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I am a bit confused. If the poster is principally working in contemporary philosophy, I think that they should probably only teach historical courses that are surveys - the typical early modern survey from Descartes to Kant. These are often geared to 2nd year students in the US, for example. A course dedicated to a single thinker should probably be taught by a specialist. And there, a familiarity with key secondary sources is quite vital. I teach and have taught the history of philosophy of science to undergrads, and it is imperative that I be able to direct them to sources beyond what we read in class, as well as some key secondary sources.

counterpoint to hiss

I have pretty permissive views about who is qualified to teach things at the undergraduate level. Basically, I think that with any AOS you can teach anything at any level of the undergraduate curriculum.

More prep work required for higher levels, but very minimal prep work for lower levels, if you do as Marcus advises (work through some primary texts, or do the slightly different thing I outline below). This is not bad for the students, or a disservice to them or something like that. You can draw on your background and experience and put it to good use in a wide variety of contexts, and thereby be doing something good with your time in class, whatever your background is.

As for the original questioner: for an introductory course, I think you should skim the primary texts you're assigning, as well as some sort of not-detailed secondary source that walks you through the content (say, an SEP article, or a textbook pitched to undergraduates that is written in sustained modern prose). Then you should focus on what you want to do with the material in the classroom given the knowledge you have already, not what additional texts you could be reading.


If you teach Modern, teach the primary texts or have them buy an anthology and work through the primary texts as Marcus suggests--there is plenty to work with in those texts alone given how difficult they are without worrying about secondary lit at the undergrad level.

I'd only worry about secondary lit. if you're teaching a grad seminar

Also, the original poster seems to pose a false dichotomy between 'contemporary stuff' and 'historical stuff'

Much 'contemporary stuff' is historically rooted in 'historical stuff'
Doing the latter will you help with the former.


I would recommend sticking with the primary sources. My typical practice is to steer students away from secondary sources. Secondary sources can do all the heavy lifting for students, and I want them to sit with a text and learn to parse it for themselves.


An additional thought: I do provide lots of 'supplementary readings,' especially for Modern, because the material is extremely dense, even for philosophy majors.

So that is secondary literature I suppose but I don't intend such readings as somehow offering 'interpretations' of the text rather than as just helping to clarify the readings.

I almost think such readings are essential and I assume students will end up seeking those kinds of things out on their own anyways.


I would recommend picking up one secondary book on the specific author/text at issue. There are a number of series that have this sort of work. They include: Routledge, Arguments of the Philosophers; Routledge, Guidebook to X; Blackwell, Blackwell Guide to Great Works; Cambridge, Cambridge Companion to X. (These are off the top of my head--there are probably more.) You could made the secondary book optional for your class, or not.


I think some commenters are supposing that the original questioner is intending to *assign* secondary literature. I'm not sure, but I think when the OP says they feel like they should be familiar with some of the secondary lit, they just mean for the sake of understanding the texts better themselves so as to e.g. be better prepared to give lectures, lead discussions, or write exam questions about them.

not all history is created equal.

'Historical classes at an undergraduate level' could mean:
1. A survey modern class (to prep, just read the texts and the SEP articles or something similar).
2. A survey ancient class (read the texts, be deeply sensitive to them, read SEP articles and important works of secondary lit, eg Lear.)
3. A seminar on Hume/Descartes (be well-versed in the major secondary literature, the landscape of interpretation—or don't teach the class)
4. A survey medieval class (maybe don't).
5. A Kant seminar (also don't).
...And a bunch of other things you shouldn't do.


When teaching historical courses that were outside my comfort zone, I found a few things incredibly helpful. First, before reading the texts themselves, read a professional good book on the philosophy of the period that surveys the thinkers you will be teaching. (In the olden days it was the Copelston volumes. Not sure about now.) That way, before coming in, you will know what the important sections to teach are. You will know who is responding to who else and why, etc. You will have a broad overview. (Yes, it will be a biased overview. But unless you really have time for the myriad of interpretations, this is safe.)
Second, get to know the texts themselves and chose what you will teach and pick a level of depth you want to teach at. Prepare those in light of the debates you are now familiar with.)
Third, if you have time, get to know a little about the history. It would be unconscionable to teach Plato without understanding the Peloponnesian War. It is hard to teach Hobbes without knowing about the English Civil War; Locke without understanding the religious situation in England; Spinoza without understanding the position of Jews in Amsterdam, Cavendish without understanding the position of women then, Leibniz without understanding the scientific debates of the time; etc.

It is possible to teach Descartes as a disembodied thinker and then Leibniz as another, etc. But you should not do that to students. They must understand how the people you are teaching comprise a period of intellectual/philosophical history, with a context and set of interests, priorities, and intellectual needs.

Unless your students are familiar with all of this, they will gain little by your extra knowledge of the 17 logically possible interpretations of the Cogito. If your mandate is to teach that, you should already know all the above and not need this advice.


While I imagine that "history" here may be shorthand for "history of Western philosophy," if the poster wants to teach history of philosophy broadly understood, there are several blog posts by the APA with resources for primary and secondary materials which I'd recommend, focusing on Indian, Chinese, African/a, 19th century British women, etc. There are lots of ways to integrate the material, which the blog posts include, but one thought is that seeing what is happening philosophically during roughly the same historical period around the world could be interesting for students.

Oh, and for teaching Early Modern/Modern (Indian Philosophy) there is a nice collection of colonial/renaissance Indian philosophy by Garfield/Bhushan, "Indian Philosophy in English."





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