Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What would be the perfect reading?

John Capps is fond of asking friends and colleagues which philosophers have good writing style. This question, I've noticed, usually gets a blank stare in return. "The writing itself? Not the argument?" they ask, as if to say that what we write and how we write it don't influence each other.

Capps' question comes to mind as I prepare a syllabus for critical thinking. The students will be presented with a buffet of the usual dishes: identifying arguments, the structure of deduction and induction, proving invalidity, just a taste of formal logic, all of it seasoned with a smattering of fallacies to help the digestion. But in addition to the critical thinking textbook, I'd like the students to be presented with some real writing, real arguments, real philosophy.

For most of them, it may be the only philosophy they read and discuss the whole time that they are studying to become engineers or computer programmers or graphic designers. What should I pick?

Here are the criteria:
1. Self-contained. Journal articles take part in a conversation. Authors are necessarily responding to something that came before. But my students will have no context, and I'm not much concerned with content. It's likely that the perfect reading would come from a magazine like the Boston Review or be a book chapter. The ideas should be challenging, but their presentation should not be.

2. Reflective. While most philosophy is ultimately dispassionate, the perfect reading for this class would invite the reader to reflect on personal experience and actions. The content is still wide open, but I'm drawn to topics like civil society, liberal democracy, lifeboat ethics, racial identity, education, free inquiry. The concerns should be live and the examples should be real. E.g., I won't assign something about human cloning when no one is actively engaged in human cloning.

3. Clear arguments, nice style. It's for a critical thinking course. It's more important that the reading be a good example of argumentation than that it be an example of philosophy.

I'd like to spend time on three readings, and I have two picked out already:
Robert Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy, 1995.
(This is not philosophy, but it contains some good argumentation and it provokes thoughtful discussion.)
Richard Rorty, "Education as Socialization and Individuation," in Philosophy and Social Hope, 1989.


Khadimir said...

Since you already have one Rorty article, here's another that should get people talking.

Richard Rorty, "Moral Universalism and Economic Triage" UNESCO Forum (1996)

I found an online text once, but I'm having difficulty finding it again.

Evelyn Brister said...

Sounds good. I'll try to track it down.

Jim Johnson said...


I have memories of readingessays by G.A. Cohen while in grad school that were models of clarity.

I also think Harr Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit" is terrific in terms of style.

As an example of something that is virtually inpenetrable in termsof style Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty" is a good candidate.

as an instance from a non-philosopher, I think Clifford Geertz has a wonderful writing stylein many of his essays.

Hope all is well with you. Jim

Evelyn Brister said...

Jim, you're the second person to suggest that "On Bullshit" would be the perfect reading for my Critical Thinking course. I'll give it serious consideration!

I'm of two minds about Berlin. His essays vary in terms of how they read. Like many people, I'm attracted to his distinctions - forms of liberty, hedgehogs and foxes. But trouble in applying the concepts show that he makes the complex too simple.

Evelyn Brister said...

Thanks for the on- and off-line recommendations. I've decided to assign Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit." The class won't read it until February, and I'll report back on how they like it. No doubt some will think it confirms that philosophy is bullshit.