Student Question on Meta-Philosophy

Every time I teach intro to philosophy (we call it Problems of Philosophy, a title I’m not especially fond of, but that’s best saved for another post), I have at least one student who is some combination of a radical subjectivist and an extreme skeptic.  This can really block the student’s learning, because students like this sometimes can’t quite see the point of discussing and evaluating different viewpoints, or offering arguments in favor of or against them.

This semester, one of my students followed up on several long conversations after class and in my office hours by sending me an email in which she expressed some of her subjectivist objections to philosophy as a discipline.  One of her concerns was that the methodology of philosophy seems to her to require accepting certain premises without further argumentation.  She concluded by thanking me for allowing her to “challenge” my “great patience” with her many questions.  Here is part of my reply:

“Great patience” is meant to be challenged. 🙂

I think it is impractical to not make judgments of truth and falsity, and to try to avoid giving justifications for one’s beliefs.  However, I could be wrong.  (Or could I?)

Perhaps a general way to address your concerns is this.  Part of what philosophers disagree about is the methodology of philosophy.  Indeed, I teach an advanced seminar on just this topic.  As we read through the philosophers in this course, you will see different views about how philosophy works.  Descartes sees philosophy as beginning with indubitable premises that all humans must share.  Hume sees philosophy as closely related to natural science.  The hermeneutic philosophers, of which Richard Bernstein is our representative, think philosophy is a form of dialogue aimed at achieving agreement that is not coerced. 

These are just three possibilities. 

About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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