PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 138 1st October 2008
I. 'What Pragmatism Is' by Matt Kundert
II. 'Composition as Epistemology' by P.S. Borkowski
III. 'Nietzsche's On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life' by Alfredo Lucero-Montano
IV. Call for Project Participants: from Maximiliano Korstanje
When Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance appeared in 1974, one perceptive reviewer remarked that Pirsig should be seen as writing within the great American pragmatist tradition of Peirce, Dewey and James. Pirsig's 'Metaphysics of Quality' is not a theory of truth, but rather a rejection of a belief which goes back to the Greek philosophers, that in defining truth we are somehow defining reality; it is too late to attempt to re-introduce the concept of praxis, once that fatal decision has been made. Matt Kundert, who like me is a fan of Pirsig's writings, has contributed a valuable assessment of the significance of pragmatism in which, rather surprisingly, Pirsig's name does not feature. Given that views on Pirsig are somewhat polarised, on reflection that is a wise strategy.
One of the major themes in Pirsig is the question of how the subject of Rhetoric should be taught. Peter Stefan Borkowski of the American University in Cairo offers a trenchant defence of the traditional 'Trivium' -- Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric -- as an indispensable requirement for learning to write well, and traces the root of the failure of well-meaning attempts to improve the quality of students' writing to a slackening of of interest amongst educators in the value of learning grammar.
Continuing the educational theme, the latest contribution from Alfredo Lucero-Montano looks at Nietzsche's view on the teaching of history, and in particular Nietzsche's conviction that we can be harmed as well as improved by the study of history, when that study is conducted in the wrong spirit.
Finally, Maximiliano Korstanje from the University of Palermo Argentina issues a call to any Pathways readers or ISFP members interested in joining a multi-disciplinary project on the nature and origin of nation states, which has attracted contributions from such diverse fields as anthropology, tourism, philosophy, sociology and psychology.
I. 'WHAT PRAGMATISM IS' BY MATT KUNDERT
The meaning of pragmatism as a tradition of philosophical thinking has been contested by those on the outside, and also intermurally by those within it. I think the time has come for both sides, critics and purveyors, to move beyond the idea that 'pragmatism' means 'practicality.' There are many linguistic landmines having to do with common usage, common sense, original usage, philosophical usage, etc. The classical pragmatists, Peirce, James, Dewey, amongst others (Schiller, Mead, etc.), surely had their reasons for using various rhetorical framings. But the core of pragmatism as it has been worked out through the years has nothing (and everything) to do with 'practicality.'
The parenthetical is there to remind people that the classical rhetoric isn't completely worn out. The insight they had was that things can only be said to be true or false in practice. Pragmatism is the thesis that theory, thinking, metaphysics, philosophy, academics, poetry, math, education, school, business, baseball, everything -- everything is useful if it has a use. Tautological, yes, but notice the shift in focus: truth is what works, but what is it working for? What is its use?
We can probably isolate two main, contemporary reactions to pragmatism. The first is felt more by laypersons, non-academic appreciators of philosophy, and is connected more with the classical pragmatists, particularly James. This reaction revolves around the rhetoric of 'practicality,' which produces the suspicion in some that not everything under the sun should be judged according to how practical it is. Is going to church on Sunday mornings practical? Is it practical trying to read Spenser's Faerie Queen, spending 10 minutes a stanza on just deciphering its archaic English? However, wouldn't our lives be impoverished somehow if we didn't do these things? This negative reaction revolves around the mood produced by the rhetoric of practicality.
The second reaction, almost entirely relegated to professional, academic philosophers, is partially connected with the classicals, but also with their children, the neopragmatists, especially (or only, depending on your frame) Richard Rorty. In the first instance, the professionals are concerned about the so-called 'pragmatist theory of truth': truth is what works. Their concern is that this theory of truth itself does not work and, even further, leads to relativism. In the second instance, academic philosophers are concerned with a kind of 'end-of-philosophy' rhetoric, a concern that hardly needs further enunciation -- what the hell sense does it make for a philosopher to end philosophy?
The first reaction by laypersons is entirely understandable. When confronted with the notion that truth bows down before practicality, our noses may wrinkle a bit when we consider all the idiosyncratic things we do for pleasure or spiritual fulfillment. Is watching football all day really a practical use of our time? Is reading trashy romance novels? Is re-reading Michael Crichton's Congo? Is praying, when there's no sure way of telling whether there's any use to it? Is meditating practical, or is it just sitting there, thinking about not thinking? And what's the use in that? Is it really practical to buy a copy of Sir Phillip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, adding another to the growing pile of books you'll probably never get around to finishing, when you can find the poem online?
Maybe none of these things are practical. So why do we do them? Why, indeed -- why is the question. Why do we do the things we do? This is the immediate question that even a poor, first reaction to pragmatism should cause because, if our response is that there is more than just practicality, if we bite the bullet and say, 'Yeah, watching football all day isn't practical, but I still like to do it,' then we've already gone so far as to distinguish between the need for practicality and the need for something else, and it is to the defense of that need, that purpose, that one has already at the least begun by the very act of countenancing it. In other words: the very act of being suspicious of pragmatism forces one to consider that there are different reasons and motivations for doing things.
It is my contention that that is actually what lays at the heart of pragmatism -- the forced act of considering why it is we do the things we do, and wondering if we should continue doing them -- and not necessarily about how practical an idea or activity is. The central idea of pragmatism is that everything is grounded in practice, indeed, everything we do is a practice. Pragmatism grew as a tradition within the philosophical community, as a response to the philosophical community as it was largely composing itself, because one of the pervasive inheritances bequeathed us by Plato was the idea that there was a difference between theory and practice, the distinction between theoria and praxis.
Theory was supposed to be an arena of contemplation uninfected by practice, by the conflicted affairs of people. Socrates looked around himself and saw people behaving as if they knew why they were doing things, people like Euthyphro who thought they were doing pious actions -- but did they really know what piety was? Socrates took the Delphic maxim, 'Know thyself,' and made it into a way of life: 'the unexamined life is not worth living.' Socrates wanted us, all of us, to not live our lives without considering why we do the things we do, without examining our motivations and purposes, without knowing the consequences of our actions.
What happened next is complicated and much debated, but the happening was Plato. In an effort to honor Socrates' memory, Plato took up his mantle and his cause, writing about why we do the things we do and exploring better ways at going about them. We should perhaps distinguish, though, between the way of life embodied by Socrates and that codified by Plato. Socrates was what we lovingly refer to as a 'philosophical gadfly,' somebody who's always picking at us, making us think about what we are doing. As a way of life, we can see it as a sort of skeptical attitude towards what is happening around you, a kind of looking askance, always with an eye out for perhaps a better way of doing things. Socrates wandered around making people think, and that's a cultural practice we would do well to continue.
Plato, however, produced something a little different. Whereas Socrates looked at actual activities, actions, and tried to make us think about what we were doing, Plato thought that what Socrates embodied was a whole new thing, called 'philosophy,' that lay to the entire side of all individual activities, actions. Plato envisioned philosophy as an activity that was pure of all the muddiness that Socrates asked us to examine, an activity that could then inform us as to the proper practice of any particular, individual activity: the division between theory and practice. Plato created a way of life that could, in effect, rule on all other ways of life -- the philosopher-king.
On the story the pragmatists tell, in particular Dewey in The Quest for Certainty, that was the beginning of the end of a good idea. The 2500 year long tradition of philosophy, the ironing out of what it means for theoria to pronounce on praxis qua praxis, as opposed to particular suggestions built out of the individual practices themselves, has led to scholasticism, to quarrels that don't mean a whit to our lives.
This was the point of James' formulation of the 'pragmatic method': what is the difference that makes a difference? Only if an idea, a stand on a particular philosophical issue, makes a difference to the living of our lives can that idea, that issue, be considered important enough to spend time on thinking about. James, in his lectures on pragmatism, then famously took up a couple of classic problems and attempted to show how it doesn't matter whether you believe, for instance, in free will or determinism -- we still behave as if we need to make decisions.
James liked to talk, in this regard, about the 'cash value' of an idea. That kind of rhetoric is just what puts some people off -- the whole idea that an idea or practice has a marketable, public value that goes up and down according to what other people think is just pure crap: I watch football because I love football, the gods be damned if they or anyone else like it. An idea is true whether people believe in it or not. A fact is a fact.
There is, indeed, something here that needs a little clarification, something the professionals have been going on about, but before I leave off for that discussion, I want to remark that James' idea of 'cash value' isn't really about a public market of wares that we can pick from willy-nilly. It is about consequences, what are the consequences of thinking this or that. To what use is a belief that we hold to us -- what is it doing for us, what does it mean to us?
James' Pragmatism is famously dedicated to John Stuart Mill, father of utilitarianism and modern liberalism. I believe the heart of utilitarianism is as often misunderstood as pragmatism, and I think the core of them are basically the same, promoted in similar, perhaps worn out ways. In the opening short chapter of Mill's Utilitarianism, he says,
All action is for the sake of some end; and rules of
action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole
character and color from the end to which they are
subservient. When we engage in a pursuit, a clear and
precise conception of what we are pursuing would seem to be
the first thing we need, instead of the last we are to look
forward to. A test of right and wrong must be the means,
one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong,
and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.
J.S. Mill Utilitarianism Ch. 1
I see in these lines what James was thinking of when he dedicated his general philosophy to Mill's ethical one. The opponent of these lines is the same opponent Socrates had: one who would carry out judgment or action mechanically without ever considering whether the end, the purpose, was a good one.
Mill's opening remarks pave the way for his second chapter, 'What Utilitarianism Is.' I take James' second lecture, after his own opening remarks on the present state of the philosophical scene, 'What Pragmatism Means,' to be itself a remark on Mill and what their common endeavor was. When we confront a statement, and we aren't sure how to take it, we ask, 'What does it mean?' Pragmatism is the philosophy that asks after meaning, the one that wants to know how this idea effects how we behave, 'What does this idea, this philosophy, mean to us, what does it mean to believe, how does it change us?' It is the philosophy that doesn't stop in its pursuit of wisdom, but continues, always wondering after meaning:
But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on
any such word as closing your quest. You must bring out of
each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within
the stream of your experience. It appears less as a
solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more
particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing
realities may be changed.
Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas,
in which we can rest.
William James Pragmatism Lecture 2
The professional may, at this point, interject that this setting into the flow of life the consequences of our philosophical positions might all be very well and good as a goal. But the fact of the matter is that, in practice, pragmatism's theory of truth, 'truth is what works,' doesn't itself work. And worse, all this rhetoric about the malleability of reality is damaging to our sense, our correct sense, that reality isn't something to be just pushed around -- we can't just make up any damn thing we want, get people to agree with it, and call it true.
This brings us to contemporary reactions to pragmatism, the technical working out of the pragmatist theory of truth and pragmatism's seeming road to relativism. The web of debate surrounding truth is thick, but I believe the proper response for pragmatists is the one Rorty has taken: pragmatism's 'theory of truth' isn't really a theory at all, but the suggestion that we avoid one. (This has the added bonus of avoiding, in my current exposition, the technical tangles.) Pragmatism always got into trouble because it formulated this avoidance in ways that suggested it had a theory about when and where we can find truth, a way of circumscribing the area that would certify our thinking something is true. For instance: ''The true'... is only the expedient in the way of our thinking.' So James doesn't out and say, 'this is my theory,' but we can see where the trouble began.
The trouble comes from the fact that the pragmatist formulations seem to reduce truth to justification. If truth is justification, then what is true is relative to a particular audience because we justify things in front of people, to people. But the whole point of truth, as opposed to justification, was that it was supposed to be the same for everybody. This is why people start to smell relativism. Who are we to say that the Greeks were wrong to hold slaves? After all, they were able to justify it to themselves.
The best move for pragmatists is to just admit that truth is separate from justification: truth is an absolute notion, whereas justification is relative. What pragmatism suggests, however, is that our practices of justification do, and have done, just fine in guiding our action, in giving us grounds for believing this or that to be true -- we don't need an extra practice, the search for a working theory of truth, that certifies practice itself. The continual act of justification, of justifying old and new practices to new and old audiences, is the process by which we get our current resting positions. Might I be justified, but wrong? Sure, but admitting that doesn't spell out what else we could do other than our normal processes of justification. It isn't clear how one could short-circuit the path to truth by going around practices of justification and it isn't clear what else we need to do or how it might be done.
This leads us back around to Plato again. Rorty picks up the story that Dewey and others tell about how Plato attempted to create a super-practice, theory, that would certify the effectiveness of a particular, individual practice. But 1) a super-practice is a practice, so what certifies that? And 2) if our practices are already effective, if theory doesn't itself add to the justification, then... tell me why, again, they need to be certified? If they are already working, then... what?
Since a dominant theme in philosophy since Plato has been the working out of the search for absolute certainty, the search for a foundation upon which to set the scaffolding of our thought, Rorty -- as incautiously as his predecessors -- has suggested that philosophy may have played itself out. (Or rather, Rorty himself occasionally admits to such an incaution in the final pages of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which is funny considering the final paragraph of the book begins, 'Whichever happens, however, there is no danger of philosophy's 'coming to an end.'' ) What is meant is that a certain kind of philosophy, sometimes called foundationalist epistemology, has shown itself to be a waste of energy. Rorty's work in particular has been to question, in true Socratic spirit, the use of some of our energies, particularly the amount of energy philosophers pour into the pursuit of, what could otherwise be called, a justification for the fact that we justify.
The pragmatist spirit, its function, has been to wonder, for instance, about the use of trying to solve the problem of free will and determinism. Without a doubt, there is a purpose, there is an end. But like Socrates being suspicious of Euthyphro's certainty in carrying out the demands of piety, pragmatists wonder if the philosopher chasing after the perfect solution to free choice in a world of cause and effect might be doing it for the reasons they say they are. The specter of relativism makes us afraid of the consequences of giving up certain quests, and fear is a true motivator -- but should that be the reason we do something? Out of fear?
There's a lot more to be said about the various philosophical positions individual, self-identified pragmatists have taken against their opponents. But the central insight of pragmatism is not that everything has to be practical, but that everything is a practice carried out in real time, these practices have histories, these practices can be made better and better, and that everything gets grounded out in our experience of life.
Everything is relative to a purpose. Theory and philosophy have uses. They are true, they are worth keeping, if we can figure out to what purpose they are useful for. Pragmatism is antithetical to Kant and Plato and essentialism because they deny, not the thing-in-itself, but the thing-for-itself, like Aristotle's Prime Mover, contemplating itself. Everything is related to something else and how it relates are the questions we should ask and answer. No wheel spins entirely free of life, but the question is not 'does it spin,' but 'should it spin?'
Pragmatism doesn't destroy philosophy, nor does it let the Relativist or Amoralist win. Pragmatism is the core of Socrates' message -- it cuts out the bullcrap created over the last 2500 years and gets back to the reason Socrates started up his cross-examinations in the first place: know thyself; the unexamined life is not worth living. At the core of pragmatism is the call to examine the purposes to which we perform various activities. Know why you are doing them. If it serves no purpose, cut it out. If it does, could anything serve it better? Is the purpose it serves a good one? Might there be better purposes?
Pragmatism is a return to philosophy as it should be done. Pragmatism returns us to the practice of life, to the experience of life. There are many purposes that aren't 'practical,' not at least in the common usage of the term. When James said that truth is the expedient in the way of thinking, he added, 'Expedient in almost any fashion.' We just need to be cognizant of what is being made expedient. Pragmatism isn't simply about being practical, it is about knowing why we do things. It is about asking, 'Okay, it works. But for whom?'
(c) Matthew P. Kundert 2008
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II. 'COMPOSITION AS EPISTEMOLOGY' BY P.S. BORKOWSKI
Professors and employers complain that students are being graduated without knowing how to write well. This is not a matter of curriculum; it is really a matter of epistemology.
Many students, even from high-tier universities, graduate without knowing how to write well. It is not necessary to cite this statement because the complaint can be found anywhere on the Internet from academic resource pages and forums to major newspapers and journals. If most cannot write well, then it follows by definition that they cannot think as well as they should, for the written word is merely thought on paper. Why can't composition and critical thinking courses relieve the problem?
The difficulties come from earlier development and are epistemological problems, not pedagogical ones about the composition course itself. I want to propose a possible explanation to account for why I think this is so, why many university graduates can write only marginally better than their peers who did not pursue a university education. The possibility of improving writing skills (logical cohesion, rhetorical strategies, arguing from definitions, etc) in the composition course depends on prior cognitive development.
My original hypothesis was that difficulties in writing result from poorly designed writing courses. After several weeks of reviewing university freshman writing programs and various syllabi, one thing I noticed was that there is no consensus on what is supposed to be taught: critical thinking or academic writing or basic composition or rhetoric or the literary essay, or a combination thereof along with library skills, research methods, and vocabulary builders thrown in? The department/ faculty statements started to resemble typical replies to questions like 'What is philosophy?' -- a thousand people each reply with something that in fact it really is or does but when taken collectively together gave the impression of unruliness and discord.
By the end of these several weeks I found my self asking whether everyone was talking about the same thing. Then it occurred to me that the presence of diverse aims and purposes, if even conflicting, does not necessarily entail writing difficulties in the students, for if that were true then we would be able to see, after some good time setting up the appropriate tests, in which pedagogy or method students become objectively better writers. I am not aware of such a test or result. Otherwise, I suppose I would have been told to teach by it. The problem was elsewhere.
Professors complain about the sheer amount of distractions around today. Many regret how much cell phones, iPod gadgetry, video games, and so forth hinder the concentration necessary for even basic university work. These things indeed are hindrances; this is empirically verifiable. But then when people my age and older were students, before any of this stuff was around, we found plenty of ways to distract ourselves. Plenty. Ah, fond memories they are indeed! And we managed to get our term papers in -- not with the Internet and a word-processor either but with books and typewriters and correction fluid and an awe-inspiring amount of coffee.
Here I noticed a pattern, a similarity between those in my times who didn't write well, students today who do not write well, and examples of 'poor writing' that I recently collected from composition and argumentation textbooks from the 1940s and 1950s. It's not the pedagogy, it's not the silly, inane gadgets, and it isn't a matter of people in the past being more focused than those today. It's not whether the composition course is oriented more towards literary and creative writing, speech writing, argumentation analysis, social commentary, or anything else. The problem is how and what a student was taught before coming to the course.
Many professors complain about the conceptual shambles that our state high school system has left students in and this most closely gets to the source of the problem. Rather than learning the necessary skills of literacy, pupils are put through elementary and secondary curricula which mostly tell them that expressing their feelings or opinions about an issue or text is equivalent to analytic skills and, worse, that no answers are correct or incorrect. Dogmatism is not part of intellectual inquiry; however, a commitment to objective truth is necessary for accepting the possibility of proofs and refutations if anything is going to get done at all. This is how my inquiry began: students cannot be made into better writers from a writing or critical thinking course alone. There is some other formative aspect involved which begins with learning (internalizing) correct grammar from the earliest ages through stories (from nursery rhymes to parables to literature, vocabulary, and the metrics of poetry). Through these one also learns the appropriate values necessary to the activity of deliberation -- and hence the term 'epistemological development'.
Grammar is logic
Stanley Fish, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, said in his lament over student writing ability: 'Students can't write clean English sentences because they are not being taught what sentences are'. A decade of teaching has shown me as well that students with weak grammar write weak essays. There has been no exception to this rule. I have yet to receive an erudite and logically tight thesis essay written with poor grammar. Professor Fish believes that a road to recovery could be constructed if writing teachers would make the distinction between form and content. Form, he believes, is all that matters at a first- and second-year student's age and ability to conceptualize. Content will come later and this is consistent with the principle that the liberal arts component of a university education should be a general education, not a specialist's one.
There is no real gain by focusing on content. Many teachers believe that if we 'dialog' about an issue long enough and everybody throws his two cents in about the essay theme, usually a controversy involving personal values, somehow a critical position will follow. If experts and other informed people have difficulty coming to terms with the pressing issues of our day (abortion, euthanasia, genetically modified foods, rogue terrorist governments, and so on), why would we ever entertain the notion that nineteen-year-olds could handle them adequately? Content is really insignificant in the light of difficulties with the grammar and logic used to write about that content.
A sentence, Fish reminds us, is a set of logical relationships. This itself is not new but the implications it carries are tremendous. If a student has difficulties with grammatical relationships, then it would suggest that the logical apparatus of the mind is not fully developed or exercised to the point of being prepared to take up content. At bottom, grammatical/ logical skill means knowing how to sort things out. Knowledge of tense, mood, voice, concord, agency, and others is not a limitation or hindrance to a student's experience of English and thinking about an issue but the very key to intellectual freedom. Yet another example of how discipline liberates.
The undergraduate who would benefit from a required composition course is supposed to learn what it means to make connections, find hidden implications and assumptions, find new applications for theories, check premises and diagram arguments. The ability to do this is shown, not had by instinct. ('The fox has holes but man has not where to lay his head') We are not born with instinct to guide us -- not in procuring food, not in building shelter, and it is thus interesting that clear thinking and writing must also be shown. It has been said that an artist enters an art academy as an artist, not to become one. So too students enter the composition course as a writer/ thinker to the extent which they have been prepared to write/ think. This is why Fish sagely leaves content aside and why Mortimer Adler argued that critical thinking programs won't work:
What is misconceived is not the objective itself, but
rather the means for achieving it. It is characteristic of
current educational thinking that, once an objective of
schooling comes to the fore and receives national
recognition; the means proposed for achieving it consist of
setting up specially devised programs for the purpose.
In some cases, that might be the right thing to do. But
with regard to thinking, it is completely wrong. I would
almost say that, for critical thinking, devising a special
program to produce the desired result is a chimerical
effort. It cannot be done.
When we say that we teach critical thinking, we are not transferring such ability to students as one would install new software in a computer. Skills can be shown (e.g., the difference between a logical-chain and a cause-effect chain of reasoning, methods of arrangement, or rhetorical devices like accumulation, hypostasis, and irony) but the extent to which a student can employ them naturally is something which is obtained much earlier in life during the critical phase of epistemological development.
The same cognitive faculty used to recognize an inconsistency or contradiction in grammar is the same one used to identify problems with other types of logical relationships. This is the logos of the mind. Fish even had an exercise for teaching the principles of logical relationships in his composition courses: the students had to get together in small groups and construct a grammar for an artificial language. This is because grammar prepares one to think critically. Consider: if students cannot sense the problems or oddities in these sentences, will they not have difficulty diagramming entire arguments? Knowing the errors in each of these sentences (or at least sensing some peculiarity) concerns logical aptitude.
* Her mother died when she was eighteen.
* A dog can easily tell if people are afraid of them.
* Horror films bring to light a subconscious fear and shows a
character who succeeds in coping with it.
* Time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana.
* The manager, as well as the pitcher and catcher, were fined.
* One of its most notable features are the lounges.
* At my grandmother's house vegetables were only served
because meat was forbidden.
* Kicked aside and lying under the bed, the professor reached
for his shoes.
* In my attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telephone pole.
* Being with Jennifer more and more enrages me.
* Writing clearly is difficult.
* By the time I arrived the party started.
* Having been up to now running already ten minutes, he is
It is easy to see why educators in the past divided the septennium into the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music). In the trivium, we see that logos = three subjects:
1. The linguistic essence of man (language, grammar)
2. The analytic essence (reason, logic)
3. Sensitivity to aspects of persuasiveness (emotion, rhetoric)
We may note on this point the significance of studying a foreign language and how it fortifies cognitive development so well. We see this often in the arguments of those who promote the study of the classical languages Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. While their literatures provide us with our cultural values, the principle benefit of studying these grammars is development in logical cognition.
To pursue logical relationships is to be grammatically in shape. To be in such conceptual health is to see that one thing is correct and another not correct. The process of arriving at this judgment is deliberation and one cannot deliberate unless one can sense which of two things is better and why (e.g., whether two words, two sentences, or two arguments). And now it is easy to see what Stanley Fish meant when he said that 'students cannot write clean sentences'. Grammar allows the analytic and persuasive faculties to run properly. This is one reason why the public school system is so often criticized and even detested by so many. The greatest and most legitimate complaint is about ignoring the importance of developing the intellect when and how it needs to be developed so that it can participate in our university courses later on in life.
Epistemology and values
Logic and reason alone are not always enough to persuade readers. In fact, dull, uninspired language might even detract from the argument's pull. Such is the mysterious condition of mankind: the sweetness of language elicits one reaction while the power of intellect might produce a completely different one. Yet behind the tendency to separate logic from persuasion (rhetoric) is a feature of epistemology which ties the two back together: value. This arch-value in our culture is deliberation, that preference for accepting all evidence, not willfully excluding or suppressing evidence, considering all sides of an issue irrespective of political, religious, ethnic, or gender factors, and fairness to all -- i.e., intellectual honesty. But it too is not had by instinct; it must be taught.
Many educators separate language and reason as if the former is poetic, fanciful, and irrational and the latter is clinically sterile truth or falsity and divorced entirely from any subjective notions such as taste, style, flair, creativity, and the like. The school of linguistic analysis, we may remark, was driven by the conviction that our speech does things we are not aware of. These two distinctive features of mankind, speech and reason, come together in deliberation. And developing a propensity for deliberation, as opposed to caprice, self-righteousness, insolence, bias, or stubbornness, is a cultural value. The power behind speech is the power of reason or rational judgment. 'It is not what you put into your mouth that defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man' (Matt. 15:11). 'If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body' (James 3:2). Human agency is most characterized by this deliberation to say or do one thing in one way as opposed to another in any other way and this is the very basis of most composition tasks -- defend or refute a proposition.
If cultural value pertains to the study of language, I see in this Aristotle's axiom that a child, in order to receive higher learning and to do critical study later on, must be instilled with 'just sentiments' or 'correct sentiments' early on. In addition to discipline, such character traits like temperament, patience, and a sense of why one thing is preferable to another are habituated from an early age with the appropriate stories -- and stories are values expressed in a verbal medium. These 'correct values' are transmitted during the early years of schooling through stories (hymns, songs, poems, legends, parables, etc) and, then as now, are (should be) used to teach correct grammar as well as correct values.
Let's say 'literature' to encompass all the various kinds of story-media. This word 'value' still carries currency in education theory today because it has very favorable, positive connotations; it is even used in pedagogies that strive to eliminate traditional values and to replace them with politically correct pseudo-values (also called 'attitudes'), such as is done in pedagogies like Values Clarification. With grammar come stories and with stories come values: all embedded in the literature. Stories are crafted on the basis of plot structure (also a form of logical construction) and so represent a holistic network of epistemology.
It is interesting to remark that in a society which scoffs at values, literacy is so imperiled.
The one point which all professors will agree on is that we are supposed to be improving students. Richard Weaver expressed this value when he wrote that 'Every educator who presumes to speak about his profession has in mind some aim, goal, or purpose that he views as beneficial' because the term 'better' requires a normative or prescriptive background against which one can say that he is bettering his students. Betterment is seen by some educators today as 'a better attitude' more in line with political agendas while others believe that betterment comes from providing students with logical aptitude so that they can deliberate better on their own terms. In this way, the ability to participate effectively in a writing or critical thinking course depends in large measure on how students were 'bettered' beforehand and to what extent their own ideas of 'becoming better' approximate or deviate from their professors' ideas of such.
Weaver identified three ways that academics have esteemed betterment and valued rhetoric and composition over the course of history: speaking truth and an aptitude for logic (vere loqui), speaking correctly and an aptitude for form and decorum (recte loqui), and speaking pragmatically or usefully (utiliter loqui) -- that which is taught in our own day. In this mode, students at the secondary and higher levels are taught to speak in terms of utility. By utility, we can see two in particular being emphasized in various department home pages: marketing and 'business communication' on the one hand and politically correct attitude formation on the other.
The skills vere loqui (logic) and recte loqui (rhetoric) differ from utility because they are analytical. (Many today would consider business communication to be an area of rhetoric but we will not go into whether this is accurate here.) The trend over the last half century has been to discard both dialectic truth (logic) and correct speech (rhetoric) as social constructions. Speaking politically correct responses and the ability to write an advertising line or grant proposal is the new rhetoric. This value is what is pushed in the secondary school and university curricula and we wonder why analytic skills are missing in graduates. One might say that utiliter loqui represents the consensus and is most relevant to students' education and job, but then we should do away altogether with the idea of producing critical thinkers. Critical thinkers speak in terms of truth, not of utility.
Good writers cannot emerge from a system which teaches, either directly or implicitly, that language is a personal matter and in its studied form is a pragmatic tool for buying something or closing a deal.
Epistemology and stories: why reading is important
Basic education in ancient times was physical and intellectual. The physical included hunting and sport; the intellectual consisted in learning proper values in the kinds of stories (literature) we mentioned already (poetry, legends, fables, parables, history, etc). It was through stories that the Greeks in the classical period learned the values appropriate to the Greek ethos. That which went beyond the ethos then was un-ethical. Simultaneously, in its holistic way, these stories taught vocabulary, grammar, meter, and rhyme and all of these are in essence analytical. It is very difficult to separate the literary medium from cognitive development. And this is why the textbook industry today is so highly political rather than educational in its orientation. With this, we are in a position to remark another vital relationship between language and reason.
In order to learn grammar, we need sentences. Where to get these sentences from? Up until industrial times, before compulsory schooling and textbook companies existed, canonical stories of the culture's tradition were used. They served to transmit the correct values (ethos) of culture while instructing in the arts of language. They were not for entertainment or studied in a comparative manner; they informed people about where they came from, what dangers await the unscrupulous, what joys await the prudent, and about the proper hierarchies between people and between people and God. Textbooks now transmit correct ideological allegiance. What kind of stories work best for instilling grammar is beyond my purpose here. I merely wish to point out that literacy and epistemological development depend on whether the texts used in early education cover various analytic forms (meter and rhyme, grasping the moral of a text, induction and deduction of the moral or central message, grammatical complexity, and so on).
From the beginning of one's schooling after infancy ('infant' comes from a Latin word that means 'non-speaker'), one is exposed to the richness, texture, and range of possibility in language through stories, lyrics, poetry, etc. Under the heading 'stories' we may list rhetoric on the basis that rhetoric is the art of telling something. From the earliest age, children start learning figures of speech through nursery rhymes and stories like The Little Train That Could. Figures of arrangement are introduced to children by means of narratives and plot structures. Parables and fables instruct not only plot but again concur with the instruction of correct values and ethical behavior in addition to being analytical. Moreover, their metaphorical nature sharpens the conceptual faculty to make correct connections and see the implications of going against the parable's moral. It is no coincidence that children instinctively make up their own words, secret language codes, and their own stories on the basis of the narrative structures they receive from parents and teachers. These are natural exercises in creativity and developing cognition, they are epistemological; hence, the great responsibility of elementary and secondary teachers.
The common assumption now is that nursery rhymes, fantastic tales, songs, and word games are entertainments that have been superseded by technologically better (thus 'relevant') computer games and that young children need their computer skills for a rapidly changing world (i.e., utility), irrespective of what the computer games are: instruction and leisure have coalesced into 'computer skills'. We may remark the eerie expression 'computer literacy' here. It may sound reactionary, but the stories central to our cultural ethos and values, whether orally transmitted or written, are significant to our network of grammar-logic-vocabulary-deliberation and should be encouraged for the sake of meaningful participation in school and university later on.
If we can list grammar and logic and values under the heading of stories we must also include vocabulary. Language is described these days as 'dynamic' and not confined to any one social class, that it is a living thing by way of the 'varieties of English' that should be promoted as all having equal worth. There is some sense to this, but not to the point of compromising grammatical-logical relationships. And whatever their background, most people do need to have a passable stock of words from their secondary education and from daily life generally to participate in college classes. This is what the SAT and other English placement tests measure.
However, this is a superficial level, not the epistemological one we are after. If we consider that transmission of an idea to a listener/ reader, it will be apparent that the goal is to reproduce the idea to the listener/ reader exactly as it is in your mind and this involves deliberation, which in turn means finding the best word, where 'best' = 'most accurate'. And when we deliberate which word(s) to use, we see two important points. First, that correct understanding depends on finding the correct words and this is the logical process of identification. Second, there is consideration of the listener/ reader and how the choice of word(s) will be taken, and this is a matter of rhetoric -- knowing one's audience. But it all starts earlier than freshman composition at college. Knowing the difference between the words amoral and immoral or ingenious and ingenuous for the SAT does not entail that one can use them fluently in writing tasks and this is why, in terms of developing literacy, such things should be learned at an early age.
Teaching which serves to draw out a student's position and then merely magnify it is really an exercise in developing the skill of rationalizing. Beyond vocational data and tekhne, the value of a college's liberal arts education is largely the ability to scrutinize one's own views and those of others -- both those whom one agrees and disagrees with. This is an epistemological value.
I have briefly outlined what I consider to be essential to preparing students to be critical thinkers and competent writers -- and thus to what extent they can learn at all in a composition or critical thinking course. All of these things come together as the epistemological development that is necessary for being able to participate as a critical thinker at university.
To be a critical thinker, a value for truth is also needed and that presupposes the prior conviction that truth is not relative. This value of the critical mind which I describe is eloquently and incisively expressed by historian of philosophy Jorge Gracia thus:
The methodological principle is that it is always best to
give the strongest possible interpretation of an argument
or a view, particularly if [it] undermines a position that
we currently hold. If our aim is to see our position fully
tested, the best way to do that is to meet it head on and
answer the strongest objections that could be brought out
against it. That is more than to follow the dictum 'Know
thine enemies'; it is to hold that one should give battle
to the strongest forces that can be mustered against
oneself, so that the victory will be decisive and not
Pyrrhic. Besides, there is always the possibility that we
might be wrong and thus that the development of the
strongest possible case for a position contrary to ours
might make us see where we are mistaken.
This feature of critical discourse points directly to personal and social achievement more than does any other aspect of our cultural and intellectual heritage. But for it to happen, students need to be prepared much earlier than university.
There is no use debating about how to teach the principles of argumentation and rhetoric in any course if one's students have not been prepared conceptually by parents and teachers to receive these things. The best way that a composition instructor can better students is, at the very least, to be sure that they start writing 'clean sentences' and to see logical relationships and categories.
1. Stanley Fish, 'Devoid of Content', NY Times, 31.V.05.
2. Mortimer Adler, 'Critical Thinking Programs: Why They Won't Work' at The Radical Academy philosophy resource center http:---
3. Sylvan Barnet and Marcia Stubbs, Barnet & Stubb's Practical Guide to Writing, Little, Brown, 1983.
4. The 'values' of progressive educators are certainly not values in the way philosophers speak of them. Other pedagogies concerned with attitude formation include Cooperative Learning, Mastery Learning, Critical Thinking (especially as it is in the International Baccalaureate), Integrative Education, Life-Role Competencies, Mind Maps, Outcome Based Education, Standards-Driven Education, and World-Class Education. I'd use composition instructor Nan Miller's expression 'postmodern moonshine' to describe them.
5. Richard Weaver, 'Education and the Individual' (1959), In Defense of Tradition, edited by Ted J. Smith III, Liberty Fund, 2000; p.186.
6. Richard Weaver, 'To Write the Truth' (1948), Ibid.; pp.228-235.
7. See Diane Ravich, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, Knopf, 2003.
8. Jorge Gracia, Philosophy and Its History: Issues in Philosophical Historiography, SUNY Press, 1992; p.254.
(c) Peter Stefan Borkowski 2008
The American University in Cairo 113 Kasr El Aini (New Falaki 821) P.O. Box 2511 Cairo 11511 Egypt Telephone: (0020)-2-797-5905
III. 'NIETZSCHE'S ON THE ADVANTAGE AND DISADVANTAGE OF HISTORY FOR LIFE' BY ALFREDO LUCERO-MONTANO
Nietzsche's On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980) questions a common belief of his time, that historical knowledge is intrinsically valuable. Nietzsche argues that historical knowledge is valuable only when it has a positive effect on a human being's sense of life. Although he acknowledges that history does provide some benefits in this respect, he also argues that there are damages in which historical knowledge could produce negative effects to those who pursued it.
Nietzsche asserts that history can play three positive roles, which he calls 'monumental,' 'antiquarian' and 'critical.' For Nietzsche, monumental history is the genre of history that brings the great achievements of humanity into focus, and it is valuable for contemporary men because it makes them aware of what is possible for human beings to achieve. Antiquarian history is motivated primarily out of a spirit of reverence for the past that can be valuable to contemporary individuals by helping them to appreciate their lives and culture -- this is the positive effect.
History belongs to the preserving and revering soul -- to
him who with loyalty and love looks back on his origin;
through this reverence he, as it were, gives thanks for his
existence. By tending with loving hands what has long
survived he intends to preserve the conditions in which he
grew up for those who will come after him -- and so he
serves life. (sec. 3, 19)
Critical history is an effort to judge the past, and provides a counter-balancing effect to the inspired by antiquarian historiography; a balancing effect to the conservative approach of history. By judging the past, men engaged in critical history remain attentive to flaws and failures in the experience of their culture, thereby avoiding slavish blindness in their assessment of it.
Nietzsche's work has cast serious doubts on the value of a certain 'historical' consciousness, stressing the fictitious character of historical knowledge, and challenging history's claims to a place among the sciences.
We are shocked, we fly back: whither is all clarity, all
naturalness and purity of that relation between life and
history, how confused, how exaggerated, how troubled is
this problem which now surges before our eyes! Is the fault
ours, the observers? Or has the constellation of life and
history really changed because a powerful, hostile star has
come between them? May others show that we have seen
falsely: we will say what we believe we see. Such a star
has indeed intervened, a bright and glorious star, the
constellation is really changed -- through science, through
the demand that history be a science. (sec. 4, 23)
Here Nietzsche starts his polemic against Hegel's philosophy of history and the German historical school (Ranke) for inculcating 'that admiration for the 'power of history' which practically at every moment turns into naked admiration for success and leads to the idolatry of the factual' (sec. 8, 47).
Nietzsche alerts us to the danger that contemporary culture fed from the springs of an antiquarian historiography. And he shows us the dissociation between life and history, knowledge and action:
Knowledge, taken in excess without hunger, even contrary to
need, no longer acts as a transforming motive impelling to
action and remains hidden in a certain chaotic inner world.
[Modern man] has the content and that only the form is
lacking; [...] it is no real culture at all, but only a
kind of knowledge about culture, it stops at cultured
thoughts and cultured feelings but leads to no cultural
decisions. (sec. 4, 24)
That is, modern consciousness is pregnant of an excessive historical knowledge, and has lost the 'plastic powers of life' that makes men able to 'interpret the past only from the standpoint of the highest strength of the present.' This 'surfeit of history' is the negative effect of historical knowledge, that is, the conservative approach of history.
Nietzsche argued against historical knowledge -- when pursued its own sake -- because its method was dependent on a false ideal of objectivity, that neutralized the standards necessary for life, and blocked the capacity, 'the strength [to] use it from time to time, to shatter and dissolve something to enable [man] to live [in the present].'
By the same token, Nietzsche points out five dangers to life resulting from that objective approach of history, that it becomes a 'surfeit of history'.
1) Historical knowledge freezes the present, since it makes the present appear as just an external episode: 'the contrast of inside and outside [content and form] is generated and the [historical subject] weakened thereby' (sec. 5, 28).
2) History knowledge inhibits creative activity by convincing those made aware of the vast sweep of historical currents that their present actions are too feeble to change the past they have inherited: 'an age comes to imagine that it possesses the rarest virtue... to a higher degree than any other age' (loc. cit.).
3) Historical knowledge encourages the sense that the inner person is disconnected from the outer world by assaulting the psyche with more information than it can absorb and assimilate: 'the instincts of a people are impaired and the maturing of the individual no less than the whole is prevented' (ibid.).
4) Historical knowledge encourages a relativism toward reality and present experience, motivated by a sense that because things keep changing present states of affairs do not matter: 'the belief... in the old age of mankind is implanted, the belief of being a latecomer and epigone' (ibid.).
5) Historical knowledge inspires irony and cynicism about the contemporary individual's role in the world; the historical subject comes to feel increasingly like an afterthought in the scheme of things, imbued by a sense of belatedness: 'an age acquires the dangerous disposition of irony with regard to itself, and from this the still more dangerous one of cynicism: in this... it ripens even more into clever egoistic practice through which the vital strength is paralyzed and... destroyed' (ibid.).
Nietzsche was convinced that the objective -- scientific -- approach to history was psychologically and ethically devastating to contemporary men:
For it is science which would speak of poisons [...] for it
only takes the observation of things to be the true and
correct one, that is, to be scientific observation, which
everywhere sees what has come to be, the historical, and
nowhere being, the eternal.' (sec. 10, 62)
Nietzsche suggests the antidotes to the historical. One antidote is the unhistorical that is the ability to forget how overwhelming the deluge of historical information: 'the art and the strength of being able to forget and enclose oneself in a limited horizon' (ibid.). And the antidote of suprahistorical that consists in a shift of focus from the ongoing flux of history: 'the powers which guide the eye away from becoming and toward that which gives existence an eternal and stable character, toward art and religion' (ibid.). In sum, for Nietzsche, 'history must itself dissolve the problem of history, knowledge must turn its sting against itself' (sec. 8, 45).
(c) Alfredo Lucero-Montano 2008
IV. CALL FOR PROJECT PARTICIPANTS: FROM MAXIMILIANO KORSTANJE
To: email@example.com Subject: Call for Project Participants Date: Wed, 1 Oct 2008
First of all, I hope things are going well with you. I learned about the financial crash in USA and Europe... On this occasion, I write to you to ask when are the next issues of Philosophy Pathways and Philosophy for Business e-journals going out? As previously mentioned, I am including these in my classes of philosophy.
By the way, I would be more than happy if you distribute my invitation for all ISFP members to join our project called THE UNIVERSALIZATION OF NATION STATE AND THE HISTORICAL ORIGIN OF ITS INSTITUTIVE ORDER. For us it will be a pleasure to receive contributions from you and your colleagues. This project contains researchers from diverse disciplines such as anthropology, tourism, philosophy, sociology and psychology.
Many scholars had already added with support to this bilingual platform (Spanish-English). If you are interested please forward an email to Prof. Eduardo Saguier at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a good day.
Prof. Maximiliano Korstanje
Ref: Comparisons between Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East
In our new web site recently launched http:--- we introduce our research program where we raise the question of whether the first absolutist empires to collapse (Spanish, Ottoman, Habsburg, Tzarist, Qing), could be compared among themselves and with the first modern European empires (British, French, Dutch, Belgian), and the last modern empires (Soviet Union, China, Yugoslavia), as well as whether the formation of the nation-states and their crisis, which is currently occurring in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, could be compared to what has been happening in Latin America since the 1930s onwards.
It seems to us that these crises are a present global phenomenon that can not be studied in isolation. Apparently, they originate in the particular way how such empires collapsed.
In order to encourage studies and be able to establish connections among them, we have launched this new web site http:---
We also intend to hold an International Symposium at a time and place to be determined.
Any comment on the contents of the web site will be deeply appreciated.
Eduardo R. Saguier
Senior Researcher Museo Roca-Buenos Aires http:---