Philosophy is everybody’s education

“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.

Thinking abstractedly

(Whoops department: I first called this post Mind to Mind, and then I realized why it sounded good: that’s the title of Karen Glass’s new book.)

“…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.

The science of relations, and reality

One of Charlotte Mason’s key ideas was that education is the science of relations.

In Mortimer J. Adler’s book Ten Philosophical Mistakes, the first chapter discusses whether there is actually objective reality. Can I truly know that anything that happens outside of my own mind is real; that it has a separate, independent existence and isn’t just something my imagination has constructed?

This caught my eye towards the end of the chapter:

“When we correct the initial error that generates all these results, we find ourselves living together in the world of physical reality, a world with which we have direct acquaintance in our perceptual experiences. We not only have bodily contact with one another in this world; we also communicate with one another about it when we discuss perceptual objects we can handle together…[as well as] past events or happenings that we remember, imaginary object as well as things we imagine that may also exist or be capable of real existence, and all objects of thought.”

So reality, in that sense, is about being able to form relationships. If matter really exists, we have a relationship with real objects. (Is that what you call objective reality?) We can touch things, see things, and so on; we believe that those things actually exist, and that they go on existing even when we are no longer around.

We can have relationships with real people, individuals who matter. We can communicate with them about not only the things we see and touch, but the things we think about. We aren’t trapped inside our own minds, and we aren’t imagining each other.

We can have a relationship with the One that Francis Schaeffer called the space-time God, the God Who Is There. He is as objectively real as the material objects we touch, and as the human beings around us. We also believe that God has communicated with us.

“As important as Schaeffer viewed worldviews and religious first principles, he was, at the end of the day, most concerned with objective reality and reality of the sort knowable to all mankind. He was, thus, a realist. ”  “Francis Schaeffer’s Real Reality”, at The Calvinist International

To quote the late Robin Williams: “Reality. What a concept.”

Big Green Checkmarks

Richard Feynman said (in The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist) that living in the state of not knowing is easy; what he really wanted to know was how to know!

I have had my share of living with not knowing over the past few months, particularly in the area of writing the book. Most obviously, I don’t have any previous knowing about writing books. Reading them, yes, and writing other things, but not writing a book. But that turned out to be the easy part. I knew what I wanted to say, and I knew when it was done. I had periods of wanting to quit and do something else, but I kept getting brought up short by Charlotte Mason’s quotes about Will.

I wrote the original draft in Word, in block-style paragraphs like this, as I’ve always done, with no attempt at formatting other than laboriously dragging the little markers on the toolbar around to indent quotations. I knew enough to know that a Word document would have to be converted somehow into an e-text version, and my husband obligingly downloaded the Sigil program and told me to have at it. I managed to produce a readable e-version to send to a couple of friends. “Now you’re done, right?” he asked. But some things still didn’t seem right; and when I ran it past the big green check mark at the top, the program revealed all kinds of errors in the Html code that I didn’t know how to fix. Besides, how was this going to work for a print version of the book?

I talked to my brother-in-law, who has more experience in publishing. He said, “I hate to tell you this, but I think you will have to put it back into Word.”

After I finished banging my head on the computer desk, I did two things. I borrowed April L. Hamilton’s book The Indie Author Guide from the public library, which takes you through the process of setting up a book on Word, step by step, button by button. Hamilton also explained a part of Word that I had never understood: how to use Styles and Formatting. If you set up the parameters, and then decide that you want the paragraphs indented a little more, you tell Word that and they all change at once. Kind of like an advanced Search and Replace; and no more dragging the little markers on the ruler.

The second thing I did was download a six-by-nine-inch template from CreateSpace, which saved me some of the setup work. The template gave me a dummy copy to paste into, and Hamilton gave me the answers when I got stuck and the headers were showing the wrong chapter titles. And look at that: I had a Word file that actually looked like a book. The best part is that, when I moved that file back into Sigil, the  new ePub version worked better and had less messy code than than the earlier attempts. I also ignored the big green checkmark.

So now I know some things that I didn’t know a few months ago, about what it takes to get a book written, about the magic of word processing, about Html, about online publishing. It still seems like about every other day there’s another thing I have to learn very quickly to keep the process moving. Recent lessons were all about websites and WordPress. How do you upload a printable? How do you get the menu of pages in the right order? Where do you get a contact form? My husband, my graphics-keen daughter, and online friends have been good backups, but I had to work through some of the knots of it myself.

Did I come out knowing more? Not so much as recognizing that yes, the not knowing is the easy, default setting; I often feel quite swamped by the amount of unknowing in my life. But since the not knowing is what we already have, there’s no particular merit in living with that recognition.  As Feynman said, the bigger question is about knowing.

Sometimes there are how-to books to give us answers. Sometimes there are templates to copy, or friends who know. Sometimes we’re on our own.  The real challenge is being open to knowledge, and finding out if there is something we can learn, even incompletely. And ignoring the big green checkmarks.