Police help sound bite victim 
Ron McClamrock and Brian Leiter link to a page at the University of Wellington that offers several answers to the question What is Philosophy? Both approvingly quote this answer:
I see philosophy not as groundwork for science, but as continuous with science. I see philosophy and science as in the same boat - a boat which we can rebuild only at sea while staying afloat in it. There is no external vantage point, no first philosophy. All scientific findings, all scientific conjectures that are at present plausible, are therefore in my view as welcome for use in philosophy as elsewhere. (W.V.O. Quine)

I agree with the sentiment here. However, the context seems wrong. Quine is stating something he believes about philosophy, that it is in some sense continuous with science. This does not tell us what philosophy is, because for Quine all enquiry is continuous with science.

More on point: Quine wrote that philosophy "is one of any number of blanket terms used by deans and librarians in their necessary task of grouping myriad topics and problems of science and scholarship under a manageable number of headings."* He offers this in response to questions about the relation between his work and other things that are done in philosophy departments, like ethics. His answer is that there does not need to be any connection, because there is no core concept of philosophy that includes both kinds of activity.

As such, it is at best misleading to give the first short quotation from Quine as a substantive answer to the question What is Philosophy? He thought there was no such answer. There are things that are called 'philosophy', but (he would say) there is no unified body of enquiry under that label.


* Bontempo and Odell, The Owl of Minerva: Philosophers on Philosophy. Mc-Graw Hill, 1975. page 228.

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Cold call 
Earlier this week, I received a call on my office phone. The caller explained that her son is taking an introductory philosophy course at another college in the area. He is having difficulty with the course, and she hoped that I could recommend a tutor. I asked if the son had spoken with the professor who is actually teaching the course. She said that he had spoken with the professor after class one day and asked where he coudl hire a tutor. The prof had recommended some office or other on campus, but that office was unable to match him with a tutor.

I suppose I could have recommended one of our graduate students as a possible tutor. The grad student might have been glad for the money, but would not have known what the professor was emphasizing or what the tests were going to be like. The professor knows these things.

So I recommended that the son should perhaps ask the professor of the course for help with the material. The professor, no doubt, has scheduled office hours.

Keep in mind that I don't know any of the faculty at this nearby college, so a fortiori I don't know who is teaching the course her son is taking. But I do know that most of my office hours are spent without any students attending them, and that students who attend office hours often leave less confused than they were when they came in.

I thought, but did not say: This kid is a college student. At some point in his life, he will have problems that can't be solved by his mom making some phone calls and spending some money.

Students (or their parental proxies) are often dubious of getting help from the instructor of a course. Perhaps they want to be given the answers, and they suspect (rightly) that that the professor will not just give them the answers. The reason for this, of course, is that many courses aim at teaching students cognitive skills. Beyond a certain point, it does not help them develop skills just to tell them what someone with the skills would have answered. The students need to work it out for themselves. Naturally, this also means that a tutor cannot just give the students answers.

Students (or their parental proxies) might also think that in order to get good grades they need to do better than their peers. To do that, they need an edge that their peers don't have: like a paid tutor. In courses graded on a curve, there is some wisdom in this. However, attending office hours also gives them an edge that most of their peers don't have. As I've already mentioned, most students don't attend office hours.

Students (or their proxies) might also just be applying a pattern that they've learned in prior domains. Performance on standardized tests typically improves after students have paid for a course. The SAT, LSAT, and GRE prep industries celebrate this fact.

Students (or their parental proxies) might also just be in the grip of the illusion that something they have to pay for is better than the default that is available for free. I have not been at this long enough to know if this attitude is more prevalent now than it used to be, but often students do want to pay a tutor for help they could get from a TA or instructor.

UPDATE: I could not find the link earlier, but Ron has written about similar tutorific phenomena.

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Claiming amnesty 
Bridget and Janet both made note of Blogroll Amnesty Day. I thought that maybe I should use the occasion to actually add a blogroll here at FoE. Since I have recently begun using Bloglines, generating the list would be as easy as this:



Adding it to the right-hand column would only require adding a line to the PHP template for the page, but no. First, because I think the right-hand column of this blog is already a bit too long. And adding a third column would be bad UI of the highest order. Second, because blogroll is a vile word. One does not step in such a thing voluntarily.

Instead, I've included two such dynamic lists in the Useful links page.

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Blog software update 
I have updated to the new version of SimplePHPBlog. This broke the theme I had been using, but I have hammered the default theme into some approximation of it. If the change has broken anything else, please let me know either in comments or by e-mail.

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The teaching meme 
Janet has tagged me with the following question: Why do you teach and why is academic freedom critical to that effort?

The glib answer is that I teach because it pays the bills, and without academic freedom it would be more fun to work at a coffee shop instead.

A longer answer:

Teaching philosophy is not about teaching students facts or results. It is about maneuvering them so that they confront arguments and struggle with questions. In that sense, teaching philosophy is about getting students to do philsophy. I teach because philosophy is worth doing (and fun), and students ought to do things that are worth doing (and fun.)

When teaching Descartes, for example, the discussion depends on how students respond at first. Sometimes students acquiesce to arguments for the existence of God just because they already believe in the conclusion. With students like these, I need to put on my critical hat and try to get them to see the weaknesses in Descartes' arguments.

More often, students think that Descartes' philosophy is just special pleading for religion. With students like those, I need to put on my Cartesian hat and try to get them to see how the God plays a systematic role in his philosophy.

Effectively engaging students requires that I have both hats available, and that I can choose which to wear as necessary. For other topics, I need further varieties of millinery. And what is academic freedom if not intellectual haberdashery?

I tag Ron.

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