“I have had the good luck to have found myself, as early as my youth, upon certain paths which led me to certain considerations and maxims, from which I formed a method through which, it seems to me, I can gradually augment my understanding, and raise it, bit by bit, to the highest point which the mediocrity of my mind and the short duration of my life will allow.”
I enjoy doing philosophy in part because of its potential for enlightenment, by which I mean that it enjoins one to reflect critically on one’s practices and beliefs, and if successful leads to the development and strengthening of those practices and beliefs. I try to share this self-transformative aspect of philosophy with my students. Part of my approach to doing this is to make students more aware of their own reading and thinking practices. It is also important to me that philosophy be relevant to non-specialists and to the concerns of everyday life, and so I like to show students how the texts, methods and ideas we study in class are relevant and applicable to practices and beliefs that are (or should be) important to them outside the classroom. I find it particularly gratifying when I succeed in getting students moved about the issues we discuss.
I find the quotation from Descartes inspiring because of its suggestion that with proper preparation, a person of ordinary intelligence can gradually augment his or her knowledge. I am an egalitarian about learning, in the sense that I assume that all of my students have the capacity to succeed in my classes. I have maintained this belief despite the extreme disparities in skill sets, background knowledge, English competence and degree of intellectual exposure of the students I have taught. In general, I have dealt with this diversity by making my courses as self-contained as possible. If it is a reading-intensive course, then I try to provide them with the tools necessary for effective philosophical reading; if it is a writing-intensive course, then I teach them how to do the writing the coursework requires.
My teaching interests are broad. I have taught courses in history and philosophy of science, bioethics and philosophy of medicine. Some representative course descriptions and syllabi may be found below.
Morality and Medicine
This is an applied ethics course in which are examined a number of ethical issues that arise in the context of contemporary medical practice and research. I emphasize the social aspects of medical practice and research, especially with respect to public policy. Topics covered include the physician-patient relationship; medical experimentation; race and medicine; emerging technologies; resource allocation; animal rights; and health care reform. This course is a component of the University of Pittsburgh undergraduate certificate in Conceptual Foundations of Medicine.
Principles of Scientific
This course is intended as an introduction to scientific reasoning and to the practice of analyzing and interpreting evidential claims and the arguments made in their support. It also serves as an introduction to the history of philosophy of science, for the readings largely consist of philosophical texts on scientific method, from Aristotle to the present. Students are then asked to evaluate these philosophical theories against real episodes in the history of science. Throughout, we are concerned with the question: what is “the scientific method?” Are there just one, several or no scientific methods? The rationale for this approach is that the skills students develop by seeking to understand science itself will serve as the foundation for evaluating science-related claims and arguments made in both scientific and non-scientific venues. We also examine general argument types and scientific claims in daily life.
My syllabus from fall 2016 is available here.
Magic, Medicine and Science
Science is the result of a long process of formation starting in Antiquity and culminating in the late seventeenth century with the so-called Scientific Revolution. Before the Scientific Revolution science, magic and medicine were strongly related. This course examines the historical processes by which science became an independent sphere of human endeavor in the Western world.
The course focuses on the emergence of a distinctive scientific method as opposed to, say, philosophical or religious or magical methods of acquiring knowledge of nature. Historians and philosophers agree that a distinctive feature of modern science is its use of experience and, especially, experimentation to acquire knowledge. But this feature conflicts with the supposedly bookish orientation of pre-modern “natural philosophers,” who shared the prejudice of the elite of their times against manual work. This conflict creates a puzzle concerning the social origins of the experimental method. Guiding questions addressed in the course are therefore: Where did the experimental method come from? What social actors contributed to its development? How important were empirical contributions to the emergence of modern science, relative to theoretical contributions? Who were the main actors in the Scientific Revolution? Were they mainly individuals, or groups? What social, as opposed to merely intellectual, processes drove the revolution? Were there winners and losers in the “revolution?”
My syllabus from fall 2019 is available here.