A Heretical Idea: Skipping Plato while Teaching Philosophy

I’ve taught philosophy to university students for over 20 years. In trying to explain philosophy to others, I have learned more about philosophy than when I was a student.

Always, I have sought to show students how philosophy relates to their everyday lives. I present to them how the ideas of important philosophers help us address the issues we face, how approaching the world with a philosophical mindset helps them understand and handle life’s problems big and small. For years, I have been honing my Introduction to Philosophy course, to better and better assist the students to learn philosophy. I should point out that most of my students are non-majors and have had no prior experience with philosophy.

A major shortcoming of most philosophy textbooks is how little attention they give to recent philosophy. They give students the false impression that philosophy was a pursuit of the past, now obsolete. Frustrated by that and other deficiencies of the available Intro textbooks (the exorbitant price tags included), I spent a few years writing my own, which was published last year. I felt it important to present to my students a textbook that gives a chronology of Western philosophy’s development that includes coverage of how that history has manifested in the most recent decades.

A challenge I have faced all of my career is what to cover in a 14-week term. It seems that always, I have at least 15 weeks of material to cover but only 14 weeks in which to do it. In the chronology of Western philosophy (we cover non-Western philosophy in another course), I’ve always started the term with a week on Plato, and the first chapter in my textbook covers Plato. I’ve always assumed Plato is essential and have cut out other topics to fit within time constraints.

This term, I have begun to question that assumption that Plato is an absolutely essential beginning. Plato has always elicited the same general responses from students. They see Plato’s theory of Forms as dubious, and his approach to knowledge as disconnected from reality. After Week 1, many of the students have had confirmed their suspicion, widely held in society, that philosophy is silly and meaningless to their lives. It takes me weeks to win back some students to believing in philosophy as something not a waste of their time.

Our current society’s fixation on the hegemony of science and technology has much to do with the students’ prejudicial stance against Plato’s type of philosophical approach. When in Week 2, the students learn about Aristotle, they find his approach more familiar and thus more reasonable and dismiss Plato as completely irrelevant. Other than a lingering impression that philosophy is a little silly, Plato’s ideas, no matter how formative, have little affect on them. I’ve encountered this issue for years, no matter how much explanatory material I gave them to convince them of Plato’s value.

Recently, while I was reading my students’ essays on the subjects of German idealism and 19th century social philosophy, several comments two students made gave me the radical, and almost heretical, thought of starting the term, not with Plato, but with Aristotle. This would mean students’ initial exposure in the course is an approach more familiar to them, reducing their initial resistance to philosophy (remember these are non-majors taking this course as a forced distribution requirement), and it leaves more time for other important philosophers.

I can pick up on Plato’s influence on later philosophers later in the term, so it would not mean shutting him out entirely. It would keep the chronological order of teaching that is so crucial to understanding philosophy, while perhaps eliminating an obstacle to students’ learning. An Intro to Philosophy course IS, after all, about helping students learn about the importance of philosophy.

No doubt, some people will take umbrage at the suggestion of decreasing coverage of Plato. As important as Plato is, there is inordinate weight placed on Ancient Greek philosophy, in Intro courses and textbooks. Someone recently shared with me an Intro syllabus in which the professor spent five of the fourteen weeks on the Ancient Greeks, leaving almost nothing said about philosophy after 1900. I find that a disservice to students. The Enlightenment-era infatuation with the Greeks is not something we need to maintain to the detriment of all that has transpired since.

I have nothing against Crito and Euthyphro, but there are dozens of important philosophical texts that I wouldn’t remove to keep those Platonic dialogues in the course. Philosophers who deal with the issues we face today are important, and giving students the philosophical tools to help them think about those issues is very important.

The answer is to have students take a full year of philosophy. A full 28 weeks of experience with great ideas from multiple cultures and time periods would benefit students immensely. Not many administrations will go for that though. In any event, over the summer I will mull over this heretical idea.


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