About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
I believe that this educational process has two sides — one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.
— John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed
Bloggers Libby Anne and Dan Fincke have been doing a very interesting weekly roundup over at Patheos called Forward Thinking: A Values Development Project, and this week’s topic is: What is the purpose of public education?
In writing my RS post for last week, I came across an article by John Tierney critiquing the reigning “corporate education reform” paradigm in American public education. His essay was geared more towards the merits and demerits of specific educational policies; but I’d like to explore a more meta-view of the nature and role of education in general.
I. Socrates on the Shape of State and Soul
Plato presents us with an extensive, contentious and, at times, perplexing treatment of the ideal city-state in his Republic. Plato has Socrates engage in a general discussion of justice, and whether or not it’s always conducive to one’s happiness (i.e., eudaimonia) to live justly rather than unjustly; and he also explores whether or not a just city is always happier than an unjust one. But what interests me most is his taxonomy of the human soul, in which he distinguishes the parts of reason, spirit, and appetite. He further distinguishes between people ruled by reason, spirit, or appetite. The idea of justice within the soul (i.e., the personality) translates into the just ordering of these various parts, with the rational, wisdom-loving part directing the aims of all the other potentially unruly parts.
So if I were to distill Plato’s rambling tome into a single concept (which is impossible, really; but humor me) for our purposes, it would be this: the goal of public education is to achieve a unity across society by creating a unity within the individual. A good person, a “virtuous” person, makes herself into a unity; and a city is also made good or virtuous by being made into a unity. At the societal level, achieving a unity would include having each citizen achieve optimum performance in their assigned function (while at the same time accepting this assigned role); at the individual level, each citizen would achieve maximal contentment in their assigned role: for example, those charged with animal husbandry would find their maximal fulfilment in that work, the cobbler in his, the farmer in his, and so forth. I say “assigned” roles because Plato had some very definite ideas about who should do what and why.
Plato also introduces his famous allegory of the cave in the Republic. In the interest of concision, let’s say that the most salient point of this allegory is that the goal of education is to turn the citizens of the city-state toward the best desires. What are the best desires? Well, you have to ask the philosophers for that. But let’s agree with Plato, for the sake of argument, that the philosophers do know what the best desires are, and how to acquire them. In fairness to Plato, he does show that the philosopher-class would undergo a rigorous intellectual and physical education themselves, presumably making them uniquely adept at identifying and communicating the nature of the best desires.
But I don’t intend to discuss the pros and cons of the means to these ends. That would involve voluminous footnotes to the “footnotes to Plato.” And clearly, in our modern society, there isn’t widespread agreement on what the best desires are. In this post, I'd like to focus instead on what seems to me to be the biggest issue: the fact that public education embodies the difficulty of balancing Public Value and Private Value.
II. Public Value vs. Private Value
There seems to me to be two (potentially conflicting) goals of modern education: one whose end is some repertoire of skills or body of knowledge designed to make the individual a productive member of society (for economic and/or cultural value); another one whose end is the cultivation of some innate talent or talents for the benefit of the flourishing (eudaimonia) of the individual herself. In other words, Public Value versus Private Value. I think the Public Value aspect of education is unambiguous and uncontroversial, and is the dominant paradigm: society has a vested interest in producing economically and culturally productive individuals who are also moral. But I think the more interesting question is what constitutes Private Value.
One of the major things we moderns share with Plato is the claim that human beings are not blank slates. Of course, Plato’s idea of human nature is much different than our current naturalistic take on it. But the reasons for our nature being the way it is are really irrelevant to our discussion here. It suffices to point out that there is a repository of shared behaviors that most human beings display to varying degrees. It’s this range of behaviors that enables us to live together in relative harmony under our current social system; that is, our formal criminal justice system as well as our informal system of reward and punishment that’s played out in innumerable interpersonal interactions every day. We rely on the relatively consistent predictability of our shared human nature. It’s arguably the linchpin of civil society.
However, even though we all share a common human nature, there is still a lot of room for individuality, and it’s this uniqueness that presents the biggest problem for those who focus on the Private Value of education. While the American Declaration of Independence states that all human beings are created equal, and that this is a self-evident truth, I think it’s painfully obvious that this is false. Whether or not human beings are deserving of equal rights is a different matter, and not one I want to discuss here. I’m more concerned with the Private Value aspect of public education, so I want to discuss the nature of talent in light of this.
III. On Reaching the T.O.P.
I said above that one goal of education is to effect the flourishing (eudaimonia) of the individual. In connection with this, we can cite John Rawls’ Aristotelian principle, which says that, other things being equal, individuals enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate and trained abilities); and this enjoyment increases the more this capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity. Though Rawls combines both innate and trained abilities in his description of realized capacities, I think they actually deserve to be separated, owing to their distinct attributes, and because I think there is a pervasive and significant confusion in our society about the differences between skills, knowledge and talent.
Rawls does, however, distinguish between “innate” and “trained” abilities. For my purposes, I define these terms in a manner similar to the way in which they’re outlined in the management development book First, Break All the Rules, where skills are trained (i.e., acquired) conceptual and physical abilities; knowledge is the accumulated information and experience that gets stored in memory; and talent is “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.” Here’s a little more from author and business consultant Marcus Buckingham:
Your talents, they say, are the behaviors you find yourself doing often. You have a mental filter that sifts through your world, forcing you to pay attention to some stimuli, while others slip past you, unnoticed. Your instinctive ability to remember names, rather than just faces, is a talent. Your need to alphabetize your spice rack and color code your wardrobe is a talent. So is your love of crossword puzzles, or your fascination with risk, or your impatience. Any recurring patterns of behavior that can be productively applied are talents.
In other words, talents can’t be taught; they are the result of the confluence of genetic and experiential factors. However, they can be amplified; and this amplification involves the proper combination and arrangement of one’s skills and knowledge. Or, in Plato-speak, the just or judicious ordering of these aspects — and that’s where education comes in. But more on that in a bit. I would just clarify that the productive application of one’s recurring patterns of thought and behavior extends to one’s eudaimonistic project as well, and not just to one’s deposit into the account of Public Value.
Talents are the raw materials one uses to build one’s eudaimonistic project. They can be amplified by supplementing them with complementary acquired skills and accumulated knowledge, and their harmonious arrangement is the essence of this project. This is what I think of as, following Plato, achieving a “unity” within the individual soul: the rational harnessing of as many talents, properly construed, as possible, which should lead to the achievement of happiness (eudaimonia) for the individual. But how is such a project possible? Without getting into the details of specific educational theories or curricula — since I said I want to explore a meta-view of the topic of public education — we can employ a handy little acronym: T.O.P., which stands for Talent, Opportunity and Practice: one needs to identify one’s raw Talents; have the Opportunity to Practice or refine them; and then also have a chance to put them into Practice.
Though an unusually introspective but objective person may be able to identify her innate talents through a process of rational reflection, or discover them haphazardly in the process of living her life, I think for most people the identification or discovery of one’s talents, and their potential applications, requires direct education. I say “direct” education because I want to imply the need for a “teacher” of some sort, as opposed to the education one gets from the School of Hard Knocks, as they say.
The notion of Opportunity is really more of a political issue than an educational one, because it involves more of the specific laws (or lack of laws) prevalent in one’s society. And even though I’m concerned in this post with education, it’s Opportunity that is probably the most important one: what good is cultivating one’s talents if one never gets the opportunity to practice or exercise them?
The notion of Practice, while it involves the notion of Opportunity, is more properly an educational issue: not only does a teacher educate one about one’s talents, she also directs the practice of those talents, determining which practices are the most valuable. Additionally, a good teacher can also expand one’s horizons to include applications for one’s talents that one might not have imagined were possible. It’s this stretching of one’s abilities that I think speaks to Rawls’ claim that an increased complexity contributes to the enjoyment of one’s eudaimonistic project.
One of the goals, and possibly the main goal, of an individual’s eudaimonistic project is to find meaningful work. One’s work is both the satisfaction of one’s basic needs (i.e., food, clothing, shelter, etc.) and the potential realization of one’s innate and trained capacities. And if one can find meaningful work, then one can also simultaneously satisfy the twin demands of Public Value and Private Value.
In contrast to the still relatively primitive economy of Plato’s time, our modern economy possesses a breadth and depth that is capable of accommodating a diverse array of amplified talents. And, also in contrast to Plato’s time, the route to maximal happiness for the individual needn’t involve resigning oneself to one’s assigned role. But the realization of this state of being would most likely fall to our educators, whomever they may be.
IV. Who Are Our Educators?
Plato felt that the philosophers, being properly educated themselves, would be the best educators, because they know what is good for humanity, knowing what Goodness itself is. Consequently, they would turn the citizens toward the best desires, which, for Plato, means a love of ultimate truth and a life ruled by pure knowledge. And, therefore, everyone would live happily ever after, living a good human life because they would then possess unified souls dedicated to the aforementioned values.
Plato’s utopian vision has been roundly criticized, with some critics warning that his ideal would lead to a totalitarian state. It’s true that he presents us with a derogatory view of democracy, primarily because it is under that kind of government that all endeavors are esteemed or at least recognized as equally valuable or worthy of pursuit; and this, it is believed, would lead to chaos and vice. I can’t say Plato is completely wrong on this count; but I also can’t say he’s necessarily right, either. Modern democracy certainly has its problems and periodic all-out crises, but it certainly seems to me to be the best system we humans have been able to devise thus far in our history. I say this because it is precisely the fact that a democracy does allow for the deepest and widest possible array of projects that it is valuable.
But, as I alluded to before, our educators can be either direct or indirect. Indirect educators can be family members, sports figures, cultural icons, peers, or anyone else we esteem and desire to emulate. Direct educators are the teachers we encounter throughout secondary and postsecondary school: they instruct us in the particulars of the various subjects we’re interested in, but may also, at the same time, challenge us and guide us toward the discovery of our most durable talents and their realization in our unified, eudaimonistic undertakings — and, hopefully, to the realization that contributing to the happiness of society is essential to realizing our own happiness.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Sean, Julia, and Massimo discuss what distinguishes naturalism from similar philosophies like physicalism and materialism, and what a naturalistic worldview implies about free will, consciousness, and other philosophical dilemmas.
And they return to that long-standing debate: should scientists have more respect for philosophy?
Sean's pick: "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human."
References: Moving Naturalism Forward workshop.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Monday, May 20, 2013
Recently I attended a talk by Ronnie de Sousa, a philosopher at The University of Toronto, by the somewhat unusual, almost oxymoronic, title of “Love and Reason” (as opposed to, say, Love or Reason). It turned out to be a fascinating tour de force ranging from the Countess of Champagne and her 1176 verdict on the nature of love, to cognitive scientist’s Helen Fisher studies of the chemical underpinning of different aspects of love. Here I will limit myself to a few aspects of de Sousa’s talk (who graciously provided me with his original slides), but Ronnie is finishing a paper on the subject, so stay tuned for much more if what follows happen to sufficiently stimulate your curiosity.
First off, though, I simply cannot resist the temptation to quote the above mentioned Countess of Champagne in full. The quote actually allows de Sousa to introduce the framework of his talk (the relationship and difference between reasons and causes of love), but it is worth reading in its entirety for its own sake.
Apparently, back in 1176, a “Court of Love” was established — presided by the Countess herself — to address the question of “Whether love can have a place between spouses,” i.e. whether the very concept of love is compatible with matrimony. Here is the verdict quoted by de Sousa:
We state and affirm that love cannot extend its power to a married couple, for lovers give one another everything freely, without obligation or any necessity; conjugal partners, by contrast, are committed to doing one another’s will and not to deny anything to one another.
So there you have it, apparently duty and inclination are not compatible in this instance, a very stern, Kantian view of things. And indeed, Kantian interpretations of love were a major target of ferocious criticism (even downright scorn) in de Sousa’s talk, which was delivered with humor and even theatricality (he quoted several passages from literature classics, such as the Cyrano, and he did so very engagingly).
Ronnie clearly distinguished reasons of love from reasons to love, as well as between positive and negative reasons, and finally between reasons seen from the point of view of the lover and from that of the loved. I do not want to get too far into this particular aspect of his talk, but some tidbits will give you an idea.
For instance, most people would not accept “I love her because she is rich” as a good reason for love, just like — and the parallel here does a good amount of work in de Sousa’s scheme — we would find weird, within the context of a work of art, if someone were to say “it’s beautiful because it’s expensive.” Or consider this: we would take it as a good reason for someone to stop loving someone else if the former object of love were to turn monstrously evil. But it is hard to imagine the traction one would get by saying something along the lines of “I love him because he is not monstrously evil.” (Though I have to admit that I’ve heard people on the New York dating scene lower their acceptance bar almost as far...)
In one of my favorite bits during the talk, de Sousa presented his version of the famous Euthyphro dilemma, which in its original Platonic context represents the most powerful argument for the irrelevance of gods to morality. The love-related version of the dilemma goes something like this: is what we love of value to us because we love it, or do we love it because it has value? Be careful how you answer it, because either horn of the dilemma carries pretty logical consequences. The first possibility is tautologically self-referential, and would lead us to admit, among other unsavory things, that it is perfectly sensible to love the above mentioned monstrously evil individual (or to love anyone, really). The second option, however, raises the question of fungibility: let’s say that I think I love someone because she is smart, beautiful, and of good character. Well, there is always the possibility of eventually meeting someone else who is even more so in any (or all!) of said dimensions. That being the case, wouldn’t it make sense to “trade up,” so to speak? Switch to the newer, better model? While a distressing number of people do in fact do so without a thought, it seems a bit callous (not to mention extremely un-Kantian!) to treat someone who we allegedly love as if s/he were a car or a television set, no?
Which brings us (skipping around the actual sequence of the talk a bit) to how de Sousa deals with the problem of fungibility. He introduces Helen Fisher’s famous studies on the cognitive science of three distinguishable kinds of love: lust, romantic love (which Ronnie calls “limerence”), and attachment. I referred to the same research in Answers for Aristotle, and I think the general findings are interesting if, of course, open to the usual caveats and potential future falsification of any neurobiological piece of research on humans.
Fisher has described three behavioral syndromes, as well as their correlated hormonal profiles, that characterize different types of “love” in humans. In some cases the three represent a temporal sequence within a given relationship, but this is by all means not a necessity. The first type, lust, is characterized by being fairly object-generic, meaning that we can lust after a (great) variety of people, though of course even lust is somewhat discriminating in its targets. Lust drives sexual intercourse, and at the hormonal level is underpinned by androgens (especially testosterone) and estrogens. It typically has a time span measured in hours or minutes...
Next we have limerence (a word de Sousa credits to psychologist Dorothy Tennov), what most of us call romantic love. Very much unlike lust, the object of romantic love is unique, indeed obsessively so. Its function is to focus one’s energy and time on a particularly good candidate for long-term attachment, and it is chemically underpinned by catecholamins, hormones such as norepinephrine and dopamine. This phase can continue for weeks or months, and up to 2-3 years, depending on the people and the circumstances.
Finally — if a couple gets that far — we have long-term attachment. This is not focused on sex, though it can in fact arouse intense emotional distress. It is what allows people to raise families, which means that it is evolutionarily crucial, in a species such as ours, where long-term parental investment is vital for the survival and well being of the offspring. The chemistry here is dominated by oxytocin and vasopressin, and the duration is indefinite, ranging from several years to a lifetime.
What has all of this to do with fungibility? de Sousa argues that the philosophically relevant differences among the three types of love are that only lust is really fungible, that only limerence seems to be exclusive, and that only attachment has a significant historical component (meaning the unique, shared history of the people involved). If he is right, what makes long-term love (i.e., the sort that leads to attachment) non-fungible is not the exclusivity of the love object (he notes, reasonably, that people are capable of feelings of attachment toward more than one person), but rather the uniquely historical, unrepeatable, series of events that characterize the relationship. From this perspective, the longer one’s history of love with another person, the less fungible that person becomes — even though there may be another individual around the corner who is smarter, more attractive, etc.
I like the general idea, though I’m not sure I buy every aspect of it. For instance, I think the object of romantic love is indeed fungible, only on a different temporal scale than the object of lust. True, romantic love is exclusive, but it may well turn out to be only temporarily so. Indeed, I think even long-term attachment is open to the threat of fungibility, as in the case of relationships that end after many years (and even a number of children), leading one or both former partners to start new long-term, and at least occasionally just as unique and valuable relationships with other people.
However, what I think does happen in the transition between lust, romance and attachment is that fungibility becomes less and less likely, varying on a sliding scale with a maximum value in the case of lust, an intermediate one for romance, and a very low magnitude (but not necessarily zero!) for attachment. Whether this should be cause for moral concern, of course, is another matter.
Ronnie concluded his talk — which is much richer than I managed to convey here — by noting the following (and I am here quoting mostly verbatim): (a) The contingency of the circumstances that give rise to relationships makes them deeply a-rational (so long, Kant!); (b) They derive from chance priority of acquaintance, pheromone compatibility, genetic fatality, transference, and habit (i.e., they have many causes); and (c) None of the above mentioned factors count as reasons. The distinction between causes and reasons in philosophy in general, and in the philosophy of human action in particular, has a long and complex history. Still, as a distinction it is both clear and, I think, useful. In de Sousa’s hands it pretty much kills any rationalist, Kantian approach to the philosophy of love. And that, my friends, is no small accomplishment.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Salviati: I agree with you there - it’s a powerful idea, but it can definitely eat your brain if you’re not careful.