One of the philosophy faculty members at my college perennially assigns an end-of-term paper in which the freshman student must defend whether (or not) a philosophical principle, view, or argument “is valuable to know.” He has a list of possibilities, such as “Is Descartes’ concept of the body-mind problem valuable to know?” and “Is Aquinas’ proof of God’s existence valuable to know?”
The students wrestle mightily with these essays, although the professor’s question does not in itself constitute a major philosophical argument; even when we disagree with something, we may still feel it is valuable to know. The students do not always recognize that they have to make and defend only the view that knowledge is valuable. They tend, instead, to re-argue the philosopher’s claims…which confuses them, but also works to help them learn what those claims are and how they operate as arguments.
Philosophy, the art of thinking about thinking, by its very nature creates confusion on the path toward greater understanding. Or anyway, that should be the intention. What I like about this assignment (which I often see when I am tutoring) is the way young people come to terms with the material while they are in the process of composing the paper.
Here is how the tutoring sessions tend to go: I look at the first paragraph for context and clarity. Then I look at the claim and help the student clear up any grammar or mechanical errors. Then the student writes about what, for example, Aristotle’s claims about moral and intellectual virtue are. Usually this section comprises two rather vaguely-worded general paragraphs presenting claims by the philosopher, paraphrased in freshman-student sentences, and two short paragraphs presenting opposing views come next.
Here is where grammar and rhetoric are friends. I read each sentence, and I tell the student what he or she is saying in the sentence–based on how well the student can write or proofread, what the sentence says and what the student meant to say may be rather distant partners. So we work on that. As we plow through the paragraphs, the student gets a chance to re-think his or her arguments about and understanding of the philosophical questions at stake in the essay. Sometimes, I can almost see the lightbulb of comprehension beginning to glow in the student’s mind.
It really demonstrates what I tell my students all the time: Writing helps thinking! And so does discussion. In my office, for half an hour, the student gets a sounding board for his or her own ideas and then writes them down. Not all of my students get terrific grades, but it fascinates me to watch them in the process of coming to understand that pretty much anything can be valuable to know.