I’ve been thinking recently about my practice as a teacher of philosophy and religion. I teach a lot of philosophy of religion, though it probably isn’t my own main academic interest. One thing that strikes me about this discipline in particular is how much specific vocabulary it has generated that is either alien or mostly alien to everyday life. To delve into the long-running debates in the history of the philosophy of religion, you need to develop a fairly substantial glossary that is internalised and accessible, and you have to know how the different words and themes interplay with one another.
You might want to talk about ‘eternal’ Vs. ‘everlasting’, which also sends you over to ideas about ‘classical’ theism, or a ‘supreme’ being, and of course takes you on to a problem like God’s ‘omniscience’ (e.g. does that include ‘divine foreknowledge’?).
When you are inducting a true novice into this kind of field, I suppose that it is tempting to ease off the vocabulary, given the understandable fear that it is off-putting and unfamiliar. All teachers fear that they will turn the students off their subjects.
I’m not so sure that’s the right approach, however.
The limits of my words …
It’s ironic that we remember Wittgenstein for his comment about our understanding being limited to our language: “the limits of my words are the limits of my world”. Wittgenstein is also known for deflating philosophical problems, in that they can be a trick of language taken out of context. I suppose you could say that words help us to understand problems that may not be ‘real’ problems in the sense Wittgenstein was getting at. It’s an interesting question whether it’s really worth someone’s while getting to know the philosophy of religion, but that’s another problem for another day.
Still, sticking with the point about vocabulary and understanding, I’ve come to appreciate some pretty old fashioned ways of going ahead with teaching and learning. Specifically, I have learned to love vocabulary lists and tests. I think that these are enormously powerful and sometimes under-rated by teachers of conceptual subjects like philosophy. In this case, words are concepts, and if you have mastery of them you can do things with concepts. Any decent discussion, for example, has to be built upon a solid foundation of language.
I have become really picky, therefore, about my students using subject language when they explain things in class. They have to be precise about agnosticism, atheism, igtheism and not mix them up into a murky soup of ‘unbelief’. I emphasise missing vocabulary when I give feedback on their writing and give praise when it’s present.
The vocabulary legacy
Another great advantage of this, I suspect (ok, have no hard evidence for), is that vocabulary will probably stay with a student years after they have finished their studies in philosophy. For example, to remember the sequence of premises in a particular argument might be quite difficult. To remember how you would analyse the objections to a certain theory would be tough, give years down the line. But what about a single word? Will words like ‘transcendence’ or ‘dualism’ fall by the wayside?
If I remember my own studies in politics aged 16-18, which I took quite intensively and then stopped, the main things I have retained are snippets of words and phrases. I cannot remember the different stages of a bill passing into law. I can remember, however, some of the language of political science and the distinctions it enables me to draw: executive, legislature, judiciary, and so on. It was invaluable for me to acquire that language at that time, and to a good extent it has stuck.
Perhaps a good grounding in philosophical vocabulary could leave a strong legacy for people to think in philosophical terms after they have gone on from formal studies. Perhaps.
Vocabulary as thinking
Certainly, there are some words in philosophy which, to understand them at all, require a lot of preparatory thinking. A good example would be Dennett’s heterophenomenology. If you understand what this word means (the ability to understand what it is like for somebody else to have experiences), then you have already done a lot of spade work to get to that definition. If you pitch words at the right level, you are asking students to think their way to that word. Make it progressive and staged, make it challenging, and the humble word list can drag along someone’s cognitive abilities quite impressively. To knock this kind of approach as ‘regurgitation’ (a classic teaching insult) would be to miss the point.
As is the case with so many educational tools, this kind of ‘rote learning’ gets a bad name because it has (a) not been understood properly, and (b) not been skilfully used. For my part, I am happy to call myself a ‘progressive’ teacher and still make use of some pretty old tools. But perhaps this kind of example makes a mockery of the whole traditional / progressive distinction.
Good teaching is good teaching.