I’m posting this in the hopes of starting some discussion on the questions:
1) What are some good approaches to teaching history of philosophy?
2) What are some distinctive potential challenges associated with teaching history of philosophy?
3) What are some of the distinctive potential benefits for students of taking history of philosophy courses?
While those questions aren’t specifically about teaching the history of modern philosophy, my views (which, I should add, are still in the process of forming) are based only on experience teaching history of modern, and I imagine that, say, Medieval and Ancient philosophy, have some of their own distinctive challenges and benefits. I should also note that I don’t really regard anything I am about to say as especially novel or inventive, but I am hoping that it can be a good starting point for some discussion.
I tend to like the metaphor of the philosopher’s toolbox. These tools include things like formulating deductively valid arguments, engaging with thought experiments, coming up with counter-examples, and so on. One tool that I think sometimes does not get the attention it deserves, and which classes in historical philosophy are especially suited to help students develop, is that of charitable interpretation.
I don’t think that there is anything shocking or revolutionary in the observation that historical texts are a good training ground for developing one’s skill at being a charitable interpreter. It is not uncommon for views we encounter in such texts to strike us as prima facie ridiculous or absurd. But that sets us up to ask a) whether our first glance understanding of the views is correct in the first place and, perhaps more importantly, b) what aims/objectives and background assumptions would make these views look appealing.
So, apart from gaining familiarity with the views of whatever figures we are covering, and getting a sense of the philosophical debates that were going on, one of my main goals is to help students develop their skill at viewing various issues from some seemingly alien perspectives, and developing an understanding of how to best spell out the positions and arguments adopted by figures with those perspectives.
The associated challenge is to get students who are disposed to react to the texts with dismissiveness or confused frustration past those initial reactions, so that they can engage with the text and start building their interpretive muscles; to get them to see the oddities of the texts as footholds for helping them figure out what questions they should be asking about the text, rather than as barriers to understanding the text.