Introduction to Philosophy

Since I had some time until my next Coursera course is scheduled to start, I’ve been slowly watching the lecture videos for this one from the University of Edinburgh. It was previously offered as a normal course at least once before but has since been put into an at-your-pace mode, which means it’s always available but no professor is actively involved in it. This is the first time I’ve taken a course in this mode on Coursera.

This course is divided into seven weeks’ worth of content with a different topic being covered each week. Unusually, each topic is also handled by a different professor, though all of them are affiliated with the University of Edinburgh. It starts with the usual discussion of what philosophy is and what it’s for and goes on to cover a pretty good range of the expected topics, including an introduction to epistemology, whether or not morality is objective and the philosophy of mind. The choice of topic for the final week stands out as being weirdly exotic: whether or not time travel is logical possible.

As you might expect, there is some variation between the content of each week, both in terms of quality and in terms of length. For example, Dr. Allan Hazlett’s discussion of whether or not we should believe in the testimony of other people comes to a total of only 39 minutes and seems like an oddly narrow choice as a topic. Dr. Allan Hazlett, by contrast, talks about time travel for an hour and 38 minutes. You can tell he really enjoys the topic not only from the detail he goes into but also from how he even dresses in period costume for the part! My favorite is probably Dr. Suilin Lavelle’s lectures on her philosophy of mind both because her examples are well chosen and because, unlike some of the others, she doesn’t waste too much time repeating the same concepts over and over again to make sure that all students are on the same page.

Each week’s lectures are capped by a multiple choice question quiz, which is par for the course for Coursera. What’s new is how hard Coursera is now pushing its Verified Certificate program and you now have to actively decline to sign up for it to do the quizzes without paying money. There are discussion forums available but they are sadly dead. I’ve never seen a forum with as little activity on any of the normally paced courses. It makes for a pretty good case for why it’s still a good idea for online courses to set a fixed schedule so that a bunch of students can go through it at the same time and therefore have a community to interact with. To partially make up for this, many of the professors have recorded “further discussion” lectures which summarizes some of the discussion that went on in the forums of the previous offering of the course.

Since philosophy is such a huge field and this is just an introductory course aimed at students who can’t be expected to have any prior exposure to it, I can’t be too hard on it. I certainly learned quite a few things from it, including the concept of Gettier problems and the debate over how true scientific theories are. Still, even as I note how the professors seem reluctant to drag in too much baggage from the field’s rich history for fear of the lectures taking too much time and students getting bored, I find that I prefer it when the professors directly cite the names of the philosophers who first came up with the ideas. It also annoyed me when the professors avoid using the standard terminology and make up their own. For example, Dr. Matthew Chrisman uses the word “objectivism” where most people would use “moral realism”, which is very confusing for anyone who knows about Ayn Rand.

With seven different professors each talking about their topic of choice without much of a common theme tying things together, this doesn’t seem much like a true introduction to the field. It’s more like a scattershot look at the topics of interest that come under this rubric. Reading a good book on philosophy seems immeasurably better as an introduction, but lacking that, I guess this is as good an effort at making a decent video-based course as anything else I’ve seen.

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