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pathways (guide)

2 learning philosophy

From Ask a Philosopher, Third set of questions and answers

Daye asked:

This isn't so much a philosophy question, but more of a teaching question. How does one take the infinite truths that they learn and encapsulate them into instant truths that people can read and understand? How can one take something that they found profound and a universal truth and help others to realize that too?

Your question is about teaching and also about philosophy. The philosopher who has thought about this question more than any other is Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations. But one could also cite the example of Descartes' Meditations.

Let's say that you have discovered a profound and universal truth and you write it down. That is not enough, because the reader needs to be persuaded of its truth. Well, suppose you give the argument, would that be enough? In philosophy, the answer would in many cases be, No. The reader can follow the logic of an argument and still fail to grasp the meaning of its conclusion. Something more needs to be done.

A good teacher can achieve more than can ever be achieved by the written page. In the process of dialogue one engages with an individual, and each individual's needs are different. The process by which you came to appreciate those truths is one you can repeat with others, and so understanding is passed on, not all at once, but in gradual stages.

What is remarkable about philosophical education, however, is how much we all have in common. Descartes conceived his great work, Meditations on First Philosophy from a heuristic standpoint. By adopting the very personal style of a series of private meditations, Descartes invites the reader to do the same. The reader is encouraged to look within themself, and find what Descartes finds there.

Wittgenstein, in the Philosophical Investigations, invites the reader to participate in a form of therapy. At every stage, he gives voice to the reader's doubts and worries. So you find a number of voices, besides Wittgenstein's own. Some times, it is not always easy to tell whether it is Wittgenstein speaking. Unlike Descartes, Wittgenstein never tells the reader where this is all leading. The process is completed when the reader has successfully battled with their illusions, when they are no longer tempted towards false theories of the nature of consciousness and the self.

My practical aims as a teacher are perhaps more modest than your question implies. I don't expect all my students to agree with me. It is enough that they learn to see the question. I do not see that as in any sense a failure. There is no philosophical truth that is so true that one cannot conceive how an intelligent person could be incapable of believing it.