Thinking abstractedly (repost from 2015)

“…education is of the spirit and is not to be taken in by the eye or effected by the hand; mind appeals to mind and thought begets thought and that is how we become educated. For this reason we owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books.” 

Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education

To continue with Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes: the second problem he takes on is whether all knowledge comes through the senses, or whether we have a separate “intellectual” function of the mind that is not directly related to what we see, hear, remember, or imagine.  Sherlock Holmes, in the Sherlock T.V. series, has a “mind palace” from which he can dredge up information; but his “palace” is storage for facts he has amassed, not a vehicle for abstract thought. Is it possible for us to have another sort of “mind palace,” devoted to universals instead of particulars? Do humans have a side of the brain that handles only the abstract, that thinks about “love” or “God” or other things that don’t depend on what we can see or hear?

Adler says yes:  if we couldn’t think beyond sensory input, then we could have no general concept of “cow” or “triangle.” Although you can’t imagine a triangle without particular attributes, you still have a general idea of “triangle,” otherwise you wouldn’t know it’s a triangle. Charlotte Mason agreed (see the first chapter of Philosophy of Education, quoted above). Mason’s school-related twist on this was that although we can learn many things through our physical senses, the “mind to mind” component is vital (and potentially neglected).

I wonder if this is why Marva Collins’ first school, the one her husband built upstairs in their house, was successful in spite of being so crowded with desks that there was almost no room for the children to move around. The focus was on books and big ideas (Adler prefers “objects of thought”). The students’ minds were busy, so they didn’t seem to miss the frills of a public school classroom. Not that atmosphere and comfort don’t matter, but just that when the mind is engaged, sometimes the body can put up with a hard seat.