misconceptions about philosophy (and how I address them in class)
philosophy is disconnected from reality
Philosophy students, in contrast to students in other disciplines, continuously wonder about how what they are studying is relevant to everyday questions, and in particular to the moral, political, social, affective, and economic questions that trigger their interest on everyday basis. Whether during the analysis of an academic text or a news report in the media, in my classes I illustrate how philosophical training prepares us to develop a more nuanced approach to the natural and social phenomena that surround us. I encourage students to follow current debates in the social, scientific and political scene and to apply the philosophical tools they master in class, as if they were music apprentices getting familiar with their newly acquired instruments. A fun exercise consists of presenting students with a heated public debate (e.g. on climate change, (im)migration) and ask them to write two short reports. In the first one they briefly tell their personal opinion on the issue. Then we discuss the topic in class and analyze the arguments used by the different parties in the debate. After providing then with philosophical tools, I ask them to write the second report on the same topic.
the paradigm of philosopher is a bearded white man
We now know that the biggest drop in the proportion of women in philosophy seems to occur between enrollment in an introductory course and becoming a philosophy major (Paxton, Figdor & Tiberius, 2012). This calls for early interventions designed to retain women in the philosophy major (e.g. including more women authors in the reading lists and syllabi of introductory courses). It is reasonable to assume that the same retainment issue may apply to other underrepresented groups. My syllabi introduce students to a variety of philosophers, from centuries-old western philosophers to contemporary ones, many of them belonging to underrepresented groups. As a visual aid, I usually include pictures of the authors we cover in class in my slides, aiming to break the common stereotype of what a philosopher looks like. This gives students from underrepresented groups the chance to identify with some of the portrayed philosophers. I believe these measures make my courses a welcoming and inspiring space, where anyone can see themselves as (future) philosophers, and I am rewarded when I see it working (when, for instance, a student from a minority group tells me that my course has inspired her to pursue a career in philosophy or to continue working on a research project through the summer).
philosophy is opposite to science
some ideas associated with this misconception:
a. Science gives final answers - Philosophy only provides questions b. Science reads directly from the facts - Philosophy is about interpretation c. Science is objective - Philosophy is not
Discussing this misconception involves clarifying what science is not (e.g. it does not provide final answers, but provisional explanations; it is not a cumulative body of knowledge; relating data to theory requires a lot of interpretation and inference), and emphasizing that progress in knowledge and understanding, whether in empirical or purely conceptual fields, is achieved to a large extent through asking better questions. Both science and philosophy are exciting because they give us tools to explore, not because they give us final proven answers (which they don’t).
good philosophers have an innate talent
Based on my interactions with a broad range of students, I can say that a major worry of many students in philosophy courses is whether they have the required talent to be philosophers. While in the first and second year courses some students mention this explicitly (e.g. “I’m afraid I’m not good at philosophy” “philosophy is not for me”), in advanced and graduate courses this issue comes up in an implicit and more problematic way. Many upper level and graduate students feel the constant pressure to show that they have the required talent. The fear of failing in their public performance (e.g. by asking a wrong, not smart enough question), and the fear of being an impostor after all, keep many students alienated from their work, and prevent them from having a healthy relationship with the philosophy practice. Also, the belief that being good at philosophy requires having an innate talent seems to be importantly connected to some of the diversity and inclusiveness issues in our profession. Recent studies show that beliefs about genius in some fields, including philosophy (combined with beliefs about stereotypes about women’s and men’s abilities), potentially contributes to the underrepresentation of women in these fields (Leslie et al. 2015). I actively try to dismantle the belief that a proper philosopher has an innate halo in order to alleviate the pressure on students and to improve the climate in the classroom. My strategy of encouraging students to work on (sharpening and structuring) their questions, rather than on (attaining correct) answers is one of the ways I use to communicate the idea that philosophical skills can be – and typically are – developed through hard and dedicated work.
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