Creative Thought in Philosophy

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Luís Pinto de Sá, Graduate Student, Philosophy

At a sufficient level of generality, creative thought in philosophy does not differ much from creative thought in other fields. I suppose that by “creative” we mean both new and interesting. If so, no creative thinker can afford to ignore the work of those that preceded her. Just like a musician learns about the expressive possibilities of her instrument by studying the great works composed for that instrument, so the philosophy student learns about the craft of argument and its possibilities by studying the philosophical masters.

Even more so than, say, the piano, philosophical questions have been with us for a long time. Coming up with something both new and interesting (as opposed to merely new because clearly misguided) is hard. How then to foster creativity in philosophy?

Fortunately, two realities come to our rescue. First, the arguments of the historical greats tend to be forgotten, as the discussion necessarily shifts over time. There is great creative work to be done in philosophy by rediscovering what the great (and not so great) historical figures have to say that may still be relevant to, and indeed inject new life into, the contemporary discussion.

Second, and related to the first, the reader of philosophy is never passive before the text – or at least she shouldn’t be. There is always a work of personal appropriation of the text, of struggling with and critiquing old arguments from one’s unique personal context. Since that context includes highly idiosyncratic features of the reader – her temperament or past intellectual history – this work of appropriation, if done with sufficient depth, often generates new and unique insights.

The teacher of philosophy must therefore:

(1)    First and foremost, foster interest among the students. No personal appropriation of the text can occur as long as the student is simply not interested.

(2)    Relatedly, foster genuine (as opposed to forced) respect for the text. This respect should not come from the mere authority of fame of the author being read. Rather, the teacher’s job is to show how original, deep and important the contributions of said author are – how they are important for anyone struggling with the same issues.

(3)    Concurrently with (1) and (2), to allow students the freedom to engage critically with the text, valuing and nurturing their input while also gently steering them away from what may be logical dead ends (by showing them these are dead ends rather than merely decreeing them so).

Argumentative skills are best developed via oral discussion and thoughtful writing of argumentative papers. I therefore prefer these over tests or exams as tools of evaluation. I’ll end with some practical considerations that have helped me foster both oral discussion and thoughtful writing.

Oral discussion can be fostered in a variety of ways – mock debates or asking provocative and leading questions. One strategy I have adopted is to assign reading questions for each class whose answers students must turn in online at least one hour before class. That way I can look at their answers and know what their first impressions of the text were and so direct class discussion accordingly. If I know that a particular student has given a particularly interesting answer, I may gently attempt to draw that out of him/her, while being careful not to make the student feel like he/she is “on the spot.”

For every paper assignment, I ask that the student present and analyze a given philosophical argument from a text assigned in class. I then ask for the strongest possible objection to that argument that the student can think of (it need not be original, so long as it is cogent) followed by the strongest possible reply to that objection. Finally, I ask the student to give her own take on the argument, weighing in on the objection and the reply. In this way, I attempt to foster a crucial argumentative skill – to be able to put oneself in the position of one’s opponent, and from that perspective, from within so to speak, to find the inner contradictions or tensions discoverable in the opponent’s position.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, spring contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does creative thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

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