Teaching and Learning in the School of Humanities. The Department of Philosophy showcases the First-Year Module ‘Reason and Argument’ (PP1RA) and the new Second-Year Module ‘Truth and Bullshit’ (PP2TBS): Interview held by Dr Rebecca Rist (School Director of Teaching and Learning) with Dr Nat Hansen (Department of Philosophy).

1.          How long has the Department of Philosophy offered the Part One ‘Reason and Argument’ module (PP1RA) and why have you decided also now to offer a new Part Two module ‘Truth and Bullshit’ (PP2TBS)?

The module ‘Reason and Argument’ was offered for the first time last year. It is a revised version of a long-standing skills-based course called ‘Critical Thinking’.  My colleague Professor Emma Borg redesigned the course for First Years to include a career component in line with the University of Reading’s push to include career advice and placement opportunities in curriculum design.  ‘Truth and Bullshit’ is based on a module that I taught at the University of Chicago that was called ‘Telling the Truth: Scepticism, Relativism and Bullshit’.  The course was developed as part of a Tave Teaching Fellowship–a competitive teaching award at the University of Chicago–and it subsequently also won an award for course design from Chicago’s Center for Teaching and Learning.   The idea behind the ‘Truth and Bullshit’ course is to introduce central topics in philosophy that will have broad appeal not just to students majoring in philosophy but also to joint-degree students across the School of Humanities and the University. And it’s a really fun class to teach!

2.       Your specialism, Dr Hansen, is the Philosophy of Language (contextualism, experimental semantics and pragmatics, the meaning of colour terms).  Why were you in particular asked to convene and teach both the existing module ‘Reason and Argument’ and the new module ‘Truth and Bullshit’ in the Autumn Term?

‘Reason and Argument’ is concerned with analysing arguments that occur in natural language—as they appear in things we read, what people say on television etc.  I am interested in the relationship between natural language and logic in my research. One important component of the module involves getting students to learn how to translate natural language arguments into different formal languages used in elementary logic, and to recognize both the strengths and limitations of these simple logical languages.  ‘Reason and Argument’ assumes that truth is something we should care about and teaches students how to evaluate the truth or falsity of statements and the validity of arguments.

One way of looking at the ‘Truth and Bullshit’ course is as investigating what ‘Reason and Argument’ takes for granted. The course involves asking questions about the nature and value of truth. And it connects debates in philosophy of language with other areas in philosophy by asking questions like ‘what is the importance of truth versus the importance of other competing values, like usefulness?’

3.       ‘Reason and Argument’ is a compulsory module for all first-year Philosophy students.  ‘Truth and Bullshit’ is an optional second-year module.  Why do you think it is so important for students to think about truth in their philosophical studies and why should they care about thinking about it?

To the extent that we care about getting things right, we should care about truth. And more specifically, truth is a central concern of ‘Reason and Argument’ because in this course students are learning to use basic logical systems that have truth as a central component.

4.       Tell me about the academic content of the module ‘Truth and Bullshit’.  What are the aims of the module and what are students expected to do to fulfil its requirements?

The aim of ‘Truth and Bullshit’ is for students to think hard about the nature and value of truth. The first part of the course concentrates on different theories of ‘bullshit’ from some recent philosophers including Harry Frankfurt and G.A. Cohen.  The second part examines classic theories of truth, as espoused by philosophers like Bertrand Russell and William James.  The third part of the module asks why should we care about truth. In that part of the module we read work by Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, Nietzsche and Foucault.  Between Part Two and Part Three of the module we read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’ and think about what happens when we give up on the idea of truth. Students are evaluated on two essays and an exam. For the first essay I ask students to do some ‘bullshit hunting’ to find something that illustrates one of the theories of bullshit that we talk about. The second essay will cover theories of truth and scepticism about the value of truth.

5.       ‘Truth and Bullshit’ investigates theories of the nature of ‘bullshit’, ‘objective’ truth, and forms of scepticism and relativism about truth through a series of case studies drawn from contemporary politics and academia.  What are these case studies, why did you choose them and how do they elucidate these theories?

An example of a case study that we use from academia is the “Sokal Hoax.” In the mid-90s, the NYU  physicist Alan Sokal submitted a nonsensical essay to a cultural studies journal. He took the fact that the journal published his essay to reveal that postmodernist cultural studies was more interested in a producing a certain kind of fashionable jargon than with saying things that were meaningful and true. I also use examples from politics and the use of political language to ‘reframe’ political issues. For example, the Republican consultant Frank Luntz was involved in the Republican party’s substitution of the phrase ‘climate change’ in place of ‘‘global warming’ (to make the phenomenon seem less alarming), and also with the renaming of the ‘estate tax’ as the ‘death tax’ (to make the tax sound like something that should be opposed).  Democratic consultants, including the linguist George Lakoff, have also attempted to shift opinion through framing issues differently.

6.       We are bombarded constantly with contemporary disputes in the popular media about the value of truth and the nature of ‘bullshit’.  How does the module ‘Truth and Bullshit’ help students to learn how to discern truth from lies?  

Well, one thing we do is discuss the difference between bullshit and lies and look at competing theories of both. I’m not sure that by itself would make you better at telling truth from lies, but it will at least let you draw some helpful distinctions. So we examine, for example, Frankfurt’s idea that the bullshitter wants to conceal the fact that he or she doesn’t care about the truth whereas by contrast the liar wants his or her audience to believe the liar is telling the truth, and to come to have a false belief about the world.

7.       ‘Truth and Bullshit’ will be taught not just through lectures but seminars in which students will be encouraged to ask questions and try to answer the questions posed by the lecturer, so that they are forced to think, rather than just being spoon-fed information.  How will you encourage this form of Socratic-style dialogue between lecturer and student?  

I do use the American law-school style ‘Socratic method’ in my classes, where I ask students to ‘recite the facts of the case’ rather than simply lecturing at them. But that’s just the start of getting students to think like philosophers. One way of encouraging students to start asking their own questions involves getting students to state their own views about the topics we’ll be covering in the course on the very first day of class.

Here’s how this approach works in the ‘Truth and Bullshit’ class. Most contemporary professional philosophers think that we know things and that knowledge requires true belief.  So they think at least some of our beliefs are true.  But I have found in teaching philosophy to undergrads that the default attitude sometimes is scepticism about truth and knowledge. When they first come to class some students tend to argue that there are no truths and will say things that suggest that they think truth is subjective or perspectival.  So at the beginning of the course I ask them to give me examples of true statements, false statements and ‘bullshit’, and ask for an explanation of what makes something true.  I hang on to these answers until the end of the course, when I ask them to critique (or defend) their earlier statements based on what they’ve learned in the course.  The purpose of this exercise is to get them to see that they already have implicit commitments about truth, even though they may never have tried to articulate them.  The exercise also shows them how hard it is to have a fully developed, defensible theory of truth!

8.       Skills training and development and enquiry-based learning are so important for our students in this difficult economic climate.  ‘Reason and Argument’ is the module in which the Department of Philosophy introduces its Career skills component including how to produce a good CV and how to make the skills developed in a Philosophy degree transparent to future employers.  What particular set of skills does the module ‘Truth and Bullshit’ train our students in and help them develop?  

In April 2013 the American Association of Colleges and Universities reported that 93% of surveyed employers said that a candidate’s capacity to think critically ‘is more important than their undergraduate major’ (http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf). Taking philosophy courses like ‘Reason and Argument’ and ‘Truth and Bullshit’ is a good way of developing the capacity to think critically, put together and take apart arguments, and write analytically.

9.       It’s really important that our University and our School constantly thinks about new ways to teach and inspire our students.  In what ways is the module ‘Truth and Bullshit’ significantly teaching-innovative?  

I think ‘Truth and Bullshit’ is innovative in three major ways.  First, at the very first class students will be asked to reflect on the nature of truth in a way that isn’t filtered through the authority of philosophical texts.  The aim is to show them that these are not just academic questions and they already have ideas and commitments about important philosophical issues in their lives outside the classroom even if they don’t know they do. Second, during the course students will be encouraged to construct their own questions about truth and bullshit and submit them before class, so our discussions will be structured by what they find difficult or interesting. Third, I aim to use my office hours as tutorials as a way of diversifying the learning environment. So if a term is ten weeks long and I have thirty students then I will have groups of three come for an informal tutorial each week during these office hours.  This is not to set the students extra assignments but rather to give them additional time to raise questions about what we’ve been reading and talking about in class. The fact that these tutorials are conducted in an informal setting is also important because it changes the dynamic of the module – making it much more interactive.  I used this technique when I taught the course at Chicago and it made it possible for students who weren’t comfortable speaking during lectures to participate in a less formal setting.

10.   Studying Philosophy should be all about teaching students to think clearly – vital for any successful future career.  How do the modules ‘Reason and Argument’ and ‘Truth and Bullshit’ contribute to that overall aim?

I would argue that the ability to think clearly is only part – although a very important part – of what philosophy is all about.  ‘Reason and Argument’ teaches the close analysis of arguments, the ability to detect ambiguities, the capacity to recognise failures in common arguments and to detect common types of cognitive failures, and the opportunity to do basic formal logic.  ‘Truth and Bullshit’ encourages healthy scepticism and attempts to connect theories about the nature of truth with discussions of what we think is valuable. My hope is that students who take these courses will be better at cutting through all the bullshit out there and focusing on what is valuable and true.

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