As far I understand it, philosophy is the use of careful reasoning in an attempt to answer general questions, for the purpose of coming to a greater understanding about how we relate to the world and each other. Philosophy is productive when it clarifies ‘how we fit in’, and draws our attention to the ways that we might be confused.

Effective teaching of philosophy is always a game of ‘show and tell’. First, you show your audience something interesting and exciting about their lives and experiences — either something they already know put in a fresh light, or something new but understandable. Then, have them tell you what they think. A mandatory first step is to show students why an issue matters to what we care about, and which can be used as leverage in any subsequent discussion. The ‘show and tell’ pedagogical technique reflects a deeper meta-philosophical view, which is that the suitability of answers to philosophical questions are often judged by reference to inferences worth caring about (along with their presumed explanatory power).

There are three essential skill-sets that I try to inspire in my students, corresponding to the three disciplinary strengths of the professional philosopher. First, the ability to engage cooperatively with one another in conversation on interesting and difficult subjects, often on the basis of incomplete evidence. Second, crucially, the ability to listen properly, and in this way to think critically and imaginatively about arguments – to look for hidden assumptions and their potential consequences. Third (though especially at the senior level), the ability to read difficult texts closely and slowly – not just skimming, but finding something exciting in the details. Once they have experience performing tasks associated with these competencies, the hope is that they will be able to reason through difficult matters in ordinary life by the application of critical thinking and constructive argumentation. The hope is that they will be able to appreciate the positive value of inquiry in good faith and the negative consequences of unfettered bias – in short, the value of effectively controlling our inferences in terms of values that we think are worth caring about.

Independent course instruction

University of Waterloo