My ideal curriculum for an Intro class in Philosophy is the one conceived by Jay Garfield and others and taught by Malcolm Keating and others at NUS-Yale in Singapore, namely a completely non-Eurocentric introductory class (they have three main foci, namely Sanskrit, Chinese and European philosophy).
But, what to do until we get there?
Intro classes are (in the universities I know of) meant both for outsiders who only take one class of philosophy as well as for students who will chose philosophy as their major. Thus, the Intro class has at least also the purpose to put students in the position to follow their next classes.
Thus, in this sense a completely unconventional Intro class might be risky because students and professors might resent the fact that by the time they enrolled for, say, “Medieval philosophy” or “Philosophy of language” they did not know about basic names and theories.
Now, again, in an ideal world the whole faculty will agree about rethinking its teaching style around the fact that “Plato” and “ethics” should not be more obvious requirements than “Confucius” and “philosophy of ritual”, but, again, what to do until we are there?
Possibility no. 1: Disrupt the curriculum completely (see above). Cool but unrealistic.
Possibility no. 2: Leave the Intro class(es) as it is/they are (thematic or historic and Euro-American focused). Students have too much on their plate already. Let’s diversify later. Cool but unrealistic: students will have unconsciously swallowed the idea that there is just ONE philosophy that is “normal” and the rest is there to “colour it up”.
Possibility no. 3: Insert snippets of other philosophical worlds. Why, given that this would be done in a non systematic manner and hence not be as powerful insofar as paradigm building? Because it will at least force students to notice that there is not a single way of doing philosophy. Students I have been teaching in North America are more open than I expected to this idea, but they need to be exposed to examples early on to be able to seriously consider it.
So, 3 seems still much better than 1. But this leads to further problems re. its feasibility. Which texts? Taught by whom? How?…
For instance, should one teach a short paragraph each from a Chinese, a Japanese, a Maori, an Aztecan…philosopher? Focus on a few? Would it not be arbitrary?
Here, I would like to take advantage of a hint by Peter Adamson, namely, that each choice is anyway arbitrary because each “yes” is a “no” to someone else. It’s just that we are so used to including Plato and excluding Charles de Bovelle from our Intro classes that we don’t even feel it as an arbitrary choice. Thus, I would suggest explaining clearly to students that the whole class will be focusing on a somehow arbitrary selection of ideas or authors among many others equally worthy of philosophical attention.
Would this destabilize students? Yes. But is it a bad thing, especially while teaching philosophy?
So, back to the previous set of questions: Which texts? Taught by whom? How?
I, for one, am a big believer in primary texts and see Intro classes as being a great chance to teach students to read philosophical texts (aka “to read slowly”).
Correspondingly, I would prefer having students focusing on a single Chinese text on, say, political philosophy, rather than a 30pp. introduction to Chinese philosophy in general. Students will anyway forget most of the notions they learn, but I want them to keep a basic feeling, namely “Those Chinese people, they really did philosophy…I can’t remember anything that guy said, but it was as hard as any other philosophy I read in that class”.
Suppose that we agree so far. Which texts? They need to be understandable enough, but also stimulating enough (otherwise, they would not be disruptive of the Euro-American focus). Again, ideally they should be readable at multiple levels (easy enough for students who are taking only that class, but also deep enough for students who want to dig deeper). An online conference by Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa convinced me that Sor Juana’s La Respuesta has been prepared in such a way (and it would also be a text by a woman philosopher!). What else? Perhaps a portion of Vasubandhu’s Viṃśikā? It is a crucial text of Sanskrit and Buddhist philosophy and it has been translated (multiple times) and discussed by (e.g.) Sonam Kachru (Other Lives) in case students want to learn more.
Not to speak about this ongoing project, whose first efforts are dedicated to Vasubandhu (click on the image):
How to select a proper text? My requirements would be:
a) a short text,
b) a central text (like the Viṃśikā or the BhG),
c) a text that has been translated in a way that can be read by philosophy students,
d) a text that has been studied (so that students can keep on digging if they want to),
e) a text that is at least in part disruptive (not just a repetition of what they will learn from Aquinas, etc., or they’ll end up thinking that there is nothing really new outside of the Euro-American world).
Some possible sources: Columbia University Press’ series “Historical Sourcebooks in Classical Indian Thought
”, started in 2016 with Olivelle 2016. This is a great source for requirement e), because it works according to the logic of Sanskrit philosophy (with categories such as “A reader on Rasa”, “A reader on Dharma” and “A reader on Śabda” instead of “A reader on Sanskrit Aesthetics”, “A reader on Sanskrit Legal Philosophy” and “A reader on Sanskrit Philosophy of Language”.). Downsides: The terminology is not uniformly philosophical and might look “vague” for teachers of philosophy with no background on Sanskrit philosophy. Thus, teachers who want to use them might need some help and students will definitely need a teacher’s help.
More in-line with criterion c): Guha, Dasti, and Phillips 2021
, on philosophy of religion or Dasti and Phillips 2017
on epistemology (I am not expanding on sources for Chinese, Japanese, Maori, Islamic… philosophy because I am sure there are excellent threads about them, but if you have recommendations, especially for texts fulfilling criteria a–e, please post them here!).
Now, who should teach such a class? Let us imagine that there is a main professor responsible for the whole class. Should they also teach texts they are not experts on? Or should there be “guest teachers”? (Let us imagine that we are in an unusual situation and that such guest teachers are in fact available). Intermediate possibility: The main professor leads the class, but invites an expert to join the class and answer questions etc. This would perhaps avoid the risk of an expert highjacking the class in a direction unwanted and unforeseen by the main teacher.
Thoughts or ideas so far?
If not, let me share a few more inputs:
1. Check this draft for a very unconventional Intro class:
2. Mohammed Rustom is currently editing a sourcebook for Global Philosophy, including translations by, among others, Bryan Van Norden and Jan Westerhoff.
Did you try diversifying your class? How did it go?
(This post has already been published on Twitter, but I would be glad to read to your ideas and reactions)
Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon