Philosophy has a tough job. Because it concerns itself with matters that don’t fit neatly into the concrete categories of modern science, one is often testing the outer limits of language and thought. But as Caspar Hare, associate professor of philosophy at MIT, makes convincingly clear, philosophy’s proper role has always been precisely to map those murky regions.
“Historically, philosophy is the mother of all academic disciplines," he says. "In ancient Greece, any attempt to understand the nature of existence counted as philosophy. But once a set of methods developed around solving these problems, you didn’t call it philosophy anymore — you had created a science. So philosophy gives birth to the sciences. Natural philosophers became physicists and chemists. Logicians became computer scientists, and so on.”
In this sense, philosophy remains focused on the big, unanswered questions that science has not already carved out for itself. But answering these questions can be difficult. We are all social creatures, influenced by the beliefs that surround us and the emotions that govern our inner lives. Without a guide or technique for pursuing the big questions, it’s quite easy to get lost or discouraged. Many consider such questions unanswerable and give up, or else they follow faith or instinct — all reasonable but ultimately ineffective techniques for arriving at the best possible answer.
Analytic philosophy provides the framework for answering the big questions, and on Oct. 1, Hare will present the first introductory philosophy massive open online course (MOOC) offered by an American university, 24.00x Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness. He will lead students through the fundamental questions that underlay our understanding of existence, while grounding them in the basic practices of analytical philosophy.
Hare is a strong advocate for the benefits of learning philosophy. Not only does it offer uncommon insights, but it also teaches important everyday thinking skills. “In this course, we’re focusing on a set of general questions where it’s not completely obvious how to go about answering them," says. "There’s no consensus on how to arrive at the right answers. Analytic philosophy gives you a way to think about these questions in a rigorous and organized way. In a very concrete sense, it teaches you life skills, because most of the problems you face in life do not have an instruction manual.”
Hare’s own focus within philosophy is normative ethics, which concerns itself with what we ought to do rationally and morally. His work explores how moral theories actually play out in real life, and occasionally ponders some uncomfortable thought experiments where one must, for example, hypothetically chose the value of one life over another. As a guest in a recent podcast of You’re the Expert, an educational comedy-quiz show, contestants were asked to distinguish between some of the philosophical thought experiments that Hare has invented in his books and the sinister plots of Hollywood horror movies like Saw. Hare took the ribbing in good fun, while noting that the comparison proves that “moral theories that sound good in the abstract can actually lead you into some very unusual and surprising outcomes that you would never realistically act upon.”
As the title of his upcoming MOOC suggests, Hare’s course will cover topics like the existence or non-existence of God, how we form our beliefs, what consciousness means, the nature of what we call free will, and the stability of our personality over time. Unlike many introductory classes that take a broadly historical view of philosophy, 24.00x adopts a living, problem-oriented approach that has become one of the distinctive characteristics of the MIT philosophy department. “This course is ahistorical in the sense that we focus first on the problem," Hare says. "We are mining the great philosophers for an understanding of the problem, not so much to understand the opus or context of the specific thinker.”
One of the more intriguing aspects of the course was Hare’s decision to speak directly to the camera in a studio setting, rather than recording his class lectures. “We felt from the start that we didn’t want to let the student feel like they were in the back-seat, just observing a classroom. We really wanted to make this course as clear and engaging as possible. I’m addressing the viewer directly, which creates a very different style of lecture from simply observing a professor talking to a room full of people.”
There are already more than 30,000 students enrolled in the course, which begins Oct. 1, and Hare is pleased to note that more than two-thirds come from outside the United States. “Analytic philosophy is such an incredibly emancipatory thing. It allows you to think about almost anything in a rigorous way. Of course, anyone can of course pick up a book on analytic philosophy, but it’s really best if it’s taught in a structured way," he says.
"Yet until know it’s only a very small, select group of people who are exposed to it. I’m very happy to be able to have an opportunity to significantly increase the reach of philosophy beyond the walls of the university.”