Education and Philosophy

Mind CoverOne of the things I love about philosophy is how egalitarian it is. There’s no “beginning” philosophy and no “advanced” philosophy. You can’t do philosophy at all without jumping right in the deep end of the very same questions all philosophers have wrestled with since the time of Plato, questions such as what it means to be just, or whether people really have free will.

This distinguishes philosophy from disciplines such as math or biology where there’s a great deal of technical information that has to be memorized and mastered before students can progress to the point where they can engage with the kinds of issues that preoccupy contemporary mathematicians or biologists. There is thus a trend in higher education to create introductory courses in such disciplines for non-majors, courses that can introduce students to the discipline without requiring they master the basics the way they would have to if they intended to continue their study in that discipline.

Philosophy programs are increasingly coming under pressure to do the same kind of thing with philosophy courses. That is, they are essentially being asked to create dumbed-down versions of standard philosophy classes to accommodate students from other majors. Business majors, for example, are often required to take an ethics course, but business majors, philosophers are told, really do not need to read Aristotle and Kant, so it is unreasonable to ask them to do so.

Yeah, that’s right, after all, they’re not paying approximately 50K a year to get an education. They’re paying for a DEGREE, and the easier we can make that for them, the better!

But I digress. I had meant to talk about how egalitarian philosophy is. Anyone can do it, even today’s purportedly cognitively challenged generation. Just to prove my point, I’ll give you an example from a class I taught yesterday.

We’re reading John Searle’s Mind: A Brief Introduction (Oxford, 2004) in my philosophy of mind class this term. We’re up to the chapter on free will. “The first thing to notice,” Searle asserts, when examining such concepts as “psychological determinism” and “voluntary action,” “is that our understanding of these concepts rests on an awareness of a contrast between the cases in which we are genuinely subject to psychological compulsion and those in which we are not” (156).

“What do you think of that statement?” I asked my students. “Is there anything wrong with it?”

“It’s begging the question,” responded Raub Dakwale, a political science major.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said smiling. “Searle is BEGGING THE QUESTION!” Mr. Big deal famous philosopher, John Searle, whose book was published by Oxford University Press, commits a fallacy that is easily identified by an undergraduate student who is not even a philosophy major. That is, the issue Searle examines in that chapter is whether we have free will. He even acknowledges that we sometimes think our actions are free when they clearly are not (the example he gives is of someone acting on a post-hypnotic suggestion, but other examples would be easy enough to produce).

But if we can be mistaken about whether a given action is free, how do we know that any of our actions are free? We assume that at least some of them are free because it sometimes seems to us that our actions are free and other times that they are compelled. But to say that it sometimes seems to us that our actions are free is a very different sort of observation from Searle’s that we are sometimes aware that we are not, in fact, subject to psychological compulsion.

To be fair to Searle, I should acknowledge that he appears to associate “psychological compulsion” with the conscious experience of compulsion, as opposed to what he calls “neurobiological determinism,” which compels action just as effectively as the former, but which is never “experienced” consciously at all. So a charitable reading of the passage above might incline one to the view that Searle was not actually begging the question in that an awareness of an absence of psychological compulsion does not constitute and awareness of freedom.

But alas, Searle has to restate his position in the very next page in a manner that is even more conspicuously question begging. “We understand all of these cases [i.e., various cases of unfree action],” he asserts, “by contrasting them with the standard cases in which we do have free voluntary action” (158, emphasis added).

You can’t get more question begging than that. The whole point is whether any human action is ever really free or voluntary. This move is in the same family with the purported refutation of skepticism that was making the rounds of professional philosophers when I was in graduate school, but which I hope since then has been exposed for the shoddy piece of reasoning that it was.

Back then, philosophers would claim that the classical argument in favor of skepticism rested on cases of perceptual illusion (e.g., Descartes’ stick that appears broken when half of it is submerged under water but which appears unbroken when removed from the water), but that perceptual illusions could be appreciated as such only when compared with what philosophers refer to as “veridical cases” of sense perception. That is, you know the stick is not really broken because removing it from the water reveals that it is not really broken. But if sense experience can reveal the truth about the stick, then the skeptics are mistaken.

But, of course, you don’t need to assume that the latter impression of the stick is veridical in order to doubt that sense experience could ever be veridical. All you need is two conflicting impressions of the same object and the assumption that the same stick cannot be both broken and straight. That is, all you need is two conflicting impressions of the same object and the law of non-contradiction to support skepticism. That seemed glaringly obvious to me when I was still a student, and yet scads of professional philosophers failed to grasp it.

Professional philosophers can be incredibly obtuse, and ordinary undergraduates, even today, with the right sort of help and encouragement, can expose that obtuseness. It’s a real thrill for a student to do that, to stand right up there with the big guys/gals and actually get the better of them in an argument, so to speak. It’s a thrill that is reserved, I believe, for philosophy. That is, it seems unlikely that anything comparable happens in the average calculus or organic chemistry class.

My point here is not to argue that philosophers in general are stupid, or even that Searle, in particular, is stupid. They aren’t, and he isn’t. Despite Searle’s occasional errors in reasoning, he’s one of the most original philosophers writing today. My point is that philosophy, as one of my colleagues put it recently, “is freakin’ hard.” It’s hard even after one has been rigorously schooled in it.

There’s no way to dumb down philosophy and have it still be philosophy. Philosophy is training in thinking clearly. There’s no way to make that easier for people, so why would anyone suggest that there was?

Perhaps it’s because philosophy is the discipline most threatening to the status quo, even more threatening than sociology. Sociology can educate people concerning the injustices that pervade contemporary society, but only training in critical and analytical thinking can arm people against the rhetoric that buttresses those injustices. This country, and indeed the world, would look very different today, if the average citizen back in 2001 had been able to recognize that “You’re either with us, or against us” was a false dichotomy.

(This piece originally appeared in the Nov. 22-24, 2013 Weekend Edition of CounterPunch)

America the Philosophical?

America the Philosophical (cover)Carlin Romano’s book America the Philosophical (Knopf, 2012), opens with an acknowledgement that American culture is not widely perceived, even by Americans, to be very philosophical. He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that “in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States” (p. 5) as well as Richard Hofstadter’s observation in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Knopf, 1963) that “[i]n the United States the play of the mind is perhaps the only form of play that is not looked upon with the most tender indulgence” (p. 3). Romano observes that while in England philosophers “write regularly for the newspapers” and that in France philosophers appear regularly on television, “[i]n the world of broader American publishing, literature, art and culture, serious references to philosophy, in either highbrow or mass-market material barely register” (p. 11). Yet despite these facts he boldly asserts that the U.S. “plainly outstrips any rival as the paramount philosophical culture” (p. 15).

I know Romano. I’m on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium and Romano has attended some of our meetings. He’s an affable guy, so I was predisposed to like his book despite its wildly implausible thesis. Maybe there is a sense, I thought to myself, in which Americans are more philosophical than people in other parts of the world. We tend to be less authoritarian, I realized hopefully, and authoritarianism is certainly antithetical to genuine philosophical inquiry. Unfortunately, I didn’t have to reflect long to realize that we tend to be less authoritarian than other peoples because we have little respect for learnin’, especially book learnin’. We don’t believe there really are such things as authorities.

How is it possible that the U.S., despite all the evidence to the contrary that Romano marshals, can be “the paramount philosophical culture”? Romano’s answer is that the evidence that suggests we are not philosophical consists of nothing more than “clichés” of what philosophy is. He asserts that if we throw out these “clichés” and reduce philosophy to “what philosophers ideally do” (p. 15), then it will become obvious that America is the “paramount philosophical culture.” That is, Romano makes his case for America the Philosophical by simply redefining what it means to be philosophical, which is to say that he simply begs the question.

According to Romano what philosophers ideally do is “subject preconceptions to ongoing analysis.” But do most Americans do this? It’s not clear to whom he’s referring when he asserts that Americans are supremely analytical. Some Americans are very analytical, but the evidence is overwhelming that most are not. Public discourse in the U.S. is littered with informal fallacies such as ad hominen, straw man, and post hoc, ergo propter hoc arguments that are almost never exposed as such. Americans like to “think from the gut”–which is to say that they tend not to care much for reasoned analysis.

Even if most Americans were analytical in this sense, however, that alone, would not make them philosophical. Subjecting preconceptions to ongoing analysis is certainly part of what philosophers do, but it isn’t all they do. Philosophers have traditionally pursued the truth. That, in fact, is the classical distinction between the genuine philosophers of ancient Greece, figures such as Socrates and Plato, and the sophists. Socrates and Plato were trying to get at the truth. The sophists, on the other hand, were teachers of rhetoric whose primary concern was making money (not unlike for-profit educators today). They were characterized, in fact, as advertising that they could teach their pupils how to make the weaker argument appear the stronger. That is, they taught persuasion with relative, if not complete, indifference to the actual merits of the arguments in question. That’s why they were reviled by genuine seekers after truth.

Romano is unapologetic in presenting his heroes as the sophist Isocrates and the “philosopher” Richard Rorty. He devotes a whole chapter of the book to Isocrates, attempting to defend him against the characterization of sophists presented above. He does a good job of this, but at the end of the chapter, the fact remains that Isocrates was far more practical in his orientation than was Socrates (or any of his followers). “Socrates,” observes Romano, “in the predominant picture of him drawn by Plato, favors discourse that presumes there’s a right answer, an eternally valid truth, at the end of the discursive road. Isocrates favors discourse, but thinks, like Rorty and Habermas, that right answers emerge from appropriate public deliberation, from what persuades people at the end of the road” (p. 558).

But people are often persuaded by very bad arguments. In fact, one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of the informal fallacies mentioned above is how effective they are at persuading people. Truth has to be more than what people happen to agree it is. If that were not the case, then people would never have come to consider that slavery was wrong, and slavery would never have been abolished. It won’t work to point out that slavery was abolished precisely when the majority of humanity was persuaded that it was wrong, and not simply because masses of humanity had to be dragged kicking and screaming to that insight, but primarily because someone had to do the dragging. That is, someone, or some small group of individuals had to be committed to the truth of a view the truth of which evaded the majority of humanity and they had to labor tirelessly to persuade this majority that it was wrong.

Right answers have to be more than “what persuades people at the end of the road” (unless “end of the road” is defined in such as way as to beg the question). The sophists were the first PR men, presenting to young Athenian aristocrats the intoxicating vistas of what can be achieved through self promotion when it is divorced from any commitment to a higher truth. In that sense, Romano is correct, Isocrates, to the extent that he elevates what actually persuades people over what should persuade them, is more representative of American culture than is Socrates.

But is it fair to say that most Americans are followers of this school of thought in that, like Isocrates and Rorty, they have carefully “analyzed” traditional absolutist and foundationalist accounts of truth and found them wanting, that they have self consciously abandoned the Enlightenment orientation toward the idea of the truth in favor of a postmodern relativism or Rortyan pragmatism. There’s a small portion of American society that has done this, a small sub-set of academics and intellectuals who’ve fallen under the Rortyan spell. Most Americans have never even heard of Richard Rorty, let alone self-consciously adopted his version of pragmatism.

That’s not to say we Americans are stupid though. Hofstadter distinguishes, early in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, between “intelligence” and “intellect.” Intelligence, he observes,

is an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, and predictable range; it is a manipulative, adjustive, unfailingly practical quality—one of the most eminent and endearing of the animal virtues. …. Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines. Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole. Intelligence can be praised as a quality in animals; intellect, being a unique manifestation of human dignity, is both praised and assailed as a quality in men (p. 25).

These characterizations of intelligence and intellect seem fairly uncontroversial, and according to them, philosophy would appear to be an expression of intellect rather than intelligence. That is, it’s possible to be intelligent, indeed to be very intelligent, without being at all intellectual. Hofstadter asserts that while Americans have unqualified respect for intelligence, they are deeply ambivalent about intellect. “The man of intelligence,” he observes, “is always praised; the man of intellect is sometimes also praised, especially when it is believed that intellect involves intelligence, but he is also often looked upon with resentment or suspicion. It is he, and not the intelligent man, who may be called unreliable, superfluous, immoral, or subversive” (p. 24).

What, you may wonder, does Romano think of this argument? That’s hard to say because the only references to Hofstadter in the book are on pages 3 and 8. His name is never mentioned again, at least not so far as I could tell, and not according to the index. Conspicuously absent from the index as well are both “intelligence” and “intellect.” Romano has written an entire book of over 600 pages that purports (at least according to the intro) to refute Hofstadter’s argument that Americans are generally anti-intellectual without ever actually addressing the argument.

Now that is clever! It’s much easier to come off looking victorious if you simply proclaim yourself the winner without stooping to actually engage your opponent in a battle. It’s kind of disingenuous though and in that sense is a strategy more suited to a sophist than to a genuine philosopher.

(This piece originally appeared in the Nov. 8-10, 2013 Weekend edition of Counterpunch)