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  • Writer's pictureJoia

Today’s rhaps is on … Intro Phil 101

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

The Flammarion Engraving

This picture was on the cover of the introductory philosophy text I chose for my class at Bozeman State in the spring of 1987. I hadn’t yet read it, but there wasn’t much time to select a text for the class before I filled in as sabbatical replacement for one of the History & Philosophy Department’s absent professors. I saw that the book’s readings were divided into five sections: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Political Philosophy, and Aesthetics. I figured I could work with that. I was a PhD candidate in the philosophy of science, having completed all of three chapters in my dissertation on the dubious interplay between realism and positivism among the physicists-turned-philosophers of the Vienna Circle.

The class was located in a (to me, gigantic) lecture hall. About a hundred students were enrolled. These were the days of the Overhead Projector. I had TA’d my way through the Blackboard, or actually Greenboard, period, and proudly graduated to teaching with magic markers and a pile of transparencies rather than breathe the dust-particle chaos of chalk.

At the very first lecture, I announced to my students that if they made it through the class they would be doing better than me: I had walked out of my intro phil class as a freshman in college. The reason I had walked out was because the professor, who had just written an evangelical best-seller called Christ the Tiger, had compared Plato to Jesus. He had been explaining exactly why Plato was wrong because Jesus had said such-and-such. Unsure of the exact dates, but quickly surmising that B.C. put Plato before Christ (Jesus! really?), it struck me as very wrong to proclaim that a certain thinker was incorrect 1) because he pre-dated another thinker and 2) because he wasn’t a Christian. Again, Jesus! Are you listening, for Chrissake, I have no idea what Philosophy is but this ain’t it. So I got up and went out to have a cigarette. Actually I walked out on the entire college that day, moved off campus and went to work waitressing first at Friendly’s Ice Cream and then at a seafood restaurant in Gloucester where the tips were better.

My plan was to audition for the New England and Boston conservatories and attend one of them the following year. Other parts of the plan were a little sketchy, such as where to live in the meantime, but after bouncing around Gloucester and Salem I did ultimately end up with a scholarship and rented room near Back Bay in Boston that fall.

It would be a few years before I returned to philosophy, which was by way of the devil in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Well actually first by way of Gogol, specifically his Nose. An old and stained reddish book containing The Nose was lying on top of the grand piano in my musician boyfriend’s apartment in Roxbury. In reaching for it I solidified the link from music to my next venture, studying everything Russian. The Slavic Department at UMASS was in Amherst, though, so I had to leave Boston. It was there that I discovered the joys of symbolic logic, its calming deductive decisiveness elegantly soothing the preceding years of daily drama. I sat up many nights drinking hot chocolate and working through page long proofs. I also read and re-read the great novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, captivated in particular by the latter’s colossal knowledge of 19th century science, history, psychology, politics, religion, art, and oh yes, his absolute delight with non-Euclidean geometry. That life was essentially non-linear meant a great deal to me at the time. And Dostoevsky’s sly old devil could discourse comfortably on any of these topics, with Ivan Karamazov and with me. I was hooked. So when I saw that an introductory philosophy of science course was being offered the next semester, the perfect interdisciplinary blend of my interests, not to mention fulfilling several course requirements simultaneously, I signed up. It was a pretty bad course taught by a very bored and pretty bad teacher, but I didn’t care. We read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Bloor’s Knowledge and Social Imagery. I wrote a meandering and badly organized blue book final essay on the origins of scientific and religious explanation, to which the professor remarked that he was not going to give me a very good grade but the sheer amount of information in my essay justified at least an A-.

That was in 1977. I was at Bozeman State in 1987, exactly ten years later, joking with my students about making it through an introductory philosophy class. They didn’t know I was reading the Republic and Leviathan and On Liberty for the first time. My big blue 8-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy helped. The important thing is that I finally made it through Phil 101.


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