From a 3AM interview of Gillian Russell:

You know, I think philosophy could make more progress than it does. Progress needs more than just a few brilliant people, and a few great, original texts. If all you have are a few brilliant manuscripts coming out of a generation of philosophers, they’re going to be forgotten, or only read by a few specialists, who only write stuff that is read by even fewer specialists, and then all it takes is one politically expedient budget cut, or the end of a grant, or just for someone to get sick, and it is all lost again. Once you get beyond the very beginning stages, progress requires the ability to build on what has come before and that means we have to do a great job of training our students. I think one of the things that drives progress in mathematics and the sciences is the existence of good textbooks.

It really doesn’t matter, in physics say, if few working scientists, engineers or mathematicians ever read Newton’s Principia Mathematica, or Einstein’s original papers, because the key lessons have been distilled into really clear, excellent textbooks that are used to train thousands of students each year. In philosophy we have a tendency to privilege the original texts. And it’s good to read original texts, it’s part of getting a general education. But good ideas and arguments rarely appear in their clearest form first time around. So I think one thing that would really help philosophy make more progress would be the presence of more really excellent textbooks. It’s clearly something that helps in logic. Certainly my own teaching and understanding in logic has been massively helped and speeded up by the existence of great textbooks. And that means that all my students are at a better standard than they might have been otherwise.

7 responses

  1. textbooks are thankfully on their way out and working on solving problems, often with others, is on the rise, praise be the avatars of the mighty MOOC…

  2. Something about this rubs me the wrong way. Call me old-fashioned, but I think primary texts really are the best way to learn, at least in my experience. The problem with textbooks is that they often boil out the real grit of a text, providing a cold argument with a few biographical details. A textbook takes the bite out of performative texts, texts that are trying to create a reaction or feeling in the reader. It’s hard to get therapy from a therapeutic philosopher if one is bound to distilled points that can be used on multiple-choice tests.

    (And all this aside from the fact that textbooks typically function as profit-generators year after year as new editions are updated and the texts often cost >$100, a major problem to already debt-stricken students.)

    With something like logic, a textbook makes sense; logic is not a performative activity (a la Wittgenstein). But to suggest all of philosophy (of which logic is quite a sliver) could be filtered into a textbook seems to me like one would be filtering out all the wrong stuff.

  3. well, she seems right about the textbooks, but what makes her think it’s even possible to write a philosophy textbook?

    i only ever had an honest-to-god textbook in one philosophy course. and it was one of the worst textbooks i had ever used!

    on the other hand i’ve been using hacking’s probability textbook, and i think it’s really excellent, but it has this elusive quality to it that seems to derive partly from his wish to put the emphasis on the concepts (thus, not being able to fully stay aloof from the eruptions of perplexity about them, which makes him extra laconic) and partly from the philosopher’s typical disdain for work – he’ll explain examples while dashing through some of the mechanical steps in reasoning, and each chapter only ever gives a dozen problems or so when a proper textbook, like a calculus textbook, will give you like a HUNDRED. in EACH SECTION. because that’s part of why textbooks work – not just the refinement of their explanations, but because they drill you at doing each thing a million times! and build progressively on that from part to part, incessantly.

    by that idea it seems like a wish for philosophy textbooks is a wish to be able to train philosophy students to just do things correctly – ‘the right way’, whatever that is.

    • for all the public hype about the need for engineering studies there is a wider tendency afoot (it is the current plague of my field of psychotherapy for instance with it’s spreading requirements to work in lockstep following treatment-manuals) to turn people into mere technicians, I’ll spare you my Heidegger imitation but ya know…

  4. Dear Kelly, Are you trying to provoke us? Doesn’t philosophy — and even what we could call “intro philosophy” — call into question the whole idea of progress and make that questioning more interesting than any progress could be? Best, Wm. Eaton, montaigbakhtinian.come

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