If philosophy is a conversation defined by a set of questions and answers, then to learn philosophy is to learn about that conversation. And to learn how to do philosophy is to learn how to contribute to the conversation. Philosophers ask questions about knowledge, beauty, freedom, meaning, causation, responsibility, and many other things. Many of these questions overlap, as do the answers philosophers have offered. So perhaps it's better to think of philosophy as a set of conversations all going on at once, many of which overlap in their content and participants.
Metaphorically, I like to think of each philosophical conversation as a long twisting hallway, indeterminate in length. The footpath is the question being pursued and each archway a proposed answer, potentially the point at which you should stop your trek down the hallway. Along the way there are many corridors where other hallways, equally long and twisting, intersect the one you're on. A philosophy course introduces you to a hallway, highlights some of its most important and interesting features, and draws attention to some of the adjoining paths.
“A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
— Alexander Pope
I teach philosophy as both a conversation and a form of inquiry. I try to help my students appreciate the conversation and to improve at inquiry. Appreciating the conversation requires knowing the questions being asked and why they matter, and it requires knowing the answers being offered and the evidence that supports them. Becoming proficient at inquiry requires identifying and evaluating arguments, and talking and writing clearly about complex ideas.
Here is what you’d achieve if you took a course with me, depending on your level of study and dedication:
You got a sense of what the conversation is about and started cultivating communication skills that will serve you well in any intellectual task. You were often surprised at the answers and arguments that philosophers give. You see the value in thinking carefully about these questions and might even be excited to continue thinking about them.
You achieved deeper understanding of what the conversation is about and sharpened some skills required to make your own contribution. You now feel at home in the give and take of a philosophical conversation. But there is a lot left to learn. Be patient, grasshopper, and remember that a little learning is a dangerous thing.
You're experienced enough to productively think independently about the conversation. Only two things separate you from making a contribution of your own: a moment of creative insight that provides a promising idea, followed by many hours of hard work spent developing, defending, and contextualizing your idea. True mastery is yet to come, but you are on your way.
“Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.”
— Ivan Illitch
Here are some undergraduate courses I have taught:
A sampling of philosophical problems: determinism, free will, personal identity, art, science, space, reasoning, and knowledge
European philosophy c. 1600-1800 CE: Descartes, Princess Elisabeth, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Reid
A hands-on introduction to an exciting field of research at the intersection of philosophy and experimental science
knowledge, truth, belief, evidence, assertion, action, understanding, explanation, and skepticism
change, time, attribute agreement, abstract objects, modality, and causation
Reid's epistemology, metaphysics and methodology; Reid’s relationship to Descartes, Berkeley, Locke, Hume, and Wittgenstein
dualism, physicalism, behaviorism, functionalism, consciousness, perception, cognition, mental content, the self, other minds
cognitivism, non-cognitivism, subjectivism, reductionism, nihilism, intuitionism, evaluative judgment, moral motivation
I have supervised or served on the committee for the following work: