Thursday, January 10, 2008

On Teaching "Contemporary Philosophy"

Here at the University of Puerto Rico, as in many undergraduate philosophy programs, we have a four-semester history of philosophy sequence: Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, and Contemporary. "Early Modern" philosophy is a canonical category that is, I think, a valid way to sort a particular part of the literature, basically 17th and 18th century European philosophy from Descartes to Kant. It's a tight, well-defined topic: from the Discourse on Method (1637) to the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) is less than 150 years, and Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Newton, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant are all part of the same conversation, investigating more or less the same metaphysical and epistemological issues.
The trouble is that about 100 years or so ago "Contemporary" philosophy was defined (for curricular purposes, anyway) as European philosophy since Kant (or since 1800, say), and in the year 2008 that is no longer a coherent sorting out of the literature. It has become mission impossible. There are two problems that I see as a professor. First, the historical period has simply grown too long, encompassing now the German Idealism of the early 19th century all the way to the Anglo revival of metaphysics of the late 20th century, by way of Hegel and Marx, Pragmatism, Modernism, Existentialism and Phenomenology, Analytic Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Deconstruction, Cognitive Science, and branch stations along the way too numerous to mention. I'm familiar with this problem of what to include from teaching Humanities. One just has to accept that it is not possible to include everything significant, and try to choose a selection of topics that are both central and fun (and, assuming that one is not just deadwood faculty, mix these up from semester to semester).
But there is another problem with the idea of "Contemporary Philosophy" that is even more difficult. Even if we restrict ourselves to writers and themes that are generally accepted as "philosophical," we do not find a coherent conversation across the 19th and 20th centuries like we do with the Early Modern period. I try to break down what I take to be the superficial and insidious "Continental/Analytic" distinction in Contemporary in the same way that I reject the "Rationalist/Empiricist" distinction in Early Modern, and I have some success with that (for example it's true that Descartes and Kant are, unfortunately in my view, the granddaddies of both phenomenology and logical positivism. The more time goes by, the more alike they seem. It's amazing how much of Sartre is implicit in Hume. Etc.). But even that work won't really do, as I am painfully aware on the first day of a Contemporary course here in Puerto Rico (yesterday for example), because students have a reasonable expectation that the story of 20th century "philosophy" is more than the story of professional work in metaphysics and epistemology. What about Post-Colonialism? Today's students want some Eastern philosophy, and I do have a two-semester Buddhism course here every other year (thank God), but in Contemporary there is a palpable sense of disappointment, at least among some students, with the material. What about Feminism? I for one feel strongly that an introduction to 19th and 20th century thought requires some discussion of Feminist ideas.
So, what to do? At this point in my own intellectual life, the fact is that my interests run to good old metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and so forth: contemporary Contemporary philosophy! And I just take my students along with me where I want to go; that's the best thing that I can do for them. I do always enjoy teaching existentialism, and talking about ethics and political theory is another thing I get to do in class even though my own work doesn't run to those topics so much these days. A basic tactic of mine is to find a good book and let the book do the organizing: if this is Tuesday, it must be Pragmatism. This semester I'm going to use Anthony Kenny's Philosophy in the Modern World, the fourth volume of his history of western philosophy. I have confidence in Kenny, but I'm going to have to supplement him a bit. He's small-c conservative, with coverage of the religious writer John Henry Newman for example; I think I'll give them a blast of Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father somewhere along the line.

No comments:

Post a Comment