Popular philosophical ideas

I am teaching high school philosphy this year for the first time. I am wading through it.
I thought it might be good to delve into the philosophies through which we live our lives. A ten minute internet search did not help me.

What would you say are the great philosophical ideals through which western culture makes decisions about our lives?

We might say that Nihilism would be number one but sprinkled here and there must be a lot of ideas that we draw on everyday.

It might be nice to get a top ten list together.

I’d think you’d want to mention Rawls’ Theory of Justice.

Very few people lead philosophical lives these days, if they ever did. Rather than discussing the philosophies by which we lead our lives, it would be better do discuss the philosophies that we ignore. I’d recommend Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, and Bishop Berkeley, for starters.

A lot of people claim to live their lives according to the Golden Rule, Maxim of Ethical Reciprocity, Global Ethic, or whatever you want to call it.

Maybe Frylock will answer.

I’m not sure Berkeley would make the cut, given the amount of ground to cover. OTOH, Berkeley makes for a great thinking exercise; nothing like trying to find logical fault with his Idealism. :slight_smile:

Clearly though, Hobbes is required for (Western) social philosophy, as is John Locke. Descartes is also a requirement (IMHO), if only to touch on theory of mind; one could hit up Plato and the tripartite mind to balance that (not to mention also using The Republic as social philosophy; springboard from there into theory of mind).

It seems to me that to address “western cultural ideals”, one would likely want to include Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Darwin; perhaps Aquinas (or Augustine, though I’d not wish reading his work on anyone). Nietzsche is always good for roiling the waters and lively discussion; Camus or Sartre also.

ETA: some Utilitariansim (JS Mill or Bentham) is likely also in order.


Teenage years are usually when people discover solipsism and radical skepticism. You could teach about that, possibly drawing on Descartes.

The divine command theory has a pretty big impact on how a lot of people live their lives. How relevant that is to your students probably depends a lot on what part of the nation you’re in though.

Beyond that, I’d say take a look at the people who influenced the founding fathers. Locke, Hobbes, etc had a huge influence in how our government was developed, which in turn has a huge influence on people’s daily lives.

I recommend the book 50 Philosophical Ideas that you really need to know.

From my copy, skipping over ideas that are interesting from a purely historical perspective, I think these ideas are fresh enough to interest a high school class.

  • brain in a vat
  • Rawl’s veil of ignorance
  • the zombie (other minds) problem
  • what is it like to be a bat?
  • ship of theseus (or star treck transporters)
  • theories of punishment
  • what is art?

If I were a teenager, I expect I’d get a kick out of trying to solve ethical dilemmas like:

  • trolley problems
  • lifeboat earth
  • tragedy of the commons

I could easily quote the whole table of contents here but I’ll limit myself to just one more. I’d compare -isms. Utilitarianism, consequentialism, objectivism, subjectivism, idealism, realism, relativism, deontology (the ism is implied).

I could’ve filtered that list a bit more if I’d read the OP more carefully :frowning:

Sticking with just ideas that affect our daily lives, I’d still keep the isms. The ethical dilemmas certainly affect us every day and demonstrating that they have no easy solution is worthwhile.

As a teacher, this sounds like a good opportunity for brainstorming. I’d split the students up into small groups and have them identify:

  1. When in the last week have they had to make a decision involving philosophy (or morals, if they don’t have enough background to identify philosophical decisions)
  2. Which principals did they abide by when making those decisions.
  3. Where do those principals come from?

Then perhaps you could have a lecture on the “10 popular philosophies.” Then have those same groups get back together and give each group a moral dilemma to be interpreted through a few of the philosophies you discussed. A homework assignment could involve having them identify one situation over the week where someone they were talking to referenced one of those philosophies.

How broadly do you want to discuss philosophy?
At the highest level, I would divide it into religious philosophies: Abrahamic theism, deism, naturalism, etc,; political/social philosophies: liberalism, conservatism, and socialism; and metaphysical philosophies: existentialism, nihilism, determinism, positivism, etc.

By the by, I like the suggestions of even sven. I think most philosophies have an impact on our daily life, but most adults have either remained ignorant of how they do so, or have so ingrained their philosophies into their daily lives, they are rarely cognizant of their initial decisions unless specifically asked.

Forced reflection now and then is usually a good thing.

Heh, I know this won’t make me any friends, but to be frank and perhaps a little too blunt, I don’t think the OP should be teaching Philosophy to High Schoolers if the OP needed to post what he posted to an internet discussion forum.

That’s right, now that I’m a professional, I get all protective about my field. :wink:

Having said that, I think Kevlaw’s suggestion is a good one. It’s probably the approach I’d take (whether using that particular text or not). This is a matter of personal taste to some extent, though. I like the mind-fuck side of Philosophy quite a bit. Others like the meaning-of-life stuff better, which would mean you’d want to read older and more European philosophical works.

If you’re teaching a really bright group of kids, take them through a contemporary philosopher’s sweeping popular work, such as Nagel’s The View From Nowhere or Searle’s Minds, Brains and Science. Or more than one of them.

And do teach the Meditations, if you know what you’re talking about when you teach it.

My college intro course includes:

Plato’s Euthyphro
Plato’s Crito
Plato’s Apology
Descartes’ Meditations
Passages from:
Mill’s Utilitarianism
Kant’s Groundwork
Searle’s Minds, Brains and Programs
Dennett’s Where Am I
Rawls’ Theory of Justice
A bunch of other stuff from this anthology “Philosophy: Basic Readings” by Nigel Warburton.
In that bunch I include readings concerning the Problem of Induction, and of course, concerning the existence of God and the Problem of Evil since that always gets 'em going.

If you’re teaching really bright kids, go for some Borges short stories as well.

And I’ve got a fun little book called “What If…? Thought Experiments in Philosophy” or something like that which you might want to check out. The commentary’s not great, but it’s more useful just for reference in order to start discussions concerning the thought experiments and the various paradoxes they bring to light etc.

I felt the same for a moment after making my own posts.

I then decided I like my/our approach better. :wink:

But that’s not to say you couldn’t teach a really great course along the lines envisioned by the OP. It’s just that my own philosophical habits and training don’t really prepare me to say much that’s useful about that.

Moreover, by investigating the wowee-zowee-mindfuck stuff you and I suggested (not to say you would have used that phrase!) what ends up happening is we discover for ourselves what hidden assumptions we’ve been relying on as we live our daily lives–and that really is something like what the OP was after, though it doesn’t sound so romantic when I put it that way.

Completely personal perspective from someone who has tried to learn a little philosophy from books…

I’ve tried several times to start at the very beginning (pre-socratics) and work my way forward through the history of philosophy. Each time, I have found that, after a while, all the distinct ideas seem to blend into philosophical mush. By the time I get to the stuff that really interests me (Hume, Locke, Mill et al) I am philosophied out and give up.

I think I would have done better to start with an interesting modern idea (the trolley problems?) and trace that back through the great thinkers. (rinse and repeat for theories of mind, language etc). From most of the books I have read, I ended up learning more about great thinkers than about the great thoughts.

I think my teenaged-self would have enjoyed it more had I approached it from, to quote the OP, " great philosophical ideals through which western culture makes decisions about our lives?" rather than learning about philosophy as a history of ideas.

I teach high school, not university.
In this particular class, many of the students are only functionally literate.
You might be right that I am not the person to teach this class but such is the case in many high school classes. We are not going to get experts in every subject area.
I think asking these questions on the Dope shows that I really want to do a good job. I’m only trying to make these students a little more introspective. It’s a challenge but that’s what I love about my job.

Continuing along my ignorant way, I was surprised by an earlier post stating that most people today aren’t rooted in any philosophy. I can easily see this but when was there ever a time when people lived there lives philosophically and in addition, can’t it be argued that not having a philosophy is a philosophy. Isn’t that nihilism. Does philosophy always have to lead to some sort of enlightenment?

I’m sorry to say that I was thinking the exact same thing. It’s difficult to teach something that you haven’t somewhat mastered, where you’re comfortable with it and can get at it from different angles. Though, the fact that he posted here to ask is a good sign.

oops. I didn’t see this post. If this is the case, I would try to master some very basic concepts and have fun with them. A good way at the issues with the class you have may be through some of the old Greek tragedies, most of which point to very thoughtful philosophical positions. Antigone, by Sophocles, comes to mind, in that it talks about from whence law comes.