Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Being a Philosopher

My response to a comment from Pandora on a post about philosophy

> "Isn't philosophy taught mostly like read this, talk about it, write about it, argue about it."

Yes, but it's how these are taught that results in the benefits. For example:

- "read this" - means more than 'skim' or even 'read like a novel' - we are taught to analyze structure, examine context, find voice, and more - what some call 'close reading', except for a philosopher, it becomes second nature

- 'talk about it" - means more than chat or describe experiences - it means learning to be an 'active listener', able to rephrase and reinterpret, to adduce information, to describe clearly, to again be sensitive to context, to be concise and clear

- 'write about it' - but again, this is more than just jotting down your thoughts; philosophers are expected to have a clear structure, to be precise about the use of terms, defining them where necessary, to write logically clear (and hence grammatically correct) sentences, etc.

- 'argue about it' - and again, this doesn't just mean defending your view (or as more frequently happens, restating it over and over) - it means responding to objections, examining evidence for and against, offering forms of inductive reasoning, inference to the best explanation, and more

> "perhaps you learn there are no right answers just right ways of deriving answers... "

More importantly, I think, you learn that what counts as an answer really depends on the question, what makes an answer correct really depends on the evidence, and what counts as evidence really depends on what you're looking for.

It's not so much that there are no right answers - if there weren't, we wouldn't be able to function! It's that our answers are right 'to a degree' and 'from a certain perspective'.

I'll give you an example. One belief we used a lot when I studied philosophy was the belief that the ground won't open and swallow you up the next step you take. We believe this is true, heck, we *know* this is true, and as I say, we couldn't walk down the street unless we did.

And yet... and yet... always in the back of a philosopher's mind there's the possibility that something else might happen. And as it happens, just a couple weeks ago, reality triumphed over logic, not once, but several times:
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSeSsgLyJaw
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3z-yWnOZ3bE
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YumfxuERFgk

So, now we know that the ground can disappear and swallow you whole. Philosophy is about dealing with that - being able to cope in a world of imperfect information, imperfect reasoning, imperfect people.

> "I wonder why epistemology and logic isn't seeded into more research methodology courses."

So do I. Half the difficulties I face in talking about education lie in explaining to people why their conception of knowledge isn't sufficient to represent the complex phenomenon they are trying to explain. Yes, people learn things. No, knowledge isn't just stored in their minds like blocks of facts.

> "Is the problem schools promoting the benefits of the study of philosophy that you have to think?"

Yeah. The problem is that philosophy is hard; it's easy to address the central problems of  philosophy - morality, justice, knowledge, death, taxes - at a certain level. But beyond that level most people (rightly or wrongly, and we could debate that) simply hold firm to a belief, and will not yield to further argument.

It's fair enough; people don't want to have their beliefs challenged, and they don't want their children to challenge their beliefs, because they have too much other things to do with their lives. I can respect that.

Learning to be a philosopher is learning how to comprehend what people might believe even if those beliefs are not well founded, understanding *why* people might hold those beliefs, getting along with them anyways, and looking forward to a world in which the quality of beliefs and belief-formation gradually improve.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the lengthy reply which I found helpful.

    With regard to "no right answers just right ways of finding answers" I see how this misses the mark cause philosophy is not so much about problem solving as problem finding and especially, problem framing. To simplify, philosophy concerns its self with frames for problems about which answers may be derived at the realm of belief any way. Further to the ground swallowing you up, Brits believed that black swans did not exist unti evidence confounded the belief with exploration of Australia.

    Regarding:"Half the difficulties I face in talking about education lie in explaining to people why their conception of knowledge isn't sufficient to represent the complex phenomenon they are trying to explain. Yes, people learn things. No, knowledge isn't just stored in their minds like blocks of facts."

    This blog post on the development of a literature review fleshes out your comment and has implications for connectivism. http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/how-to-readnot-read-pierre-bayard-and-the-literature-review/

    Here is a clip of Jon Stewart's recent interview of Bill Clinton on September 21, regarding Clinton's belief in pragmatism, wherein Clinton asserts it is possible to find creative solutions that go beyond belief. Clinton asserts that 'belief' (as in being a liberal or conservative) tends to foreclose a solution before all "the evidence" is examined.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHki-oxghss

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