14 March 2005

Does It Go with the Turf?

Many semesters I've found myself teaching Introduction to First-Order Logic and History of Ancient Philosophy and thinking that I'm glad I don't teach, say, Mollusk Ecology or History of the Mongols. Not that these subjects aren't valuable. It's just that I can recommend what I teach as 'what every educated person should know'. In fact, I am so convinced of that, that I'm disposed to dismiss as not well educated anyone who doesn't agree. (I should say: perhaps not First-Order Logic, but some logic course, at least.)

But if this is correct, then do ancient philosophers, and scholars in the field, consequently have a duty of sorts, to see that their field is accorded the standing that it deserves? Is an ancient philosopher, eo ipso, committed to making the study of ancient philosophy part of a 'core' of what any undergraduate should study? One might compare how physicians regard themselves as responsible, in some way, for conditions of health in society generally--not just the health of their own patients.

I know that the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, which I direct, was founded with that sort of pedagogical idealism, and maybe tomorrow, when its foundational documents are at hand, I'll quote from them.

And here's a follow-up question. If we should teach history of ancient philosophy, regarding it as 'what every educated person should know', does that imply that the syllabus should have a certain content? For instance, as regards Aristotle, I usually teach only the Ethics in that sort of course. But shouldn't every educated person know about such things as the four causes; the categories; 'nature' ; actuality and potentiality? And if my students don't learn it in my course, they won't learn it at all.

I won't raise here the question of what sort of attention should be given to secondary sources. That's a topic of another day.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Pakaluk,
Do "History of Philosophy" classes actually teach what you say "every educated man should know"? It seems that a course like that would just present different philosophers' ideas without going into them in much detail. In other words, is the good of philosophy knowing a lot of different philosophies - having grand ideas - or is it truth?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Aristotle was correct, I believe, in likening philosophical truth to loosening a knot (or letting the fly out of the flybottle). But "You can't untie a knot if you're not familiar with it." What earlier thinkers said on a subject, especially their differences, is indispensable for getting a feel for the contours of the 'knots'. So 'knowing a lot of different philosophies', far from being at odds with the search for philosophical truth, is actually necessary to it.