teaching philosophy

Teaching and research are in a mutually dynamic relationship: teaching should be research-led, but research can itself arise out of the practice of teaching. My research in Philosophy of Religion began when I first came to Galway and had to teach a Final Year Undergraduate course in that area. Somewhat despairing of what I would teach, I picked up Derrida and Vattimo’s edited volume Religion (Polity Press 1998) in a local bookstore and it became the primary text for that course. I am not sure if all the students were happy with my choice, but it set me off in a new direction. Similarly, The Formation of the Modern Self developed out of preparations for teaching a course in Modern Philosophy.

Woman with back to the camera in an Art gallery copying a painting. "Copying Monet (West Wing)" by Robin Taylor. Licensed under Creative Commons.
“Copying Monet (West Wing)” by Robin Taylor. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The goal of any teacher of Philosophy is to teach students to think. The initial and ongoing task is to show the difference between having opinions and thinking – a problem which was also Socrates’. Something akin to the Socratic method is fundamental to my approach. This does not necessarily mean the back and forth of question and answer – although that can be very fruitful, especially in upper-level classes – but may also involve inducing an inner dialogue amongst those in the class.

I do this by introducing topics through probing the questions underlying them and then gradually leading the students through the issues in such a way that they will be thinking through the problem along with me. German has a great term for this: “mitdenken (think along with)”. I aim to make my classes such an exercise.

Philosophical education is like an apprenticeship: it has to be learned by imitating the ‘masters’ of the past. The students are like the young artists painting in the Louvre or other great galleries: they try to think like Plato or Descartes or Kant or Heidegger and in doing so eventually find their own voice. My task as a teacher is – alluding again to Socrates – to act as ‘midwife’ in this process.

current teaching

I have taught a wide range of courses through Undergraduate to Postgraduate: Metaphysics, Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of Art, as well introductions to Phenomenology, Ancient Philosophy and Modern Philosophy. Particularly popular are the “Philosophy of Love” for First Year students and “Philosophy of Emotion” for Masters students.

During the academic year 2021-2 I taught “Introduction to the History of Modern Philosophy”, “Phenomenology”, “Philosophy of Religion”; “Readings in Metaphysics” and “Philosophy of Emotion”.

For 2022-3, I will be introducing a new course: “Philosophy of Nature”: This Final Year course will introduce students to the philosophy of nature with particular emphasis on the “naturephilosophy (Naturphilosophie)” of Friedrich Schelling. Schelling’s challenge to both Newton’s mechanical view of nature and Kant’s subjectivism will be discussed. Following a detailed exploration of Schelling’s work, the engagement with the question of nature of a number of Phenomenologists will be investigated with respect to Schelling. The final section of the module will examine the work of the New Materialists and the manner in which they re-conceptualize nature. In that context Feminist approaches will be emphasised particularly as they critically engage with the culture/nature, female/male and subject/object divide.

Course titles and Descriptions

PI120 Philosophical Questions and Issues – Subsection Philosophy of Love

This First Year short course explores the philosophical and literary accounts of erotic love, its pleasures and pains, taking its cue from Sappho’s description of the “bittersweet (glukupikron)”. The course begins with Sappho and continues through select readings of Plato’s Symposium, Proust’s Swann’s Way, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

PI248 Phenomenology

This Second Year course familiarizes students with the methods and themes of Phenomenology focusing on at least three of the following: Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. The course will concentrate especially on such themes as consciousness, intentionality, reduction, embodiment, time and the other.

PI216 Introduction to the History of Modern Philosophy

This Second Year course examines the development of Rationalism from Descartes to Leibniz. Special attention will be paid to the historical context of the rationalist attempt to give a systematic account of knowledge and reality, showing how its sources are to be found in late Medieval philosophical debates.

PI327 Philosophy of Religion

This Final Year course has taken many forms over the years. More recently, I have anchored it in discussion of Kant’s Reason within the Bounds of Mere Reason and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Following that, I either go on to discuss a number of other philosophers/theologians such as Rudolf Otto, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion or take a more thematic approach investigating such themes as forgiveness, language, love, violence and time with respect to religion.

PI331 Readings in Metaphysics

This Final Year course is text-based concentrating on a classical metaphysical text from the history of philosophy. Among the texts we have read in this course over the years are Plato: Parmenides; Plato: Timaeus; Descartes: Meditations; Spinoza: Ethics; Leibniz: Monadology. Guided by whichever text we are reading, we look at questions concerning being, non-being, substance, possibility, cause, god, time, the body, sensation and nature. The discussion is both informed by historical scholarship and focused on the systematic questions and issues as they arise within the texts.

PI6101 Philosophy of Emotion

This Master’s level course explores emotion and feeling from a phenomenological perspective. Taking account of classical phenomenological texts and contemporary debates, we discuss the nature of emotion, an analysis of specific emotions and finally an exploration of some broader themes with respect to emotion, specifically with respect to the constitution of the self and the nature personhood.

PI6109 Political Community in Contemporary Philosophy

This Doctoral level course begins from the philosophical diagnosis of “crisis” as characterizing the contemporary world, and goes on to explore various philosophical responses to a sense of crisis. Generally we concentrate on one or two main texts in discussing themes which emphasise the concept of community as a counterpoint to the diagnosis of failure within western democracy, posing the question of the possibility of political community today. The texts discussed over the years were Giorgio Agamben: The State of Exception; Hannah Arendt: The Origins of Totalitarianism; Walter Benjamin: Critique of Violence, Jean-Luc Nancy: The Inoperative Community and Slavoj Žižek: The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology.

SPA465 Phenomenology of Religion

This Doctoral Level course centres on the question of beauty as a mode of religious manifestation. Through a discussion of the works of philosophers and theologians including Jean-Louis Chrétien, Jean-Luc Marion, Paul Ricoeur, Emannuel Levinas, Hans von Balthasar, Max Scheler, Jacques Maritain and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins we look at the points of intersection of creation/creativity, faith, love and beauty. In particular this course attempts to approach the following questions: does religious sensibility inspire or impede appreciation of beauty? Is there a conflict between the ethical directedness towards the good and the aesthetic striving for beauty? How does love relate to beauty? How can we describe the appearance of something or someone as beautiful? Is beauty inherent in the concept of creation/creativity? In addressing these and other questions we attempt to work out the parameters for a phenomenology of religion that does justice to the religious intuition of beauty while exploring the counter tendency of suspicion of beauty in certain expressions of religious faith.

The New MA in Philosophy at Galway


Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland, and President of the Irish Philosophical Society. 

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