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Do students of philosophy have much to gain by travel, study abroad, or cultural immersion?

June 1, 2006

Response from Richard Heck on June 6, 2006

How about this for an argument?

  1. Human beings have much to gain by travel, study abroad, and cultural immersion.
  2. Students of philosophy are human beings.
  3. Therefore, students of philosophy have much to gain by travel, study abroad, and cultural immersion.

That'd be an instance of the valid form "Barbara", and I take it both premises are true.

Oh! I see! You meant, do students of philosophy, qua students of philosophy, have much to gain by travel, study abroad, and cultural immersion! Well, that's a different question. Let me answer it from the perspective of a North American. Adjust as necessary.

But the answer to it is much the same. For one thing, to some significant extent, doing philosophy involves trying to pry oneself free of one's own unnoticed preconceptions. There's nothing like exposure to other ways of living to teach one how unnoticed some of those preconceptions can be. In that sense, then, I think anything that expands one's mind, and one's conception of life's possibilities, will make one a better thinker.

But there are also things more directly relelvant to philosophy to be said, too. Philosophy is an enormously varied enterprise. Philosophy departments are very small, even when they aren't, and individual departments tend to have their own focuses. If you were a student at Harvard during my time there, for example, you'd have a certain picture of what philosophy was like, a picture that would have been very different from the one you'd have gotten if you were a student at McGill, or Princeton, or Rutgers, or Notre Dame, or Penn State. And, while one often hears the phrase "Anglo-American philosophy", and with good reason, philosophy as practiced in Britain or Australia is in some ways very different from philosophy as practiced in the United States or in (English-speaking parts of) Canada. And those contrasts, in turn, are trivial compared to those between philosophy as practiced in the English-speaking world and philosophy as it is done in France or Germany. Of course, these are generalizations: There are "analytic" philosophers on the continent and "continental" ones in the States. But you get the point.

Response from Douglas Burnham on June 9, 2006

A quick addition to Professor Heck's response. Most but not all of the usual list of 'great' philosophers have been travellers. Kant is the most notorious exception. But he lived in a cosmopolitan sea-port, and 'cultural immersion' came to him rather than he to it. I say this only in order to remind us that knowledge of other places and peoples does not have travel as either a necessary or perhaps even a sufficient condition.

To broaden your excellent question, it is also the case that many philosophers have had second jobs, so to speak. (Or even that philosophy was never their first 'job'.) It is a relatively recent phenomenon that a philosopher will be attached to an institution of higher education, and that she will pretty much only teach philosophy at that institution. If travel and cultural immersion tends to be a good thing for philosophers, it might also be worth asking whether working in Universities tends not to be.


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