Introduction to Philosophy

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Tuesday, 09-05-17: Introduction: The Point of Aporia


Today I introduced the mechanics of the course, which are fairly straightforward: We'll have daily quizzes, a first midterm exam (as per the schedule) worth a modest 100 points, a second midterm exam worth a more impressive 200 points, and a final exam worth a staggering 300 points. The idea behind the escalating points is to give students who struggle at first a chance they otherwise would not have had. The daily quizzes also take the pulse of the class, while providing low-cost, yet continuous feedback. Worth only 20 points, we'll take the best twenty of those for course credit. I hope to have 24 or 25 of them, but you should aim to take as many of the quizzes as feasible, which I suppose is another way of say, you should be unfailing in your attendance.

Indeed, the quizzes set the tone for the course. It is very much an 'in class' course. There won't be a whole lot of reading to do outside of class. Instead, you'll need to buckle down as you never have before and work as hard as you can in class. It will be demanding--some, no doubt, will say unreasonably so, or unrelentingly so, perhaps. So be it.

Note that the exams are scheduled on the homepage for the course, but I'll announce content and style later. I'll usually favor essay questions over multiple-choice and true/false questions, but this is a rather large class. I'll have to see what's manageable, even with our grader's dutiful contributions.

Yes, we have a grader this semester! Her name is Hannah Brady. She's one of our Honors students (until recently I headed the Honors Program) who happens to have taken Honors Logic and, currently, Philosophy and History of Science and Technology with me. She's patient and diligent: I'm certain you'll enjoy working with her.

Now, one of the issues we took up today was what to do about the inevitable group of students who struggle on the quizzes. How, that is, do we get them up to speed with the material? What we settled on was to designate the lowest scoring 10 quizzes each day as the Zed-10 group, whose duty it will be to attend my office hours (9:00 - 12:30 TR) before the next class to be given a challenging problem to be solved as a group and presented at the start of class. Each member contributing to the Zed-10 will earn 5 points extra credit for explaining their solution to the class. Those missing class will automatically be included in the Zed-10.

We'll see if it works, but I really like this approach. It fits neatly with the very nature of philosophy.

You see, philosophy, Wittgenstein tells us, is an activity. It is not a body of knowledge to be memorized and regurgitated. It is something you do. Of all the academic fields, perhaps, it is the one nearest to athletics in spirit, in conduct, and in outcome. That is, you should think of our days in class as training days, where you have to put forth maximum effort. If I do my job well, you should be exhausted (physically and mentally) at the end of every class. But as with an athlete, so with a scholar: Intelligence, you see, is hardly set in stone. It is something you improve with effort. The mind is no different than the muscle it directs.

As I say, our training will be exhausting, though. So you need to get plenty of sleep. You need to eat well. You need to give yourself time to digest everything we do in class--quiet time, to reflect and build your resilience.

So much for the course mechanics and the nature of the course.

Now man, Aristotle tells us, is the rational animal. To be sure, there are different ways to understand 'rational'. It might mean only that we have the capacity--a capacity we too often choose to ignore--to weigh ends and our means to them so as follow the best course of action available to us. How we manage it, when we do, is the focus of practical deliberation, and Aristotle has much to say about it.

We began today by taking an quiz of sorts, an exam which may have left some feeling, it may be, bewildered. I assure you that the point of these quizzes and puzzles is neither to belittle nor stupify, but to argue by example that even as we consider ourselves the RATIONAL animal, it is perhaps more accurate to say we are the rational ANIMAL. That is, we greatly overestimate our ability to reason, which is not to say we overestimate our capacity for reason. Yet how we in fact reason tends to embarrass our potential for reason. In the course of a day we reason neither well nor clearly, as it happens--all the more reason, it seems, for our training in philosophy this semester.

Next time we set the stage for the course by discussing an important lesson from Plato's Apology.