The largest class ever

It is unusual for a philosophy book written by a famous professional philosopher to be a New York Times bestseller, but here is one: Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?. It is based on Sandel's "Justice" course at Harvard, which has been one of the most popular courses at Harvard since it was first offered about twenty years ago. The class is usually very large, and in Fall 2007, it had 1.115 students, making it the largest class ever at Harvard. I can't imagine what it is like to be teaching such a huge class. I am teaching a 120-student class this semester, and it is already too large for me. My teaching has been improving though. This is the fifth week of the semester and I think I have learnt a few tricks to teach the class more effectively. But it is still not easy. Over a thousand students? No way!

By the way, I have skimmed through Sandel's book and got the impression that it is a very interesting introduction to moral philosophy.



Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.

So true. But who says this? Surprise, surprise: it's Nietzsche!


Is everyone a philosopher?

Is everyone a philosopher? For me the answer is clearly 'No'. Some may think we can define 'philosopher' so loosely that anyone who thinks about how to live and answers the question --- who thereby has her own 'philosophy of life' --- is a philosopher. But the fact is, not everyone thinks about how to live. Some people are incurably unreflective; they should not be considered philosophers even on the above extremely loose definition of the term.

There are, however, people who think that even if they are not philosophers, they will understand philosophy if they try to. They believe that if they pick up a philosophy book and read it, they will understand it; they also believe that if two philosophers are discussing a philosophical problem, they can easily chime in and contribute to the discussion. They have no idea that some philosophical ideas/problems/arguments/theories are impossible to understand without some training and background knowledge.

How do I know there are such people? From the following experience: I was reading a rather difficult philosophy book; a friend saw that and asked me what I was reading. I told him the title, and he went on to ask me what the book was about. I tried my best to explain the problem discussed in the book in terms that he might understand. His response was, "How interesting! That will be the next book on my reading list." And I said, certainly unwisely, "I think this book is a bit too advanced for you." He seemed offended.

It is hard to imagine that this would have happened if I were a physicist and the book I read were on quantum mechanics.