“Knowledge and Opinion” is the toughest chapter so far in Ten Philosophical Mistakes. I have a whole page of webs and arrows pointing to words like “opinion” and “evidence,” and I will admit that, not being a philosophy major, Adler’s discussion of Hume and Kant rather leaves me in the dust. However, that’s the point of the chapter, if you can get through it–that thinking about knowledge does not require us to be “professional” philosophers.
We are not anxious to contend with Kant that the mind possesses certain a priori knowledge; nor with Hume that it holds innate ideas. –Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children
Adler tries to sort out knowledge from “mere opinion,” and concludes that there is a large portion of knowledge that isn’t absolute, unquestionable, unchanging; but it’s still knowledge as far as we know. One of the “gray areas” of knowledge is theoretical philosophy,
“an analytical and reflective refinement of what we know by common sense in the light of common experience…There is little if any sound philosophy that conflicts with our common-sense knowledge…That is why I have reiterated again and again that philosophy…is everybody’s business.”
Why does this matter? Why does it matter to us?
Because, Adler says, contemporary thought takes theoretical philosophy from the “knowledge” side, even from the as far as we know middle ground, and puts into “mere opinion.” All subjective, no way to prove anything, no room even for a defense by rational argument. You have yours, I’ll have mine, but it’s no longer about reality. And since the trend is now toward specialization (as Parents’ Review contributor Mrs. Dowson complained a hundred years ago), we’re losing the ability to be generalists. Philosophy is only for a chosen few, and they don’t matter because philosophy is all “mere opinion.”
A favourite children’s book around here is Jean Little’s Look Through My Window. The title comes from a discussion that the main character has with her mother, about trying to understand others. The mother says, “You won’t understand your friend until you’ve looked through her window.” In that sense, the window is a personal point of view, and we all have our own particular windows. But philosophy is also a window, a common human window through which we can view “everything else that we know.” As Adler says, philosophy shouldn’t be a specialized science only for those who make a career of it; it’s about all of our lives, it belongs to human beings. Those outside of the philosophy department ignore it at their peril.
But that goes both ways. I had an argument years ago with someone who had taken a lot of formal philosophy courses. The argument was a moral one; my everyday human experience (even outside of religious beliefs) told me that an action was morally wrong, and I said so. I was shot down on the grounds that I hadn’t studied ethics, so my opinion didn’t count. I wasn’t enough of a specialist to satisfy that “philosopher.” (NOTE: I realize that is more moral philosophy than theoretical, but one thing does lead to another.)
If we are wondering about how we can know things, that’s philosophy. If we are teaching from the belief that children want to know, we may end up making philosophers of them.