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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Philosophy Is Good For You–Just Not In Third Grade

I studied philosophy at Yale, and was told I was fortunate to have been taught by Paul Weiss, a noted metaphysician who continued to write, teach, and lecture until his death at 101. I could never make heads nor tails of what he was saying, and all I remember was that he used the word ‘adumbration’ a lot.  His course was so mind-numbingly boring that I cut most of his classes.  He didn’t fail me (Yale students don’t fail, I later learned), I learned nothing, and his was the last philosophy course I ever took.  Here is an excerpt from an article on Weiss which suggests why you had to be a really serious student to pay attention in class:

The central insight in Paul Weiss's philosophical writing is that Being constitutes a multiplicity of individuals, held together by universal constraints, which contour all there is in at least four irreducibly different ways. The goal of the theoretical articulation of this insight is to reveal the fault lines of the fundamental dimensions of Being. If successful, it would ground a complex pluralism, preventing the accommodation of multiple perspectives from degenerating into perspectivalism or unrestrained relativity. (Kevin Kennedy, Journal of Metaphysics, Vol. 50, No. 1)

Here is a photo of Paul Weiss trying to get all this across to us with little success:

I gave up on Paul Weiss and academic philosophy, but I never gave up on philosophy itself.  In fact, I thought of Weiss one day when my daughter was two years old.  She liked to go up on the roof of our apartment building to explore all the tubes, pipes, air vents, tarpaper, heating and cooling systems, rusted ladders, and drainage grates.  She was most interested in holes.  She would point down one of water pressure release vents and say, “Hole”. On the way down the corridor back to our apartment she noticed a hole in the wall which had been bashed in by a contractor and never filled.  “Hole”, she said.

At two years old my daughter knew what a hole was.  She knew that a hole could be the aperture of a tube, a roundish break in a wall, a circle cut out of a piece of paper, and the drain of a sink.  Once we were walking in downtown Washington and passed by a construction site which was in the final days of excavation. She pointed to the biggest hole in the city and said, “Hole”.

In other words, she understood what a hole was – she had figured out the metaphysics of a hole.  Whether a pinprick or the gaping chasm that was to be 1930 K Street, a hole was a hole.

In Third Grade my son was very interested in raptors – hawks, eagles, vultures, falcons, and all the rest – and asked me one day what a raptor was.  I explained all about classification, Linnaeus, and how order and category were the foundations of science.  “Yes”, he said. “But you still haven’t told me why the condor (the biggest raptor) and the kestrel (the smallest) are both in the same category”.  He wanted to know what a raptor was just like my daughter wanted to put the hole issue to rest.

                           American Kestrel

I asked him to think of all of the similarities between a condor and a kestrel, and whether the thought there were enough to justify putting them in the same category.  This is what scientists do, I explained, and it would help him understand raptors.  And by the way, I thought to myself, it will help him understand the principle of classification, epistemology, and yes, metaphysics.

“Why isn’t an owl a raptor, then?”, my son asked.  “It does everything like a raptor – flies, hunts, hooks its prey, and eats live meat – so why isn’t it a raptor?”.  I was flummoxed.

In any case, my son went on to study taxonomy and find out about parallel evolution and many other ins and outs of Being and how human beings see it, and left me even farther in the dust. 

Michelle Sowey writing in The Guardian (11.21.13) suggests that teaching philosophy to young children is worthwhile, valuable, and necessary to give them a full understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

Studying philosophy cultivates doubt without helplessness, and confidence without hubris. I’ve watched kids evolve to be more rational, skeptical and open-minded, and I’ve seen them interact in more fair-minded and collaborative ways. As one 10-year-old said, “I’ve started to actually solve arguments and problems with philosophy. And it works better than violence or anything else.”

However, what Sowey counts as philosophy is really just teaching children about the world.

They’re endlessly inquisitive, wondering about values (“What’s the most treasured object in the world?”), metaphysics (“Is the earth a coincidence?”), language (“If cavemen just went ‘ugh-ugh-ugh’, how did we learn to speak?”) and epistemology (“Since you can have dreams inside dreams, how can you know when you’re dreaming?”).

Understanding ‘values’ is indeed an important exercise. Developing personal values which are consistent with majority norms is necessary for social and economic success.  Values which distinguish one individual from another are essential components of character and personality.  Understanding that there are both shared community values and unique, personal ones is critical for tolerance, respect, and collaboration.

The philosophy of values, however, is a different story altogether:

In its broadest sense, “value theory” is a catch-all label used to encompass all branches of moral philosophy, social and political philosophy, aesthetics… and the philosophy of religion — whatever areas of philosophy are deemed to encompass some “evaluative” aspect…. In this narrow sense, “value theory” is roughly synonymous with “axiology”. Axiology can be thought of as primarily concerned with classifying what things are good, and how good they are. For instance, a traditional question of axiology concerns whether the objects of value are subjective psychological states, or objective states of the world. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Paul Weiss again, and no one wants to subject anyone to adumbration and perspectivalism, let alone children; but by using the term ‘philosophy’ to cover the learning about values Sowey not only overstates the case, but suggests an intellectual frame of reference which is not at all relevant.  Children do not need to know about ‘values’ in a philosophical sense.  They only need to learn about honesty, respect, and courage.

Similarly discussing “Is Earth a coincidence?” must begin with astrophysics. For example scientists have recently estimated that there are 40 billion habitable planets in our galaxy, a matter of scientific observation and mathematical calculations of probability. Researchers were clear to define ‘life’ (biologically-based), thus leaving the discussion open for other 2001: A Space Odyssey versions; but there was no philosophy involved at all. (See my recent blog post on the questionable assumption of only 40 billion http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2013/11/the-search-for-intelligent-life-in.html).

Only when one gets into a discussion of who is responsible for all this, do non-scientific opinions enter. Either God was behind Creation, or it just happened in a random universe, infinite in time and space.  The key bit of instruction to be given here is probability theory, not philosophy.  Of course given mathematical infinity anything is possible. Whether a child believes that God created the universe and anything in it; or whether celestial billiard balls kept banging around until they eventually hit on something useful, is a matter of belief.  But probability and astrophysics are the basis for both.

The philosophy of language – linguistic philosophy – is one of the most arcane branches of metaphysics. Linguistic philosophy describes the view that philosophical problems are problems which may be solved (or dissolved) either by reforming language, or by understanding more about the language we presently use.  It is through the disaggregation of language that one can come with a coherent, post-modern, hermeneutic view of Being. 

Teaching about the development of language – how we humans got from ‘ugh’ to ‘adumbration’ is not philosophy at all, but physical anthropology, sociology, brain anatomy, and culture. Once we stopped chewing stringy, tough, raw meat; stripping fibrous leaves with our teeth and mashing them like a cow, we didn’t need such huge mandibles and our brain had room to grow.  Language then became intellectually possible. The first step in communicating with others was consensus on what things are called. From then on, the study of language became one of linguistic groupings, historical flows, conquests, and incorporation.  No philosophy here at all.

The point is that while linguistics might eventually interest the little children that Sowey admires, what they really need now is how to speak properly and to learn the value of proper English, eloquence, and precision. Everything from Ebonics to LA homeboy street poetry is allowed in our culturally diverse schools.  If there is anything to learn from the notion that language is universal and diverse, it is to justify the complete and correct acquisition of one’s own language.

While all of us have pondered the dream-within-a-dream conundrum, it is really a party game. Of course it raises epistemological questions; but Cogito ergo sum is now a bumper sticker. More importantly than passing on a bit of  Descartes, children should be taught about the nature of dreams.  There are plenty of theories about why we dream to fill plenty of class time.  It is far more relevant to explain to children that dreams are a dynamic but little understood aspect of human experience, and to suggest some alternative theories why.

Sowey finally gets down to brass tacks when she gives the following justification for teaching philosophy:

If it were more widely embraced, the practice of philosophical enquiry in primary schools could make schooling a lot more meaningful and engaging for students. It would certainly promote the development of reasoned argument and higher-order thinking – skills which underlie learning in most other domains (including literacy and numeracy) and which are essential for responsible civic engagement.

This argument, however, undermines all that she has suggested before.  If teaching analytical thinking, oratory and debate is the issue, we don’t need philosophy to do it.  History and literature are perfect places to hone these skills. The following is from a homework assignment given by a junior high school teacher to her class:

“In 1000 words or less, what did Patrick Henry mean when he said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’; do you agree with him, why or why not?

She could have given any topic, and the purpose and results would have been the same.  Children would learn how to quickly analyze and summarize a point; construct and generate a response to it; and prepare a clear, logical, and disciplined written expression of their conclusions.

Finally Sowey adds to the confusion by attributing to the teaching of philosophy just about every good there is.

By setting children on a path of philosophical enquiry early in life, we could offer them irreplaceable gifts: an awareness of life’s moral, aesthetic and political dimensions… What’s more, an early introduction to philosophical dialogue would foster a greater respect for diversity and a deeper empathy for the experiences of others, as well as a crucial understanding of how to use reason to resolve disagreements.

This is not to say that values, aesthetics, politics, and social cooperation are not important; just that they can be taught in the many more direct ways I have suggested above.

There is no need to further overload the already burdensome primary school curriculum with yet another educational imposition.  Our children are not learning anything let alone philosophy.  Keep it simple.  Children should graduate at grade level or above in math and reading; and by today’s standards everything else is gravy.  If they can write a coherent paragraph, wonderful.  If they can decide whether liberty is worth dying for and tell why, so much the better.

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