I follow the Socratic approach to philosophy. As I approach my teaching, philosophy is self-discovery and self-examination. On this view, all philosophy is personal -- you need to explore and examine yourself; I need to explore and examine myself. This self-examination is a lifelong process -- though we can make progress, there's always more to uncover and new ways to examine our beliefs. The difficulty of doing philosophy is not, then, that it is so abstract, remote, and irrelevant -- the difficulty is that it's so close to home. It touches us where we live. We inhabit our philosophies; they are the beliefs we live in. It is these basic beliefs that we are trying to uncover, examine, challenge, and perhaps change.
We are all blind to our own blind spots -- preconceptions, basic assumptions, biases -- so philosophy is best done in dialogue with others. As I tell you how I see things, you get a new perspective on your own view. As I listen to you, I gain a new perspective -- yours. Through dialogue, we each contribute to each other something that she could not accomplish by herself.
We read the great philosophers in the same spirit of dialogue and self-examination -- the great thing about reading Plato, for example, is that Plato can teach us something about our viewpoints and he can present us with an alternative were are not familiar with. As we learn to enter into dialogue with Plato, we become familiar with a non-American perspective and a non-20th century perspective. Discussing with Plato teaches us something important about who we are.
Given all this, the syllabus for one of my classes normally begins like this:
WHAT, NO SYLLABUS?
Most college classes are monologues, basically. The teacher has certain things in mind that she wants to "get across" and students are graded by how well they get what the instructor wanted to get across. A syllabus makes sense for these classes.
But I want this course to be a conversation, not a monologue. (Almost all real philosophy is a conversation.) In a conversation, we cannot predict at the beginning where the conversation will end. That's because there's no way for anyone to predict the contributions of ALL the other participants. If this course is to be a conversation, each of you will help to define the direction of this course by your contributions. And that is why there can be no syllabus for this course -- I don't know yet where we will be going!
If this course is to be a conversation, you bear more responsibility for helping to make this a good course than you might in other courses. You also bear more responsibility for what you, personally, will get out of this course.
You need to ask yourself whether you can learn from a course like this. Do you learn well in an environment where it's not clear exactly what you're supposed to be learning? Can you define educational projects for yourself? Can you sift through a discussion and make meaning for yourself out of it? Or do you learn best under more structured conditions? Different strokes for different folks. This might not be the class for you.