20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Teaching Philosophy

Philosophy, Interdisciplinary Teaching and Student Experience

Bert Olivier
University of Port Elizabeth, South Africa

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: This paper focuses on novel approaches open to teachers of philosophy in particular, but more generally also to other university teachers, in the face of what Allan Bloom saw as the waning of a literary culture. It is argued that, although some of Bloom's suggestions regarding the successful engagement of students' interest-against overwhelming odds-are didactically valuable, he neglects precisely those avenues from which students could benefit most on the basis of their own experience in a world largely devoid of literary attachments but saturated with audiovisual ones. These options are explored in some detail from various perspectives, including the difference between a written and an audiovisual text, the philosophical-critical potential of rock music and the interdisciplinary value of a teaching model that has student experience as its point of departure.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

Does the ancient discipline of philosophy still have something of value to give to university students as we approach the millenium? In a world suffused by proliferating media-images and sounds, does a discipline whose insights are born of the interpenetration of thinking and language stand any chance of being heard amid the noise, or noticed in the headlong rush for greater global investment and development? I shall argue that it does, and that philosophy is, in fact, alive (perhaps dormant) in the most unexpected practices and activities, albeit not always easy to recognize, and although philosophers and teachers of philosophy face the sometimes difficult task of enlivening these philosophical sparks into a steady flame.

My argument rests on the assumption that philosophy is not only an ancient discipline, but one that rejuvenates itself, Phoenix-like, in every age, and for every age; in other words in guises that may not be identifiable in traditional philosophical terms, but which can nevertheless be translated into such terms with a little imagination and creative thinking. The reason behind this assumption is my belief that, even if Rorty were right that philosophy is just one voice in the conversation of humankind - or one language game among others - and even if it does not occupy a hierarchically superior position in relation to other conversation partners, it is not one that we could blithely give up whenever we felt like it, as his own continued practice of it demonstrates. To give up philosophizing would require that we first cease to be self-conscious beings - not just conscious beings, but beings conscious of being conscious, or reflective beings, homo sapiens sapiens. And the day we are no longer such beings, we would no longer be human, and I could well imagine that philosophy would have no place in a world populated by such unreflective creatures. Jean-Francois Lyotard (1991) has hinted - and I agree with him - that our humanity is at present being threatened by an inhuman system of global development, but also that the resources exist within us to resist the dehumanizing effects of such a system, even if, in the process, we have to draw on something within us which is 'inhuman' in a different sense: the sense of that which will always escape the various processes of rationalization (or 'normalization', Foucault would say) typical of an age.

As for myself, I notice plenty of evidence around us that the philosophical spark is still there, just waiting to be fanned into a flame by, among other activities, creative interdisciplinary teaching on the part of teachers of philosophy as well as the other disciplines. Moreover, the very global culture that is threatening to engulf our humanity, is characterized by cultural practices that do not always affirm its 'inhumanity', but also criticize it, explicitly or implicitly. It is the task of philosophical teaching (and in the humanities generally) to cultivate the ability and the kind of attitude on the part of students that will enable them to perceive the lineaments of such critiques in a variety of cultural artefacts, and to articulate it in a philosophically responsible, if not always homogeneous manner. That is what this paper is about.

In an earlier version of this paper, I took as my point of departure Allan Bloom's (1988: 62) pessimistic views of the late 1980's concerning the deterioration of a literary culture in the United States, especially as witnessed on the part of college students. I argued that, while he seems to me to be right about the waning of a 'literary universe' as the primary context of students' orientation in the United States - as well as in South Africa, the reasons for this development being somewhat different in South Africa, where only a portion of the population enjoyed what may be called a literary education during the apartheid years - he does not seem to grasp the opportunities or challenges open to educators in the changed cultural surroundings of an overwhelmingly audiovisual, image-saturated (cf. Kearney 1988) globally-connected world.

To be fair to Bloom, one has to credit him with the didactic and philosophical perceptiveness to remark accurately about the educational efficacy of engaging students on a terrain familiar and valuable to them, namely rock music, by introducing them to Plato's criticism of a comparable form of music among the ancient Greeks - criticism which, in Bloom's experience, provokes students into argumentative defence of rock music against Plato. On the other hand, however, I argued that Bloom overlooked the opportunities offered by the reverse of his own approach, namely, by starting, not with a philosophical or literary text and moving from there to terrain more familiar to students, but instead taking their experience as one's point of departure and moving from there to a text or commentary which problematizes the experience(s) in question. Rock music and film (and, one could add, television and the internet) constitute preferred sites of engagement in this respect, given students' familiarity - indeed, over-familiarity - with these media. But while, in my experience, it is philosophically fruitful to engage students on home ground, as it were - a well-known hermeneutical principle, anyway (cf.Gadamer 1982) - and then to question their taken for granted assumptions and beliefs about this 'home ground' (in this case, movies and popular music), one should not therefore blithely attempt to dispense with the written text. Written texts embody what one might refer to as a reflective moment - a moment which undermines the ostensible immediacy of audiovisual 'texts' and of speech because it forces the reader to reflect on anything that is not immediately transparent, and even enables him or her to discover layers of meaning in phrases, passages and words that may have seemed transparent at an earlier stage, because the written text is always 'there' (assuming that it is available) to go back to. Eagleton captures well what it is that enables this reflective moment to be activated repeatedly in written texts (1985:134):

...there is something in writing itself, which finally evades all systems and logics. There is a continual flickering, spilling, and diffusing of meaning - what Derrida calls 'dissemination' - which cannot be easily contained within the categories of the text's structure, or within the categories of a conventional critical approach to it.

Can any number of readings of a passage like the following ever render it completely transparent? Or is it rather a matter of discovering more and more 'layers' of meaning, or richer resonances, new ways in which it inscribes itself in the expanding fabric of our lives, every time one reads it again? (Kierkegaard 1987:164 ):

Imagine a captain of a ship the moment a shift of direction must be made; then he may be able to say: I can do either this or that. But if he is not a mediocre captain he will also be aware that during all this the ship is ploughing ahead with its ordinary velocity, and thus there is but a single moment when it is inconsequential whether he does this or does that. So also with a person...there eventually comes a moment where it is no longer a matter of an Either/Or, not because he has chosen, but because he has refrained from it, which also can be expressed by saying: Because others have chosen for him - or because he has lost himself.

Not only does the metaphor of a captain on a ship adequately convey the tension between individual volitional autonomy and the resistant set of 'worldly' circumstances that limits the number of alternatives one has at any given time, but also the sense of a life continuing on its course with the momentum imparted to it by past actions and decisions, as well as the insight into the transitoriness and momentariness of time - the awareness that one often has but a moment to make crucial decisions, in this way accepting responsibility for their consequences (albeit in the knowledge that they are made within the limits imposed on us by human finitude), or be abandoned to the will of others. Moreover, it is a passage which, on reflection, 'applies' (in Gadamer's sense of the word; cf. Gadamer 1982: 274-275) to each concrete individual's life in a different manner - it is particular and universal regarding the human condition at one and the same time. This is not even to mention all the many 'intertextual' references and echoes with which it resonates, such as Heidegger's exploration, in Being and time (1978: 210-211; 220), of the precarious relationship between the individual (Dasein) and the anonymous, but tyrannical mass of society (the 'they'). In other words, passages such as this one are ultimately indispensable in the teaching of philosophy because of the 'sites' they provide for reflective exploration. Students who are not accustomed to engagement with written texts may have to be prepared for this, however, and the means to do so are right in front of us in the form of the audiovisual media.

To be sure, this situation can be parallelled in the case of films on video with the help of 'rewind' and 'fast-forward' technology - which, as image-sequences, in the final analysis cannot escape the differential structure of 'writing' either, as Derrida has shown (cf. Derrida 1980:6-10;97-99; 1978) - but the fact remains that the reception of audiovisual sequences is usually accompanied by the overwhelming impression of immediacy of meaning and understanding.

Although this distinction between the written text (in the everyday sense of the term 'written') and the audiovisual or audio-text is crucial to keep in mind when the latter forms the point of departure in innovative teaching of philosophy, it is equally important to remember that they share the differential structure characteristic of all language. After all, the point is to bring students to reflect on what they mostly take for granted, even if it excites them, and once they have been challenged into argument, they have also, by the same token, been brought to reflection - which opens the way for the introduction of written texts.. While Bloom might argue that such texts ought to come from the 'Great Books' - such as Plato's Republic - this need not initially be the case. In accordance with the principle of engaging students on their home ground, one could turn to printed commentaries, reviews or criticism pertaining to the music or movies they would choose to defend, such as the music of Nine Inch Nails or movies like Pulp Fiction and Seven. Reading these texts is more likely to seem worthwhile to them if they are clearly related to what is currently experienced as being popular among their peers. Where is the student who would not enthusiastically endorse Camille Paglia's observation, that (1993:19-20):

Popular music and film are the two great art forms of the twentieth century. In the past twenty-five years, cinema has gained academic prestige. ....But rock music has yet to win the respect it deserves as the authentic voice of our time. Where rock goes, democracy follows. The dark poetry and surging Dionysian rhythms of rock have transformed the consciousness and permanently altered the sensoriums of two generations of Americans born after World War Two.

To launch this Paglian applause for rock against Bloom's derogation of what he sees as being a regressive phenomenon, would, no doubt, elicit instructive responses on the part of students, given their familiarity with the music. It also opens many other avenues for philosophical debate: Why should cinema, and not rock, have won academic respectability? Could it possibly have something to do with the 'Dionysian rhythms' of rock, and if so, why? Could Bloom's remarks on the political significance that Plato attached to 'Dionysian' music - as well as Plato's text - shed light on this? And what about those other two redoubtable thinkers on music, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche? What is the irrational world-will that they detect in music? Does the largely formalistic approach to music in traditional musicology take cognizance of this? And what does this prejudice against rock (if Paglia is right; and Bloom seems to confirm that she is) tell us about the kind of society we live in? For students who might really warm to the debate by now, one could bring Freud into the fray, so to speak: Is there a link between the Freudian Id and the beat of rock? And what is the function of sublimation in this regard? Does this help us to understand why Paglia regards rock as the 'authentic voice of our time'? These, and more, questions are generated by the juxtaposition of her remarks with the experience of rock music.

Despite its greater academic acceptability, the situation is similar with film. Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Larry Clark's Kids are cases in point. In the former, the two hit men, Jules and Vince, engage in a serious conversation about the morality of giving the boss's wife a foot massage - that is, whether this is in the same category as sleeping with her, and therefore deserves the same harsh punishment - minutes before they routinely despatch a group of men accused of double-crossing their boss. This is clearly ethical territory: not only regarding questions of sexual fidelity, but also, more importantly, concerning moral consistency - showing keen moral awareness about levels of illicit sexual intimacy and the corresponding, justifiable punitive consequences, on the one hand, and no awareness of any moral reprehensibility when it comes to killing people in cold blood, on the other. Or, perhaps, a strange version of consequentialism may be operative there, too: you double-cross us; you suffer the consequences! What a splendid opportunity to introduce students to consequentialism by means of pertinent readings and, by way of contrast, to a deontological ethics (cf., e.g., Pettit 1993: 230-240; O'Neill 1993:175-185), where duty or the 'categorical imperative' precludes any fudging of the issue around questions about where to draw the line in consequentialist reasoning, while, at the same time, raising precisely that point all the more forcefully. (I. e., the question of whether consequentialism does not also, unavoidably, require a non-consequentialist criterion to identify cases - like punitive hit-men practices - where a moral sense more fundamental than the imperative of avoiding or pursuing certain consequences seems to function; cf. Goodin 1993: 241-248).

Larry Clark's Kids - a controversial film because of its sometimes harrowing scenes of teenage sex and drug-use - raises similar moral issues, but also, pehaps more fundamentally, poses the startling social problem of atavistic, regressive behaviour on the part of inner-city teenagers, despite the paradoxical proximity of the resources of a scientifically and technologically advanced culture. Interestingly, some adults justify avoiding the film on aesthetic and educational grounds, arguing that they would rather see aesthetically edifying films, and protect their children from the corrupting influence of such apparent urban authenticity. This in itself confirms the importance of a movie like Kids, which was claimed to reflect the actual living conditions of teenagers in American cities (Cf.Romney 1996:35). Juxtaposing this film with a passage like the following on American family life clears a space of potentially fruitful philosophical discussion of issues concerning society, technology, education and rationality, to mention only a few ( Bloom 1988: 57);

The dreariness of the family's spiritual landscape passes belief.... The delicate fabric of the civilization into which the successive generations are woven has unraveled, and children are raised, not educated.

Add to this that Bloom is talking about 'relatively happy' homes (1988:57), and it is clear that the kind of 'homes' that figure in Kids do not even make that category, where parents are said to care about each other and their children (p.57). Moreover, if the following applies to parents in relatively stable homes, it makes the parents who appear on the fringes of teenagers' activities in Kids look less than irrelevant to their children's lives (Bloom 1988: 58):

Parents do not have the legal or moral authority they had in the Old World. They lack self-confidence as educators of their children, generously believing that they will be better than their parents, not only in well-being, but in moral, bodily and intellectual virtue....Parents can no longer control the atmosphere of the home and have even lost the will to do so.

This seems to be abundantly true of the tired, uninterested and ineffectual mother, as well as the absent or unavailable parents in Kids, where a narrative situation unfolds that lacks any significant measure of civilization, where young people live only for the gratification of their most immediate needs by any means - persuasion, violence or stealing; where many believe that AIDS is a fiction invented by parents and teachers to spoil their fun, and where they revert to primitively naive beliefs, such as that that a girl is yours for life if you can have her as a virgin. Needless to say, students are likely to have something to say about these things, as well as about Bloom's conservative assessment of the situation.

Broadly speaking, exposure to Clark's film, and its interpretive appropriation via perspectives such as Bloom's make the question of the kind of culture we inhabit not only interesting but urgent. Is it the case that scientific and technological progress have alienated us from our ability to educate young people, and why should this be the case? Is there more to education than imparting certain 'skills' (mostly technical) to students? What is there to philosophy, literature, the arts and the sciences that is still educationally valuable? It is my contention that there is no better way to demonstrate the value of these disciplines than through the practice of involving students in the process of discovering for themselves that the very cultural practices and artefacts that they value, point to (or cover up) a host of as yet unexamined and potentially exciting questions. Socrates's dictum can be validated once again, in the thick of postmodern living - even if one has to grant students that, if it is true that 'the unexamined life is not worth living', it is equally true that 'the unlived life is not worth examining'. What we as teachers of philosophy have to help them discover, is that they haven't lived until they've philosophized. And to achieve this, we have to enter into their world, too.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Bloom, A. 1988. The closing of the American mind. London: Penguin Books.

Derrida, J. 1978. Freud and the scene of writing. In: Writing and difference. Tr. Bass, A. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Derrida, J. 1980. Of grammatology. Tr. Spivak, G.C. Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Eagleton, T. 1985. Literary theory - An introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Gadamer, H-G. 1982. Truth and method. Tr. Barden, G. & Cumming, J. New York: Crossroad.

Goodin, R.E. 1993. Utility and the good. In: Singer, P. (Ed.) A companion to ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Heidegger, M. 1978. Being and time. Tr. Macquarrie, J. & Robinson, E. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Kearney, R. 1988. The wake of imagination. London: Hutchinson.

Kierkegaard, S. 1987. Either/or. Vol. 2.Tr. Hong, H.V. & Hong, E.H. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lyotard, J-F. 1991. The inhuman: Reflections on time. Tr. Bennington, G. & Bowlby, R. Cambridge: Polity press.

O'Neill, O. 1993. Kantian ethics. In: Singer, P.(Ed.) A companion to ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Paglia, C. 1993. Rock as art. In: Sex, art, and American culture. London: Penguin Books.

Pettit, P. 1993. Consequentialism. In: Singer, P. (Ed.) A companion to ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Plato. 1974. Republic. Tr. Grube, G. M. A. In: Plato's Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

Romney, J. 1996. Kids, a gift to middle America. In: New Statesman & Society, Vol 9, 17 May, Issue 403, p35.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage