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What am I teaching? A way of life or a theory?

By RJ Snell on Wednesday, Sep 8 2010

Philosophy is a way of life. Or perhaps it might be better said that theory is a way of life, for insofar as we ask questions out of a disinterested desire to know we commit ourselves to a way of life, one which used to be termed "philosophic."

The scholar Pierre Hadot is a capable proponent of the notion that for the ancients, philosophy was rather more than system creation--it was a way of life. The various schools--the cynics, the skeptics, the Platonists, the Aristotelians, and etc.--created communities of shared life and inquiry, almost more like a monastery than a university, where they learned together how to live. Systems came later, often as means to clarify what was taught, and sometimes to defend their way of life in the public realm.

I often wonder if my primary duty is to teach a way of life or the theories of my discipline (here theories in the sense of systems of discourse). The question is about primacy. Of course I teach the content and quarrels of method that my discipline addresses, but most often I'm concerned to bring students into the conversation as equal partners, or at least capable partners. That is to say, I'm trying to convince and form them into interlocutors, into inquirers to inquire along with me.

Doing so, however, reveals my own commitment to the Socratic way of life, and thus asks students to be convinced and formed into a particular way. Ought that be done? In doing so I commit myself, I profess, to a certain account of reason, a certain account of the life well lived, a certain tradition. Ought I do so? When cynics and skeptics of the contemporary kind profess their accounts I worry about balance and indoctrination and the loss of reason--am I guilty of special pleading, or is the socratic somehow self-evidently the case?