Central courses taught in philosophy

I was flattered to discover that a course I am offering next semester, “Nietzsche’s French Receptions,” was the only one in the entire catalog singled out for discussion in last week’s debate on the pros and cons of a core curriculum. I was less pleased to find that the course received such attention only because it was taken to be an outstanding example of a perceived general problem with the courses available at Williams. As Mr. Scott Moringiello ’01 nicely put it: “Should such courses be offered when courses involving thought central to them are not?”

The irony is that I designed this course precisely in the hopes that it would be part of the solution to the very problem Mr. Moringiello has identified. In my experience, students commonly encounter 20th century French thought in a variety of disciplines, yet rarely have the philosophical background that an appreciation of such thought presupposes. Nietzsche is only one part of that background, but he is an important part, and thus by teaching him together with some of his most influential 20th century successors I intend to help students appreciate those later thinkers in a way they otherwise could not.

Mr. Moringiello is right that an adequate appreciation of Nietzsche himself requires further knowledge of the history of philosophy, which will not be provided in this course. In an ideal world, all readers of Nietzsche would be steeped in the western philosophical tradition from Thales to Schopenhauer, and would be able to read Greek, Latin, German, and French. But bringing about such a world would require the adoption of a curriculum almost no one would consider appropriate for present-day Williams. The question then remains: given the interests and backgrounds of current students, should the philosophy department offer courses like mine?

To answer negatively is to suggest that students cannot possibly understand contemporary issues and thinkers because they lack the requisite historical background, which the department should therefore limit itself to providing.

But this is surely misguided, for although Mr. Moringiello is correct that contemporary philosophy cannot be properly understood without at least some understanding of the history from which it arose, it is also the case that the study of that history is enlivened when students are made aware of its relation to contemporary issues and concerns.

The best solution, it seems to me, approximates that which has been adopted: the department attempts both to introduce students to the most recent work in the field, and to provide sufficient historical training to make the current state of the discipline intelligible. With only six full-time faculty, it is simply impossible to offer everything that is worth teaching. But students who take advantage of the courses that are, in fact offered in philosophy and related departments (such as classics, religion, history, and German) can certainly acquire the “basis in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Paul, Augustine, Kant, [and] Hegel” that Mr. Moringiello wisely wants to have.

Will Dudley is a visiting assistant professor in philosophy. The opinions expressed in his article are his own, and should not be taken to represent the philosophy department or any other member of it.

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