Welcome to the first of the various chapter pages that accompany Donald Palmer's charming philosophy book, Visions of Human Nature. In this page I'll make a few comments about why I chose this book for our course, as well as about some nuts-and-bolts issues.
Palmer's book is very lighthearted, as you will immediately see. It's full of cartoons, jokes, and off-beat typography. But don't be misled by that into thinking that it's a book for dummies: on the contrary, Palmer is an extremely subtle thinker (his Ph.D. is from U. Cal. Berkeley, one of the top philosophy schools in the country). He retired a few years ago after a long and distinguished career in a small college in California, where he was much loved by his students and colleagues. I have used some of his other books in previous classes, and actually played a small role in the creation of this one, as he graciously acknowledges in the preface. (No, I don't get any royalties from the book. I wish I did, since it will probably be a big seller.)
Whenever I teach a Palmer book I like to dwell on his drawings, partly because they are so funny but also because most of them make sense only after you have understood the underlying philosophical points they are playing with. Unfortunately, I sometimes spoil their effect by asking students to explain one of Palmer's cartoons in a test question. Please don't tell him that I do this!
I also like to work other visual images into my courses, not because I think my students are still in grade school but because I personally enjoy the scrapbook approach to philosophy. A good photo of an author somehow makes it easier to "hear" his or her voice in the text, as do other sorts of images such as sculptures and paintings. Most of the philosophers we are going to study predate the invention of photography, but a sensitive artist can capture the spirt of the author in a way that makes our own reading experience more intimate and, I firmly believe, more effective in the message it has for our lives. For instance, I invite you to click on the picture (shown above) of Rodin's famous statue of "The Thinker" to see a beautiful full-page photo of that stunning work. Look at it for a few minutes, the way you would savor an expensive piece of candy or a charming bit of melody, and feel what Rodin thought it was like to be an intellectual. Then imagine you are the Thinker. (Click here to see what happened when I did that.)
Now a few words about Palmer's introductory chapter. He begins by asking the classic question, "What is philosophy," and provides a number of deep and important answers. He touches on the history of this question, its internal logic (which is the way most contemporary philosophers deal with it), and its relationship to the concept of "Human Nature" which is of course the focus of our course. Note the thumbnail sketches that he provides (about half way through the chapter) of the ten focal claims about human nature that are the topics of the succeeding chapters. Later in the course you might want to come back to that list, perhaps to get your bearings or just to see how different the ten starting points really are.
Although one of the chapters in Palmer's book discusses the Buddhist conception of human nature, it would be misleading to say that his book, or our course, is profoundly multicultural. (Indeed, we will be skipping that chapter in our course this year, covering Islam in its stead.) This is a defect, and like Palmer I wish there were some way to do justice to nonwestern philosophical traditions without skimping on the western thought that is, for better or worse, the underappreciated intellectual heritage of most of the students in our course. Perhaps calling attention to this defect will offset any impression that we think western philosophy is the only "valid" philosophy rather, it's just a pretty good starting point for those of us who, though members of a world community, must enter that community from the West. After all, every journey starts from somewhere.
A similar comment should be made about the manifestly patriarchal lineup. All ten chapters feature only male philosophers, and this is a serious problem. To be fair to Palmer, until recently there weren't that many well-known female philosophers just as there weren't that many female scientists or generals (but consider Madam Curie and Joan of Arc, as well as the philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria). Furthermore, the women who did contribute to our philosophical tradition worked with the vision of human nature that was current in their society, though they probably had a different take on some specific issues. Frankly, my biggest regret is not that Palmer's roster is incomplete (there are many important males who didn't get on it either), but that by not showcasing any women Palmer might appear guilty of implying that women can't do original and powerful philosophy. However, if you look at some of his other books you'll see that Palmer really does respect the contributions that women have made to philosophy, especially in our own time. For my own part, I would just like to mention the names of a few of my favorite contemporary women philosophers (in alphabetical order): Diana Meyers, Michele Moody-Adams (last year I taught a graduate seminar that focused on her latest book), Martha Nussbaum, Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Patricia Werhane, Iris Marion Young and of course my colleagues in the Loyola philosophy department, who are all first-rate scholars and eminently popular teachers: Ardis Collins, Patricia Huntington, Heidi Malm, Jennifer Parks, Jacqueline Scott, Julie Ward, and Victoria Wike. Visit them or take one of their classes, and you will see that philosophy is definitely not just "a guy thing"!
Finally, be prepared to read the introduction and Palmer's other chapters more than once, certainly two and probably three times. You are supposed to find it challenging reading philosophy is not a passive experience, any more than eating a good meal is. Be sure to read his "Summary" at the end of the chapter, and refer to it as you go back for your second and third helpings. (To continue the culinary metaphor: Palmer generally serves his meals in relatively distinct "courses," announced by the bold-face subheads. Pace yourself accordingly. If you need to take a little break, do so between courses, the way one gets up and walks around during one of those great Sicilian eat-a-thons.)