We continue our interview with Steve Cowan and Jim Spiegel concerning their latest book, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Broadman & Holman, 2009). In part one, Steve and Jim talked about the uniqueness of their textbook and its approach, including a brief overview of the book’s scope. Below is the second and final part of our interview.
SPIEGEL: More than twenty years of college teaching in philosophy has confirmed to me the need for a text that is clearly written and engages students’ interest without sacrificing accuracy in discussing views and arguments. Also, students are bugged by imbalance and bias as much as we professors are. So the ideal of fairness and humility in presentation of views was also paramount for us as we wrote the book.
COWAN: I think students like to see the big picture first before they get to the nitty-gritty details of an issue. They need to know how the topic at hand fits in with other questions and concerns, and they need to see the relevance of the issue for real life. When one gets to the details, there need to be clear and concise explanations of the philosophical problems and their answers, and it doesn’t hurt if there is some way to make the discussion interesting and fun. Also, I try to approach topics systematically so that we deal with questions in an order that makes sense, so that what is said later builds on what’s gone before.
Regarding the need to make things interesting, I have found in my teaching and writing that using lots of illustrations, examples, case studies, and thought experiments are indispensible pedagogical tools. So, as in my teaching, I included in the book lots of illustrations from film, novels, comic books, and so on in order to help explain tough issues in a fun and relevant way. For example, in discussing the Gettier problem in chapter two, I chose to present the problem not by using Gettier’s own rather plain counterexamples but by telling a story about an imposter Spider-Man showing up at a public event where Peter Parker, the real Spider-Man’s alter ego, was present. Likewise, in the section on free will, I explained Frankfurt-type counterexamples by telling a story about Dr. Doom planting a computer chip in the brain of Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four. The students love it!
At the beginning of each chapter you intentionally introduce your discussion with a literary, film or pop cultural illustration or allusion. What are you trying to communicate or show by introducing a chapter’s topic in this way?
SPIEGEL: In addition to making the text more readable and interesting, these illustrations underscore the fact that Philosophy is not a remote, esoteric discipline but rather a field of study that can be, and should be, applied to literally all aspects of human experience and interest. This includes film, music, sports, literature, television, and everything else in our lives. Also, as Christians, we are called to apply our worldview to all that we do, and providing these links to everyday experience, including arts and entertainment, should remind readers of this fact.
COWAN: As I see it, these illustrations communicate two things. First, they tell readers who have never engaged in any formal study of philosophy that they are already familiar with many philosophical issues whether they know it or not. In the films, TV shows, and books they have read, philosophical concepts and problems are already a part of the experience. In this way, we take the edge off the strangeness and apparent irrelevancy with which philosophy is often perceived by newcomers. Second, and this is closely related to the first point, we hope to show the reader that philosophical ideas can and do influence people even if they have never studied them academically. I tell my students often that even though philosophical ideas often originate in the ivory tower, they never stay there. They always find their way down to the street where people live. And they typically make this transition by means of art—film, literature, etc.
Based on your assessment of the progress of Christian philosophers engaged in philosophical work, what areas of philosophical study remain under-developed or weak? Please list these areas and briefly explain why you think they are under-developed or weak and how might they become more developed and strong.
COWAN: Since the resurgence of Christian philosophy in the last few decades, Christians have done extensive and profitable work in the philosophy of religion and epistemology. Some areas in metaphysics have also received significant attention such as the mind/body problem and free will and determinism. But I think we have only recently begun to have an impact on key issues in general metaphysics or ontology. And, as far as I can tell, we have seen very little work on political philosophy and aesthetics. We seem rightly to be working our way outward from issues of central apologetic concern to Christianity (God’s existence, divine attributes, problem of evil, religious epistemology) to broader areas relevant to the larger Christian worldview.
SPIEGEL: I agree with Steve here and would add that Christian philosophical aesthetics is especially in need of some strong work. It is telling that our book is the first Christian introductory philosophy text to feature a chapter on aesthetics.
How do you like to teach a philosophy or apologetics class? How do you use a textbook or other readings in the class?
COWAN: In my philosophy classes I take what I call a mixed Socratic approach. I usually begin a topic with a lecture that explains, say, a particular philosophical problem and then sketches some of the major strategies for solving that problem. Then I ask the students questions that lead them to evaluate the problem themselves and draw out the strengths and weaknesses of the various proposed solutions. I also ask questions designed to help them draw implications and practical consequences from given ideas and views. I like my textbooks to facilitate this method by providing summaries of philosophical issues and discussions of the various positions that can be taken on them. In my apologetics classes, I take a similar approach, though I usually seek to lead the students more directly to particular answers given that apologetics (at least as I conceive it) is designed to train students to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints. So here I prefer apologetics textbooks that state and defend traditional views which I supplement with additional lecture material and evaluative questions.
SPIEGEL: My teaching style is much like that described by Steve. As for my use of textbooks, I prefer to use an anthology of readings and supplement this with a secondary text which provides commentary, thoughtful discussion of key arguments and, if available, a Christian orientation. Our text provides all of these features I desire in a secondary text, thus making it ideally suited for a course in which it is coupled with an anthology of some kind. But, of course, The Love of Wisdom can be profitably studied on its own, in or out of the classroom.