In 1980 members of the faculty of the Philosophy Department at California Polytechnic State University were asked to create an introductory course in philosophy that would be required of every student as part of their general education. The department voted to adopt my proposal to introduce students to philosophy by having them read only the original texts of pre-20th century classics of philosophy. At least one of the texts selected for the introductory course had to be from ancient philosophy and the remainder could be from any book of philosophy published before 1900, provided that it is generally regarded as a classic and accessible to beginning students. We created two 11-week courses based on this model. One course is devoted to classic works in ethics, social and political philosophy. The other course concentrates on classic works in epistemology and metaphysics. The authors typically chosen for these courses were the usual suspects: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Mill, Kant, and several other of the “great” philosophers.
Our hope in adopting this approach to introducing university students to philosophy was that they would not only learn about the nature of philosophy and philosophical method, but they would leave the course having read and (hopefully) understood some of the great books in Western philosophy; a rare accomplishment in a university with an enrollment of 20,000 students, most of them specializing in science or technology.
Looking back over the past 36 years I believe we achieved the latter objective but fell short in fulfilling the former. Most students would begin a course completely ignorant of the nature of philosophy, its questions and its methods. This is quite understandable, especially in light of the fact that most students have no exposure to philosophy before enrolling in the university. And yet, although our beginning students studied, discussed and were tested on their understanding of several classic works, it occurred to me that a high proportion of them would leave our courses unable to give coherent answers to such questions as: “What is philosophy?” “What is the nature of a philosophical problem?” “What methods does the philosopher use to resolve philosophical problems?” “How does a philosophical discovery differ from a discovery in science?” If students who completed a beginning course in biology or psychology were not able to define “biology,” or “psychology,” remained ignorant about the unique nature of a problem in these areas of study, and could not explain some of the methods used to solve these problems, then their teacher would understandably declare the course to be a failure.
I soon decided that I would use a standard to judge the success or failure of my courses similar to the standard used by my hypothetical biology or psychology colleague. I would evaluate my own classes as a success if a majority of my students showed an understanding not only of the central ideas of each philosopher discussed, but they could also explain the nature of philosophy, how philosophical questions differed from those arising in the sciences, and (especially) the unique methods used by the great philosophers to solve these problems.
Each book in the series of student companions to the classics of Western philosophy attempts to achieve these modest objectives. Each book in the series organizes the central claims of each classic text in order to clarify the kind of question that the philosopher is asking and the method(s) the philosopher uses in the attempt to answer that question. I make no assumptions that the kind of question asked or the method used to answer the question will always be the same as we move from one philosopher to another. What is important is that in the attempt to clarify the questions asked by each philosopher students will be able to identify a common thread that will allow them to say “Ah yes, this is a question that is philosophical, not scientific. It does not call for the tools or methods typically used in scientific inquiry.” If questions of philosophy are not to be resolved by observational research in the field or experimentation in the laboratory, then it will be important to determine how each philosopher goes about answering the questions posed. Once again, we might be able to find a common thread that allows a student to say “There, that is how philosophers go about their work.”
The series is organized into volumes distinguished by the author under consideration. The first volume (Understanding Plato) contains twelve short chapters discussing issues and arguments in four of Plato’s early (“Socratic”) dialogues and in those parts of the Republic dealing with ethics and political philosophy. The second book is about John Locke’s moral and political theory in Second Treatise of Government. The third volume is a guide to John Stuart Mill’s inductivist ethical theory in Utilitarianism and his discussion of the limits of state power over the individual in On Liberty. The fourth (and probably final) book is about Immanuel Kant's rationalist approach to ethical theory in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals.
Chapters in each volume conclude with a set of questions for thought and discussion. Other volumes on the classic philosophers will be added to the series as requested by readers and for as long as time and expertise can be found.
My hope is that a critical study of the classics will show that philosophy is not after all a random enterprise in which anyone can say whatever comes into their head because they believe there is no method on which to base a rational argument.
Although the student guides can be read on their own, my intention is that they be read as companions to the original works of the philosophers discussed therein. I certainly do not recommend the guides as a substitute for a careful reading of the classic works. Students should always read the original text before looking at this or any other companion book for commentary and guidance about what the philosopher says or implies about the nature of philosophy, the important questions of philosophy and the methods of the philosopher for answering or attempting to answer these questions.