I have been hard at work on next Wednesday's lecture since early this morning. I have only worked this intensively on the preparation for a course twice before: in 1960, when I worked up my course at Harvard on the Critique of Pure Reason for the first time, and in then 1975, when I first taught a course on The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy at UMass. On Wednesday, I shall complete my analytical exposition of classical Political Economy, bringing the story up to the point at which Marx entered the picture with Volume One of Capital. Then I shall stop doing mathematical economics for a bit and start doing literary criticism!
I realized this week that I am really teaching two courses, not one. [I plan to say this to the students on Wednesday, so those who have followed Jon Tostoe to this blog are getting a preview.] The manifest subject of the course is "Karl Marx's Critique of Capitalism." but the latent subject [to borrow a distinction from Robert Merton] is "How to do Philosophy." I want the students to learn, through this course, the importance of taking the time and expending the energy to learn a great deal about all the disciplines that bear in one way or another on the philosophical questions they are interested in.
If you are doing the Philosophy of Mind, in my view, then you really need to familiarize yourself more than casually with neurophysiology. If you are doing the Philosophy of Science, then it should go without saying that you need to know a very great deal, in a serious way, about modern Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. If you are doing Political Philosophy, then you need to know a great deal about Political Sociology [I leave to one side Political Science, which has never struck me as an authentic discipline.] And if you are doing Moral Philosophy, then you simply must inform yourself about Psychiatry, among other things.
This is not the dominant view in Philosophy these days, so far as I can tell. Philosophers who are very smart, in a narrow, clever way, seem to imagine that they can rely on their innate intelligence to guide them through the Realm of Ideas. But I disagree.
My favorite counterexample comes from the great neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. Many of you may have come across the notion of "contrast-dependent terms," which is to say terms that are defined by reference to one another and therefore, it is supposed, can only be understood as a pair -- right and left, for example, or, for that matter, right and wrong.. There are philosophers who, after a bit of reflection undisturbed by any substantive knowledge, will assert confidently that no one could grasp the notion of to the right who did not also grasp the notion to the left. Oliver Sacks, in one of his books, describes one of his patients, a woman who had suffered a traumatic brain injury. She had lost all understanding of the concept to the left, while retaining a quite satisfactory functional grasp of to the right. If she was looking for something on a table in front of her, and was told it was on her left, she would turn herself all the way around to the right until the object came into view. Now, of course, a philosopher could try to "save the appearances" [to co-opt a phrase from the Greeks] by saying that the woman did not really understand the concept "to the right." But that seems to me a counsel of desperation.
Oh well, I am only an Adjunct Professor in the Department, so I suspect I shall not make too lasting an impression on the students.