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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Philosophical Things Every College Student (and maybe everyone) Should Know

by | May 15, 2023

Brian Leiter recently invited people to suggest “philosophical things that everyone should know.” I answered with ten things, which you can see in the comments on the original post.

What philosophical ideas should non-philosophers know about?

But then I started thinking about it. Now, I don’t think the traditional philosophy major is much longer for this world in the academy (aside from the elite colleges and universities) and in many cases will remain only as a part of General Education. It’s a fate I fear may be coming to my own department, at Missouri State University, from which I just retired. So, it’s been on my mind.

In looking at the short list I offered in the thread over at Leiter’s, I realized that it could just as well be a reply to “What philosophical things should every college student know?” which makes sense – as I said, it’s been on my mind. So, I thought about answering that amended question in a more substantial way. If I was confronted with the prospect of having philosophy appear solely in the General Education curriculum, what would I put in it? And my initial list of ten ballooned into more than twenty. Plus a few videos and an essay by George Orwell. 

For a single Gen Ed course to include the entire list is of course a fantasy, and I designed it so that it might be easily excerpted. There are so many nice combinations that one could make of just ten of the items that would encompass any number of core skills and satisfying dives into various subject areas: basic logical and linguistic concepts and tools; the varied common and theoretical uses of terms like ‘know’, ‘justify’, ‘exists’, and the like; the contours and limits of inquiry; how to think about art and artistic creation; the inescapably human character of ethical and axiological discourse and practice; and the status and standing of appeals to the supernatural and the divine. 

The Orwell essay would be included in any combination I offered, as one of the most dangerous things a liberal democratic society faces is dishonest, manipulative political speech. The Huxley interview goes farther and addresses manipulative commercial and marketing-oriented writing and speech as well. One of the most important things the study of philosophy can do for those living in modern, liberal democracies is help equip them for the exercise of intellectual and emotional autonomy and defend against those who would seek to undermine them.

Philosophical Things Every College Student (and maybe everyone) Should Know

[1] The difference between connotation and denotation.

[2] The basic rules of inference. Identity and material equivalence. Quantification.

[3] The A priori/A posteriori and Analytic/Synthetic distinctions.

[4] Gricean Implicature.

[5] Gilbert Ryle, “Knowing How and Knowing That”

[6] Montaigne, “Apology for Raymond Sebond.”

[7] Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty

[8] Externalist and Internalist conceptions of justification.

[9] Aristotle on what level of rigor one can reasonably expect from different areas of inquiry and the context dependence of virtue. (Selections from the Nicomachean Ethics.)

[10] The falsifiability principle.

[11] David Hume, “On Miracles.”

[12] The Euthyphro Dilemma

[13] W.D. Ross’s account of Prima Facie and Actual Duty.

[14] Thomas Nagel, “The Fragmentation of Value”

[15] Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice”

[16] The different types of explanation (causal, teleological, etc.).

[17] Hypothetical and Categorical Imperatives

[18] W.V. Quine, “On What There Is”

[19] Stanley Rosen, “Philosophy and Ordinary Experience,” from Metaphysics in Ordinary Language.

[20] Wilfrid Sellars’ account of the Scientific and Manifest Images

[21] Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

[22] Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace

[23] J.S. Mill’s On Liberty.

[24] Locke, Hume, Rawls on the Social Contract.

I would also have students watch the following videos:

Debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan on God and Morality

Iris Murdoch on Philosophy and Literature

Aldous Huxley, interviewed by Mike Wallace (1958)

And read:

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946)