040830-grammarA while back someone tagged me– I can’t remember who, but seem to recall it was Mikhail over at Perverse Egalitarianism –with the question of what new practices I plan to implement in the classroom this year. At the time I didn’t respond because I was in the midst of my depression and could barely bring myself to read, much less write. Reflecting on this semester, however, a few things, while not entirely interesting, come to mind.

corrosion02Since I have begun teaching, one of my absolute passions has been eradicating the words “opinion”, “feeling”, and “belief” from the vocabulary of my students. Few thinks irk me more than reading these words in a student essay or hearing them enunciated in class. In and of themselves, of course, these words are perfectly serviceable. However, in a Wittgensteinian sense, there is a grammar behind these words that is on the one hand a defense against entertaining claims, and on the other hand corrosive to critical thought. The student will remark, “It is Plato’s opinion that…”, “Nietzsche felt…”, “Saint Thomas believed that…”, etc. Why are these locutions forms of defense against thought and corrosive to critical thinking? The common thread behind these forms of enunciation is that they detach claims from grounds by which these claims are arrived at. In other words, when a claim is treated in terms of the signifiers “belief”, “opinion”, or “feeling”, it becomes like the famous smile of Carroll’s Cheshire Cat detached from the body of the cat, floating about of its own accord.cheshire65 As a consequence, the person can then conveniently ignore any of the reasoning or grounds that lead to the claim, rendering themselves immune to any argument supporting the conclusion or claim.

In short, since “everyone is entitled to their own opinion”, and since “everyone has their own beliefs”, the student can then set their own opinions in opposition to the philosopher claiming “while Leibniz believes x, I believe y, so I don’t agree with Leibniz.” Here their own views are protected behind an impenetrable fortress and need never be challenged or subjected to any sort of critical scrutiny. Given that one opinion is as good as another, the student can continue to cleave comfortably to their prior beliefs without entering into any sort of becoming. Everything remains the same. Not coincidentally, I find that those students who most vigorously use the language of “opinion”, “belief”, “feeling”, “perspective”, or “perception”, are also the ones who tend to do the worst in my class. The reason for this is that they inevitably end up summarizing the “opinions” of the philosopher– “Spinoza believed that God and the world are one and the same” –without analyzing the arguments by which the philosopher arrives at his position. Everything thus remains at the superficial level of an inventory of the philosopher’s “opinions”, without any examination of just what line of reasoning leads the philosopher to such a conclusion.

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So in my zeal, I strive to eradicate these words from the vocabulary of my students– and I hope whatever other educators happen to read this post will do so as well –instead advising them to use words like “claim”, “thesis”, “position”, “assertion”, “argument”, etc. The point here is not that philosophers are always right or that they can never be mistaken. Rather, the idea behind this foreclosure of words like “opinion” and “perception” and their replacement by terms like “argument” and “claim”, is to draw student attention to supporting reasons for claims or how thinkers arrive at claims. In other words, one does not argue against a position by setting another position beside it like two books on a bookcase, but instead strives to demonstrate the presence of contradictions, false premises, invalid or weak arguments, etc.

In working through Lucretius, Leibniz, and Spinoza this semester I was astonished to discover that my students did not know what an argument is, nor what explanations and theories are. How strange courses in the humanities must sound to their ears. For them an argument is a disagreement between two people, a dispute, rather than a set of reasons in support of a claim or a conclusion. What must they think when a professor asks them to examine a philosopher’s argument? Likewise, a theory is an unproven guess or hunch, rather than an explanation (a “why?” or “how?”) for some phenomenon or other. Upon hearing the word “theory”, they must immediately assume that something unproven and undemonstrated is being referred to. As a consequence, it seems to me that the first week or two of my intro classes must be devoted to the three following topics prior to jumping into the material:

t306_2_038i1) The Relationship Between Theories and Facts: Theories are explanations of facts and facts support theories. Theories do not, at some point become facts, but always remain explanations or accounts of facts. A fact, by contrast, is some state-of-affairs in the world. The relation between theories and facts is thus not one of transition from one state (being a theory) to another state (being a fact), but is rather a dialectical relation (not in the Hegelian sense), where the two terms always refer to one another. Of crucial importance here is the recognition that a theory is not less than a fact, but is in many respects one of our crowning achievements as humans. Facts do not speak for themselves, nor explain themselves. They are brute things that sit there like rocks rising out of the desert. Thus, it is a fact, as Lucretius observes, that water changes color as waves crash or as the wind blows across it. Yet while this is an obvious fact about the world, this fact does not explain itself. It requires a theory to be explained, an account of what causes this phenomenon. Lucretius’ brilliant explanation is that atoms do not themselves have color, but rather color is an emergent property of relations among and combinations of atoms. Thus, when waves crash or wind blows the atoms are combined in news ways generating the varieties of colors we encounter. It is also a fact that the sun moves across the sky. Yet there are a variety of theories through which this phenomenon can be explained. We can take the counter-intuitive Copernican route and explain this as an optical illusion produced by the spinning of the earth as it revolves around the sun. We can take the intuitive Ptolemaic route of explaining this by the rotation of the sun about the earth. Or we can take the Homeric route of explaining this as a result of Apollo dragging the sun across the sky. The strength of a theory will be a function of both how many facts it is able to explain and predict. A theory that has been able to explain and predict a number of facts will not be thrown out when it encounters a counter-example, but rather it will be assumed that there must be a hidden cause capable of explaining the anomalous fact in question until so many anomalies mount that it is clear the theory must be mistaken. I realize the philosophers of science will jump all over me for this simplistic account of the relationship between theories and facts, but it is a good heuristic for the classroom.

2) Arguments and Conclusions: As I remarked, my students seem to have little conception of just what an argument is, so it seems appropriate to explain the relationship between premises and conclusions, as well as the difference between deductive arguments and inductive arguments. This latter distinction is especially important in philosophy classes as it is often assumed that the only way to “prove” a conclusion is inductively through observations of the world. A number of philosophical issues and positions can’t be understood at all without a clear understanding of the difference between induction and deduction.

3) Truths of Reason and Truths of Experience: I find that clearly making this distinction is one of the most challenging things confronting those that teach philosophy. It is impossible to understand Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, etc., if it is assumed that the only truths are truths of experience. In the absence of this distinction it will be assumed that the only way to prove something is through direct observation. This can lead to extreme skepticism when a bright student recognizes that many events are remote from us in time and space and therefore cannot be observed (i.e., they refuse to grant that we can make inferences based on the regular structure of the world). Consequently, if any form of rationalism is to be taught in a class it is absolutely vital that this distinction be introduced early– preferably using mathematics as a model or example –so that the nature of rationalist arguments can be understood. However, this distinction is also relevant to non-rationalistic forms of inference. Thus, for example, a student might protest that Lucretius cannot “prove” that the atoms exist because we cannot directly observe the existence of these atoms. What this ignores is our ability to make inferences from facts– as in the case of water changing color given above –allowing us to legitimately conclude the existence of entities that are not directly observed. It will be noted that this style is a favorite of evolution deniers who argue from the premise that we can’t directly observe what took place in such remote history, therefore warranting the conclusion that evolution is “just a theory” that cannot be “proven”.

The introduction of these distinctions at the beginning of the semester is thus my resolution for the Spring semester. In many respects, these simple distinctions are some of the most valuable things that can be taken from an introductory philosophy course. Above all they encourage students not simply to evaluate claims abstractly, but to look closely at texts, determining the supporting reasons and explanations the philosopher himself provides.