This post is based on a panel presentation about Teaching Modern Philosophy for the Society of Modern Philosophy group session at the recent Eastern Division meeting of the APA.
By Eugene Marshall — Florida International University
In this talk, I would like to discuss how to teach modern philosophy to undergrads. In order to answer the question of how, though, it might be useful first to ask Why.
Why do we teach surveys of modern philosophy to undergrads? Most departments offer such a course and many require it for the major. Why is this course such a staple of departments across the country? Now, I am not simply asking why this course is worthy, full stop; rather, I am interested in why we so often offer or even require this course rather than other courses we could offer or require. Is the hoary History of Modern survey worthy of its central location in undergraduate curricula? If so, why? That is the question I’d like to investigate.
Let me begin by stating what should be the obvious, given this forum: I DO think we should teach surveys in modern philosophy to our undergrads! In this talk, however, I’m going to problematize a bunch of reasons that I normally hear in answer to the why question. I’ll finally settle on a modest answer to the why question and then see how that answer shapes how and why we should teach in modern surveys.
Before I consider a bunch of reasons I often hear, let me make a distinction between the group of reasons one might give for conducting research in the history of modern philosophy (or perhaps teaching grad seminars in it) and requiring it of undergrads. Given that most undergrad majors do not go to grad school to become philosophy professors, these two groups of reasons might be fairly distinct. What I will say concerns only teaching to undergrads. Though some of my observations might apply to the former, I’ll leave such applications aside today.
So: why teach modern to undergrads? I suppose one reason someone might give is that we ought to do so because we always have (for rather short values of ‘always’). Call this institutional inertia. I think we can all agree this reason stinks, frankly, and so I won’t spend much time on it.
OK, I shall divide the reasons I often encounter into two groups, intrinsic value (A) and instrumental value (B). Most people probably believe the modern survey has both intrinsic and instrumental value for undergrads, and I agree, so I do not take my little taxonomy here to be exclusive — or exhaustive, for that matter. First, I’ll consider some claims about the intrinsic value of the modern survey course for undergrads.
(A1) The first claim of intrinsic value I sometimes hear given to support why we should teach modern philosophy to undergrads could be called the “Great Books” justification. One might say that studying Descartes or Kant is part of this complete philosophical education, that a student has not properly been educated in philosophy until they have studied this or that. I find this argument pretty tiresome, to be honest. Why value Descartes intrinsically over a thinker from another period or culture, for example? Why not a survey of a different period in history, such as Medieval or Renaissance philosophy? Or a survey of philosophy from outside of Western Europe, such as one of Ancient Chinese ethics and politics instead? Or even one on Alan Turing or Octavia Butler?
Recall this discussion concerns the real world, in which we cannot simply say, “Yes students should study ALL of these”. Yes they should, but I am concerned instead with the question a curriculum subcommittee of a philosophy department at an American university takes up when it decides what courses to offer and what to require for the major. Modern surveys usually make the cut, while Medieval and Confucius and Turing and Butler usually do not. Unless one adopts a problematically old fashioned notion of a canon of Great Books that includes Descartes but excludes more recent work, or that by women and people of color, as well as anyone writing outside of the Western European context, this justification falls a bit flat. We often find the more hagiographic teachers and writers assuming such things, that their chosen authors or periods are somehow the only ones who got it right. OK, let’s hope we can find a better reason for requiring modern than this.
(A2) Still, someone might wish to argue that such a survey does have intrinsic value. For example, one might invoke Dan Garber’s reasons for his own interest in the history of philosophy, what he calls an antiquarian interest. These concepts and debates are really interesting and beautiful on their own terms and that might just be enough justification for some people to study them and, indeed, for some students to learn about them. Though I think this is a noble and, to me, quite familiar motivation for studying the more obscure elements of Spinoza or Cavendish, say, I don’t find it as effective as a justification. After all, all the courses I listed above, those on Medieval or Confucius or Turing or Butler, for example, could provide the same justification. So, while the antiquarian justification might be enough to, for example, justify offering a modern survey as an elective (hey it’s neat, so why not?), it is less effective as a reason to require such a survey…unless, of course, a case could be made that the texts and debates of the Modern Period are objectively more interesting from an antiquarian perspective than those others. But that’s not an argument I’m willing to make, as I mentioned above.
It looks like the usual justifications for teaching modern philosophy because of its intrinsic value over other worthy courses has a hard road to travel. What about instrumental reasons to favor it over other courses? I’ll turn to those now.
(B1) Most commonly, when someone offers an instrumental justification for why a department should offer, or even require, a modern survey, they will claim that one can understand present philosophical problems by studying their origins (or, if the speaker wishes not to offend the ancient philosopher in the room, they might refer to the modern period as the time at which these philosophical problems took their modern form). I’ll refer to this as a genealogical justification of modern surveys.
(B1a) I have three worries about this approach. The first is simply to wonder whether the assumptions here are true. First, do our major 21st C philosophical problems in fact derive from those of the modern period, rather than being new, or rather than deriving from some other period of philosophy? And second, even if present problems really derive from this period, do students get a better grasp of them by studying their histories? This may be an assumption that flirts with the genetic fallacy, if not outright commits it.
(B1b) The second comes from the contextualist historian of philosophy within me, who says that this is a presentist, anachronistic way to approach 17th or 18th C philosophy. Bringing one’s 21st C philosophical problems and looking for them in the 17th C will inevitably distort our historical understanding, and so on.
On the other hand, I then say to myself, this is supposed to be an instrumental justification for teaching these courses to undergrads — if the purpose here is to give them certain skills, or to help them think about 21st C philosophy, who cares if they get the 17th C wrong? After all, why should we think that getting the 17th C right is of intrinsic or instrumental value for undergrads in a modern survey? So I am not sure just yet about that line of thought, though I shall return to it below.
(B1c) I have a third, more serious worry about this genealogical justification for teaching modern surveys, however. I worry that this justification — that 21st C philosophy originates from the texts of the modern period — may turn on an unnecessarily conservative view of what present philosophical practice looks like, for it assumes a too narrow continuity between what mostly white male Christian Europeans cared about four hundred years ago and the whole practice of philosophy today. For if 21st C philosophy is truly to be broader and more inclusive than how it was then, the justification for a modern survey course could apply equally to a course in any other national/continental context, such as Asian Philosophy, indigenous philosophy, Africana philosophy, etc… But those courses never get justified by presentist concerns (i.e., this course will help us to understand present debates) And not just with regard to the perspectives and subject positions, but also the content. After all, some might think that philosophy has sufficiently changed, perhaps due to scientific advance, say, such that the concepts and arguments of Descartes are different enough in kind that no good presentist justification is forthcoming. So I worry that you have to make a fairly conservative “timeless debates, eternal concepts” kind of assumption for this argument to work.
(B2) An entirely different sort of instrumental justification given for studying modern philosophy — indeed, a kind of photo negative of the above — is as tales of warning. You know the type: people teach Descartes only so that they can focus on how bad the Circle is and so on. Students leave such classes wondering why they needed to learn about these guys at all if they got everything so badly wrong. I for one don’t find this pedagogically very valuable. If we simply want a list of bad negative examples, I am not sure why we would need to slog through a bunch of weird historical context and terms to get to them. I will also include in this category those who say that teaching modern philosophy is somehow the best way to teach critical thinking. I agree that it is A way to teach critical thinking, but surely not the best. Indeed I suspect that it is in fact worse than many contemporary classes, given the extra historical baggage one must unpack before one gets to any argument analysis, for example. Surely, there are enough examples of bad philosophy published more recently?
(B3) OK, it’s looking bad for modern philosophy here; so far, all the common reasons given for its inclusion seem pretty weak. But take heart, for now I’d like to propose another instrumental reason for teaching modern surveys, one that might be somewhat more successful. I’d like to suggest that one special value that a modern survey can offer is a chance to study an alternative history of ideas, so to speak. What follows is in part inspired by something Eric Schliesser wrote on his blog.
One worry I raised concerning the genealogical justification is its inherently conservative nature. As Schliesser puts it, this justification displays a clear status quo bias. Perhaps we can reduce this bias, however. It is true that, if one focuses on the ‘winners’ of the debate, the ‘canonical’ texts, this bias emerges. But what if one considers those who ‘lost’ the debates, or those who were forgotten — or even erased?
It might be that, in showing students the alternatives to our present conceptions — the stories that failed, so to speak — we can render more contingent the victors. And, to the extent that they see the reasonableness — in the historical context, at least — of those views, they can come to understand the reasonableness of views that they currently do not accept, in principle at least. And, finally, if it is true that these philosophical concepts shape their worldview beyond just the realm of academic philosophy — as in political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics broadly construed, topics of race and gender, etc — getting students to encounter and buy into the views that lost really can help them to develop a multiplicity of philosophical perspective taking, so to speak, which might very well be a good thing.
So, perhaps something like a genealogical justification can work, but not a hagiographic attitude of praising the victors, elevating the Great Books. Rather, one could adopt a critical genealogical justification for teaching the history of modern philosophy survey. If it is the case that at least some of our prevailing philosophical worldview and at least some of our central philosophical debates took their modern form in early modern Europe, then studying the period critically, and doing so in a way that recovers and considers the lost and forgotten from the period, will actually have instrumental value for the students, in that it will help them to consider more fully their own assumptions and the assumptions underlying those contemporary concepts and debates.
Let me try now to pull out the positive elements here and put the together into a unified justification for teaching modern philosophy. First of all, surveys in modern philosophy can be inherently interesting and worthwhile, in the same way that the content of most other courses are, so it is not unreasonable to consider including such courses in a department curriculum. Second, one can teach critical thinking and close reading skills via a history survey, though probably no better than via any other philosophy class. Again, these can serve as a reason not to exclude such classes, but not yet a reason to include them over others.
Finally, though, we might say that surveys in the history of modern philosophy that attend to the debates out of which some of our prevailing philosophical concepts originated, making sure to include the losers of those debates, so to speak, can provide students with a way to take up philosophical perspectives different from their own. That is, assuming that at least some of the concepts and assumptions that shape 21st C America have some of their origin in early modern Europe, it follows that surveys in modern philosophy are better positioned than most other courses to provide students a chance to see the contingency of their own beliefs — or, at least, of the beliefs they encounter in the world around them. Thus modern surveys may have a special justification that most other course might lack.
In short, then, there is a qualified sense in which a critical genealogical justification for favoring the teaching of the history of modern philosophy over some other courses might work, namely, that it is uniquely situated to help students understand not only how the prevailing concepts around them came to be, but to see those concepts are being contingent, as having reasonable alternatives, and being vulnerable to challenge.
Now to return to my reason for raising the question of why we should teach history of modern surveys, if indeed we should at all. I think that this answer conditions how one should teach the course — and what one should include. In short, one has to tell the story of how some prevailing norms or concepts came out of live debates in the period and one must include a sympathetic or charitable focus on those who lost those debates. Only the inclusion of such thinkers can achieve the effect I’ve identified as being especially well suited for modern surveys.
Secondarily, our courses should include texts and arguments that are also intrinsically interesting, to appeal to the antiquarian in our students. And finally, they should also teach critical thinking and reading skills, as all philosophy courses should.
It may be, however, that the above given justifications also work for teaching 19th C philosophy and even an historical approach to 20th C philosophy. So be it; I for one would welcome the inclusion of a late modern (19-20th C) history of philosophy survey alongside the early modern one.
Let me offer one further, more speculative justification that favors modern philosophy in particular, even over 19th and 20th C courses, though I am less convinced of the following reason than I am of those I gave in the previous paragraph.
Perhaps modern surveys are better than other courses to require of students because the texts that modern surveys cover may very well be the last real examples of philosophical texts that cover debates across a wide scope of topics and disciplines in a way that an undergrad would be able to understand. In short, I would suggest that, after the 18th C, the division of labor in philosophy and scholarship in general advanced to such a point that really serious work was either highly specialized and thus not accessible to undergrads, or fairly narrow and thus did not give students a chance to dabble in as rich of a conceptual experience as they could in the 17th C, say. For example, the ethics or political philosophy of the 17th C is often explicitly metaphysical and in dialogue with the natural philosophy of the time; indeed, many texts one might read in the 17th C will tie together science, religion, metaphysics, and politics in a way few texts in the past two hundred years are able to do. This is beneficial because it allows students to see the connections across these areas in a way that is harder to bring to the surface in more recent texts. And seeing these connections — how aesthetics connects to philosophy of mind and metaphysics and on to religion and science, for example — uniquely situates the modern philosophy survey as a gateway to more specialized study in philosophy.
So, perhaps, in addition to the critical genealogical justification I gave above, I might offer one final, more tentative justification for favoring modern surveys over other courses: it is the last time philosophy texts were written that would allow undergrads to engage philosophical issues across a wide range of topics, without requiring them to have studied a great deal of philosophy beforehand, which makes the modern philosophy survey a good gateway drug, if you will.
And if this is a legitimate rationale, the teaching upshot would be that we should include texts that do indeed engage a variety of topics in philosophy, broadly construed. Putting this last speculative reason together with what came before, then, we are left with the following. One should teach modern philosophy surveys that cover a range of philosophical subfields, not one that focuses solely on epistemology or metaphysics, for example, and one should further be sure to include all sides of the various debates of the period, so as to promote alternative philosophical perspective taking.
 I’ve written on this before. See my “How To Teach Modern Philosophy,” Teaching Philosophy, Volume 37, Issue 1, March 2014.
 Eric Schliesser, Digressions&Impressions, http://digressionsnimpressions.typepad.com/digressionsimpressions/2014/10/teaching-the-history-of-philosophy-and-a-bit-more.html#more , publishing 10/23/2014, accessed 12/10/2015.
 See Eileen O’Neill, ”Disappearing Ink: Early Modern Women Philosophers and Their Fate in History,” in Philosophy in a Feminist Voice, ed. Janet Kourany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).
 Of course, what I have offered here very well might only be one viable way to justify a modern philosophy survey…YMMV. And, certainly, I do not mean it as an attack on those who do not wish to teach in just the way I have suggested here. Instead, I see this as a way to defend your modern surveys to your colleagues on the curriculum committee, so to speak.