PHIL 176: Death

Lecture 1

 - Course Introduction


Professor Kagan introduces the course and the material that will be covered during the semester. He aims to clarify what the class will focus on in particular and which subjects it will steer away from. The emphasis will be placed on philosophical questions that arise when one contemplates the nature of death. The first half of the course will address metaphysical questions while the second half will focus on value theory.

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PHIL 176 - Lecture 1 - Course Introduction

Chapter 1. What This Class Is NOT, and What This Class Is [00:00:00]

Professor Shelly Kagan: All right, so this is Philosophy 176. The class is on death. My name is Shelly Kagan. The very first thing I want to do is to invite you to call me Shelly. That is, if we meet on the street, you come talk to me during office hours, you ask some question; Shelly’s the name that I respond to. I will, eventually, respond to Professor Kagan, but the synapses take a bit longer for that. It’s not the name I immediately recognize. I have found that over the years, fewer and fewer students feel comfortable calling me Shelly. When I was young, it seemed to work. Now I’m gray and august. But if you’re comfortable with it, it’s the name that I prefer to be called by.

Now, as I say, this is a class on death. But it’s a philosophy class, and what that means is that the set of topics that we’re going to be talking about in this class are not identical to the topics that other classes on death might try to cover. So the first thing I want to do is say something about the things we won’t be talking about that you might reasonably expect or hope that a class on death would talk about, so that if this is not the class you were looking for, you still have time to go check out some other class.

So here are some things that a class on death could cover that we won’t talk about. What I primarily have in mind are sort of psychological and sociological questions about the nature of death, or the phenomenon of death. So, a class on death might well have a discussion of the process of dying and coming to reconcile yourself with the fact that you’re going to die. Some of you may know about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s discussion of the so-called five stages of dying. There’s denial, and then there’s anger, and then there’s bargaining. I actually don’t remember the five stages. We’re not going to talk about that. Similarly, we’re not going to talk about the funeral industry in America and how it rips off people, which it does, in their moments of grief and weakness and overcharges them for the various things that it offers. We’re not going to talk about that. We’re not going to talk about the process of grieving or bereavement. We’re not going to talk about sociological attitudes that we have towards the dying in our culture and how we tend to try to keep the dying hidden from the rest of us. These are all perfectly important topics, but they’re not, as I say, topics that we’re going to be talking about in this class.

So what will we talk about? Well, the things we’ll talk about are philosophical questions that arise as we begin to think about the nature of death. Like this. In broad scope, the first half of the class is going to be metaphysics, for those of you who are familiar with the philosophical piece of jargon. And roughly, the second half of the class is going to be value theory.

So, the first half of the class is going to be concerned with questions about the nature of death. What happens when we die? Indeed, to get at that question, the first thing we’re going to have to think about is what are we? What kind of an entity is a person? In particular, do we have souls, and for this class when I talk about a soul, what I’m going to mean is sort of a bit of philosophical jargon. I’m going to mean something immaterial, something distinct from our bodies. Do we have immaterial souls, something that might survive the death of our body? And if not, what does that imply about the nature of death? What kind of an event is death? What is it for me to survive? What would it mean for me to survive my death? What does it mean for me to survive tonight? That is, you know, somebody’s going to be here lecturing to the class on Thursday, presumably that will be me. What is it for that person who’s there on Thursday to be the same person as the person who’s sitting here lecturing to you today? These are questions about the nature of personal identity. Pretty clearly, to think about death and continued existence and survival, we have to get clear about the nature of personal identity. These sorts of questions will occupy us for roughly the first half of the semester.

And then we’ll turn to value questions. If death is the end, is death bad? Now, of course, most of us are immediately and strongly inclined to think that death is bad. But there are a set of philosophical puzzles about how death could be bad. To sort of give you a quick taste, if after my death I won’t exist, how could anything be bad for me? How could anything be bad for something that doesn’t exist? So how could death be bad? So it’s not that the result is going to be that I’m going to try to convince you that death isn’t bad, but it takes actually a little bit of work to pin down precisely what is it about death that’s bad and how can it be death? Is there more than one thing about death that makes it bad? We’ll turn to questions like that. If death is bad, then one might wonder would immortality be a good thing? That’s a question that we’ll think about. Or, more generally, we’ll worry about how should the fact that I’m going to die affect the way I live? What should my attitude be towards my mortality? Should I be afraid of death, for example? Should I despair at the fact that I’m going to die?

Finally, we’ll turn to questions about suicide. Many of us think that given the valuable and precious thing that life is, suicide makes no sense. You’re throwing away the only life you’re ever going to have. And so we’ll end the semester by thinking about questions along the lines of the rationality and morality of suicide. So roughly speaking, that’s where we’re going. First half of the class, metaphysics; second half of the class, value theory.

Chapter 2. Common Views on Death Are Wrong: How This Class Is Taught [00:06:38]

Next thing I need to explain is this. There’s, roughly speaking, two ways to do a class, especially an introductory class like this. In approach number one, you simply lay out the various positions, pro and con, and the professor strives to remain neutral; sort of not tip his hand about what he holds. That’s approach number one. And sometimes in my intro classes that’s the approach that I take. But the other approach, and the one that I should warn you I’m going to take this semester, in this class, is rather different. There’s a line that I’m going to be developing, pushing, if you will, or defending in this class. That is to say, there’s a certain set of views I hold about the issues that we’ll be discussing. And what I’m going to try to do in this class is argue for those views. Try to convince you that those views are correct.

To help you know sort of ahead of time quickly what those views are, I want to start by describing a set of views that many of you probably believe. So I’m going to give you a cluster of views. Logically speaking, you could believe some of these things and not all of them. But here’s a set of views that many of you probably believe, and I imagine most of you believe at least some of these things.

So here’s the set of common views. First of all, that we have a soul. That is to say we are not just bodies. We’re not just lumps of bone and flesh. But there’s a part of us, perhaps the essential part of us, that is something more than the physical, the spiritual, immaterial part of us, which as I say in this class we’ll call a soul. Most of us, most of you, probably believe in souls. Certainly most people in America believe in some sort of immaterial soul. And given this existence of this immaterial soul, it’s a possibility, indeed a fair likelihood, that we will survive our deaths. The death will be the destruction of my body, but my soul is immaterial and so my soul can continue to exist after my death. And whether or not you actually believe in a soul, you hope that there’s a soul so that there’ll be this serious possibility of surviving your death because death is not only bad, but so horrible that what we would like to have happen is, we would like to live forever. And so, armed with a soul, as it were, there’s at least the possibility of immortality. Immortality would be wonderful. That’s what we hope is the case, whether or not we know that it’s the case. Immortality would be wonderful. That’s why death’s so bad. It robs us of immortality. And if there is no soul, if death is the end, if there is no immortality, this is such an overwhelmingly bad thing that the only, the obvious reaction, the natural reaction, the universal reaction, is to face the prospect of death with fear and despair. And as I mentioned earlier then, death is so horrible and life is so wonderful that it could never make sense to throw it away. So suicide is both immoral on the one hand and never makes sense. It’s always irrational as well, in addition.

That, as I say, is I think a common set of views about the nature of death. And what I’m going to be doing, what I’m going to be arguing in this class, is that that set of views is pretty much mistaken from beginning to end. And so I’m going to try to convince you that there is no soul. Immortality would not be a good thing. Fear of death isn’t actually an appropriate response to death. Suicide, under certain circumstances, might be rationally and morally justified. As I say, the common picture is pretty much mistaken from start to end. That’s at least my goal. That’s my aim. That’s what I’m going to be doing. Now, since of course, I believe the views I believe — and I hope at the end of the semester you’ll agree with me, because I think they’re true and I hope you’ll end up believing the truth [laughter]. But I should say that the crucial point isn’t for you to agree with me. The crucial point is for you to think for yourself. And so what I’m really doing is inviting you to take a good, cold, hard look at death, and to face it and think about it in a way that most of us don’t do. If you, at the end of the semester, haven’t agreed with me about this particular claim or that particular claim, so be it. I’ll be content — I won’t be completely content — but I’ll be at least largely content as long as you’ve really thought through the arguments on each side of these various issues.

Karen, maybe this would be a good time for you to pass around the syllabus.

Next introductory remark: A lot of today’s talk is going to be devoted to business. I’ll get to, if time permits, some philosophy at the end. I want to make one more remark about what I’ll be doing in terms of this class. This class, as I say, is a philosophy class. We’ll basically be sitting here thinking about what we can know or make sense of with regard to death using our reasoning capacity. We’ll be trying to think about death from a rational standpoint.

One kind of evidence or one kind of argument that we won’t be making use of here is appeal to religious authority. So some of you may believe in, for example, the existence of an afterlife. You may believe you’re going to survive your death. You may believe in immortality because that’s what your church teaches you. And that’s fine. It’s not my purpose or intention here to try to argue you out of your religious beliefs or to argue against your religious beliefs. All I’m going to ask is that we not appeal to such religious arguments, appeal to revelation or the authority of the Bible, or what have you, in the course of this argument. In the course of this class.

If you want to, you could think of this class as one big hypothetical. What conclusions would we come to about the nature of death if we had to think about it from a secular perspective? Making use of only our own reasoning, as opposed to whatever answers we might be given by divine revealed authority. Those of you who believe in divine revealed authority, that’s a debate for another day. It’s not a debate that we’re going to be engaged in here in this semester. Similarly, although I’m not going to ask you in your discussion sections to hide your religious views, you’ll be asked in the course of defending them, to give reasons that would make sense to all of us.

Chapter 3. Course Requirements, Materials, and Format [00:14:20]

That’s by way of sort of where the class is going. Let me now turn to some discussion about the requirements of the class, grades and so forth and so on. The syllabus is going around the class. Almost all of you have it at this point. The syllabus doesn’t really say a whole lot. I’ve already given you an overview of what topics we’ll be going to. The crucial point about the syllabus is that it indicates what reading you need to have done for any given week. Now, I’ve done my best to peg the readings to where I will be on that week’s lecture, but I don’t lecture with lecture notes, for the most part. Sometimes I take a little bit longer than I anticipated. Actually, I often take a little bit longer than I anticipated. No doubt at some point I’ll fall behind. At some point I may rush to catch up ahead. It won’t always be the case that the readings will exactly coincide with where the lectures are at. Nonetheless, in any given week, for the start of that week, you should have done the readings that are listed for that week. The readings on the syllabus simply say the author, and there are a couple of books that are available at the bookstore. There are a larger packet of readings that’s available as a course pack at Tyco’s [local print shop]. And so for any given week you can find the reading. One or two cases, maybe just one actually, where I’ve got more than one article by the given author, I’ve given the title of the article as well. It shouldn’t be difficult to locate the reading for any given week.

The format of the class, of course, is a familiar and straightforward one. I’ll be sitting here lecturing twice a week, this time, 10:30 to 11:20. Once a week you will break up into discussion sections. The discussion sections will meet for 50 minutes. Each one of you will have a single time. But it’ll be different times the discussion sections meet. For the first time, the philosophy department has just switched over to the online discussion section registration system. I’m not 100% certain how that works. I’ve not used it before. I take it the idea is something like this. Right now, if you were to shop the class, you could find the tentative list of discussion section days and times. So be sure to find some time that works for you. You can’t actually register for any of those discussion section times yet. But as of, I think, next week when you’re able to begin your online registration, you will be able to register for any discussion section that still has a slot, still has a space open in it. In fact, you won’t be able to finalize your registration for your courses until you’ve actually signed up for an available slot. Once you have registered, if some other slots become available that weren’t previously available, I gather you’ll be sent some sort of email by the system, in case some other time would be better for you. You can put yourself on waiting lists and so forth. It sounds pretty good on paper. Maybe it’ll all work smoothly. I’ve never been through it before. I hope we won’t have any problems. Right now what you want to make sure is that there is a time that’s available — right now all the times are available — but that there is a time that works for you. Because if you can’t find a discussion section that works for you, you won’t be able to take this course. Any questions about that?

I should actually ask, any questions about anything that I’ve asked or said so far, up to this point? Let me make a remark about questions, which is — today’s mostly business. Hopefully, it’ll be fairly straightforward. But both today and throughout the entire semester, as I’m lecturing I want to invite you to jump in with questions. Well, jump in is a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t want you to just start talking, but raise your hand. If I’m saying something that you don’t understand, the chances are pretty good that there’s 25 or 50 other students in the class who don’t understand it either. I’m just not being clear. So I want to welcome you, I really want to invite you, whenever you’ve got some reactions to the things that I’m saying, raise your hand, I’ll call on you. Say, “Shelly, I didn’t really understand what you were saying about the soul. Could you please explain that again?” Or, for that matter, if you’ve got some quick reactions or thoughts or responses to the arguments that I’m laying out and you want to share them with the class as a whole, then very much I want to invite you to do this. Now this class is too big for us to have some close, intimate conversation between the 150-180, however many students there are here. That’s not going to happen. But the chance for detailed discussion in the discussion section, that’s where that should happen. But still, there is the chance for brief reactions and definitely a chance for questions. I very much want to invite you to do that. So, if at any point you’ve got something you want to ask about or some two bits you want to add, raise your hand, wiggle it around, make sure I see you. I may want to finish the particular point that I’m making, but I’ll try to come back to you and I’ll then raise your question. And if I remember at least, I will repeat the question out loud so that everybody can hear it.

I also want to say that I will try to have the practice of, after class ends, if you want to continue the discussion, you have some questions that occurred to you towards the end, we didn’t have a chance to share them with the class as a whole, I will, on a normal day, meet outside and continue to talk with however many of you want to do that until you’re done. I just love talking about this stuff and I welcome you to come to my office hours. I invite you to ask questions in class or, if you prefer, after class as well. Again, any questions about any of that? Yeah.

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Shelly Kagan: When are my office hours? That’s a great question and I don’t know the answer to it. I haven’t planned them yet. On Thursday, start the class by asking me that and I’ll give you an answer. All right.

Chapter 4. On Grading Thoughts on Death [00:21:03]

Other bits of business. I should say something about grades. Now many of you may have heard, many of you may know, and if you don’t already know this, I should warn you, that I have a reputation around Yale as being a harsh grader. I know this is true, that is, I know I have the reputation, both because I periodically in my student evaluations get told I’m one of Yale’s harsher graders, and because every now and then the Yale Daily News will have an article about grade inflation and they’ll always ask me, “Well Professor Kagan is somebody…” Once there was a story on grade inflation that the Yale Daily News began by saying, “As Shelly Kagan (known at Yale as one of the hardest graders).” So I know I’ve got at least the reputation of being a hard grader. I don’t actually know whether it’s deserved or not, because Yale does not publish information about what the grading averages are. At other schools I’ve taught at there’s been information along the lines of well the typical grade in an introductory course in the humanities is such and such. Shortly after I came here to Yale, and I started realizing that people thought I was a harder grader than most other Yale professors, I called the administration and asked, “Do you have this sort of information?” The answer is “Yes.” “Will you give it to me?” The answer was “No.” They don’t share this information with the Yale faculty. Seems odd. The explanation, of course, actually isn’t that hard to come by. The worry is that those of us who are harder graders than average, if the information were published, would feel guilty and sort of ease up on our grading. But those who are easier graders than average will never feel guilty and toughen up. So the result would be a constant push up with the grades. At any rate, I don’t know for certainty that I’m a harder grader, but I believe that it’s the case based on reactions I get when I give the speech that I’m about to give.

Okay, so [laughter]. When I open the blue book, the Yale guideline, the Yale catalog, it’s got a page, as you all know, where it says what letter grades mean at Yale. I didn’t actually bring it this year. Sometimes I do, but I’ve got it pretty much memorized. It says, for example, next to each letter grade what it means. B, for example, means good. A means excellent, C means satisfactory, D is passing, F is failing. B, let’s start with B. B means good. Now the crucial question then is what does good mean? I take good to mean good. Consequently, [laughter] if you were to write a good paper for me, that would get a B. And when you get a B from me — now, I say me, this is the royal me. Because I won’t actually be grading your papers. Your papers will be graded by a small army of TAs. But they will grade under my supervision, and in keeping with the standards that I ask them to grade with. So when you’re pissed off about your grade, the person to take it up with — well, take it up with them. But eventually you’ll want to take it up with me. So when you get a B from us, B doesn’t mean what a piece of crap. B means good job! And so you should be pleased to get a B, because it meant you were doing good work and it’s not easy to do good work in philosophy.

A means excellent. Now excellent does not mean publishable. Excellent does not mean you are God’s gift to philosophy [laughter]. So it’s crucial to understand it doesn’t mean that the only way you’re going to get an A is to be God’s gift to philosophy. A means excellent work for a first class in philosophy. This is an introductory class. It does not presuppose any background in philosophy. Still, to get an A, you’ve got to show some flair for the subject. You’ve got to show not only have you understood the ideas that have been put forward in the readings and in the lectures and so forth, but you see how to sort of put them together in the paper in a way that shows you’ve got some aptitude here. You did it in a way that made us take note. That’s what we try to reserve As for. Some of you will end up getting As, if not at the beginning, by the end of the semester. Many of you will end up getting Bs, if not at the beginning, by the end of the semester. Many of you will not start out doing good work. Many of you will start out doing satisfactory work or, truth be told, less than satisfactory work.

Now look, I was an undergraduate once. And I know what it is to write a typical undergraduate paper. You sit down the night before and you had a couple of ideas. You thought about it maybe for a half an hour. And you meant to get to it sooner, but you had a lot of other things to do. And you throw it off in a couple of hours and maybe stay up late. You know it’s not the worst thing you ever wrote, and it’s not the best thing you ever wrote, and it has a couple of nice ideas, but maybe it could be better. It’s sort of a satisfactory job. Yale says satisfactory means C. So many of you will start off the semester writing that kind of paper.

And the fact of the matter is, some of you will start off writing worse papers than that. Because writing a philosophy paper is a difficult thing to learn how to do. It’s exercising a set of muscles that a lot of you have not spent a lot of time exercising. Now it’s not as though you haven’t spent any time doing it. You’ve had bull sessions, right, with your high school friends or in your college dorm or what have you. But you haven’t done it with the kind of discipline and rigor that we’re looking for here. So, like anything else, it’s a skill that gets better with practice. And what that means, of course, is you won’t do as well at the beginning as you’re likely to be doing toward the end. Some of you, unfortunately, won’t do very good jobs at the beginning — and my TAs, I’ll encourage them to be prepared to give Ds. If the vices of the paper significantly outweigh the virtues, that’s a D. If the vices very significantly outweigh whatever virtues there are, that’s some kind of an F. So the fact of the matter is many of you in your initial papers will get lower grades than you’ve probably ever gotten before in your life. I wanted to warn you about that.

Now I say this not so much to depress the hell out of you, but (a) partly to warn you, and (b) to make it clear that I believe that it’s a skill. Writing a good philosophy paper is a skill and you can get better at it. Consequently, most of you will get better at it. So let me make the following remark. Officially, each paper — you have three five-page papers. Each paper is worth 25% of your grade, officially. But — the remaining 25% is discussion section; I’ll get to that in a minute — officially, 25% of your grade is for each of the three papers. But if, over the course of the semester, you get better, then we will give, at the end of the semester, when we’re figuring out your semester grade, we’ll give the later, stronger papers more than their official weight. For many of you, the first paper will be clearly the worst paper you write. And then we’ll just throw that grade away; give greater weight to the second and third papers. If the third paper is the strongest, we will give even more weight to the third paper. There’s no formula here, a great deal depends on the overall pattern, what your TA tells me about how you’ve done over the course of the semester. But this policy of giving greater weight, if you show improvement, is something that most of you will benefit from. So if you end up not doing well, the moral of the story is not to go running off and dropping the class, but to figure out what you did right, what you didn’t do right, how to make the second paper better and the third paper stronger, again. And if you do show improvement, that will very significantly influence and emerge in terms of the impact it has on your overall semester grade. Because of this policy, I don’t actually know when all is said and done whether at the end of the semester I’m any harder, whether I depart from the average or not.

Let me quickly mention there’s a fairly typical grade distribution for the overall grades of this, at the end of the semester. Roughly 25% of you are likely to end up with some kind of an A at the end of the semester. Fifty, 55% of you or so are likely to end up with some kind of a B. Twenty, 25% percent of you might end up with some sort of a C. Sometimes there’s a couple of percent that end up worse than that. Unsurprisingly, you’ve got the ability to do decent work in this class and most of you have the ability to do good work, and some of you have, a fair chunk of you have, the ability to do excellent work, though it may take some work on your part to get to that point.

The last thing I should say about the grades is why do I do this? It’s really I try to do it as a sign of respect for you. I know that may seem like a surprising thing to say when I’ve just sort of gone on my little gleeful amount about how I’m going to fail all of you [laughter], but it’s worth my saying you guys are so smart. You’re so talented. You’ve gotten so far on your ability that many of you have learned to coast. It’s not doing you any kind of service to let you continue coasting. My goal here is to be honest with you, right? Look, you’re smart enough probably most of you to pull off some sort of B without breaking into a sweat, or at least not a significant sweat. So be it. But it’s just lying to you to pretend that that’s excellence in philosophy. So what I want to do in this class is be honest with you and tell you, “You’ve really done work here to be extraordinarily proud of yourself” versus “Yeah, you’ve done something okay” or “You’ve done good work. Admittedly, it’s not great, but you’ve done good work.” All right, that’s 75% of your grade is the papers.

The remaining 25% of your grade is based on discussion section. Now that’s a lot of your grade to turn on discussion section. So the first thing I need to tell you is I really mean it. If you blow off discussion section, you’re grade will suffer. So it’s worth knowing in a general way what you need to do to earn a good grade in discussion section and here the answer is, perhaps the obvious one, you need to participate. You need to come to discussion sections having thought about the lectures, having done the readings, having thought about the questions that they raise, and you need to come to discussion section then prepared to discuss this week’s set of issues. You need to listen to what your classmates are saying and say why you disagree with them. And not just that you disagree with them, but to raise an objection. Or why you agree with them. And when somebody else then attacks them, say, “Look, I think that what John was saying was a good point and here’s how I think he should have defended his position,” or what have you. You need to engage in philosophical discussion. If you’re not participating in discussion section, you’re not doing what the section is there for.

Philosophers love to talk and we love to argue. The way to get better at thinking about philosophy is by talking about philosophy. So I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I’m saying, “Look, yeah, that’s an important part of the class. So important that it’s going to be worth 25% of your grade.” Again, it doesn’t mean — this is slightly different from the papers — that you’ve got to be brilliant philosophically to get an A. Rather, you’ve got to be a wonderful class citizen to get an A for discussion section. So, as I put it, in fact I think I put it this way on the syllabus, participation — and here I mean respectful participation, not hogging the limelight — participation can improve your grade, but it won’t lower your grade. Nonparticipation, or not being there, that will lower your participation grade. Any question about any of that?

All right. So I’m sorry to have sort of the long gloom and doom, but it seems that it’s only fair to let you know what you’re getting into. One other remark about the discussion sections. The way I think of it is like the conversation hour for your foreign language class. How many of you have had a philosophy class before? Thanks. Maybe 15% of you. Maybe 20% of you. Most of you have not. That’s pretty normal. Don’t go into discussion section thinking, “Oh, I can’t talk. I don’t have any background in philosophy. I’ve never done this sort of thing before.” That’s true for most of you. The way you get better is by talking philosophy.

All right. Next remark. I guess this is sort of just one last connection with regard to grades. This is an intro philosophy class. The crucial point about intro is it means first class in philosophy. It doesn’t presuppose any background in philosophy. It doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Some of this material for some of you is going to be very, very difficult. And although the number of pages that you’ll have to read are not — there’s not a lot. Probably in a typical week, 50 pages, maybe less. For many of you, you’re going to find it dense material. And although I don’t really have the fantasy that many of you will read this stuff twice, if you had the time to do it, that would be a wonderful thing to do. Philosophy is hard stuff to read.

Other remark about this being an intro class is that it’s introductory in that the issues that we’re talking about are kind of first run through. Every single thing that we discuss here could be pursued at greater depth. So, for example, we’ll spend whatever it is, maybe a week and a half talking about the nature of personal identity, two weeks. But one could easily spend an entire semester thinking about that question alone. So don’t come away thinking that whatever it is that we’ve talked about here in lecture is the last word on the subject. Rather, it’s something more like first words.

Actually, one other word about the readings and the lectures. With one exception, I won’t be spending very much time talking about the readings. The exception is Plato, where I’ll lecture, maybe two lectures, trying to reconstruct Plato’s central arguments, at least the arguments relevant to our class. We’ll be reading one of Plato’s dialogues. But for the most part, although I’ll occasionally, periodically refer to the readings, I won’t spend a lot of time talking about the views in the readings. The readings you should think of as complementary to my lectures. The idea is that there’s more to say than what I’ve said. And you’ll find some more of what there is to say in the readings. Or there may be positions that I mention, but I don’t develop, because I’m not perhaps sympathetic to them, and you might find somebody who is sympathetic to them, developing them in the readings. The readings are a crucial component of the class. You won’t get everything you need simply by coming to the lectures. But equally the case, that the views that I’ll be developing in the lectures are, although not necessarily unique to me, aren’t all laid out in the readings. You won’t get everything I’m talking about in the lectures, if all you do is the readings. They’re both parts of the class.

Chapter 5. Student Evaluations and Invitation [00:38:50]

All right. I want to end by — I’m not close to ending, but the last thing I’m going to do is read aloud some student evaluations. I have found over the years that some students like me; some students don’t like me. I don’t know how to make this point any clearer than to share with you a sampling of the student evaluations. These are not actually from last spring, but they’re typical enough that I was too lazy to make some new quotes. Quote one. These are actual quotes from former actual students.

(1) “The lectures were clear and followed a very logical order.”
(2) “I thought the class was not always organized.”
(3) “I thought it was a very well organized class.”
(4) ”Overall, I was unsatisfied with this course. Few substantive conclusions were reached.”
(5) Along the same vein, “I think he should avoid saying at the end of each segment of the class, ‘Ultimately, you’ll have to decide what to think for yourself.’” [laughter] I should end the class by saying, “You will believe.” Actually, I started the class by saying that. You will believe what I believe.
(6) “It might be improved by presenting other views better and more objectively, since Kagan always ended a particular line of reasoning by defeating the argument if he didn’t agree with it. He could be a bit more unbiased and tolerant of other perspectives.”
(7) “Lectures were sometimes repetitive or obvious, but occasionally, they provided new insights.”
(8) “I know that some felt the pace of the arguments was a little slow, but I felt that this was generally necessary, not only for the unphilosophy-savvy population, but also to cover all points.”
(9) ”Extremely thorough and thoughtful. Receptive to questions. Brilliant.” I like that one [laughter]. “Often long-winded.” Hmmm.
(10) “He does go around and around the same idea a number of times, which does cut down on the notes for the class, but it can get a little boring.”
(11) “Though I’ve heard students say he often repeats himself, I think this is a merit in a philosophy course in which arguments and thoughts can quickly become confusing.”
(12) “Shelly Kagan is a fabulous, resourceful, utterly convincing lecturer.”
(13) “He would work through arguments right in front of — ” I like this one, because this is what I at least aim to be inside my head. Here’s what I’m doing. Thirteen: “He would work through arguments right in front of us, which then helped me work through them on my own.”
(14) “Shelly is an incredibly dynamic lecturer.”
(15) “He’s just in his own world babbling on and on [laughter]. I’d zone out with regularity.”
(16) “I have to say that Shelly Kagan is probably the best lecturer I had in my four years at Yale.”
(17) “He’s the type of teacher you either love or hate.” Now that’s pretty clearly true.

I wish there were some easy litmus test that I could just give you so you’d know which of you would be making a mistake taking this class. I don’t know how to give it to you.

Next topic, grades.
(1) “He tried to intimidate us too much with his promise of impossible grading so that everyone took the class credit/D/fail, when we all probably ended up with As or Bs. His grading was not hard.”
(2) “I recommend it, but only credit/D/fail. Professor Kagan is harsh with grading.”
(3) “When Shelly says he’s the harshest grader on campus, he isn’t lying. I was consistently surprised by how poorly I did on papers [laughter]. The standards in this class are just different from all other classes.”
(4) ”Kagan’s reputation as a harsh grader is unfounded. If you put in the effort, the grade will reflect that.” So that settles the question am I a harsh grader or not.

The last question for the evaluation is should you take the class or not? Would you recommend it to somebody else?
(1) “I believe this class is one of the most mind-opening experiences of my life.”
(2) “No. It’s a waste of a course.” [laughter]
(3) “It gets kind of depressing at times, but I suppose that’s due to the nature of the subject [laughter].”
(4) “This course stands out as one of the more unique and stimulating courses I’ve taken at Yale.”
(5) “Excellent class. It made me think about life and death in a new way. What more can you ask for from a class?”
(6) “I would not recommend it. The class just seemed to be a platform for Kagan to throw out random ideas and the students were never required to engage in any thought.”

Well, that clears that up. Let me end with a couple of other quick remarks. One — these are some of my all-time favorites from previous years.

(1) “Not doing the reading didn’t hurt me at all.” Now, these are anonymous comments. I don’t know who wrote this comment. But I do know this. Whoever wrote this remark is an idiot [laughter]. Whoever wrote this remark seems to be under the impression that the point of being at Yale is to spend $40,000 a year of your parents’ money and get away with learning as little as possible. Well, for those of you who want to try it, you probably could pass this class and maybe even get an okay grade without doing the readings. There’s no final exam. But still, it’s crucial to understand, doing the readings is an important part of learning what this course has to offer. Different quote. “Kagan is a self-righteous little man” [laughter]” Now I’ve got to tell you, that bit about being little, that really hurts. Another one. “Great course. Wonderful professor. Fascinating subjects. The deepest thinking I’ve done in my life.” Final quote. “This class taught me how to think more than any other at Yale.”

I don’t know whether I pull it off. Pretty obviously, for a number of students, I don’t manage to pull it off, but that’s at least what my aim is. I’m trying to help you think. I welcome you and I hope you’ll be back on Thursday.

[end of transcript]

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