What am I teaching? A way of life or a theory?
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By RJ Snell, September 8, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?

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?

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17 Comments
Lee Trepanier on Sep 8, 2010 at 6:49 am

I think that teaching students a way of life is the proper way to teach philosophy. Years from now, most students won't remember this or that particular philosophical doctrine, but they will remember and possibly retain a way of living that you have inspired them.

Thaddeus on Sep 8, 2010 at 12:08 pm

What would it mean and look like to not "reveal my own commitment to the Socratic way of life, and thus ask students to be convinced and formed into a particular way"? I have a hard time imagining not revealing a commitment or forming students in a particular way. I am not even sure if such an "a-teleological" way of teaching is possible.

Lee Trepanier on Sep 8, 2010 at 4:14 pm

It does happen, but these teachers tend to be the uninspired ones, e.g., using power point for substitutes for lecture. It happens quite a bit in methods class. It's hard to be formed Socratically when you are teaching statistics.

David Kidd on Sep 8, 2010 at 5:13 pm

"It's hard to be formed Socratically when you are teaching statistics."

Good line.

Lee Trepanier on Sep 9, 2010 at 5:23 am

Actually I always wanted to teach statistics as a pedagogical challenge. Perhaps a model to teach statistics Socratically could be found in the Meno.

RJ Snell on Sep 9, 2010 at 6:45 am

Thaddeus, Is there a difference between an implicit and explicit teaching. I teach socratically and demand reasons for positions--why? why? why?--and clearly the method reveals some commitments. I also explicitly defend the socratic method as (a) reasonable, (b) good, (c) to be pursued. We can at least make a distinction between what is taught through performance from what is taught implicitly. So, ought I teach it explicitly? And should I balance my implicit performance with other methods?

Fred Putnam on May 26, 2011 at 8:06 am

Riffing on McLuhan, Postman and Weingartner suggest that the greatest lessons learned by students are: (1)sit down; (2) shut up; (3) listen; (4) I (the student) am stupid, incapable of thought, curious about all the wrong things, and ignorant; and (5) my only responsibility is to please the person at the front of the room. (my paraphrase of several chapters of "Teaching as a Subversive Activity").

Your manner of teaching (and grading), i.e., your treatment of them as human beings created in imago Dei (or, contrarily, as your imperial subjects) is the main lesson that your students will learn--and perhaps the only one that they will remember. And it is this lesson that will most influence the course of their lives, which largely entail their relationships with other human beings.

I rarely tell students the "real" goals of the course, which are almost always affective and attitudinal, rather than content or performance. Most of them figure it out before the end of term.

This note is meant to be encouraging.

RJ Snell on Sep 9, 2010 at 6:46 am

Lee, I've taught logic socratically before--no lectures, just questions.

Lee Trepanier on Sep 11, 2010 at 6:07 am

That's my preference for teaching, although I do add a bit of lecture in the beginning of class to set up the problem. I do find that teaching Socratically really depends on the quality of students you have. Of course, it falls upon the professor to elicit responses from students, but the student does have to meet you at least half way to make it work.

Thaddeus Kozinski on Sep 11, 2010 at 8:13 am

I am not sure. Sometimes explicit seems necessary, other times not. Sometimes, as a teacher, I am not even sure what my explicit aim is until it "appears" in the midst of a great dialectical conversation! This is part of the joint-enquiry aspect of teaching. This is more appropriate to some subjects, like philosophical enquiry into thorny questions and problems, than others, like theological explication of the truths of the Faith. It's sometimes a nice surprise, though, when the truths that are seen at the end of the discussion are not completely foreseen. Spontaneity is also an important part of the teaching art, such that the end-truth-aporia-deeper questions, etc., come as a surprise to everyone and lead to continuing exploration. Postman is good on this topic, though he is too perspectival and skeptical in the end.

TLC on Sep 14, 2010 at 8:38 am

Mr. Snell, Thank you for another thought-provoking post. Mr. Trepanier is surely right that the teachers who strike undergraduates as most impressive are those who model a way of life. And Mr. Kozinski seems right to me when he suggests that a thoroughly a-theological/presuppositionaless teaching mode is impossible. But surely the question of the goodness of inquiry (to say nothing of a life comprehensively dedicated to inquiry) is a crucial question to which the answer is not at all obvious. Here the teacher who is himself an inquirer uncertain of the goodness of the life of inquiry MUST present to students the questionableness of the life of inquiry. To do otherwise is to risk doing great harm. For this reason I think it imperative to teach Aristophanes' Clouds whenever I teach Plato's Socrates. Rousseau's First Discourse, and virtually all of Nietzsche's works can also be vehicles for calling to students' attention this vital question. But then I also wonder if, on this question in particular, our situation (the aftermath of the death of God) isn't peculiar: if being a seeker isn't in some sense the only respectable position today.

Mr. David T. Stark on Sep 14, 2010 at 9:43 am

I find two issues in this discussion that affect (afflict?) my classes.

The first is the difficulty of engaging in socratic discussion with people who lack a knowledge base upon which to reason.

The second is the academic-sounding question of how we avoid taking any sort of stand in the classroom. IMO, we should not. We are who we are. Our students need, among other things, role models. How can I be a model if I conceal a substantial portion of my identity from my audience?

As someone once said, "If you stand for nothing, then you will fall for anything." We can and should take a stand for whatever our values are, not to teach our students WHAT to think, but to give them some practice in HOW to think.

Peter J. Colosi on Sep 14, 2010 at 11:09 am

I just was thinking about 2 possible meanings of "Socratic." First would be the idea of the professor not making any truth claims and by doing so implying that truth claims are out of bounds in the classroom. I had a professor of philosophy once, a very nice man, who would set up a complete theory one day so that it looked right/true/flawless and then surprise us the next day by completely dismantling it and replacing it with another that looked just as right, and on and on. So, back then, I thought philosophy was an intellectual ping-pong game. If we asked which he thought was right, he would never answer. Then later I had some professors who thematized truth. This was a revelation to me and was the reason I then went to grad school for philosophy. Socrates was the latter - this, I think, is the core principle which makes him different from (opposite to!) the Sophists: he was always after truth and they didn't care about it. I like Thaddeus' "end-truth-aporia-deeper questioning" way of describing what goes on in the classroom, and I think that in the midst of that for the students to know explicitly that the professor loves truth is important, otherwise I think you get the uninspiring kind of professor that Lee mentioned, or partially inspiring, but it won't last long if it just seems like an endless ping-pong game. So, I think one principle in the "way of life" we have to model is a yearning for truth. By the way, this is just me making explicit a distinction that occurred to me in reading this thread; I know you are all deeply interested in truth! ps - a third meaning of Socratic in the thread seems to be the distinction between lecture and seminar style, the latter being identified with Socratic.

RJ Snell on Sep 18, 2010 at 9:57 am

Peter: Very helpful. Ping pong seems a way to train skeptical misologues. I tend here to be thinking of conversion, something akin to what Augustine experiences after reading Hortensius. What was the content of Hortensius? Did Augustine change belief x to belief non-x? Or did he change his loves and desires?

RJ Snell on Sep 18, 2010 at 10:00 am

TLC: A line from Prayers of the People, Form 6, of my beloved Book of Common Prayer: ". . . for all who seek the Truth."

But of course, it seems that we still need to defend the search, the seeking, if we begin with Aristophanes, and Rousseau, and Nietzsche.

Anonymous on Oct 1, 2010 at 7:15 am

I very much enjoyed reading this blog and the thread that followed. It raises, it seems to me, two fairly separate questions. First, is the Socratic method the best way to teach students; and second, and more fundamentally, what is our primary goal – the teaching of a way of life or the teaching of the models in our discipline? Of course, teaching the models of our discipline may entail teaching a way of life in some sense, and the teaching of a way of life may entail the teaching of our models in some cases. And when this happy state of affairs is the case, we as teachers are surely fortunate. But presumably, there will be times when we aren’t completely sure that each dovetails nicely with the other, and when this happens we will be lead to ask some of the important questions Dr. Snell has. Here I won’t say anything about the Socratic method – its value, purpose, range of applicability, and difficulty to pull-off successfully. Instead, I want to say something briefly about the difficulty in the modern university of teaching a way of life.

Rawls and his followers have thought that it was a fact of reasonable pluralism that modern society will be characterized by competing visions of the good life. Whether that philosophical point of view is correct or no, many of us will feel and recognize that we live in a society characterized by the belief that the conception of the good life is a sort of occult thing: people sort of, kind of, believe in it (they watch Oprah, and read self-help books, and seek “fulfillment” and “balance” in their lives), and yet they embrace a sort of cultural and moral relativism that makes the idea of a good life seemingly out of reach. Today, the closest thing our culture has to an idea of the good life seem to be notions such as “authenticity” and “following your bliss.”

Given this environment, teaching students a way of life is particularly difficult. In part, this is because the society is so fuzzy on it; and in part, this is because there may be a natural resistance by teachers to talking in these terms to students, parents, and administrators. And yet, many of us believe that at some level this is indeed what we as teachers should be doing. Further, one gets a sense from students that they need and want this – college after all is a transition time in their lives: having left the home of their parents, but not yet gained full membership in the adult world of work - one gets a sense that students are trying to figure out what a good life would be, what they might contribute, and how they might go about it.

This leads me to think that we might want to reflect on what sort of virtues - intellectual and practical - will help our students flourish in the world they are on the verge of entering in to. And further, that we might want to think of our course as exercises in intellectual and practical virtues. If we thought of our work that way, then we would be helping our students exercise these meaningful capacities. But in the end of course, teaching follows what Peter Colosi (a good fellow summer Princeton participant) might call the logic of the gift, and as such all we can hope for is that the virtues we teach will carry our students forward to where they can find a life lived well.

Last updated on Oct 1, 2010 at 7:19 am.
your favorite student on Aug 1, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Anonymous: That was a clear window into today's world! It was also so beautifully written. I want to attend your class!! But I can't because I'm too busy watching t.v., surfing the internet and going to the latest movies in search of the "good life" to bother with anything that requires more than 7 minutes of my attention. Lovely conversation, though.

about the author

R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell

Associate Professor and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University outside of Philadelphia. Ph.D. from Marquette, MA from Boston College and BSc. from Liberty University.

I work broadly in the history of philosophy, but especially Thomism in conjunction with contemporary thought. My first book argues for a Thomist, Bernard Lonergan, against the skepticism of Richard Rorty.

Starting to do more work on the natural law and especially the epistemology of apprehending the good.