Free Philosophy Courses

This is a free syllabus in philosophy for all those students who can’t afford to attend a school where these courses are offered. Though it’s not a perfect substitute for an undergraduate education, with increasing pressure for funding among departments, skyrocketing tuition costs, and a general opposition to education in the humanities, I believe that it is important to gather these resources for the 70% of the population that will likely never be able to pursue a Bachelor’s degree.

Here’s how it works: combine the free online offerings of MIT’s Open Courseware, Academic Earth, Itunes U, and Youtube with other free web resources that would suffice to supply what could once only be gained by taking out student loans. Though it is based on my initial post, How to get a philosophical education for free, this page is a work in progress and I invite suggestions.

Check it out!

  • How to Study Philosophy

Study Methods that Work from the contributors at In Socrates’ Wake

  • Introduction to Philosophy

Start with Oxford’s Peter Millican at Itunes U.

  • Introduction to Ethics and Political Philosophy

Michael Sandel’s Justice course has drawn tens of thousands of Harvard students and focuses on themes and problems in the good life and the good society. Steven B. Smith offers a historical approach at Yale on Academic Earth. Also at Yale, Ian Shapiro offers a similar course on the Moral Foundations of Politics. Explore special topics the BBC’s Ethics Bites or spend a semester with Berkley’s Michael Nagler considering the case for Nonviolence.

  • Epistemology and Metaphysics

I haven’t been able to find an introductory course just on metaphysics, but how about John Searle’s lectures on the Philosophy of Mind? Alternatively, take a look at this course on the ethics and metaphysics of Death by Yale’s Shelly Kagan.

  • Aesthetics

Kent State’s Jeffrey Wattles offers an Introduction.

  • History of Philosophy
Ancient and Medieval Philosophy from David O’Connor.
  • Special Topics

So far, the courses available online might supply the first two years of a philosophy degree. A disciplined person pursing this syllabus would have a good sense of the overall discipline, but could not be said to have “majored” in philosophy, because the free university offerings become a bit sparser at the advanced level. Courses at this level become specialized, focusing on epochs, figures, problems, and themes. Plus, this is the stage when we start really pushing students to see which ones have potential to become professional scholars, if not in philosophy than in a proximate academic discipline or as lawyers. That means it’s a much more interactive and much more textual education, and it may be less easily-suppled online.

However, it’s always possible glean specific insights and avenues for research from Philosophy Bites or the Guardian’s How to Believe series. You can dig deeper into any topic using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

For a while Susan Stuart’s lectures on Kant’s epistemology offered a pretty thorough guide to The Critique of Pure Reason, but they’ve been removed. Perhaps they’ll be back. I wouldn’t ask DIY-ers to brave the first Critique without a guide, but perhaps Robert Paul Wolff’s introduction could fill the gap?

If Kant is difficult, Hegel is nearly impossible to read without backup, and there are even fewer resources available online. One such resource is Robert Brandom’s lectures on the Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

Herbert Dreyfus takes students through Heidegger’s Being and Time (continued here), which you can supplement with Simon Critchley’s series in the Guardian. Also at the Guardian, Mark Vernon blogs The Platonic Dialogues, and in the same vein, Chris Long offers a series of interviews on Socratic Political themes. (More from the Guardian: KierkegaardNietzscheHumeWittgenstein, and Hobbes.)

Robert Paul Wolff offers “micro-tutorials” to encourage his readers to re-acquaint themselves with the classics of what might be called the Heroic Age in the study of society — the writings of MarxFreudWeberRicardoMannheim, and others.

What’s missing?

An amateur philosophy student has learned enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be useful. So in a sense, my free syllabus is a failure: you can get a philosophical education for free, online, but it takes bit more than that to garner the benefits of studying philosophy.

Self-regard prevents me from really believing that the education available online is better than the one you can get in my classroom, but I’m not so arrogant to think that I’m a better lecturer than Michael Sandel. Notable is what’s lost when all you have are these kinds of courses: you lose feedback and the interrogative experience of a seminar room, you lose the cohort of fellow students who will stay up late hashing out a passage from Aristotle, you lose the synchronicity of associations between very different courses taken simultaneously, and you lose the assessment and professionalization that a professor’s comments and counseling supply.

What makes my classroom work is the seminar-style I learned as an undergraduate at Bard College, and which I try to foster wherever I teach. That’s the practice of philosophy as a liberal art, a technique for free citizens to inquire together into matters of fundamental concern. You can’t learn the habitus of philosophy from an online video.

  • Interaction and Feedback

The quickest way to get feedback on an idea or argument is to start blogging about it. A really ambitious DIY student could recruit a cohort of fellow DIY-ers to work with her. Start a WordPress or Blogger blog and join a community like Big Big QuestionEphilosopherMetafilter, or Less Wrong. Start writing, reading, responding, and linking, and the commentary will come. Some of it will be critical, some helpful, some mean, but you’ll learn and make connections, develop insights and obsessions, just like a traditional student.

The hardest part is finding someone to grade your work, but Virtual-TA or Smart Thinking have you covered there, though perforce not for free.

  • Professionalization

This style of learning won’t prepare you for a lifetime in the academy writing and teaching philosophy. I’m not sure that this should be the goal of a philosophical education.

  • Caveat Lector

To my colleagues who worry that these resources undercut the demand for our courses: if we love our discipline as much as the paycheck and status it promises, we have to work to combat the exclusivity of an examined life available only to those who can pay. Plus, giving samples away for free is good marketing (if it works for drug dealers and Justin Bieber, it might work for us.)

3 thoughts on “Free Philosophy Courses”

  1. it is wonderful to see some one cares – In Austria and some other countries education was free when I was there. I remember one of my female professors had four times doctora degrees and still she got her fifth one into her 70s. Knowledge MUST be FREE to attain and especially get degrees for if we want to have better, wiser, more human citizens.
    Why is it that in some countries we have more prisons than universities and in some other countries more universities than jails – is it that difficult to get the point? The point being it is much cheaper and easier for governments to have more education, information, and help with prevention of costly wrong doings.

    I have been studying inside and outside the universities, self-funding my research about the ancient medicine of various cultures which demand PHILOSOPHY to be the main subject – that is traditional medical doctors and health practitioners needed to be philosophers, counsellors, psychologists, physical therapists, herbalists, mathematicians, astrologists, astronomists and above all compationate, caring, responsible therapists and tactful family counsellors, advocates, and advisors.

    Now, after a life-time seeking and learning I have what it takes to be granted a PhD degree, if not two degrees, but which accredited university will confirm and accept my life-time passion for learning and seeking without charging me thosands of dollars? Knowledge is NOT for rich, but for ALL and sharing knowledge shall not be a business. Civilization is about knowledge to be accessable, atainable, afordable for ALL. Are we civilized?

  2. I agree about education needing to be free. I’m in my mid 40’s, managed to get a Bachelor’s Degree that is pretty much worthless (that cost me thousands in loans I managed to pay off) but now work a part-time job so I can pursue my research goals on my own rather than spend another 50k-100k for the privilege of doing so in academia. It would be worth the investment if there were any kind of tangible ROI, but there isn’t. The jobs I was hoping to land with a Master’s Degree (when I was getting my BA) now require a PhD just to be considered, and the schools I can get into are low tier so even if I got the PhD, I would not get close to landing a job. On top of that, most of those jobs in academia have now transformed into ad hoc, temp, adjunct positions with no benefits, very little pay (less than I make now working part time in an office), and can be fired at the first poor review from a disgruntled student.

    If I were to do it again, I would have skipped high school, got my BA, MA, and PhD as soon as I possibly could, then got a teaching gig at a nice, small, community college, lived like a student while saving all of my income until I was financially independent, then retire and teach online part time (until I was boxed out). But, even taking that route, I would wind up in very much the same place I’m at now, doing my own research on my own dime (which is not really all that bad, all things considered).

    If grad school was free, I’m not even certain I would go anymore. I do wish more schools would make more of their course lectures (or all) available online for free. But, at least we have books from these professors and academics so we can muddle through.

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