Courses I Want to Teach: Introduction to Metaphysics

07 October 2019

Introductions to metaphysics belong to the standard fare of anglophone philosophy departments, but teaching them poses an interesting challenge. Metaphysics enjoys a dubious reputation, more so than ethics and epistemology, and students might wonder whether there is any justification for its existence. How can sitting in a room and discussing a topic tell us anything about the fundamental structure of reality? Does that endeavour not primarily require empirical research? As so often, there are multiple ways of approaching the challenge. I’ve recently put together an outline and decided how I would teach metaphysics to undergraduate students.

I want to present metaphysics as a field of research deserving of serious attention. The Problem of the Many or the question whether holes exist lend themselves to heated debates on which little seems to hinge. It is too easy to turn metaphysics into a game played for pure enjoyment, Sudoku for philosophers. While my outline offers opportunities for puzzling, I want to convey that metaphysics is research field with epistemically valuable results. Perhaps one should be a deflationist about ontology as Amie Thomasson, but this is still a substantial position, albeit a meta-ontological one.

Motivated by these consideration, I structured my course outline around larger issues such as the nature of existence. Associated puzzles - do holes exist? - are included in between to illustrate the consequences of positions in an engaging way. The intention is to approximate the appearance of a science by presenting metaphysical theories as having consequences[0] for particular problems. In a sense, this is a trick to make metaphysics profit from the authority of the sciences so that it seems justified as a discipline. Perhaps this is mere appearance,[1] but successful teaching requires the students to extend a credit of trust. Appearance has to come first.

My approach admittedly neglects the rich history of metaphysics. There is no Plato, no Avicenna, and no Spinoza on the proposed reading list, even though appeal to old names can be another way to appear authoritative. For one, it is beyond my capacities to cover the range of relevant authors satisfyingly and if one were serious about it, teaching the history of metaphysics would be an undertaking of proportions comparable with Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy without any Gaps. I am also worried, however, that such a historical approach can undermine the confidence of students to put forward their own views. Looking back at a more than two-thousand-years history of arguments can intimidate and create the appearance that everything of value has already been said by some great mind. Hence, my course limits itself. Hopefully, the students will hear about the history of philosophy in other classes and draw connections themselves.

To see my draft of the outline, click here.


[0] They might be considered predictions, but I am shying back from this term.

[1] But perhaps it isn’t. After all, the way a field is approached can influence whether it is a justified area of inquiry.