To foster their critical thinking, I encourage students to express themselves in a variety of interactive and intrapersonal ways: group discussions, debates, presentations, class participation, collaborative projects, journal reflections, writing an explanatory note on each other’s papers, joining in question periods and guest lectures. I also screen videos of interviews with distinguished philosophers of our age. I strive, to clarify the topics and subjects of related courses and encourage students to practice the art of critical thinking. I further believe that one of the main issues that must be methodologically addressed in the classroom and in all philosophical courses is the question of philosophy itself. While the question “What is Philosophy?” seems to be relatively uncomplicated, the response is not. A quick look at some of the countless books available on the explication of philosophy shows an uneven division into five fields. Each highlights a certain set of factors for defining philosophy and its foundations:
Ontology: Philosophy can be understood from the study of beings or their being and responding to the question ‘what is’. The roots of this field of philosophy go back to Aristotle who believed Ontology was the major philosophy and all other types of philosophy could be easily explained by referring to it.
Epistemology: The study of knowledge asks the central question ‘how do we know’. Descartes considered it the primary philosophy and believed all other branches of philosophy should be interpreted with reference to it.
Logic: Another group defines philosophy chiefly in terms of Logic— the study of valid reasoning. Its main question is ‘how to reason’. Bertrand Russell is one of the major philosophers of this field.
Ethics: This is the study of right and wrong. Its central question is ‘how we should we act’. Socrates and Plato, for instance, consider Ethics to be the primary philosophy
Phenomenology: Probably the most significant branch of philosophy was coined by Edmund Husserl in the beginning of 20th century. He believed that the only subject of philosophy was the study of our experience. Its central question is ‘how do we experience’. Husserl further claimed that all other philosophies from the beginning to the end of 19th century were not philosophies, but rather ‘worldviews’. He contends that phenomenology, as rigorous science, is the only approach that can truly be called philosophy. After Husserl advanced his own ‘Transcendental phenomenology’, many other kinds of phenomenology appeared in 20th century contemporary philosophy. Among them were Ontological phenomenology (Heidegger-Merleau-Ponty), Existential phenomenology (Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre), Hermeneutical phenomenology (Gadamer, Ricoeur), Poststructuralism/Linguistical phenomenology (Blanchot, Foucault, Derrida), Ethical phenomenology (Levinas), and Phenomenology of practice or Experiential/Applied phenomenology (in psychology, nursing and education). This tended to muddy the water, making it extremely difficult to provide a clear idea of the nature and the subject of philosophy.
Having said all of this, I am claiming, based on my teaching experience, that the most difficult topic for students to learn and for educators to teach is what philosophy is itself. I personally know many graduate students who have not entertained the question of philosophy and as a result are not able to articulate the definition of philosophy and its distinction from other disciplines. This applies especially with respect to the relatively new field of interdisciplinary studies, which poses a particular threat to the discipline of philosophy. The lack of a course on Metaphilosophy in most departments of philosophy worldwide compels educators to fill this gap. My method is to particularize the big issues surrounding Metaphilosophy and involve students with some related questions. I might ask them to write their journal reflections on the aforementioned topics, participate in an online group discussion on Metaphilosophy, which I set up for all courses, and discuss the ideas that different philosophers have of philosophy, at least in part during class time.
One approach to philosophy is to think about how the prominent philosophers begin doing philosophy and investigating philosophical topics. Throughout the historical journey of Western philosophy, we find that a primary feature of doing philosophy is offering critical views that refute another philosopher’s claim, or reveal some philosophical views as less defensible than others, and some simply indefensible. To me, nothing is more important for students of philosophy than acquiring a comprehensive knowledge about the nature and subject of their discipline. Although the methods I’ve described may appear difficult to students at first, I always emphasize in my course descriptions that I am available during office hours and/or by special arrangement to answer any questions that may arise.
A common way to approach teaching philosophy is to divide each course into two phases. The first involves a careful reading of several works relevant to the topic of the session. All students in the course are required to do this reading and to respond with brief critical reflections. The second stage involves writing a paper related to the topic of the course, determined in dialogue with the instructor. In contrast, an inseparable part of my educational method is to invite students to recognize that knowledge should chiefly be obtained in a collective, communicative action involving dialogue, rather than purely through independent acts or efforts. While supporting and valuing individual diversity, I maintain that it is critical for students to develop as learners in relation to others rather than in isolation or as simply non-conformists.
My experience teaching different undergraduate and graduate courses has led me to appreciate the essential difference between these two levels of courses. For instance, in teaching the third- and fourth-year undergraduate courses on the ‘Interpretation of Philosophical Texts in English Language’, which was aimed at students looking for an overview of historically grounded philosophical thought, and also for those interested in pursuing a significant research project related to the topic of the course, I employed five methods of teaching for every session. We began with a short chronological screening of a DVD documentary covering the key figures in the history of Western philosophy, followed by a translation and interpretation of its transcribed text. Next we translated and interpreted selected primary sources covering the same time period and specific philosopher. The session continued with translating and interpreting some philosophical concepts, and ended with an interactive philosophy quiz. The feedback from students was very positive. They said that employing five different methods helped clarify multiple angles on complicated subjects and shed light on some difficult philosophical issues.