Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

C.S. Peirce's Principles of Learning

Charles Sanders Peirce

"Upon this first, and in one sense this sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry." --Charles Sanders Peirce, 1896

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Benefits of Philosophical Studies

Penn State New Kensington's associate professor of philosophy, Donald Bruckner

Interest in Philosophy on the university level has increased in the past decade. There are more colleges offering undergraduate philosophy programs today than a decade ago, according to the College Board. Some schools with established programs include the University of Chicago, Rutgers, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the University of Pennsylvania.

In part, the increased interest is due to the fact that American public schools have failed to address students' interest in metaphysical topics.  Additionally, intelligent young people are discovering that philosophy is useful in a wide range of fields, especially in business and technology.

Dr. Damon Horowitz quit his technology job and got a Ph.D. in philosophy -- and he thinks you should too.

"If you are at all disposed to question what's around you, you'll start to see that there appear to be cracks in the bubble," Horowitz said in a 2011 talk at Stanford. "So about a decade ago, I quit my technology job to get a philosophy PhD. That was one of the best decisions I've made in my life."

Read more here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Philosophy Education in France

Hugh Schofield

I have been staring in admiration over the shoulder of my 17-year-old daughter, as she embarks on a last mental rehearsal before a much-dreaded philosophy exam.

My primary thought is: Thank the Lord I was spared the torment.

I mean, can you imagine having to sit down one morning in June and spend four hours developing an exhaustive, coherent argument around the subject: Is truth preferable to peace?

Or: Does power exist without violence?

Or possibly: Can one be right in spite of the facts?

Perhaps you would prefer option B, which is to write a commentary on a text. In which case, here is a bit of Spinoza's 1670 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Or how about some Seneca on altruism?

I take these examples from my daughter's revision books. My heart bleeds for her, as I look at the list of themes that have to be mastered.

Ruby has chosen to take what they call a Bac Litteraire - the Literature Baccalaureat.

There are alternative, more science-biased versions of the Baccalaureat. They all include an element of philosophy.

But in the Bac Litteraire, philosophy is king.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Plato: A Heart Fixed on Reality

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

When the mind's eye rests on objects illuminated by truth and reality, it understands and comprehends them, and functions intelligently; but when it turns to the twilight world of change and decay, it can only form opinions, its vision is confused and its beliefs shifting, and it seems to lack intelligence. (Plato, Republic)

Plato is one of the most penetrating and influential thinkers in the history of philosophy. He is the philosopher who invites us to participate in the "philosophical project" perhaps more than any other philosopher. In this we see the influence of his teacher, Socrates.

Plato (429–347 BC)
Plato's writings present philosophy as a living conversation to which his readers can contribute. His Dialogues are rich in humor, argumentation, and the portrayal of people and events of ancient Athens.

An Athenian citizen of high social rank, Plato's works reveal an active interest in the political events and intellectual movements of his time. His commitment to the "philosophical project" influenced his students and many generations of thinkers who have enjoyed his writings. He left his mark on metaphysics, ethics, politics, and epistemology, and though he and his student Aristotle did not agree on some important matters, Plato's influence of Aristotle is considerable.

Here are samples of Plato's wisdom and wit.

And those whose hearts are fixed on Reality itself deserve the title of Philosophers. (Plato, Republic)

"We are like people looking for something they have in their hands all the time; we're looking in all directions except at the thing we want, which is probably why we haven't found it.'

'That is the story. Do you think there is any way of making them believe it?'

'Not in the first generation', he said, 'but you might succeed with the second and later generations.'

'We will ask the critics to be serious for once, and remind them that it was not so long ago that the Greeks thought - as most of the barbarians still think - that it was shocking and ridiculous for men to be seen naked. When the Cretans, and later the Spartans, first began to take exercise naked, wasn't there plenty of material for the wit of the comedians of the day?'

'There was indeed'

'But when experience showed them that it was better to strip than wrap themselves up, what reason had proved best ceased to look absurd to the eye. Which shows how idle it is to think anything ridiculous except what is wrong.' (Plato, Republic)

The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers are kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands, while the many natures now content to follow either to the exclusion of the other are forcibly debarred from doing so. This is what I have hesitated to say so long, knowing what a paradox it would sound; for it is not easy to see that there is no other road to happiness, either for society or the individual. (Plato, Republic)

Related reading:  Plato Debt to Ancient Egypt; Ethics of Ancient Greece; Plato's Just State; Plato on Thymos

Friday, April 17, 2015

Why We Should Teach Philosophy in High School

We Are Dysfunctional Because We Have Forgotten How To Think?

Michael Shammas
From here.

The past few years give one the suspicion that American society is dysfunctional. Our Congress is useless, our institutions inept. Faced with the terror of existence, young men like Adam Lanza react with violence. Faced with manageable problems such as a “fiscal cliff,” our democracy self-destructs. Anger is everywhere; understanding is nowhere.

Although a democratic society cannot function unless its citizens are able to rationally debate one another, rationality is missing from American politics. We assail our political enemies with intractable opinions and self-righteous anger. An ugly bitterness pervades everything. Meanwhile, our country is slowly but surely committing suicide.

It seems to me that this dysfunctional political dialogue, which stems from the iron certainty we grant our opinions, is the most pressing problem confronting 21st century America. In fact, it is a crisis. For without the ability to carry on a useful dialogue, we cannot solve our greatest challenges, or even our smallest ones.

This raises the question: How can we solve this crisis? Because the capacity to debate requires the capacity to think, I believe the answer lies in philosophy.

Why philosophy? Because the study of philosophy, the “love of wisdom,” creates and nurtures thoughtful minds, minds that can — as Aristotle suggests — entertain a thought without accepting it. With a philosophic worldview, a Republican who despises any tax increase or economic stimulus could at least consider the notion of tax hikes or Keynesian economics. A Democrat facing antithetical ideas could do likewise. Thought rather than anger could become the default response to opposing worldviews.

Indeed, philosophy can do a great deal to lessen the anger that is growing like a cancerous tumor in modern America. The tools exist in both Eastern and Western thought — in the Stoic exhortation to accept the present as it is, in Buddhist meditation, in the Humanist’s transcendent appeal to reason, in Kant’s categorical imperative. Philosophy can help us inculcate virtue for, in the words of Socrates, “knowledge is virtue.”

While some philosophies obviously conduce toward peace more than others, while some philosophers (Marcus Aurelius) seem kinder than others (Nietzsche), the open-minded study of different philosophies at least opens one up to the possibility that one is wrong. One realizes, like Socrates did, that knowledge is anything but certain, that true wisdom lies in realizing how much one does not know, in understanding that our knowledge of the universe (and therefore of earthly things like politics) is utterly inadequate, perhaps comparable to the area of a pin’s tip against a table. This realization makes one less angry when confronted with opposing views, replacing counterproductive anger with productive curiosity.

Despite the benefits of the philosophic mindset, we do not cultivate this mindset in our children. In fact, philosophy is almost entirely absent from American schools. For example, there is no AP (Advanced Placement) Philosophy course. While some high schoolers may have heard of Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, most do not truly understand their philosophies — much less the philosophies of men like Descartes, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche. This is shameful, because a person who does not understand the history of thought does not understand the rationality behind our political system.

The first time I read a philosopher was not until my first semester of college. My professor assigned Plato’s Republic, and while at first I (admittedly) did not understand anything, eventually I became absolutely enamored with this incredible man. Here was a person who had thought about so many of the same things I had, albeit thousands of years ago and with much more sophistication than I could ever muster. What is justice? What is truth? Why do people suffer? Is there an afterlife? These are the questions that children ask their parents, the questions that scare us most, and perhaps because of this fear we do not consider them when we grow up.

I think this is a great mistake. We should consider these questions. For by reading philosophy, I became less frightened of them. I no longer shirked away from contemplating death (thanks Epicurus) or morality (thanks Kant) or misfortune (thanks Epictetus). More, I realized that anger — in both politics and everyday life — is largely a reaction to fear, and that this fear can be lessened exponentially through the sort of reflection philosophy fosters.

I don’t know why philosophy isn’t taught in high school. Perhaps the subject seems too esoteric or pretentious. Perhaps there is a fear that philosophy could encroach on the sort of questions religion purports to answer — “how should one live,” “how should one die,” and so on. Some parents may feel uncomfortable with the idea of their children receiving answers to “the big questions” from Socrates and Plato as well as from Jesus and Paul.

This fear is unfounded. In general, philosophy does not squander religion; it merely exhorts one to understand the world by opening one’s mind. It encourages one to consider multiple possibilities (unlike our politicians), only accepting the possibility that appeals to one’s innate sense of reason. In a diseased society that is filled with so much anger and bitterness — indeed, with so much madness — we could do worse than expose our children to philosophy. In fact, such exposure would teach our children to react to problems with an inquisitive rather than angry mind — a concept that the children in Congress have not yet grasped.

To those who say philosophy is impractical (and thus that learning how to think is impractical) I say: nonsense. Our society is dysfunctional because we have forgotten how to think, if we ever truly knew how to think at all. Although we as a society believe we are in possession of all truth, we are not. To study philosophy is to learn how woefully ignorant we are, and this knowledge can perhaps teach us humility, can perhaps suggest to us that the other side may have some value after all.

So my point is this: Our diseased political system is in dire need of a hefty dose of philosophy, and the best way to inject this dose into American society is to start at the stem — to raise our children to have a philosophic mindset by teaching philosophy in schools. In the process we will, slowly but surely, be raising Americans who possess the capacity to respond to problems with inquisitive rather than angry minds, perhaps ending this suicidal gridlock.

I hope it is not too late.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Philosophy Should be Taught with STEM

“Whatever happened to the recognition that a university education has at least three purposes: helping one understand who they are and what excites and motivates them; helping understand one’s relationship to the greater world; and, also, becoming prepared for a job.” –Bernie Machen, University of Florida

“It is clear that to thrive in a society where they may have up to six different careers, business and STEM graduates need also to be curious and creative, to be critical thinkers and good communicators.” –Jim Barker, Clemson University

“The failure to incorporate studies in the liberal arts and humanities, along with STEM education, will deprive the next generation of students the critical thinking skills and context necessary to address the challenges they will face in the future.” –Charles Steger, Virginia Polytechnic Institute

“Employers send a consistent message about what they look for in a college-educated employee: the ability to write clearly, speak persuasively, analyze data effectively, work in diverse groups, and understand the competitive global knowledge environment.

“These characteristics are all nurtured and tested in a purposeful liberal arts education.” –Kevin Reilly, University of Wisconsin

Read the First Things article here.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Kant on Virtue

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Deontological ethics, categorical imperative, transcendental idealism

Kant tells us that David Hume awakened him from his "dogmatic slumbers" (c.1771). Hume had stated that experience consists only of sequences of feelings, images or sounds. Ideas such as 'cause', goodness, or objects were not evident in experience, so why do we believe these to be real? Hume applied this reasoning to Christianity, stating, "The Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one." Kant felt that reason could prove Hume's skepticism to be baseless, and he set out to demonstrate how this is so.

Kant synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism, and explored metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics with great intellectual power. Kant's “critical philosophy” is set forth in his three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). The fundamental idea is that of human autonomy through the exercise of reason and duty. He argues that the human understanding is the source of the general laws of nature that structure all our experience; and that human reason gives itself the moral law.

In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes, “If we take away the subject [Humans], or even only the subjective constitution of our senses in general, then not only the nature and relations of objects in space and time, but even space and time themselves disappear; and that these, as appearances, cannot exist in themselves, but only in us. What may be the nature of objects considered as things in themselves and without reference to the receptivity of our sensibility is quite unknown to us.”

He proposes a kind of "Copernican Revolution-in-reverse", saying that: "Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but ... let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition."

Kant is regarded as the “father” of deontological ethics, asserting the necessity of duty as an absolute moral category. He agreed with Plato that it is not natural for humans to prefer evil to good, and he agreed with the Roman statesman-philosopher Cicero that every moment of our lives involves duty. He believed that true freedom rests only in fulfilling one’s moral duty, and that all people have an innate sense of moral duty.

Kant defines virtue as “the moral strength of a human being’s will in fulfilling his duty.” According to his definition, the moral person fulfills his duty even when not inclined to do so, and not because he fears the consequences of failing to perform the duty. Further, he who does his duty only to appear virtuous is not moral. Only the person who does his duty because it is his duty is moral. This is Kant’s argument for the universal nature of duty:

Everyone recognizes that they had duties and obligations.

Therefore, duty is a universal human experience.

Duty is the basis of Moral Law.

As all humans recognize duty, the Moral Law applies to all humans.

To Kant, one acts morally only when one acts out of an innate sense of duty. Acting to please others or to achieve personal happiness cannot be regarded as moral. Such acts are done out of self-interest or as a slave to inclination. Such a person is not truly free since, for Kant, true freedom requires that the individual be completely autonomous and guided only by the categorical imperative. Kant’s categorical imperative is granted to maxims that are universalized. If a proposed action can be shown to be true for all people, in all places, at all times - it is binding and absolute, allowing no exceptions. If it cannot be universalized, one ought not to perform the proposed act.

According to Kant, intentionally telling a lie is always immoral since the universalizing of lying would lead to social disorder and disintegration.

For Kant, recognition of one's duty depended on one's own autonomous reason and "holy will." Kant’s categorical imperative is tied to his argument for the existence of God. He believed that God is just and will judge all people according to His justice. Since it is evident that immoral people are not judged in this life, Kant argues there must necessarily be an afterlife in which the Moral Law will be fulfilled. The truly free individual performs his duty at each moment out of his free will because his will has been made holy. This is how Kant, the theology professor, balanced the question of free will and divine calling/appointment/election.

Related reading: Why You Have to Love David Hume; Theories of Knowledge: Hume and Kant