Faith and Betrayal of the Philosophical Method

By Dr. Shane Courtland, Civil American, Volume 1, Article 3 (December 4, 2016),

Please note: The following essay is autobiographical. I thought it might be helpful to share my experience. As with all personal events, those who have experienced this on the other side have very different feelings about the situation.

The way I have always viewed philosophy, regarding its practice and how it should be taught, is as a method of thinking. As philosophers, we are tasked to apply rigorous critical thinking to complicated abstract concepts and dilemmas. There are no domain restrictions; there can literally be a philosophy-of-anything. Thus, we find ourselves entangled with debates in politics, religion, ethics, physics, mathematics, ad infinitum.

Print of 'Discourse into the Night,' of two men sitting in a discussion.

While it is true that a goal of the philosophical method is to seek the truth, I wouldn’t say that it is completely preoccupied with holding true beliefs. Let me explain. After years of obsessing over this method, it has rendered most (if not all) of my beliefs tentative. I realize that one discussion, essay, or argument may compel me to abandon a cherished belief.

PETA's logo.I know this because I have suffered from it countless times. I have been a dedicated theist. Now I am a hardcore atheist. I used to be an animal rights advocate. I was an ethical vegetarian for four years and I ran a local chapter of PETA. Now I am skeptical about the moral standing of animals. I used to be a Kantian. Now I am a Hobbesian. I used to push for egalitarian redistribution. Now I tend to embrace libertarianism.

Philosophy, in a sense, is like drinking Drano. Sure it cleans out the ill-justified beliefs, but it can leave you somewhat empty. The subjective convictions of your beliefs post-philosophy are never as strong as the subjective convictions pre-philosophy. Many of my non-philosophical friends and relatives are critical of my post philosophical-self. When I have discussions with them, at some point, I inevitably receive this rebuff: “Whatever, Shane… but… you don’t really believe anything.”

There is, however, something I believe in – the method. I cannot quit the method. Beliefs come and go, but my stake in this method is forever. It has become a part of my very identity. To use a religious expression, to a philosopher the method is the true faith.

My teaching reflects this faith. I tell my students that I don’t care what views they argue for in their papers or in class discussion. My job is to assess their application of the method. If they are competently using the method to argue for crazy or morally repugnant views, they will get a good grade – PERIOD.

Dr. Bertha Alvarez Manninen, SOPHIA Intro Video

In the spirit of building communities of philosophical conversation, locally and online, we are continuing to record little introduction videos for our members and leaders. Here’s one for Dr. Bertha Alvarez Manninen. For each of these videos, we are asking 1) Who are you? 2) Why are you interested in philosophy and in SOPHIA? and 3) What’s something unique or unusual about you? We want these videos to put a face and a voice to a name. Here’s Dr. Manninen’s profile page.

If you’d like to make a video, reach out to SOPHIA’s Executive Director and we’ll record one. Getting together for that purpose also gives us an opportunity to chat. Enjoy this little intro video featuring Dr. Manninen:

If you haven’t already, consider JOINING SOPHIA!

Breaking Out of the Bubble: Fixing American Politics

By Dr. Shane Courtland, Civil American, Volume 1, Article 2 (November 11, 2016),

The turn-out for an event that Dr. Courtland organized at the University of Minnesota Duluth.For approximately 5 years, I was the director of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy (CEPP) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. As the director, I was charged with producing and executing various campus wide events.  My specialty, was the panel discussion.  This would bring multiple experts to the table to discuss a particular topic of local, regional or national interest.   What was distinctive about my version of the panel discussion was that I was obsessed with providing a balanced panel.  I always tried to ensure that, when we covered an issue, we had competent individuals arguing on each side. This might seem like an obvious strategy – but it wasn’t. Often when panels were held, prior to my tenure, all of the panelists would be arguing on the same side.  As an example, the previous CEPP director held a panel on “Sex Trafficking in Minnesota” – which, as you probably can tell, is a hard topic to find people on both sides of. Such univocal panels often seemed more like rallies than discussions.

This is the logo for SOPHIA's peer-reviewed online public philosophy series, titled 'Civil American.'

I wish I could say that my obsession with providing balanced panels was based upon a noble motivation. To be honest, however, it was strictly Machiavellian. When I took over the CEPP (in 2011) it was dying. Nobody was coming to its events and its meager funding was about to be cut. I had to do something to change its downward trajectory.

A panel that Dr. Courtland organized.So I decided to provide a good that was relatively absent in my local market. I would create panel discussions that would be marketed like prize fights. In order to have a successful prize fight, you need accomplished fighters on both sides. Moreover, the fight needs to be fair and to be a contest that truly shows their skills.  If my fights were unfair (biased toward a perspective), I would cease to get fighters for my next fight (my reputation as fair and balanced was key). Also, if the contest didn’t test their skills (e.g., they were just talking heads that failed to engage the other talking heads), no one would show up! People get those faux panels on TV all of the time.

The crowd in attendance at one of Dr. Courtland's organized panels.Long story short, this strategy was successful beyond expectations. Hundreds of people were showing up to our events and we were frequently featured on a plethora of news sources (TV, radio and print).

So, why am I telling you this? Simple. These panels had an unintended effect – they changed me. We covered a remarkable number of contentious issues: gay marriage, voter ID laws, economic inequality, nickel-copper mining, medical marijuana, legalizing wolf hunting, Minnesota blue laws, Kill or No-Kill shelters, physician assisted suicide, and so on.   In these events, I came loaded (like any other human) with a favored position. There was always a position that I wanted to, and predicted would, “win.”

But, here is what happened – after each event, I would always be impressed (yes, every time) by the proponents of the other side. They were not the “straw men” that many expected them to be. They had well-articulated defenses to many (if not all) of the arguments against their view.  I admit, I rarely changed my mind on these issues… but I always left the panel feeling less sure of my view.  These panels provided me with a heavy dose of epistemic humility. Moreover, students and other faculty expressed that they, too, had the same experience.

‘What Ifs’ and No Regrets

By Dr. Shane Courtland, Civil American, Volume 1, Article 1 (October 31, 2016),

You only live once.One often hears the expression “You should live your life without regrets” in the same situations that one hears expressions such as “carpe diem” and “YOLO.” The basic idea is that you should live your life to the fullest. One day, if you are lucky to be living, you will be able to look back on your life. When you do so, you do not want to feel that it was wasted merely because you were too timid and afraid to embrace it. Have courage, these slogans implore – reach the fullest potential of a happy and fulfilling life.

In what follows, I want to articulate a different way to understand this expression.

The logo for this publication series, 'Civil American.'

This understanding is inspired, in part, by a passage in Epictetus’s The Enchiridion. In passage #25, he writes:

Print of Epictetus.“Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing. For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don’t imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person’s entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don’t like to praise; the not bearing with his behavior at coming in.”

The basic idea, as far as I can tell, is that Epictetus is reminding us that everything in life has opportunity costs. In order to get something of value, one always forgoes something. The man who gets to go to the party paid for it by having to sell his praise. Epictetus then tells the reader, “But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead.”

Introducing Civil American

A digital publication series from The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA).

The logo for 'Civil American,' SOPHIA's online peer-reviewed publication.

The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) announces the opening of Civil American, our latest venue for public philosophical engagement, released as a peer-reviewed digital publication on our Web site. Each piece will be released individually, much like a newspaper column, interspersed with SOPHIA’s various other posts. Civil American is a place for SOPHIA members and friends to submit short essays, between 700 and 3,000 words (though shorter and longer will be considered), on topics of importance for living and policy-making, as individuals and as communities.

Given our 2015 strategic planning initiative, the mission of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) is “to use the tools of philosophical inquiry to improve people’s lives and enrich the profession of philosophy through conversation and community building.” In pursuit of that mission, two of our four strategic goals are “to use technology effectively” and to “to engage with the profession on public philosophy and digital humanities.”

To these ends, we open up SOPHIA’s online space as a forum for publicly engaged philosophy, to talk about issues and problems that matter to people both in and beyond the academy. Our emphasis is on accessibility of style and importance of subject matter. Following trends of digital publishing, we will consider the pieces released here to be in a volume gathered by year. All pieces released in 2016 will be considered part of Volume 1.

We welcome proposals for panels of submissions from groups interested in writing on topics in common. Gathered pieces may also be invited to join together in further advancement of their projects for growth in The Public Philosophy Journal‘s developmental and open peer-review process. Shorter projects can begin here and, if desired, be lengthened and deepened through such collaborations.

Cover of an issue of Scientific American.Civil American was envisioned as a general-audience targeted scholarly publication by SOPHIA Trustees Dr. John Shook and Dr. Eric Thomas Weber, who see a need for a philosophical equivalent to the great publication, Scientific American. The United States have an immensely rich intellectual tradition, yet much discourse in the public sphere tends to be sensationalist, rather than civil and philosophical. More information about Civil American will be posted here soon on a page created within SOPHIA’s Web site.

If you have any questions or proposals for submission to Civil American, you can email SOPHIA’s Executive Director, Dr. Eric Thomas Weber.

VIDEO – Trigger Warnings: Offense, Freedom, and Respect

Photo of SOPHIA's first online philosophical conversation, on trigger warnings.

Here below is the video of our first online symposium, which we organized on the topic of trigger warnings. Note that the audio in the first 8-10 minutes includes some background noise from participants getting set up. We eventually got those sounds under control and know now how to avoid such problems in future discussion. We hope that you enjoy this video and that you’ll join us in the future. Also, send us ideas about topics that you want to talk about. We are looking to put on regular discussions like this one on a variety of topics. We hope you enjoy:

If you haven’t already, you can “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. You can also JOIN SOPHIA here.

A photo of a symbol that reads "Trigger Warning: Explicit Content," and which is made to look like the "Explicit Content" warnings used on mature media sold to the public in the United States.SOPHIA is holding our first online symposium, a conversational meeting open to all, on the subject of “trigger warnings,” the act of alerting students in advance about potentially offensive messages or images to be covered in an educational setting. Controversy arose in part in reaction to a letter from the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago, which you can find here, and which we ask that each participant in our conversation read prior to joining us (1 page).

Photo of the letter that the University of Chicago sent incoming students about "trigger warnings."Title: Trigger Warnings: Offense, Respect, and Freedom [Online Video Symposium]

Day and time: Wednesday, 10/19/16 from 2:00-3:30 p.m. Eastern.

Place: Online. In advance, click this link to download a small tool that will enable participation. If you have used Zoom online video conferencing before, you may not need to download the little app.

SPECIAL NOTE: This conversational meeting will be recorded and then posted on YouTube. You can participate either with video and audio or you can just watch the discussion and comment in the platform’s chat section. Those unable to participate at the time of the discussion can watch the video later on YouTube.

Photo of Dr. Bertha Manninen.Facilitators:

Dr. Bertha Manninen, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Arizona State University


Photo of Dr. Shane Courtland.Dr. Shane Courtland, Managing Director of the Center for Free Enterprise at West Virginia University.

In addition,

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber.Dr. Eric Thomas Weber, Executive Director of SOPHIA, will serve as the moderator of our online forum.

And featuring a special Guest:

We are also very fortunate to have a special guest joining us from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE):

Ari Cohn, J.D., Senior Program Office for Legal and Public Advocacy, F.I.R.E.Ari Cohn, J.D., Senior Program Officer for Legal and Public Advocacy for F.I.R.E.

We welcome and invite comments and questions in advance of the symposium. Please write to us at, post a comment on our Facebook page, or Tweet to us @SOPHIAchirp.

Finally, you can also call us and leave us a voicemail with a comment or question, by calling: 859.257.1849. Please introduce yourself, tell us where you’re from, and please limit your message length to 1 minute or less.

Date: October 19, 2016
Time: 02:00-03:30 p.m. Eastern
Event: Trigger Warnings: Offense, Respect, and Freedom [Online Video Symposium]
Topic: Education, Academic Freedom, Respect for Victims of Trauma
Venue: SOPHIA's Zoom Online Video Conferencing platform
Public: Public

Keep up to date on SOPHIA activities and get involved by joining SOPHIA!