Teaching Russell

My Intro to Phil class is reading Russell’s Problems with me.  This is my first time to teach out of Problems in an extended way; although I have taught the first few pages a number of times when working on arguments for sense-data in other classes.

We read the first part of Plato’s Theaetetus (through the ‘knowledge’ =df perception sections) and then we read Descartes’ Meditations (all of it).  In previous versions of the class, I moved from Descartes to Wittgenstein’s Blue Book or into Kant’s Prolegomena.  I eventually gave up on the Wittgenstein, mainly because the dialectic (its crisscrossing of the landscape, to borrow a PI image) is so complicated that I found the students really couldn’t keep up.  Of course, the Plato is dialectically complicated too, but it is better signposted, and falls into clearer large sections, even if the intra-sectional arguments are sometimes formidable.  (Does Socrates acccept or reject the Heraclitean Fluxiness that he introduces when he discusses knowledge-as-perception or not? etc.)

I eventually gave up on the Kant because there is too much distance, as it were, between Descartes and Kant for the students to really understand what Kant is doing.  I also found that it is hard to motivate the students to sympathize with Kant if they have not felt the milking-the-he-goat-into-a-sieve pointlessness that often attends philosophical argumentation.  (Let me be clear:  I have in mind feeling that in a way that earns the feeling, by having been burned by philosophical argumentation in the past, burned while–and because–you were inwardly, actively and sympathetically trusting in philosophical argumentation.  Students sometimes–too often–feel that philosophical argumentation is pointless; but they haven’t earned that feeling.  That kind of cheap felt pointlessness does not serve to motivate sympathy with Kant.)  So the students lack the background both of understanding and of earned affective response needed for the Prolegomena to do its simultaneous ending-and-beginning work.  Giving up on Wittgenstein and Kant has led me to Russell.  So far, so ok.  Moving from the Meditation to the Problems, while not seamless, is reasonably straightforward:  “Is there any knowledge so certain that no reasonable person could doubt it?”–the beginning of Problems strikes the students as quite familiar.  We will see how it goes the final couple of weeks.  I will report back.

2 responses

  1. good for you for attending to what the responses of your students are and not getting stuck in the ruts of the canon, should be the norm if people are interested in not just teaching the history of ideas but also some capacity for philosophizing…

  2. i got my modern philosophy backwards somehow, since i never covered the period from descartes to (just before) kant until i basically finished my degree. i think i must have gotten a digest of kant’s first critique project when taking a philosophy of math seminar. and must have gotten a digest of anti-metaphysicalism from a 20th c. survey heavy on ayer and quine.

    —which is just by way of reporting, the problem, or starting point, ‘is metaphysics possible? well, what makes mathematical knowledge possible?’ has always seemed much more sensible to me than the starting points of, say, descartes, locke, or hume. for me, interest in the he-goat part of kant came later even though i certainly should have been primed for it earlier on, what with the logical positivists and with having read wittgenstein. (hey, the first critique is a really long book, and kind of boring, i guess.)

    i haven’t taught PI in the interim, but since i last did and had begun thinking more about where ‘world’ shows up in it, i’ve been reading the tractatus a lot more for that connection, to try to suss out how PI could be pitched in ways that make its connection to the traditional skeptical problematic more clear—especially as far as it can be rooted in that model, a lone person confronting the world (sense experience, etc.) and trying to establish a connection with it. comparison with the tractatus does make the investigations seem a LOT MORE like that’s what it’s all about, but i really have no idea how efficiently the tractarian picture (not necessarily the details of the theories, just the me-and-my-language-and-the-world picture) can be articulated so as to serve as a primer for seeing the investigations differently.

    (i’m still not much familiar with the blue book, but my impression is that its different emphases make this tractarian-world connection even lighter/more remote?)

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