Ethical Realism

March 5, 2010

How to Teach Philosophy

Filed under: philosophy — JW Gray @ 9:01 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The best way to teach philosophical thinking is just by having conversations with others. This is one reason that being a friend (or a tutor) is one of the best ways to teach philosophy. However, philosophy instructors tend to be the most influential teachers of philosophy. I have had the pleasure to be a philosophy tutor and to teach three philosophy classes. I’m not the best, but here are some ideas for teaching students how to think philosophically. Philosophy instructors can teach philosophical thinking through discussing, reading philosophy, and writing philosophy, but there’s a lot more to think about. Students have a hard time thinking philosophically, reading philosophy, and writing philosophy essays, and we can help them.

Discussing Philosophy

Philosophy discussion is best one on one, but it can be necessary even in a classroom. When discussing philosophy, you can do the following:

  1. Try to clarify the arguments of others. Simplify them in an attempt to find the premises, conclusion, and justification.
  2. Don’t tell people they are wrong. Instead, help them improve their argument.
  3. Help people find more information that they can research to help them understand what philosophers have to say about the relevant topic.

Reading Philosophy

I know of three ways to help students read philosophy:

  1. Give them some tips. For example, they should be willing to do research and look up difficult vocabulary. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy should be mentioned.
  2. Read the text with them and (a) ask the class to help you make sense out of the text and (b) tell them your interpretation of the text. This is an essential method for teaching when you tutor students one on one, but even instructors can do it with their class.
  3. Summarize the arguments. You could give out handouts or let students download lecture notes that show all the premises and the conclusion for each argument.

Writing Philosophy

We can’t demand that students know how to write philosophy right off the bat. Some philosophy professors give up on expecting anything from student’s philosophy essays because it is so hard for them. I think we can teach students how to write relatively good philosophy essays. Here are my ideas for teaching students how to do so:

  1. Teach them about formal logic, requirements for good arguments, justification, and fallacies. Tell them how these things are relevant to their lives and philosophy in general.
  2. Have them read good examples of philosophical essay writing that they can emulate. John Searle’s texts are a pretty good example. A sample student essay can also help.
  3. Have them read about philosophical essay writing.
  4. Have them write about how to write philosophical essays. If they can tell you how it’s done, they will internalize their understanding.
  5. Have the class help each student consider various objections to their arguments. They will be expected to reply to at least one good objection in their essay.


Whether you are a tutor, or an instructor, or a philosophy student teaching philosophy to others is important. I hope these tips will help.

If you are going to teach a philosophy class, I also recommend that you read some books about teaching, such as McKeachie’s Teaching Tips by Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki. Older editions are very cheap on Amazon.

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