Feb. 13th, 2012

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  (Be forewarned: deep thoughts on academia, publishing, student pedagogy, etc. to follow. Some of you may want to skip over.)

Over at Virginia Tech, Dr. Walter Ott has put together a very interesting project: an open-source textbook for modern philosophy. That's the period of European philosophy stretching roughly from Descartes to Kant, roughly coinciding with the Enlightenment and the various wars in Europe up until around the French Revolution. Courses studying it are a staple in nearly every philosophy major, and quite often the lion's share of your introductory texts are devoted to these topics.

Dr. Ott's put together a series of selections he uses in his course, all from public-domain websites (basically: anywhere you can legally get texts without paying for them; Project Gutenberg is a good example), but with an added bonus: exercises, study questions, and other things. He's also only included the parts he plans on discussing in his class, and he talks a bit in his project explanation. I don't think that he's dumbing down the texts necessarily because, as he quotes Anthony Flew, nothing is spoonfeeding which leads the student to do more work than they would otherwise have done. Dr. Ott also points out that for their papers, he has the students go to the primary text. So if they're writing about why Descartes thinks the mind and brain are distinct, they have to go pick up the Meditations section (whcih is on reserve at his university's library).

I'm not sure that will do it for me, though. I know that with many of my students, even when I say they have to quote the original text rather than the rendition I give in lecture notes, the way the material is presented usually follows along the same lines I present in class. That's with giving them more or less unabridged chunks of the philosophy and assignments that basically require them to read the material before class. I worry that students in his classes would still basically be writing about the excerpts he included in their textbook, even if they had read the original. It would be like reading the Jefferson Bible as a way to get the Sermon on the Mount. If you'd never read the canonical Bible before, even if you went and read it after reading Jefferson's redacted version, I'm afraid you'd still be reading it through the lens of the Jefferson Bible.

Of course, I suspect Dr. Ott tried to preserve what the originals said. And these days, many classes use anthologies that only quote the most interesting bits, so he may not be much worse of a source on that score than (say) Cottingham's Western Philosophy. I think I'm a bit sensitive on this point because the philosopher I'm studying (Anselm) is best known for a passage that's more or less taken out of context because of the need to find a self-contained part that can be studied. But really, if I'm going to complain about that point here, I should probably complain about half the publishing industry. *g* 

A bigger concern I have is actually the need to use public-domain translations. It's one thing to use an edition of an English-language author put together 200 years ago; quite another to use a translation. I can't really speak for modern philosophy, but I know that in ancient philosophy there's some real doozies of mistranslations. I'm thinking of the Plato dialogues that refer to the gods, which were Christianized into God by later translators. And Aristotle also was poorly translated in many public-domain versions - not incorrectly, but you lose a lot of the beauty and rhetoric you find in more modern translations (I'm thinking about Joe Sachs's very nice version of the Nicomachean Ethics). Kant is difficult enough as he is; I worry what throwing an antiquated translation into the mix might do to students.

There's also the issue of line numbers. I know in Plato and Aristotle (and Kant) you have specific references that appear in the margins of major translations. So if I point you to Republic 359b, you know precisely where to turn no matter which translation of the Republic you have. But public domain sources don't usually have line #s (if only because they're websites and it's hard to include them). This seems less common in most modern philosophy texts, Kant excluded, because the authors tend to provide series of small subsection. So you refer to the book, chapter, and section of the Treatise you're using, and in many cases the referenced text isn't much longer than a page. But I suspect with other areas of philosophy, this won't work that well.

I started off wanting to criticize Dr. Ott. But I find two conclusions popping to mind: this isn't all that different from most anthologies, and also we need public domain sources that include those line # references.

One last thing. I'm not convinced it's such a dead business model to publish books of translations in the public domain. Hackett provides good and inexpensive versions of classic texts. Hume's Enquiry costs $6 from Amazon (+ free s/h to students), and it would take about $7 to print out that many pages at my school's computer lab. That's to say nothing of the time. So if people want physical books, I think Hackett and their like might survive a bit longer.

Thoughts on all this? I know this is a pretty specialized topic, but maybe folks in other corners of the humanities have reactions? Or people involved in publishing or editing? Feel free to comment away.  


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