I’ve known lots of dogs who are trained, respond in nuanced ways to human language and even know when they are disobeying. Still, even if we could get over the linguistic barrier, I don’t think we could engage them in anything like a philosophical discussion (I’d be delighted to be proven wrong on that btw). Aristotle seems to treat children, and maybe even young adults, like THAT.
        More broadly, what do we mean by philosophy? I like Bertrand Russel’s line, “Science is what we know. Philosophy is what we don’t know.” I would flesh that out to something that’s pretty process-oriented: a disciplined approach to working through questions that we need to take some stand on about which there is no clearly correct answer, at least for the moment. On this definition, questions in say Physics or Psychology started out philosophical, stopped being so and are perhaps coming back, given that 21st century science is showing us that the world is a lot weirder than we’d thought. Can 4yo’s do that? Sure. Can they wrap their heads around every main question in philosophy? Of course not.
        Cards on the table, the goal of our ethics curriculum is as much teaching skills of useful dialogue as it is teaching ethics. We gravitated toward ethics because many of the requisite concepts and experiences are within their grasp to have some kind of meaningful discussion. The task it to come at a 4yo’s world with philosophical questions in mind and then find jumping off points within the world they live in. This is why Tom Wartenberg’s approach to story book philosophy has taken off (Gary Matthews was a friend and mentor to both Tom and me, btw).
        Can 4yo’s discuss free will and determinism? Maybe in the Stoic version where following nature means following a THING’S nature, rather than laws governing all matter. Why not? Our curriculum uses a combination of Red Light Green Light and the book “A Fly went by” to scaffold a discussion of self-control. That’s pretty close.

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        • “Isn’t the point here that reason can influence the appetitive but not the nutritive part?”

          Plato claimed that the spirited part can be influenced by reason in the sense of actually responding to reasons (i.e. you can be angry because someone has done something unjust, etc.), whereas the appetitive part can only be restrained by reason, which is different. (That’s why I said Plato’s view was complicated.) Aristotle sometimes invokes the Platonic spirit/appetite distinction too. He doesn’t seem to do so in NE I.13; he apparently lumps spirit and appetite together there. But from the fact that he describes the rational soul as having two parts, where the lower part pf the rational soul apparently just is the higher part of the nonrational, I think he has the spirit-relation rather than the appetite-relation in mind.

          “Science is what we know. Philosophy is what we don’t know.”

          I would strongly disagree with both halves of that claim. (But then I usually do disagree with Russell.)


        • I still think you’ve got Aristotle wrong, but I think there’s perhaps an important way in which your practices with children are at variance with him anyway.

          First, though there’s of course room for interpretive disagreement, what I’d say (and I’m not eccentric here) is that the part of the soul that listens to reason as one listens to a father is not a part of the soul that non-rational animals have — not on Aristotle’s view, and not on any plausible view of most, or perhaps even any, non-human animals we know about today. This part of the soul is, as Roderick says, in one way non-rational, but it’s rational in a way as well because it can be guided by reason. I don’t think Aristotle has enough to say about the kinds of communication of which non-human animals are capable, but what he has in mind here involves more than just causal influence and training; it involves giving intelligible reasons and communicating linguistic/conceptual content — logos — to another who responds to what you say as intelligible linguistic/conceptual content. In terms of the analogy, it’s not a father barking “no!” at his child and the child refraining from whatever it was she was about to do; it’s the father saying, “do not, child, touch these hot coals, for they will burn you” or “go to your brother with this pot of cheese, and if he cleans his room, let him share with you in this pot of cheese, but otherwise withhold it.” So too, in the case of an individual’s emotional responses, I fear the object in the corner because I believe it’s a snake, but when I reason out, on the basis of thought and perception, that it’s a coiled rope, I stop fearing it; I am jealous of my brother when he has a pot of cheese because I think the pot of cheese is a good thing to have, that he and I are roughly equals, and that I should have a pot of cheese too, but I stop being jealous of him if I realize that what he has is not a pot of cheese but a pot of cold medicine, or if I realize that I’m going to get a pot of cheese too, or if I realize that we’re not really equals and he really deserves that pot of cheese; I get angry with my brother for hitting me with the pot of cheese because I think he did it to slight me and that I didn’t deserve to be treated that way, but I stop being angry with him when I realize that he hit me accidentally because he was startled by the rope in the corner that turned out actually to be a snake; and so on. Emotions aren’t rational, because they aren’t states or processes of reasoning; but in rational animals, our emotions can respond to beliefs that we form on the basis of reasoning. In non-rational animals, emotions follow appearances — the dog responds in one way to what appears to be a snake, but once he perceives it as a motionless rope, he responds differently — but they don’t respond to reason — explaining to my dog that it’s just a rope isn’t going to change his mind, not least because he can’t understand what I’m telling him.

          So non-human animals can’t listen to reason as one does to a father. Listening to reason is a rational thing. But it differs from reasoning in being something like reason-responsiveness rather than active reasoning. Aristotle by no means conflates the psychologies of children and non-human animals (and not because he underestimates animals, either; he’s well aware of how intelligent, in our sense of that word, some of them are). Much of what we might intuitively think of as reasoning will not, on his view, count as reasoning, even when it’s something that only a rational animal exercising rational capacities could do — so, for instance, following complex instructions or figuring out how to get what you want will not necessarily involve any reasoning. Even so, Aristotle does not suppose that children, at least once they can speak, aren’t reasoning at all. Rather, they’re just not yet capable of reasoning well for themselves, and particularly not yet capable of reasoning to guide their non-rational responses rather than having their non-rational responses lead their reasoning.

          I think Aristotle’s view ultimately just captures the reasons why we respond to children the way we reasonably do. When a six-year old gets angry with another kid and hits her because he wants her toys, we don’t reasonably get angry with the child in the way that we might reasonably get angry with an adult who gets angry at another adult and hits her because he wants to play games on her phone. We don’t get angry with the child because we rightly see that the child is not yet capable of fully appreciating the reasons why he should not behave that way and of controlling whatever emotional impulses motivated him to behave that way. But we also don’t simply intervene in the way we intervene in a dog fight; in both cases our first priority might be to stop the fight, and we might punish the dog and the child, but what we ought to do with the child at that point is to tell the child what is wrong with his behavior and why he shouldn’t do it. We don’t need fancy theoretical explanations — “that’s not nice; you need to be nice to be a good boy” is already more logos than a dog will ever be able to grasp, and of course the better explanation to offer is something like “you wouldn’t want someone to treat you that way, so you shouldn’t treat other people that way.” We expect six year olds to be able to understand this, but we don’t expect them to be able to work it out on their own and to guide their emotions and actions through it on their own. We don’t think that a child who hasn’t yet learned to do this is vicious. By contrast, when a 35 year old man hits a woman and takes her phone so he can play games, we can be pretty sure that we’re dealing with a vicious person or with someone suffering from some pretty severe mental illness.

          All that said, I still think your philosophy for kids approach does more than Aristotle (or Plato) would have endorsed. I don’t think it’s at all inconsistent with his rough child psychology, because that psychology does not hold that children are not capable of engaging in reasoning at all. Still, you seem to be getting them to engage in more of their own reasoning than Aristotle would have advised — not because he explicitly opposes it, but simply because his remarks on the topic, like Plato’s, emphasize the training of the non-rational parts of our soul through music and gymnastics. The interesting question, though, is to what extent the story materials you use fall under what Plato and Aristotle would regard as music, poetry, or muthos rather than logos or philosophy. After all, they’re both insistent that the content matters. The difference seems to be that your material, and what you ask the students to do with the material, focuses more on questioning and trying to think through things for themselves from an earlier age. I’m not sure it amounts to what Aristotle would think of as doing philosophy, but it’s close enough to count, and close not because its content is philosophical in the sense of being about this or that subject — Plato and Aristotle want the content of young people’s education to be philosophical in that sense — but because it’s directed at engaging them in a certain sort of process of thinking and talking with one another.

          Of course it will be a while before we can tell, but I hope it has a lasting impact on them and on how they approach thinking about these sorts of things, both for themselves and with others. Plato’s own qualms about training the young in dialectic are tied up with the inherently adversarial character of dialectic; dialectic is about attacking and defending, and young people get more interested in winning than in truth. I can certainly attest to some truth in that; if I want to get my students going, I just need to raise topics that I know will get one of a few students going, and most of the others will jump in because they like engaging in verbal contests with those students. Asking them to think through the prescient critique of capitalism in Aquinas, and they’re only mildly engaged; get one or two of them to defend Trump, and they love it. If your approach minimizes adversarial debate, Plato’s concerns might not arise.

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          • “When a six-year old gets angry with another kid and hits her because he wants her toys, we don’t reasonably get angry with the child in the way that we might reasonably get angry with an adult”

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          • So, on Aristotle’s view children can reason once they start talking. They’re just not very good at it, so best to do it for them? Also, if the part of the non-rational souls that responds to reason is spirited while the appetitive part doesn’t, then how can we have rational training for all those virtues that don’t involve anything spirited? For something like courage, he throws in that actions need to be done “for the fine”. That sounds spirited. But what about moderation in eating? To have the full virtue you have to know that it is right and enjoy it, but that just sounds rational and appetitive. Even if we can reason with (Children via the) rational and spirited bits of the soul, isn’t there still some brute habituation of appetites in there? And to THAT extent, isn’t he advocating treating children as we would non-human animals?

            But, as you say DJR, this is perhaps not the interesting question. We went down this route with the question of what counts as philosophy and me making off hand cracks at Aristotelian moral psychology. The real question, though, is whether a bunch of typical pre-K activities —games, story books, painting— can count as philosophy. If drinking games (Symposium) and lessons in how to flirt with boys (Lysis) can count as philosophy, then my sense is that Plato is pretty open to a broad range of media.

            If we look to today’s philosophy class, what exactly is it that we would point to as doing philosophy? Reading philosophical texts? Talking about the ideas in those texts? writing papers about them? When working with the kiddos, we tend to start with a game (let’s say red light green light for a lesson on self-control), then stage a dialogical reading of a storybook (A fly went by) to give them things to disagree about, and then turn them loose on an art project (draw a time you used self-control). The good conversations tend to come while they work on the art. While the art might look like a blob, you can get the kids to narrate at length and even engage each other in talking about their drawing. How is this different in principle from a professor using a thought experiment or writing a diagram on a white board to help a group of undergraduates through a discussion? Sure, there’s a lot more hand-holding, (“okay, Adam, say I disagree with you Barb, because…”), but kids pick up on this fairly quickly. The other day we were in a lesson and a girl looked at her friend and asked, “But why do you agree with me?”

            As for philosophy being a certain body of knowledge / theory, I think my own heart is with the skeptics. That said, the first half of our ethics curriculum runs through virtue theory with chapters on Character, Bravery, Self-Control and Friendship. It’s all structured around puzzles drawn mostly from Aristotle and Plato, put to use in ways that neither of them endorse. So if content makes philosophy, then box checked?

            As for kids not getting a bit of philosophy and turning into competitive little monsters… We’re careful to structure games so that they don’t have winners or losers. The biggest bang for the buck is the “river game” where we put a paper river on the floor and have kids take sides depending on what they think about a question and then talk through why with people on the other side. They’re usually just happy that someone wants to know what they think. Mind you these are also very young children, so competitive games are generally not appropriate.


          • Well, yes, in part we treat children — and adults — in the ways we treat non-rational animals, because we all have a bunch of things in common with non-rational animals. But we don’t treat them only in that way. And yeah, I think even what you’re describing doing in your work with children involves an awful lot of doing the thinking for them — you’re the one structuring the activity, and my bet would be that if you or some other teacher weren’t there to maintain the structure and to guide the discussion at least by occasional redirection, it wouldn’t survive for very long as a productive discussion. Aristotle’s idea isn’t that dealing with children is just a matter of doing their thinking for them, but of doing enough of their thinking — and enough of rationally directing and constraining their behavior — to enable them to develop the ability to do it on their own. Just doing their thinking for them is what Aristotle thinks we do with slaves, and he could hardly be clearer about the difference between master-slave and parent-child relations (see Aristotle on Political Community, chapters 3 and 4 ;)). In any case, Aristotle as I understand him would not be opposed in principle to your approach as I understand it, I just don’t think he would have come up with anything much like it.

            In a way I think it isn’t really very important whether what you’re doing with the kids is ‘really’ philosophical — in some senses it is, in some senses it isn’t, there’s a substantial enough relation to the central case of full-blown mature philosophizing to warrant thinking of it as philosophical in a way, and given what little I know about other approaches in elementary education, it’s fairly distinctive from other approaches in the same respects that make it philosophical. The more interesting and important question, I’d think, is whether it works — whether it’s a generally successful way of helping kids develop the ability to think reflectively and, just as importantly, to reason co-operatively with others through initial disagreement. If it can do that, then I don’t know that we should care too much about exactly how it does or doesn’t resemble well-done adult philosophy — if it can do that, it’s awesome.

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          • Does philosophy with 4yo’s create long-lasting changes in how they think? That’s stage 2. Anecdotally, the shift within the school culture has been amazing. And one point on which what we’re doing differs from standard critical thinking curricula out there (e.g. I Can Problem Solve) is that the teachers themselves don’t know the answers to the big questions we’re asking. It ends up leveling the playing field as it encourages them to view children as a kind of peer. As for data, now that we’ve got the curriculum together, we need to find other schools to run it and assess it so that someone can crunch the data. But that’s a huge undertaking, which means grant proposals…

            So, yeah, give us a couple years, and I’ll let you know.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. My case: it pretty much did all begin with Ayn Rand for me, at around age 15 or 16. Prior to that, I was taught, by example from my father, to always be fair and rational – for me, that is what it meant to be a good person. I had grafted onto that the idea that caring for the needy was pretty important (part genuine, part performance altruism). I had read some Emerson and Thoreau in English class and liked it. All of that, I suppose, counts as exposure to and thinking about philosophical ideas. But philosophy only wrestled my imagination and enthusiasm away from Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk with Rand. I wish I’d been introduced to philosophical puzzles (and maybe some other sorts of philosophical ideas, but in the context of curiosity, not ideology) prior to reading Rand.

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  6. Thank you all for sharing your fascinating stories. I think the philosophy building at Harvard is still called Emerson. Lester Hunt has a book in press extracting a philosophy from Thoreau.

    My really big start in philosophy was first year of college, where my Thomist professor laid out the big map of all things and the main issues and their arguments and right settlements. It was gripping by that age. I began reading Rand the following summer.

    My senior year in high school, I was exposed to some philosophy by readings as part of a course in world civilizations. We were asked to write what the readings were about and to state a couple of things we agreed with and a couple we disagreed with on each selection. I there read some dialogue of Plato that included the death of Socrates. I was attracted as if reaching home to some idea therein along the lines of a philosopher being always with death. I objected to the idea that all one knows is that one knows nothing. For that course I also selected readings in Locke and Rousseau, which were mainly political philosophy, not Locke’s HUMAN UNDERSTANDING.

    I read some Emerson and Thoreau in high school American literature. I found them very agreeable. In recent years, when I dip into Emerson, I find good epigraphs, but an awful lot of flowery talk of small tickets.

    I think my earliest brushes with philosophy were from church and related discussion with parents. One would finish catechism school by eighth grade in our denomination, and there one would have learned what were the differences between a Catholic, a Lutheran, and a Baptist over the bread and wine.

    I don’t recall reflection on ethical matters until late high school, at which time I became a socialist because I thought private property allowed people to be selfish, and that was wrong. Rand gave me a good shaking on that, even with just FOUNTAINHEAD. In ATLAS, which I read next, she thought me out of my altruism-as-essence-of-morality. I do remember at maybe grade six writing a letter to one of my Senators urging that people who do not pay taxes should not be allowed to vote. His office wrote back a well-thought-out reply, running through problems with that proposal, and that was really a neat thing to do for a child and for a child to see and think on.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s interestingly similar to my upbringing. In a sense, my first real encounter with philosophical issues (though not with “philosophy”) was through religion, not in school. Like you, I started out thinking that capitalism was evil because it was materialistically selfish, and Rand served a corrective role there. The only reason I didn’t become a socialist is that I had a reflexive dislike for all things socialist or communist after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (a belief that involved a few salutary non-sequiturs). And in fifth grade, I wrote Jimmy Carter asking him to replace the Star-Spangled Banner with a better song as national anthem (on the grounds that the Star-Spangled Banner was too militaristic). I got a letter back from “him” explaining the basics of the legislative process, which taught me more about it than I ever learned in school.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I love the expression “flowery talk of small tickets.”

      To chime in with Irfan, I’m pretty sure my religious upbringing, such as it was, also had a strong impact on my coming to think about philosophical topics. I’d describe my youthful instruction in Catholicism as Catholicism Lite — after we learned about the sacraments, ‘religion’ classes were basically (I now see) classes in Catholic Social Teaching with little or no distinctively theological component. In a way, I’m grateful for that education, because I think it helpfully encouraged me to be sensitive to the needs and experiences of vulnerable and oppressed people, but didn’t try to sell us on some sort of simple narrative about the evils of capitalism that we could solve if only we’d adopt statist socialist policies (I drank that koolaid later). So there was relatively little traditional Catholic theological instruction, and hence not much of anything touching on metaphysics. Still, I think the general Catholic atmosphere encouraged a kind of contemplativeness in me. It can’t have been responsible for it, because so far as I can see most of my classmates didn’t turn out like me, but it helped nourish seeds that got into me somehow or other.

      You and Irfan, by contrast, seem to have been led to philosophy in part through the doctrinal content of your religious upbringing. I suppose in a way I was, too, but only when I ended up going to high school with a bunch of fundamentalist Pentecostals. That was never my or my family’s religion, so it’s a bit of a different situation from yours and Irfan’s, but dealing with that stuff — hard-core biblical literalism, young-earth creationism and anti-evolutionism, fierce anti-rationalism, charismatic enthusiastic worship practices, wild superstition that would make a Catholic exorcist blush, strict authoritarianism that would make the Pope blush, explicit endorsement of theocratic government and rejection of liberalism and democracy, strict patriarchy in social and family arrangements, outright hostility towards gays and lesbians (the BTQ weren’t much on the radar back then), and obsession with the rapture — all that gave me plenty to rebel against and argue about.

      I sometimes wonder why I didn’t fall under the Rand spell like you guys, and the simple answer may be that I didn’t read enough of her and that I have at all points retained too much of my Catholic Social Teaching upbringing. There was certainly a time in high school, though, where my thoughts and feelings might have led me to find her very congenial. At some point in high school I tried to read The Fountainhead on someone’s suggestion, but gave it up; when I was maybe 18 I read Anthem on a whim and found it outrageously oversimplified as a critique of socialism. I then didn’t bother thinking about Rand again until I made some friends in graduate school who were Objectivists. They convinced me that it wasn’t all bad, and by then I was a raging Aristotelian, so I could at least recognize the family relationship — maybe Rand is like an eccentric, slightly batty aunt, but she’s in the family, kinda. I admit that I still find it challenging to read her (not because the views are revolting, but because the arguments are so often frustratingly unelaborated), and Roderick’s Reason and Value struck me years ago as making a pretty good case for spending more time with Aristotle. So that’s what I do.

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      • My religious upbringing was in Christian Science — which might seem as opposite to Rand as one can imagine (taking the Primacy of Consciousness as far as one could take it) — though there are certainly organisational parallels (a movement founded by a brilliant and charismatic but dictatorial woman, whose reverential followers still refer to her as “Mrs. Eddy” / “Miss Rand” rather than just using her last name, and who tend to take her doctrinal statements as final and discourage attempts to extend the system, and who all too often cultivate a kind of rigidity of thought; there was even a time in both movements when followers were told to call themselves “Students of Christian Science” / “Students of Objectivism” rather than “Christian Scientists” / “Objectivists,” though in both cases that has faded). Thankfully, my mother never felt constrained to bring her interpretations in line with church orthodoxy (she used to use Jefferson’s line about being a “sect of one”), and never demanded that I submit my mind either to the Church’s doctrinal edicts or to her own. In any case, the combination of a) being raised on a doctrine of metaphysical idealism, while b) not having it imposed dogmatically, probably made philosophy more available to me. (And certainly made Emerson more available to me, since Christian Science and Transcendentalism emerged out of a similar intellectual milieu.) I suppose the Christian Science background also prepared me for a “willingness to believe stuff everybody else thinks is crazy,” and thus lowered my resistance to everything from Objectivism to anarcho-capitalism to free-market anti-capitalism, seriatim.

        Politically, my family’s background was broadly “Old Right” or “Goldwater conservative,” so the transition to libertarianism wasn’t too difficult either. Though I was deeply apathetic about political issues before reading Rand.

        Liked by 3 people

    • “I think the philosophy building at Harvard is still called Emerson.”

      And the lobby features a large statue of him:

      Back in the 60s, renovators of Emerson Hall wanted to ditch the statue for being insufficiently “functional and attractive”:
      Happily, functionality and attractiveness have never been priorities at Harvard, and so Emerson was spared.

      You might think the quotation over the entrance would be a quote from Emerson. Instead it’s a quote from the Bible: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” (Except without a question mark.)

      The story goes that President Eliot imposed the quotation against the department’s will, to take the philosophers down a peg.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. As a non-philosopher who did substantial undergraduate coursework (including a couple graduate-level classes) in philosophy, I’d have to say that despite attending that same high school and having navigated almost the same curriculum there, my pathway into a philosophy classroom was different enough to suggest that the development of interest in philosophy may be highly individualized.

    First off, what’s the ultimate purpose of APA/PLATO generating a database? Is it to more effectively cultivate scholastic interest in philosophy at the K-12 level itself? At the undergraduate level? Graduate level? To cultivate interest in academic philosophy as a profession [rim shot]? Or just to make the general public more literate in it regardless of whether it involves formal, institutional higher education enrollment? I would expect you need to know that in order to be able to determine what qualifies as an “introduction,” and what qualifies as achieving the end to which the “introduction” introduced you. (If the ultimate purpose is to foster interest and engagement at the undergraduate level, and some rudimentary level of continuing interest and engagement, then my experience may be worth noting. If the ultimate purpose is anyplace more elevated than that, then my experience is essentially useless, because I never got “there.”)

    While I was exposed to almost all of the same high school texts you mentioned, my experience of virtually all of them with the exception – ironically – of Emerson, was decidedly less deeply engaged and appreciative. And I can’t credit any of them with making me care about philosophy. My introduction to “something resembling philosophy” came from the Federalist Papers, a text of selected writings of Jefferson, and a few short excerpts from Locke’s Second Treatise and Rousseau’s Social Contract that were included in my 11th grade AP Government class. I ultimately decided to pursue a Political Science major as an undergraduate in parallel with my pre-med curriculum, only to find that “real” Political Science had nothing to do with all of that. “Real” political science was all about applying game theory to voter behavior and nuclear confrontation scenarios – which was about as close as possible to the exact opposite of what had captivated me about political science, or at least my idea of it, in the first place. But by the time this became apparent, I’d dug myself three semesters into this hole, and the constraints of my heavy pre-med course load, plus the college’s multidisciplinary “core” requirements, made it impossible for me to change majors now. To my relief, I found that many of the elective courses in the Philosophy department I wanted to take as electives not only were more like “my idea” of Political Science, but also were cross-listed as conferring credits in PoliSci. So I spent the rest of my major taking those cross-listed courses, and was able to earn a Minor in Philosophy in the process (whatever the hell that means). I got as far as doing a couple of semesters in graduate-level seminar courses on Locke, Rousseau, and Nietszche. Beyond broad brush strokes, a general appreciation for the field, and some random details, my memory of it now admittedly is pretty faint.

    I hope the APA/PLATO study finds what it’s looking for, but I would not be surprised if the data set ends up being vexingly heterogeneous. Not that that would be a bad thing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So, quick introduction to PoT regulars: Suleman is my brother, got his BA from Duke in political science (minor: philosophy), went on to med school at Chicago, and is now a physician at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, NJ.–khawaja/

      Here’s part of the letter that accompanied the survey:

      Dear Irfan,

      What was your first exposure to philosophy? What hooked you? Please take this short (10-minute) survey put together by the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) and the APA Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy.

      The survey asks about your first exposure to philosophy (what form it took, what content was particularly compelling, etc.), what position you now hold, and whether or not you are involved in philosophy outreach efforts.

      Our aim is to better understand the pipeline to careers that emphasize philosophy, whether in traditional academic environments or beyond, and the extent and range of philosophical outreach and programming for young people. A report on the results will be available to PLATO and APA members.

      And here’s a link to what PLATO does:

      I think a lot of us became Politics majors for much the same reason. We weren’t so much looking to do philosophy as looking for a major that would serve to integrate what we were learning in the humanities and social sciences (an almost literal echo of Nicomachean Ethics I.1-2 on politics as the architectonic science). Philosophy (at Princeton) seemed too technical and too puzzle-oriented to play that integrating function. Comp lit was close, but was, for me, insufficiently connected to politics (though I did take the year-long “great books”-type sequence in comp lit that went from Homer to Dostoevsky). Same with history–too specialized, fragmented, uninterested in integration. So Politics became the go-to–or more precisely, the parts of politics that did the trick, i.e., political theory and comparative politics.

      Ironically, for me, Near East Studies was a similar sort of go-to, not simply because I had an interest in the subject matter, but because area studies was highly integrative. A Near East Studies major studied language, history, politics, culture, anthropology, and religion to get a comprehensive view of “the Near East,” regarded as a single object of study. I think I went into political theory in order to get a similarly synoptic, interdisciplinary view of “the West.” I sort of succeeded, more by accident than by design. I was put off by analytic philosophy as an undergraduate, having had a bad initial experience with an inept introductory teacher (Bas Van Fraasen and one of his disastrously bad TAs, neither of whom could teach for shit). So political theory it was.

      I’m curious if you regard your politics major or philosophy minor as a net gain at this point, considering how distant it all is from what you currently do, and how little of it you say you remember. Are “broad brush strokes” and a “general appreciation” of Locke, Rousseau, and Nietzsche of any use to you now? Or do they seem like energy pointlessly squandered on irrelevancies?

      You studied Locke with Ruth Grant, right? Nietzsche with Michael Gillespie? Who taught Rousseau?


      • So, first of all, I regard my undergraduate work in political theory and philosophy as a definite net gain. There are a handful of courses that I took during that time that were foundational for me in terms of both developing the skill of critical thinking and appreciating its importance. It’s uncommon to get that degree of intellectual engagement anywhere in the course of study that’s required to practice medicine, where typically breadth is valued over depth. When I say my memory of it is faint, I say that in comparison to folks like you and most of the other commenters on this blog – people who maintain a working fluency with the texts I dabbled in as a matter of professional core competency. I would guess that in comparison to what most people remember of what they learned in college 25 years after the fact, I still draw on what I learned of Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche, etc. quite a bit in processing what’s happening in the world around me.

        I was fortunate to have had a handful of professors who taught the subject matter with exceptional clarity and economy, otherwise I doubt I’ve had kept the experiment of doing philosophy/political theory in parallel with pre-med going. In particular, I did an introductory level philosophy survey that was taught by Michael Ferejohn that was a complete game-changer for me intellectually. Also, there was a philosophy of law class I took that was taught by Martin Golding.

        At Duke, you’re allowed to take graduate level courses in your major with the approval of the professor your senior year. I had just taken this course Ruth Grant taught on the political significance of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles that was very engaging and lively. I remember it would meet Wednesday and Friday from like 3p-5p and Prof. Grant would be like shooing us out of the room on Friday afternoons like “what is wrong with you? It’s Friday night, you’re 20, get the hell out of here!” Anyway, yes, I decided to take her graduate level course on Locke. As a result, I think I know more about Locke than the average person, but I think what I took away from that course more than anything was the experience of being totally immersed in a set of texts. In my case, I had to write a term paper on the Second Treatise. I don’t remember what exactly I wrote about, other than that it centered around Locke’s theory of property rights, and the critiques of it by two scholars (MacPherson and Tully).

        One of my other vivid memories of the course was that all of the other students were grad students who clearly had nothing to do after the class ended. So there was never a clear “class dismissed” moment at the end of every session. On the other hand, I had only ten minutes to get out of class, run down to the bus stop at the peak hour of the day, and shove my way onto the bus from West to East Campus to make the 3-mile trip to my next class. It was physically impossible to make it there on time, and it was just my luck that I had the only professor on campus who would literally lock the classroom door from the inside for the express purpose of shaming stragglers. Three guesses as to who that professor was. (Hint: The class was “History of Moral Philosophy.”)

        The following semester, I took another graduate course, this time a seminar on Rousseau and Nietzsche that was team-taught by Grant and Gillespie. Again, much of my memory of the material is fuzzy today, but by comparison far more clear than 90% of the biochemistry and anatomy I had to learn in the years that followed.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Did the professor’s name resemble that of the author of “Omissions and Other Acts” — but also that of the author of “The Guns of Navarone”?


            • Well, my brother has now conveniently disappeared–probably off playing “doctor.” But my guess is that he was referring to his nemesis Edward Mahoney rather than Alasdair MacIntyre. I think it’s safe to say that neither MacIntyre nor Mahoney read the comments at Policy of Truth, albeit for different reasons.


          • Oh, I remember Ed Mahoney too. But less fondly than Kelly. (To explain, for those here less familiar with my academic career than Irfan is: I taught at UNC Chapel Hill from 1990 to 1998, and so had a fair bit of interaction with folks at Duke.) As I’m too much of a historian to subscribe (or “ascribe,” as everyone seems to say nowadays) to the adage “De mortuis nil nisi bonum,” I’ll note that Mahoney is quite understandable as a nemesis; to my recollection, he seemed incapable of saying anything that didn’t contain some sort of nasty barb in it.


        • I wish there was a good way of convincing the average undergraduate that “typically breadth is valued over depth” in “the real world.”

          Did you do Aristotle with Ferejohn? Or was it philosophy of science?

          I still have your copy of Strauss’s Natural Rights and History, among other things, with all your underlinings and marginal comments. Have always thought it might come in handy if ever I need to blackmail you.


        • I used to lock the door to my classes at Dartmouth for that reason. Then again, I had overwhelming evidence that my stragglers were merely straggling, if only because once it happened once or twice, it didn’t happen again.


          • You can’t do that at a commuter school, or at one with two campuses. Felician is both: a commuter school with two campuses. Straggling is impossible to avoid.

            Despite that, as a pre-emptive defense against school shooters, our classrooms are pre-locked. The door is left ajar so that the first instructor of the day can get in, but once you get in, you face this dilemma: if you close the door, you lock it, and lock out any latecomers (having to interrupt yourself to open the door for each new latecomer who gets to the door, i.e., 10-12 times per class), whereas if you leave it open, you’re disturbed by all of the noise in the hall (and there’s plenty of noise in it). (And woe to the instructor who absent-mindedly closes the door behind him as he leaves an empty classroom.)

            It was my criticism of this policy that got me arrested last year. I pointed out, hypothetically and in the first person, that the policy could be defeated by any shooter who got to class on time. “Indeed,” I said, “I could be the shooter, in which case…”


  8. Religion may be a wonderful gateway drug, but there are as many gateway drugs into philosophy as there are human activities and objects of interest. Hegel thought it was the study of languages–to teach you the difference between the particular and the universal. For me, it was high school debate. But in college it was watching New Wave cinema that got me particularly fascinated in the concept of the sublime; I can’t imagine that reading the Third Critique would’ve hooked me as it did without that background experience. But I agree with you that those particular texts are excellent introductions for high school students.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your remark from Hegel leads me to reflect that I got seriously into thinking philosophically — as opposed to thinking about philosophical topics — at the same time that I was learning Greek and Latin, and that the two processes were intimately connected. I’m not sure it was so simple as grasping the difference between the particular and the universal, since I don’t think any shortcomings of that sort were a major part of why I hadn’t been thinking philosophically before. But I’d say that developing facility at second-order thinking and highly abstract analysis made most of the difference, and maybe that’s just what Hegel is trying to get at.

      That said, I have never made any progress in understanding Hegel.


        • That’s not a very good reason. Lots of professional philosophers specializing in ancient haven’t really learned ancient Greek even in the paltry way possible for those of us who didn’t start when we were kiddos. So you wouldn’t have been too disadvantaged! (and, disgracefully, virtually none of the philosophy PhD programs in North America that boast special programs in ancient philosophy even require their students to study Latin).

          On the other hand, you have probably been more employable this way.


          • I guess that’s true, but I found it hard to believe at the time. MacIntyre’s view was that if you couldn’t compose sentences in Greek, you don’t really know Greek. I saw his point, but I couldn’t compose sentences in Greek. I was bad enough at reading it. I assumed that everyone in the field had the same standards as him, and that if I didn’t meet his standards, I was just a worthless wight as far as ancient philosophy was concerned, and should just do something else. In any case, just as I was having my doubts about ancient, MacIntyre decided to leave Notre Dame for Duke. My other adviser was Mike Loux, but Loux was a metaphysics guy with little direct interest in ethics (which was my interest). That was when I decided to bag ancient philosophy.

            The irony was that my brother was an undergrad at Duke, and ended up studying under MacIntyre. So there was no escaping the Khawajas as far as MacIntyre was concerned. Strangely, MacIntyre did return to Notre Dame–just as I left. So while there was no escaping the Khawajas, he somehow seemed to have designed his career to escape Irfan Khawaja. I’ve often wondered about this.

            I guess the other problem with ancient philosophy was that the commentary tradition is so vast that one wonders whether there’s any point in adding to it. In the mid-1990s, a Rand-influenced scholar named Kelly Rogers published a handful of papers on Aristotle’s ethics that made arguments that were so similar to the arguments I’d wanted to make that it seemed pointless to try to publish on those topics (to kalon, “a friend is another self,” etc.). Whatever I wrote (it seemed) would just be a minor variation on what she’d already said. That was another consideration for bagging ancient philosophy. She eventually got a job at the University of Florida at Gainesville, at which point I figured she’d cornered the market on Rand-influenced interpretations of Aristotle’s ethics.

            A few years later, she dropped out of academia altogether. Another brilliant career calculation by Khawaja. There are others.


          • I remember Kelly! She and I were on an APA panel together a very long time ago.– 1994, I believe. And she told me at the time that she was tempted to leave academia.


            • I think it was an IHS panel, not an APA one (unless we’re referring to two different panels). Anyway, I attended an IHS panel in northern Virginia in the mid 1990s that featured you, Kelly Rogers, and a third panelist. I don’t quite remember who the third panelist was, but I think it might have been Jeffrey Friedman.

              The topic was something like: “What are the prospects for classical liberalism in academia?” I don’t remember what you said (sorry), but she said she was sick of academia and leaving it, because academia sucked. Everybody in the room was shocked and dismayed at her presentation, but I remember just trying to figure out how to switch places with her at Gainesville without anyone’s noticing.

              Yeah, another missed opportunity.


              • Probably there were two panels, then. According to my c.v., which I rely on as an outsourcing of my memory, one of my professional activities was:

                “Comment on Kelly Rogers, ‘Aristotle on Beneficence.’ American Philosophical Association, Pacific Division Meeting, Los Angeles CA, 1 April 1994.”

                (Though I have a nagging doubt about this, because I also seem to remember that a) in our email discussion about her paper prior to the event, I joked with her about the fact that her email was “krogers,” since I lived near a Krogers; and b) the first time I lived near a Krogers was when I was visiting at the University of Michigan, which was in FALL 1994. So my evidence set is inconsistent.)

                In any case, the IHS panel didn’t make it onto my c.v., so I have no idea of its date.


          • I also recall that after some APA panel there was a dinner with a bunch of IHS types and/or Fred Miller protégés, including Kelly and Neera, and maybe Robert Mayhew. (Were you there?) A large flying insect landed on Kelly’s plate, an event to which she reacted with arguably undue alarm, and Neera, who evidently found my feminist tendencies excessive, turned to me and said: “See, Roderick? That’s the difference between men and women.”

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          • Well, MacIntyre is right about Greek. I can compose sentences in Greek, but compared to the folks MacIntyre would have come up with in his youth, I’m pretty bad at it. I had occasion to recall this morning, however, that one measure of how much weaker my Latin is that I find it even more difficult to compose in Latin. Of course I can illustrate all the major points of syntax in Latin, because that’s what one has to be able to do to teach it effectively. But as I sat down to read over a Latin composition for a student of mine who is applying to a summer program — a summer program that requires Latin composition as part of the application! — I perfectly illustrated the difference between passive and active knowledge of a language: I could spot all the mistakes, but boy was it hard to figure out how to say what the student was trying to say (translated from English). I got there, eventually, but I could have done it in Greek in half the time. But I can guarantee you that many professional philosophers publishing nifty articles on Plato, Aristotle, &c. could not compose even fairly straightforward Greek sentences. Perhaps this lack does no harm to the field, but the standards are certainly not what they were 75 years ago.

            I know and have cited Kelly Rogers’ work. Her paper on the kalon in particular remains standard in the field, and by my lights anyway the paper on the kalon is still one of the better things out there — better than subsequent papers by Irwin, Kraut, Crisp, and other big wigs. I think her other papers have fared less well in the scholarly bibliography, but while it seems overblown to call many journal articles on Aristotle ‘classics,’ that kalon paper is pretty close to that status in my eyes. If only it had been anthologized in one of Amelie Rorty’s collections, I don’t think there’d be any serious dispute about that.

            As for whether there’s any point in adding to the literature, I know that worry all too well. I convinced myself that there certainly was such a point with the Politics, for which the scholarship just does not come anywhere close to the level of the stuff on the NE. I’d have to say, though, that the trajectory of mid-20th – early 21st century scholarship even on the NE shows a good deal of progress. Much of that progress might just be a matter of scholars extricating themselves from the knotty confusions of early 20th century philosophy, though. Ultimately I’m not so sure that work on ancient philosophy is any different in this respect than work on, say, political authority — people have been arguing about it for a long time, there’s already more published on it than most sane people would be able and willing to read, and at this point most of what gets said is just some sort of variation or refinement of something that somebody else has already said. I suppose it might be largely a matter of personal taste for certain topics and certain sorts of academic disagreement whether one finds refinement in views about political authority more worth attending to than refinements of scholarly interpretation of old Greek texts.

            Somewhere along the line I heard a story that MacIntyre’s brief stint away from Notre Dame had something to do with controversies and polemics within Notre Dame, particularly between members of the philosophy and theology departments. But I’m strongly inclined to favor the theory that he left to get away from you, and once you were on the way out, it was once again safe.


          • My Greek is pretty rusty these days; but even when it was at its strongest it would never have been up to MacIntyre’s standards.

            But then I wrote a whole book on Confucianism (albeit more a popularising than a scholarly book) while knowing no Chinese whatsoever. So I’m happily shameless.


            • Yeah, but your Confucianism book is meant for ignorant Westerners like me (I read it a few months ago and enjoyed it), not for other Confucian scholars.

              I’m pretty sure my Greek will never be up to MacIntyre’s standards. I did hear a good story from someone who was a graduate student at Duke in his time there. He taught a graduate seminar on the Nicomachean Ethics, and the sole textbook assigned for the course was Bywater’s Oxford edition.


              • I was once told the following story about a student in Terry Irwin’s Greek reading group. I don’t remember, and indeed may never have known, the name of the student (this would have taken place a little before my time at Cornell); let’s call him Alfo. I certainly remember, but will not report, the name of the student who told me the story; let’s call him or her Bayto.

                So the reading group was working its way slowly through Homer (whether the Iliad or the Odyssey I don’t recall), and Alfo was attempting to appear more proficient in Greek than he actually was; and it transpired that what he was doing was, before each meeting, memorising the relevant section of the Lattimore translation, and then regurgitating it with slight changes in wording when asked to sight-translate.

                There are some people in the world who are easy to fool. Terry was not remotely one of them. So finally he challenged Alfo to recite the Greek alphabet. Alfoa gamely attempted this task, and produced: “Alpha … beta …… gamma ……….. delta ………………………… pipsilon?” And so ended his participation in the reading group.

                But not the story was not yet over. At term’s end, each student would receive a general written evaluation from each professor whose course the student had taken that term. So Bayto forged an evaluation from Terry for Alfo, and put it in Alfo’s box just a little before the actual evaluations would be coming in. It began by looking authentic, and gradually grew less so; the giveaway was a line in which pseudo-Terry effusively praised Alfo’s skills in Greek, noting that Alfo “knew Greek from alpha to pipsilon.”

                Liked by 3 people

                • I’ve been teaching Greek for a decade, but I can’t match that one. I did have a student once who used to try to hide the Loeb of the Crito under the table during class, as though I would not notice the transformation from cluelessness to high British prose. As usual, asking for some basic syntactical explanations put an end to any illusions that anyone in the room might have had about this kid’s suddenly having figured out the difference between the nominative and accusative cases.

                  In general I have not encountered much cheating at all in Greek courses, probably because hardly anybody takes Greek without actually wanting to learn it. But as usual, the most dumbfounding thing about cheating is that these kids think we’re not going to notice immediately when they suddenly sound like they actually know what they’re talking about. One of my most recent cases was also among the most entertaining: I assigned a paper on the Republic, and I got a submission from Catherine Zuckert. If only the student had known my views about Straussianism!

                  Liked by 1 person

          • Oh but they’re so much fun. I suppose you’re telling embarrassing stories about other people, but I can match you an embarrassing one about myself.

            My own historical tendency to overreact to flying insects casts Badhwar’s interpretation into doubt. Once, when I was walking down the street with the girl I was dating at the time, I squealed and nearly dove onto the sidewalk to avoid a dragonfly that had suddenly introduced itself into my general vicinity. She later married me anyway. We’re no longer married, but I’m pretty sure it’s not because I am deep-down a woman.


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