Experiencing Philosophy as Experiencing Thinking

Philosophy is apparently without any boundaries to its object of study. Knowledge, reality, goodness, love, art, death, food, science, God… It would seem that nothing is off limits for philosophy or, more appropriately, for the philosophically-minded. If we can think about it, we can think about it philosophically.

One of my go-to points when students ask—and they often ask—“What could I do with a philosophy degree?” is “Think!” From there, I go on to list various features of philosophical thinking that are sure to capture the attention and enthusiasm of students: thinking about what truly matters on a topic of discussion, thinking of questions without presupposing answers, thinking with self-awareness of one’s biases and prejudices, thinking through complex lines of reasoning, thinking of things that are uncomfortable to think about, thinking with the humility and acceptance that there are things you have not thought about, thinking beyond the boundaries of what you have been told to think about, and so on and so forth. What makes this list so invigoratingly bold and appealing to students, I think(!), is that, strictly speaking, most of us likely do not think in these ways very much.

While thinking is easy enough—I’m inclined to agree with Descartes that we are thinking things—philosophical thinking is not. And while philosophical thinking is broad and unrestricted in special ways, it takes a lot of discipline and effort to do it. Case in point: Descartes’s rigorous method of using extreme doubt in order to clear his mind of habits, opinions, and biases and discover the firm and stable knowledge that he is a thinking thing.

As the case of Descartes’s method illuminates particularly well, it’s especially difficult to think without pre-judgement. Among other things, it’s not easy to identify what our pre-judgements are because they reside so deep in our habits of thought. We are so accustomed to them that it’s not easy to acknowledge and critically examine them—to say nothing of thinking without them. There is also the obstacle of feeling unsettled, insecure, and vulnerable when we are self-conscious of our unreflective assumptions. We don’t want to critically examine what we don’t want to give up; better to keep the familiar than take a risk on the unfamiliar, one might think.

These points take me to key features in the first edition of Experiencing Philosophy that appealed to me. In that first edition, Anthony Falikowski created an inviting and safe space to lay all assumptions out on the table, so to speak, and encourage readers to think—and, most importantly, to think about their thinking. When I was invited to contribute to the 2nd edition of Experiencing Philosophy, my immediate desire was to build on the metacognitive content in the book. With Tony’s enthusiastic support, I accomplished that in two particular ways.

The first is with the Thinking About Your Thinking features that appear throughout the book. These feature boxes contain prompts that draw out self-aware thinking on topics and issues connected to the content in the main text of the book. For example, there are prompts that ask the readers to think about their idea of a philosopher (and where that idea comes from), their ability to explain abstract ideas (and the tendency to use concrete examples), their expertise (and their knowledge of the thing they think that have expertise in), their feelings (and their ability to control them), their preferences and desires (and their reasons for them), their knowledge (and their knowledge of that knowledge), their identity (and the thoughts and character traits that belong to them), their questions (and their struggles to answer them), their principles of action (and their assessment of them), their political beliefs (and the principles behind them), and their thinking about philosophy (and the book’s effect on those thoughts).

The purpose of this self-conscious thinking is to help readers acknowledge their assumptions in order to help them access a more open-minded view of the world and their place in it. After all, the boundarylessness of philosophy cannot be experienced within the confines of biases and prejudices. Thinking about your thinking is, thus, an important part of learning to think philosophically and be philosophical.   

The second particular way I built off of the first edition’s metacognitive footing occurs in the Reading Questions at the end of the various primary source texts. While many of these questions are comprehension questions in the ordinary sense, others are comprehension questions in the metacognitive sense, that is, questions that prompt readers to comprehend—or, at least, think about—their comprehension of what they just read. For example: How does al-Ghazali’s ocean imagery help you understand his philosophical ideas? What did you find challenging about reading Plato’s Euthyphro and how did you work through the challenge? What obstacles in your thinking stand in the way of your achieving Stoic serenity and what statement or ideas in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations are useful for overcoming those obstacles? Can you meditate like Descartes to the knowledge I exist? How does your study of Kant’s epistemology and metaphysics help you understand a passage concerning his moral philosophy? How does your study of Hobbes’s philosophy help you read and understand a passage from Locke’s writings?

These sorts of metacognitive questions are intended to improve the readers’ philosophical literacy by equipping them with the skills for thinking through a philosophical text. This is beneficial in the immediate while they read the original sources in the book as well as in the long term should they continue to read original philosophical texts on their own.

Thinking through a text is also one more way that the book encourages readers to experience philosophy—in this case, it encourages them to approach the activity of reading as, itself, a philosophical activity. Indeed, let me add that one to the list at the beginning: the philosophy of reading philosophy.

All told, my principal goal with these metacognitive additions to the 2nd edition of Experiencing Philosophy was inspired by the boundless, wonderous, pensive depths promised by the book’s title: to help readers experience philosophy. In other words, to help them think.

Susan Mills, co-author of Experiencing Philosophy 2nd Edition and Associate Professor of Philosophy at MacEwan University

Posted on June 17, 2024