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In my opinion, if it doesn’t have any real life application, then what’s the point? At least, this is what your students are asking, right?I think the key is going to be to figure out why someone would care about these questions. For example, you mention substance dualism. I would connect that to questions of personal identity. How would being two things change how I see myself and others? Why would that matter? Students could write journals for a few days from each perspective.

The fact that you think your areas of study have no real life application, strikes me as a fatal starting-point. I suggest you build your class around the question of why do any of these questions matter? Application doesn’t have to mean case studies, but it should connect to how one lives a life.

Maybe too you could show how these questions you’re discussing are the foundations for their work in other classes.

Seeing the value of knowledge purely for its own sake strikes me as an aspirational goal achieved only after a long and arduous path. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect students to start there.


Most contemporary philosophy of art (as opposed to aesthetics proper) is applied LEMM. As a result, it's a good place to look for compelling applications of otherwise pretty theoretical work.

So, for example, you can make a lot of hay in the philosophy of language by considering its application to fictional contexts. Or a course on the metaphysics of abstract objects could use musical works as its core case study. There's a ton of similar connections across LEMM, just waiting to be explored.


Thanks for the great suggestions, Marcus! I would like to add two quick thoughts.

First, I personally think it is fine that LEMM areas do not have real life applications. Maybe I am alone, but I think some areas are essentially not relevant to real life and this is what makes those areas interesting! Of course, in my intro class, I cover areas that are relevant to real life and those not. I think it is important for students to see different questions and approaches. Consider mathematics. There is applied math, and there is theoretical math. It seems to me that number theory is less relevant to real life, but this does not make math less interesting--some students choose to be math majors just for the pure intellectual activities that are not relevant to real life.

Meanwhile, I think it is important to see that although the content of some LEMM areas is not relevant to real life, the skills--critical thinking, writing, etc.--are very relevant. The vocationally-minded students may find the skills relevant to their career goals. I had a non-degree student who's working full time as a manager, and he found it helpful to develop his thinking and writing skills in my Phil of language class.

Greg Stoutenburg

I've never been able to understand why so many philosophers think some major areas of philosophy are practical and relevant and others are 'abstract'. I think that most of what we consider LEMM is just as practical as anything in applied ethics in philosophy. Much of thinking about what we should do involves thinking about what we have reasons to believe, and that's the E in LEMM.

It is tough to think of suggestions without a clearer idea of what OP wants to cover in class, but here are two easily-applicable LEMM ideas that I've used:

--Motivate external-world skepticism, but not through Matrix-type examples. Start with the closure principle, and then put the possibility that must be eliminated something that doesn't involve science fiction. Example: If I know where my car is (through memory), and I know that (knowing that my car is behind my house entails that it hasn't been stolen in the last thirty minutes), then I'm able to know that my car hasn't been stolen in the last thirty minutes. Make a game out of listing things we take ourselves to know, then another list of things that are entailed by what we take ourselves to know, then discuss some reasons to think we don't know at least some of those things in the second list. Then, and only then, bring in global scenarios like the Matrix. (This helps block the lazy objection, 'but that's just abstract sci-fi stuff'). Career-minded students will have to draw inferences, after all, so they will be relying on closure and principles like it.

--Minds and bodies. If your campus is much like the rest of the country, then a majority of your students think they will have an afterlife after they die. If substance dualism is false, then they almost certainly won't. So, of course substance dualism matters! Talk about brain death, out-of-body experiences, and those terrifying incidents in which a person's heart stops but the person later revives. Use popular articles to make the problem sharp. Let them talk about people they know who they think have psychic powers, or who believe in ghosts. (Side note: I used to give an example that presupposed my students were with me on the idea that there are no ghosts. It turns out that a significant percentage--not a majority, but many--of my students over the years do believe in ghosts.) Then bring in a couple of theories of mind and personal identity. You could make a whole course out of this and never even touch ethics.

My general suggestion, for anything that anyone wants to teach in philosophy to a group of students like those OP has, is to ask oneself, "Why would anyone care about this?" and then to painstakingly answer that question. The trick is to think of the problem from the student's perspective.

I'm happy to talk more if you'd like to--gstoutenburg@ycp.edu


Students certainly argue with each other about the existence of God, free choice in a deterministic universe, whether we can know we're not in a simulation, etc. Hence, students care about (e.g.) basic ontological questions, the metaphysics of free will, global skepticism, even if they do not know that it is those issues under those names that they care about.

Students probably watch Westworld and find the themes it raises deeply puzzling and engaging. Hence, they care about phil mind even if they do not know that it is phil mind which they care about.

Students nowadays almost certainly believe that there are physical bases for mental properties, perhaps believe that every interesting question about the world can be answered naturalistically, etc. Hence, students engage with metaphysical views about science even if they do not know it is metaphysics under that name with which they are engaging.

My advice is: don't try to "make" LEMM relevant to students, if by 'relevant' you mean "make them care". It already is relevant to them. They already do care about it. They just don't know that it is LEMM under that name which they care about.

And, if someone just doesn't care whether they're a brain in a vat, then that just means they're not going to care about the other issues.

EDIT: now that I read Marcus's response and the other comments, I see that I've been preempted here. But I'll keep what I've written as another vote in favor of this method.


Thank you for all the advise! What you guys say give me a lot to think about -- and confirm my suspicion that it's all about my lack of creativity as a teacher! I take the point that whether a topic is practical is a matter of degree and that, in a way, all topics can have practical implications. Many of you suggested ways to connect non value issues to topics in value theory. I will try to do that more often in the coming semester! Hopefully things will improve! (And a belated happy new year!)

P.S. And I might take up your offer, Greg, and reach out for some further questions!

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