Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Monday, December 31, 2018

We Should Read "Pagan" Writings

Jason Baxter explores how the treasures of old writings can illumine the banality of our time.

At the end of each semester, I inevitably have one or two well-meaning students who are still unsure why they were asked to devote so much time and care to reading, annotating, and discussing archaic Greek literature. They enjoyed reading Homer. They liked our conversations in class, but, at the end of the course, lacking theoretical reasons, they still worry about why they spent so much time on pagan, non-Christian authors. Over the past few semesters, I have thought about how to best answer that question: Why read old (pagan) books? To do so, I would like to begin with an image from a myth.

At the beginning of his Timaeus, Plato retells the well-known myth of Atlantis. There was, once upon a time, a flourishing civilization, which excelled in the arts and sciences. They built a beautiful city, which blended perfectly into its natural environs. But one day, the city was lost. An earthquake caused it to be buried under an ocean of water. And there, at the floor of the ocean, this magnificent civilization rests, in silence.

I like the image of the luxuriously wealthy city at the bottom of the ocean because the metaphor of archaeology brilliantly captures the goals of a student of the humanities. What if, along with the physical ruins of buildings, there were certain ideas, certain ways of life, certain ways of thinking which have been buried under the rubble of time? What if some truth from antiquity, which used to be obvious to everyone else, had only begun to seem bizarre to modern man? As everyone knows, Hesiod’s Theogony is a very bizarre piece of writing by our standards. But what if the truth is, it is not so much this book which is weird, but we who have become strange? What if we moderns are the ones out of step with everyone else, not the ancients who are backwards and behind the times, but we who are out of tune? It is for this reason, with these questions in mind, that I encourage my students, every time they bump into a passage (or book) particularly strange and bizarre, to slow down, re-read, and think more deeply. You might have hit a cultural blind spot.

Read it all here.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Topics at Philosophers' Corner

(Current as of 1 February 2023)

Academic Philosophy
Why I Love Philosophy
Gender Bias in Academic Philosophy?
Beware of Letters Bearing Poop
The Dearth of Women in Philosophy
Women and Academic Philosophy
Philosophy for Primary Students?
John Haldene to Teach at Baylor University
Beware of Letters Bearing Poop
Analytic vs. Continental Philosophy

Academic Theology
Why Study Academic Theology?
Academic Theology - Crisis Magazine
Does Academic Theology Matter?
Do Academic Theologians Have to Believe in God?

A Physicist Looks at Beauty
G.K. Chesterton on Drawing the Line

Ancient Sources
We Should Read "Pagan" Writings
Ancient Sources and Historical Reliability
Ancient Philosophers Portrayed on Byzantine Murals
African Religion Predates Hinduism
Some Marks of Prehistoric Religion
Religious Tradition
The Religion of the Saka
The Luwian: Another Theory

Alvin Plantinga
Alvin Plantinga: Belief in God Can be Rational

Diversity and Adversity

Anscombe, Elizabeth
Elizabeth Anscombe
Anscombe on Justice, Sex and War

Alister McGrath on the New Atheim and New Apologetics
Williams Lane Craig on Philosophy and Apologetics
The Christian Intellectual
Reason and Revelation
St. Paul's Application of Greek Philosophy
What Christians Believe

Aquinas, Thomas
Aquinas and Motivation to Good Action
John Haldane to Teach at Baylor University

Archaic Communities/Ethics/Moral Codes/Technologies
Ancient Wisdom, Science and Technology
On Blood and the Impulse to Immortality
Ancient Moral Codes
Ethics and Archaic Communities
The Religion of Archaic Rulers
The High Places
Understanding the Axial Age

Aristotle's Final Resting Place
Getting Acquainted with Aristotle
Aristotle's Understanding of the Chief Good
St. Paul's Application of Greek Philosophy
Angry Birds and Aristotle

The Charitable Face of Atheism
UK Atheists and Historical Revision
More on the Humanist Anti-God Campaign

Bacon, Francis
Bacon on Atheism
Theories of Knowledge: Bacon and Descartes

Bentham, Jeremy
Thumbnail Sketch of Jeremy Bentham

Berkeley, George
George Berkeley: Idealist and Consistent Empiricist
George Berkeley A Matter of Mind

Boheme, Jacob
Jacob Boheme on Genesis

Camus, Albert

The Enlightenment
Why the Enlightenment Was Not the Age of Reason

Theories of Knowledge: Archaic Communities-Aristotle
Theories of Knowledge: Bacon and Descartes
Theories of Knowledge: Descartes, Locke and Hume
Theories of Knowledge: Hume and Kant

Moral Obligation
Revising Good and Evil
Is Bioethics a Dirty Word?
What Makes a Good Society?
Kathinka Evers on Neuroethics
Ethics and Binary Oppositions
Ethics and Archaic Communities
Ethics of Archaic Communities
Ethics of Ancient Greece
Ethical Concerns of the Middle Ages
Ethical Concerns of the Renaissance
Ethics in the Renaissance
Ethical Concerns of the Enlightenment
The Shaping of 20th Century Ethics
Modern Trends in Ethical Thought
Post-Modern Ethics

Evolutionary Theory
Random Mutations and Quantitative Analysis
Facebook Conversation on Creationism
Biblical Anthropologists Discuss Darwin

Foot, Phillipa
Thumbnail Sketch of Phillipa Foot

Foucault, Michel

Gaarder, Jostein 
Gaarder on Changes He'd Make to Sophie's World

Thoughts on Gender Equality
The Church's Consensus on Women and the Priesthood
Why Women Were Never Priests

Churchill and the Clash of Ideologies
Philosophers on 2016 Presidential Election
Anarchy and the Elites
On Trusting the Elites

Grosseteste, Robert
Robert Grosseteste

Heidegger, Martin
Augustinian Elements in Heidegger's Work
Heidegger and Aristotle
Heidegger's Lectures on Aristotle
The Challenge of Heidegger's Terms
A Closer Look at Martin Heidegger
George Pattison on Martin Heidegger
Heidegger's Critique of Descartes

Hobbes, Thomas
Thomas Hobbes, a Brilliant Pessimist
Did Hobbes Change the Meaning of Justice?
Hobbes on the Order of Creation

Hume, David
Feminist Interpretations of David HumeWhy You Have to Love David Hume
Buttiglione Responds to David Hume
Why David Hume Was Wrong
Theories of Knowledge - Part 1
Theories of Knowledge - Part 4

Husserl, Edmund
Of His Blood and Eternity

Philosophers Discuss Supreme Court Decision on Obergefell v. Hodges
Progressives Enjoy Attacking Kim Davis

Kant, Immanuel
Modern Trends in Ethical Thought
Logic: On the Lighter Side

Kierkegaard, Søren
Søren Kierkegaard
Kierkegaard: Witness to the Truth, Knight of Faith
Reflections on Søren Kierkegaard
The Busyness-Idleness Conundrum
Logic: On the lighter side
Pioneers in the Field of Logic
Why Logic Should Be Taught in Schools
Introduction to Logic: Fallacies
Modal Logic and Problem Solving
The Atheist's Fallacious Argument

Machiavelli Believed in Fortune
Ethics in the Renaissance

Leszek Kolakowki's Assessment of Marxism
On Trusting the Elites
V. Lenin on "Socialism and Religion"
Paul Froese, "Forced secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an atheistic monopoly failed." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2004)
Smelling Rats: The Story of Katharine Atholl

Meetings of the Great Minds
Fall 2014 Forum
Spring 2015 Forum

RIP René Girard
Four Women Revived Metaphysics
Early Metaphysics: Primal Substance and Cause
Theories of Time
Theories of Change and Constancy
Leibniz's Modal Metaphysics
The Corporeal Universe Needs Metaphysics
Kim Davis, Metaphysics, and the Public Square

Moral Codes
Menes, the Lawgiver
The Moral Code of Ani
Ancient Moral Codes

Philosophy Professors Reflect on Irrational Man

Natural Law
Natural Law: The Outside Standard
Natural Law and Justice

Nietzsche, Freidrich
G.K. Chesterton on Nietzsche
The Immortal Nietzsche
Ethics in the 20th Century
Freidrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Reflections of Freidrich Nietzsche

The Story of Ontology
Introduction to Ontology
What Constitutes Being?
What's at the "ontological basement"?
Ontology and the Philosophical Project

Peirce, Charles Sanders

Crash Course on Phenomenology

Does Philosophy Have Value?
Philosophy for Children in the Pandemic
Why Study Philosophy?
The Most Impractical Practical Tool
What is Philosophy?
Bad Philosophy Must Be Answered
Bertrand Russell on The Value of Philosophy
University of Kentucky Philosophy Summer Camp
New Philosophy Grads Favored by Employers
Popularity of Philosophy in Germany
The Academic West Fails to Engage the East
Chinese Philosophy in the Western Classroom
When a Fundamentalist Finds Philosophy

Philosophical Theology
St. Cyril's Philosophical Theology
Wolfhart Pannenberg RIP

Sartre and Camus on Politics
Jefferson the Philosopher
Philosophers Reflect on the 2016 Presidential Election (USA)

Pragmatism and Education in America

Rand, Ayn
Thumbnail Sketch of Ayn Rand

Rawls, John B.
Thumbnail Sketch of J.B. Rawls
J.B. Rawls' "Original Position"
John B. Rawls: A Pernicious Influence?

The Philosophical Basis of Science

Austin L. Hughes, The Folly of Scientism
Scientists Against Scientism

Socrates: A man in control of himself
Ethics of Ancient Greece
Socrates' Quote

Jacques Derrida on Terrorism
Terrorists Target African Christians
Hezbollah Global Network Weakens
Boko Haram Targets Christians, Police, and Aid Workers

Better a Philosopher Than an Orator
Gain a Heart of Wisdom
Theories of Time
The Sun and the Sacred

Truth, Not Slogans

Virtue Ethics
Virtue Ethics

Ancient Seats of Wisdom
Wisdom is Expressed in the Practical
Ancient Wisdom, Science and Technology
Wise Women Throughout the Ages
Themistoclea of Delphi
The Removal of Wisdom's Tongue

Wittgenstein, Ludwig
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Women Philosophers
The Dearth of Women in Philosophy
Wise Women Throughout the Ages
Thumbnail Sketch of Phillipa Foot
Elizabeth Anscombe
Anscombe on Justice, Sex and War

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Busyness-Idleness Conundrum

Julien Dupre 1880

In his Works of Love, arguably his greatest ethical text, Kierkegaard uses an agricultural metaphor to describe busyness:

''…the busy people sow and harvest and again sow and harvest (busyness harvests over and over again), […] the busy people store the barns full of what they harvested and rest upon their gains—alas, […] the person who truly wills the good in the same span of time does not see even the smallest fruit of his labors and he becomes the object of ridicule as someone who does not know how to sow, as someone who labors in vain and is merely shadowboxing…''

This passage can be read in light of Kierkegaard’s account of boredom. Like the bored person who rotates their crops, the busy person is described by way of an agricultural metaphor: sowing and harvesting and sowing again. And the bored person and busy person’s similarities do not stop there. The busy person is also experiencing something indeterminate, and is, like the bored person, worse off for doing so.

For Kierkegaard, busy people are experiencing something indeterminate because their activities are not directed towards some particular good. The busy person may seem busy with some specific activity. In the case of the agricultural example in the passage above, the busy person appears busy with sowing and harvesting. The busy person sows and harvests and rests upon these gains. But what is the purpose of this rest? Only to begin once more, for “busyness harvests over and over again.” There is nothing gained by the cycle other than rest from the labor it requires.

Read it all here.

Is there value in idleness? From a psychological standpoint there is, if the idle time is used for reflection. Yet this too is a kind of labor. Further, reflection often leads to productivity and fruition of something latent. For some, physical labor in a field stimulates personal reflection. I know this was true for me while cutting and staking tobacco in Kentucky. 

It appears that we have a conundrum. What are your thoughts on this?

Alice C. Linsley

Thursday, October 11, 2018

George Ellis "Science and Religion" on The Mind

Randy Isaac of the American Scientific Affiliation reviews

Top-Down Causation in the Human Context
by George Ellis. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 2016.
501 pages. Hardcover; $80.00. ISBN: 9783662498071

In this magnum opus, as Philip Clayton described it, George Ellis lays out the case for top-down causation in the emergentist perspective. For decades he has been one of the leading proponents of emergence, a philosophical perspective that lies in between strong reductionism on one hand, and vitalism on the other. Reductionist critics of emergence had claimed that the properties and substances that emerged from more fundamental elements had no causal power of their own but were solely determined. Ellis powerfully argues that these emerging entities do indeed have top-down causal powers and that any understanding of the mind, consciousness, and free will must take that into account.

George F R Ellis was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1939. He earned a BS degree in physics from the University of Cape Town and a PhD in Applied Math and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University. He collaborated with Stephen Hawking to co-author the book The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time. He returned to the University of Cape Town in 1973 where he taught until retirement in 2005, becoming one of the world’s leading theorists in cosmology. He is a Quaker and has served as president of the International Society for Science and Religion. He was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2004. He is a co-author with Nancey Murphy of the book On The Moral Nature of the Universe: Cosmology, Theology, and Ethics. Ellis is a Platonist and has long worked on the emergence of complexity and top-down causality, the focus of this book.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy characterizes emergence as “emergent entities (properties or substances) ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them.” Reductionists have countered that these emergent entities have no real causal powers but are determined by the fundamental entities in a purely bottom-up fashion. Ellis devotes this book to showing how top-down causation by the emergent entities on the fundamental entities is real and not illusory. He credits many colleagues for work over several decades in compiling this resource, including Nancey Murphy, Warren Brown, Tim O’Connor, Robert Russell, and others.

Emergence is context dependent, Ellis points out. In the natural world, self-assembly is the key mechanism of emergence. In the biological world it is natural selection while in the man-made world emergence is found in design and construction. His focus is not so much on origins to explain how the world came to be as it is on describing the way the world is. An interacting ensemble of entities, no matter how they came together, generates new entities with more complexity. Ellis offers us a compendium of all the ways in which this can happen.

At the publisher’s request, Ellis structured the book in such a way that each chapter could be sold as a separate stand-alone booklet in addition to the entire set of eight chapters as a single book. This style led to a significant amount of repetition, especially of references, but in a sense, that repetition helped provide an illusion of actually understanding the material. A brief description of each chapter will help the reader decide which option is best for them.

Chapter 1: Complexity and Emergence

Ellis introduces all the key terms and ideas in the first chapter, though with few examples and a minimum of detail. He sets forth the basic ideas of the hieracrchical structure of the universe and of emergence of causal entities at the higher levels. He ends the chapter with some practical implications for health care, mental health, and education. The chapter therefore serves as an effective complete summary of the book but will leave the reader seeking a more detailed explanation.

Complexity lies in the hierarchical structure, in which the bottom layers are the fundamental forces and particles of physics and chemistry. The higher levels are composed of combinations and interactions of the entities in the lower levels. Ensembles of large numbers of interacting entities at one level enable new entities at the next higher level. Those higher-level entities can, in turn, have a causal effect on the lower level entities by controlling the scope and bounds of their interaction. These higher-level entities are said to emerge from that interaction. Bottom-up causation refers to the lower levels of physical particles and their interactions generating higher level, more complex entities. Top-down causation refers to the higher levels imposing constraints or boundary conditions on the lower level entities.

Reductionists claim that top-down causation is an illusion and everthing is determined in a bottom-up fashion. Vitalists, and, in a sense, spiritualists, posit a vital or spiritual force that provide the top-down causation to the lower level entities. Emergentists claim that the top-down causation of higher level entities is real, necessary, and sufficient for the joint top-down/bottom-up causal effects to explain the structure of the universe. Ellis ignores the vitalists and addresses this book as a response to reductionists.

Chapter 2: Digital Computer Systems

Anyone who, like me, has participated in the design of a computer hardware system or who has written any software program will greatly enjoy this chapter. Ellis describes the hardware and software as hierarchical systems that display all the key features of emergence. A reader unfamiliar with and uninterested in computing systems can safely skip this chapter but it does provide an illuminating description of the major features of emergence.

Most, though not necessarily all, higher-levels entities in computing systems are created by intelligent designers and do not emerge through self-organization of the lower levels or through natural selection. In other words, the higher levels of the hierarchy that impose constraints on the lower levels are constructed by intelligent agents external to the computing system itself. A circuit designer, for example, can direct a computer processor chip manufacturer to constrain the size and shape of a transistor. The atoms and molecules in that transistor then interact within the confines of that top-down constraint and effect the behavior desired by the designer. Emergence refers to the properties and entities that arise when the designer has implemented the desired constraints and context.

Ellis closes this chapter with this gem: “At a higher level, the existence of computers is an outcome of the human drive for meaning and purpose: it is an expression of the possibility space of meanings, the higher levels whereby we guide what actions take place.”

Chapter 3: The Basis of Complexity

Chapters 3 and 4 lay out the technical details of emergence. In this chapter the focus is on the hierarchical structure that forms the basis for complexity. Moving from a lower level to a higher level in the hierarchy, the components of one level are comprised of ensembles of interacting elements of the next lower level. For example, solid materials are composed of a very large number of atoms which occupy a lower level in the hierarchy. These atoms, in turn, are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons which comprise an even lower level. Looking upwards, the solid material forms the basis, when shaped or combined with other solids, of an object that can be used as a tool. The tool may result from an even higher level of intent or purpose to carry out a particular function. The shape of that tool forms a basis for the range of motion of the component atoms. In this way, both top-down and bottom-up causation can be seen.

Chapter 4: Types of Top-Down Causation

The second part of the technical explanation of emergence emphasizes the many different ways in which top-down causation can occur. The simplest types are deterministic as in the lower levels where, say, quarks interact to form protons and neutrons with little variation. More complex types occur in higher level systems where feedback can occur. At even higher levels there are much more interesting types involving adaptive systems. When a high level entity can change in such a way that the lowest levels are channeled into enabling a modified higher level system, then adaptation has occurred. This is where the tremendous power of emergence can be seen.

Chapter 5: Is There Room at the Bottom?

Ellis asks whether the notion of bottom-up and top-down working simultaneously would overdetermine the system. If the physics of the lowest levels is causally closed, can top-down causation really occur? Here Ellis provides several ways in which top-down causation can work. There can be contextual constraints or constraining structures or a change in the nature of the lower level elements. An example of the last is that a free neutron has a lifetime of less than 15 minutes but when the neutron forms a higher level nucleon by interacting with one or more protons or other neutrons, it is stable. The interaction of the neutron with other particles changes the nature of the neutron. Causality from above influences the outcomes of the lower-level causal forces.

Chapter 6: The Foundations: Physics and Top-Down Causation

Physicists and chemists as well as astronomers and cosmologists will revel in reading this chapter. Ellis dives into the details of the lower levels of the hierarchies in this universe to examine the fundamental forces. He explores quantum dynamics, the arrow of time, and gives numerous examples from condensed-matter physics and chemistry. The principles of emergence as laid out in the previous chapters are beautifully illustrated by many examples. Those who are not enamored with physics or chemistry can safely skip or skim the chapter.

Chapter 7: The Mind and the Brain

At last Ellis arrives at the issue everyone is waiting for. How can the brain give rise to the mind? No one should miss this chapter. Not only are biologists and neuroscientists in prominence but also those broadly involved in the social context of our world.

In the hierarchical perspective, a brain is enabled from the bottom by a series of levels from the fundamental particles up through the biochemistry of life and the neurons and neural networks. In turn, these networks in the brain enable a higher level of individual consciousness which in turn enables a society of interacting individuals forming a culture. All of this occurs in the context of an environment leading to a fine-tuned system.

The high level social interactions and environment affect personal perceptions, ideas, and purpose, leading to decisions and actions that causally work downward to direct biochemical activity. Such activity enables the desired actions. In this way, bottom-up and top-down causality work together to implement what we call the mind.

The importance of adaptive systems is emphasized in this chapter. Biological systems are far more adaptive than non-biological systems. When higher level entities are able to modify selection criteria and adapt to the environment by influencing the outcomes of the lower level processes, then a vast spectrum of possibilities opens up.

Chapter 8: The Broader View

Ellis refers to this portion of the book as a polemic that sets emergence apart from reductionism. He reprises the full concept of emergence and then looks at the broad implications.

Inserted in this chapter is a section on “Learning to Read and Write” that Ellis co-authors with his wife, Carole Bloch. They argue that modern methods of teaching people to read over-emphasize a bottom-up approach. This means that there is a focus on the elemental phonemes before putting it all together into a meaningful sentence. Rather, they recommend a greater emphasis on top-down learning in which the meaning is emphasized first. Then the combination of top-down and bottom-up learning leads to a more efficient process. This exemplifies Ellis’ view that everything can be treated as an integrated bottom-up/top-down system.

The book suffers from the weight of making each chapter a stand-alone booklet. The flow is uneven and repetitive. The benefit is that each chapter can indeed be read by itself and a reader interested in only one aspect of emergence can profitably select the relevant chapter. The reader will then be left hungry for more and will want to return for the remaining chapters.

Ellis does not allude to the implications for science and faith. He is a man of faith and has written elsewhere of his disagreement with atheism and with those who advocate a scientific religion. His views seem to be essentially that of Non-Interventionist Objective Divine Action (NIODA) as advocated by Robert Russell, Nancey Murphy, and others. The emergence that he describes in this book is easily compatible with such a view. Multi-level explanations lend themselves well to including the spiritual domain, as Donald MacKay, for example, explained in the middle of the 20th century. On the other hand, materialists can also find support for their own presupposition in this book. The higher levels of explanation, including those leading to meaning and purpose, are fully enabled by the underlying physics and need no external source. If spiritual levels are not required, though not negated, by a complete hierarchical explanation of a system, then on what basis do we believe they exist? Most of all, this book strikes at the heart of dualism. The mind is described as enabled by the brain through the emergence of entities capable of supporting consciousness and rational thought through the interaction of a vast number of complex neurological components. It cannot exist independently from the brain and needs no external vitality other than the environmental interaction for food and energy. The concepts in this book will fuel discussions on faith and science for a long time to come.

Ellis closes the book with this final paragraph: “The daily world in which we live came about by imaginative investigation of possibilities, discarding those that don’t work: the adaptive process that is a central theme of this book, enabled by a modicum of randomness at the macro- and micro-levels, interacting with necessary physical processes. And it is these processes that also allow the emergence of the ordinariness of everyday life: which actually is quite extraordinary. Bottom-up effects are crucial to emergence. Physics underlies all. Nevertheless, the vitality of life, which arises from physics, transcends it.”

The casual reader seeking a relaxing fireside read is advised to look elsewhere. This book is an indispensable resource for anyone who seriously ponders the structure of the universe, the miracle of life, and the mystery of consciousness.


Related reading: George Ellis on testing what existed before the universe

Friday, July 13, 2018

Jefferson the Philosopher

"Thomas Jefferson is a kind of incarnate compendium of the Enlightenment. His remarkable openness to its spirit is the philosophical counterpart to his political sensitivity in making himself “a passive auditor of the opinions of others,” so as to catch the “harmonizing sentiments of the day” and to incorporate them into a document that would be “an expression of the American mind,” the Declaration of Independence…"

Eva Brann

Was Thomas Jefferson a philosopher? If so, in what sense? I can imagine two opposing questions raised in rejoinder.

He was a statesman—why should we expect or require him to be a philosopher also?

He read and reasoned and wrote throughout his life—why should we hesitate to give him the title?

The first question presupposes that there are indeed two kinds of life, readily distinguishable and mutually exclusive: namely, Aristotle’s two lives of excellence—the one practical and political, and the other theoretical and philosophical (Politics 1324a, Nicomachean Ethics 1095b). The good pursued in the former, which is honor, depends on incurring the esteem of others; that of the latter, the pure and permanent pleasure of contemplation, is self-sufficient and leisurely.

Read it all here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Heidegger and Aristotle

Martin Heidegger 1960

Here is an excellent paper that explores the relationship between Martin Heidegger and the thought of Aristotle. The writer points out that Heidegger's work with Aristotle had "a significant
impact on Aristotle scholarship in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century."

Related reading: The Challenge of Heidegger's Terms; George Pattison on Martin Heidegger; Heidegger's Lectures on Aristotle

Monday, June 4, 2018

Feminist Interpretations of David Hume

“What is best in this collection is that it focused attention on some of the often neglected aspects of Hume’s philosophy. Given that feminists are concerned with exposing and investigating what is overlooked, this uncovering may be what is most centrally feminist about the book. It also succeeds, as Jacobson urges in her introduction, in encouraging readers to ask more questions, to continue the discussion and to find new and creative ways of reading Hume.”—Miriam McCormick, Philosophy in Review

Anne Jaap Jacobson has edited this volume and Hume devotees should read it. Michelle Mason (University of Minnesota) wrote this review.

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

Friday, February 23, 2018

Grounding Education in the Classical Approach

"I remember, years ago, being engaged in correspondence with a young man who was extremely enthusiastic about the psychology of the unconscious, and who insisted that the urge which issued in the writing of a story about a murder and the urge which issued in committing of a murder were one and the same, with no difference between them. I was writing murder-stories at the time and may have been prejudiced, but I objected that it did seem to me as though there must be a slight difference of some kind somewhere, since the results were so different. I added that society in general must be aware of the difference, since it rewarded the one result with royalties and the other with the gallows."--Dorothy L. Sayers (Introductory Papers on Dante, p. 4)

Alice C. Linsley

I have been fond of Dorothy Sayers’ writing for over twenty years. I appreciate the power of her literary fiction and consider Sayers’ Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night to be two of the most finely crafted mystery novels ever written in English. These reveal her exceptional eye for detail in storytelling, her remarkable vocabulary, her grasp of syntax, and her spiritual insights.

Sayers' facility with the English language rests on her exceptionally good classical training. She understood the ancient Greco-Roman world, the scholastic world, and was adept at Latin. Sayers draws on her extensive knowledge of medieval education to help us understand which tools are essential if students are to be life-long learners.

In her 1949 speech “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Sayers illustrates how modern intellectuals misrepresent scholastic education. She points to how one intellectual confuses location and extension, a mistake that a high school student who has learned the principles of Aristotelian logic would not make.

Sayers critiques the tendency to regard specialized talking heads as “authorities” on everything from morals to DNA. She opines that the greatest authorities on the failure of modern education are those who learned nothing. We can imagine chuckles coming from her audience and frowns on the faces of self-important Oxford academics.

Sayers is correct that we can’t “turn back the wheel” to the late Middle Ages when metaphysical exploration was regarded as an objective of education. However, the Trivium provides a pattern for “one coherent scheme of mental training.” This pattern can help restore the lost tools of learning. At each stage, the student develops and improves their skills at reasoning, speaking, reading and writing. These are the skills needed for life-long learning, and to be able to influence people as Christians.

Sayers lays the groundwork by asking her audience to consider some “disquieting thoughts” about the direction of English society in the mid-twentieth century. She identifies the following concerns:

Irresponsible prolongation of intellectual childhood to justify teaching less in more subjects

The Media’s confusion of fact and opinion, or the proven and the plausible.

Sophistry in public debate, rather than logical rhetoric.

Public policy makers addressing mostly irrelevant matters in committees.

Failure to define terms and intentional abuse of language, making words mean whatever one wants them to mean.

Adults who are unable to discern legitimate expertise from popular pulp, and who can’t use the library.

People so specialized that they can’t make connections between the disciplines.

Scientists who fail to adhere to the basic principles of Aristotelian logic, thus presenting speculation as facts.

Sayers’ critique of the society in which she lived is relevant today. In my 27 years of teaching I have watched the materialist worldview erode the ability of young people to think well, argue well, express themselves well, and to serve as apologists for the Christian faith.

The influence of John Dewey’s Pragmatism on American education has been disastrous. It has eviscerated the internal organs of sound teaching. Once metaphysics is excised from education, we are left with a mechanistic, materialistic, and blatantly false view of reality. Then we wonder why our students are not learning.

American students are unprepared to defend truth, and in this condition they are prey to panderers and false authorities. Modern education is proving to be a futile enterprise. The “intellectual capital” of past ages is entirely spent. What is needed is the classical methodology.

Sayers is spot on in suggesting that the time to tackle such argumentation is when students are at their most argumentative, that is, during the first 3 years of high school. This is the perfect time to teach them to identify invalid inference and to debate the merits of an argument. As she reminds us, children are “born casuists” and can be taught to appreciate a “well-turned argument.”

Students with a strong foundation at the Grammar and Dialectic levels branch into new areas of discovery at the Rhetoric level. Here their studies “will tend to show them that all knowledge is one.” They have an opportunity to explore how all areas of learning are integrated. They discover that there is absolute truth or there is nothing, and it is impossible to be a nihilist and be well-educated.

I believe that the approach of classical education works because it insists that absolutes exist. There are some universal points of reference. This means that there are starting points for the learner that are solid, grounded in reality. This educational approach does not produce "snowflakes" who cannot tolerate controversy and need trigger warnings. It does influence young people to think, to investigate, to recognize fallacies and distinctions, and to continue learning after they have left the halls of academia.

Related reading: The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers; Pragmatism and American Education; Why I Love Philosophy