Teaching the History of Modern Philosophy, Part I

Teaching the History of Modern Philosophy, Part I

October 23, 20182 min read

Recently, Dr. Kris Phillips, assistant professor of philosophy at Southern Utah University, shared his thoughts on the long-overdue discussion of the importance of expanding the canon when teaching and discussing the early modern period of philosophy.

From the perspective of Dr. Phillips, the history of philosophy has been misunderstood to be monochromatic and male and there has been significant discussion regarding the appropriate way to incorporate underrepresented figures into modern philosophy classes. However, expanding the canon introduces a challenge not entirely unfamiliar to any teacher: how to cover all the material that deserves attention in one semester.

“When trying to teach a survey in modern, we have between 10 and 15 weeks, so we speed through brief selections of each of these figures. In many ways, we have the ‘greatest hits of the dead white guys’ (to borrow a phrase from a colleague). Like most ‘greatest hits’ albums, when we teach the survey this way, we miss the intent of the author and the nuance of the project from which the ‘hits’ are taken.”

According to Dr. Phillips, there are several reasons to be unhappy with this traditional approach, including the lack of the contributions women made to philosophy and covering too many people too quickly, leaving students without an understanding of the figures’ messages.

Dr. Phillips suggests reconsidering how modern history is taught and offers this advice:

“Instead of teaching a survey course, select three philosophers from the period and teach more of their work. Instead of trying to cover all of the thinkers, giving students breadth but little to no depth, teach students to read and think systematically by carefully reading more work from each of these three figures."

Dr. Phillips is a co-editor of Arrested Development and Philosophy, and has published on the history of neuroscience; his primary research interests lie in early modern philosophy. He is familiar with the media and available for an interview. Simply visit his profile.

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