Thursday, June 30, 2011

Liberal Education

As you all know, and are probably tired of hearing, FLG has a few pet theories. The first to appear on this blog was The Big Assumption:
The experiences that constitute my individual life are representative of the entire human condition.

FLG's thoughts on liberal education revolve around first disproving this assumption during freshman year:
The method for disproving this assumption is straight-forward. The student is exposed to ideas, feelings, beliefs, and experiences via literature, philosophy, art, and history, which are so foreign to their own life that they are forced to question the Big Assumption.

The student is in a vulnerable stage at this point. The fundamental assumption that has provided order and meaning to their life has been disproven.

And then, hopefully, during sophomore year a beyond:
the failure of the Big Assumption leads to the never-ending search for the universal in the human condition. Oddly enough, the second step in a liberal education is exactly the same as the first. The student examines ideas, feelings, beliefs, and experiences via literature, philosophy, art, and history, which are so foreign to their own life that they can find what is universally present in the human condition. This is the ultimate goal of a liberal education. I believe the difficulty in recognizing this goal is that both the first and second step are superficially the same activities.

What does this have to do with anything? Glad you asked.

Here's Paul Krugman:
I was at that stage, a college sophomore or thereabouts, when you’re searching around, looking for belief systems. I think it’s actually a point when you’re quite vulnerable, because you are looking for someone who is going to offer you all the answers. Some people turn to religious orthodoxy, other people turn to Ayn Rand. One of my favourite lines – and I haven’t been able to find out who came up with it – is that “There’s an age when boys read one of two books. Either they read Ayn Rand or they read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One of these books leaves you with no grasp on reality and a deeply warped sense of fantasy in place of real life. The other one is about hobbits and orcs.”

Then I read Hume’s Enquiry, this wonderful, humane book saying that nobody has all the answers. What we know is what we have evidence for. We do the best we can, but anybody who claims to be able to deduce or have revelation about The Truth – with both Ts capitalised – is wrong. It doesn’t work that way. The only reasonable way to approach life is with an attitude of humane scepticism. I felt that a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders when I read that book.


The Ancient said...

One is never too old to repent the errors of one's youth.

(Even if one has a long-standing bias against the French.)

Andrew Stevens said...

It is, of course, The Truth that anybody who claims to be able to deduce or have revelation about The Truth – with both Ts capitalised – is wrong. (Krugman will object that he does not regard this as The Truth, but one only has to read that passage to realize that he obviously does.)

Krugman was late to the party. I was a Humean at a much earlier age than he was, until my philosophy professors shook some sense into me. Actually, I stubbornly maintained my skepticism for years after that, until I was finally worn down by the logic of their arguments and realized that they had all been right and Hume and I had been wrong.

It is a seductive philosophy, Hume's, but it's just as wrong as Ayn Rand's and Hume's philosophy is more insidious. Its effect on undermining one's moral character (hardly surprising, since it has completely undermined one's moral philosophy) is subtle, but unmistakable. It's why a Krugman eventually reaches the point where he habitually obfuscates and lies and distorts for whatever goal is uppermost in his mind that day. If morality does not exist, everything is permitted.

FLG said...

It's funny because in that first Big Assumption article I set out three possible paths after rejecting it:
1) Changing to a Studies Assumption, .i.e my life is representative, not of all humanity, but of my gender/race/etc.

3) is the one I mentioned about searching for the universal in the human condition.

2) is: "The second outcome is relativism and cynicism. My Big Assumption has been rejected and now I realize I can make no other assumption about anything, ever. This usually happens to the cowardly and intellectually lazy students."

I think that's just an exaggerated version of what Krugman is talking about. I think my sentence, "I realize I can make no other assumption about anything, ever" is pretty much what he means by "What we know is what we have evidence for."

In full disclosure, though, I like Hume. I like him because in many ways he actually undermines empiricism.

Andrew Stevens said...

I like Hume too and there's no doubt that he was brilliant, but he was wrong about a whole bunch of stuff and he infects minds much inferior to his own all the time. He was also the first person to be right about a whole bunch of stuff as well. Philosophy is the better for him, but the common masses are the worse.

FLG said...

"Philosophy is the better for him, but the common masses are the worse."

He's much like Nietzsche in that way.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't believe anybody is the better for Nietzsche. At best, Nietzsche is a useful foil. It's hard to think of any important insights he had, whereas Hume is chock-full of important insights.

The Ancient said...

Andrew --

I don't think Wittgenstein would agree with you. (Of course, in fairness, he seldom agreed with anyone about anything.)

Withywindle said...

FLG: I had read Tolkien by seven, the Foundation books by eight, and a bit of Hume my senior year in high school. (I had also tried to read Rand in high school, and given up quickly.) The various points of view were less of a novelty by college. Clearly, I should have waited to read these books; then I too could have a Nobel Prize and a column in the Times.

TA: Yes, DSK turns out to be Leo Frank at all. At any rate, "not proven" seems likely.

(Is it justice that a semi-criminal sleaze be turfed out of his job for a crime he didn't commit?)

AS: I think better of Hume than you do; but we've already gone over this in various of our philosophical debates. It is a cruel jest of God that Krugman calls himself a Humean, but I'd rather not take it as dispositive on Hume. But perhaps the point is that just reading any one philosopher is insufficient, even a good one.

The Ancient said...

Is it justice that a semi-criminal sleaze be turfed out of his job for a crime he didn't commit?

Maybe there was a crime, maybe there wasn't. But no one seems to be disputing the acts themselves, and that's probably enough to chivvy him out of his burrow at the IMF.

So "rough justice," perhaps.

Andrew Stevens said...

Withy: It's not just Krugman. You're one of the few believers in moral subjectivism (or some form of non-cognitivism like emotivism) who I've ever been acquainted with whose moral character I would likely find trustworthy. One can, like you, reject moral realism, and nonetheless insist that there is nothing more important than acting morally, even though you believe that statement is entirely irrational. But such a belief, I think, cannot help but undermine one's motivation to behave morally. "I don't actually believe in unicorns, but for purely irrational, emotional reasons, I am going to pretend there's a unicorn in my front yard and act in every way as if that was the case, even when it is against my self-interest to do so." This is a baffling and incomprehensible philosophy to me and I am highly skeptical of anybody's ability to maintain it. In practice, I find that most people do not maintain it which is why, in general, I prefer to do business with devout Christians, Jews, and Muslims, et al., than with my fellow atheists.

TA: I can't honestly claim to know anything about how Nietzsche influenced Wittgenstein. Were I to rank the three of them in order of usefulness to philosophy, it would certainly go:

1) Hume
2) Wittgenstein
3) Nietzsche

I realize that many philosophers would put Wittgenstein ahead, but I think Wittgenstein did a lot of harm to 20th century philosophy by originating its obsession with language and I'm not sure in the end that he didn't do more harm than good. Hume, in my opinion, did a lot of harm, but he also did a lot of good.

Withywindle said...

AS: I would mug old ladies more regularly if it weren't for my bum knee. For the rest ... not so much a matter of self-interest, I would say, but of (sinful) will and desire. Take my strand of philosophy far enough, and it gets you to the proper education of the passions.

Getting back to Krugman ... I find it difficult to accuse him of too much doubt; surely his illness is too much certainty? Surely he deludes himself rather than consciously lies to others?

The Ancient said...

Surely he deludes himself rather than consciously lies to others?

It's not so much that he "lies to others," as that he, and a good many other people, are engaged in a coordinated attack on the Republican opposition.

That's not an activity that requires "truthiness."

Andrew Stevens said...

Withy, I take your correction. I was including incorrect (or sinful, if you like) desire and will within self-interest, but your phrasing is more apt.

I hasten to assure everybody that the fact that I absolutely believe that subjectivism and non-cognitivism weaken moral behavior has no bearing on my opposition to them. I oppose them because they are false. (Sadly, while I believe subjectivism and non-cognitivism are refuted, I cannot refute the other alternative - nihilism. Nihilism is simply less plausible than moral realism, but I can't say with any certainty that it's false.)

Most of the time I think you're right about Krugman - the first person he's lying to is himself. But sometimes his whoppers are so large and so obvious that either A) he is a very great fool, far greater than it is plausible to believe or B) he is deliberately lying.

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