Center For Inquiry Talk on James and Phenomenology

Today, I taught a seminar on William James and phenomenology at the Center For Inquiry up here in Buffalo, NY. The talk will be online after some editing, and therefore, I will share it soon. I was invited to give a talk on the relationship between phenomenology and pragmatism as forms of humanism.

In my talk, humanism does not here mean secular humanism, though the participants in my seminar were very influenced by this trajectory of the term. For James, humanism means radical empiricism, the very fact that “experience…leans on nothing.” Experience is all there is. As in the case of rationalism, there is no need to posit categories or concepts beyond experience if they are not directly experienced. Moreover, the empiricist tends to downplay connections of experience to sense datum. James paves a middle way between them allowing for the positing of connections between the conjunctive relations we posit to make sense of the connecting intermediary elements we impose upon experience. Insofar as our experience is made better by the interpretation of how the parts fit together, the interpretation works. What’s more, no interpretation of how these parts fit together can explain the whole exhaustively, and so we must be humble in our “hermeneutic efforts.”

In phenomenology, while many I know account for God through phenomenology (Marion, Scheler, Stein just to name a few), the humanism is a commitment to the irreducibility of experience, but the commitment to irreducibility is all there can be. Phenomenological description is an attempt to lay bare the relation between the act and object co-relational structure and to sustain a view of experience qua that co-relational structure. James’s description of consciousness in Essays in Radical Empiricism is identical to intentionality. Therefore, one could easily arrive at a similar place in both James and Husserl (the very two thinkers that inspired the name for this blog). Both generate forms of humanism, though Husserl may be more of a quasi-humanism than James. Let me explain.

I will be pushing Husserl in this direction, but in my lecture, I also made a second point. I discovered this point in writing out the lecture. Husserl’s transcendental idealism (if you buy that interpretation of Ideas 1) would be as erroneous as rationalism for James. Elevating acts over objects and introducing a unifying structure of a transcendental subject, would be an imposition from without onto the structure of thought and thing known, the co-relational structure of act and object. In this way, James would be suspicious of Husserl, and maybe rightly so since James also thinks that since experience is all there is, then there is no fixed point outside of experience to make sense of experience. All understanding is historicized in very much the same way both Heidegger and Gadamer claimed.

So, maybe in the next few weeks, I will write out some of my thoughts here. Needless to say, I will be revising the lecture since we will be putting together an edition on Continental Humanism, and offering more in depth analysis of James’s pragmatism qua humanism especially how it relates to both James’s meliorism and pluralism in the upcoming year. 

 

What do Republicans in Texas Mean by Knowledge-Based Education in their 2014 Texas State Platform?

This week, I have been wondering about an ambiguous passage in the Texas State Republican 2014 Platform. Concerning education, the platform reads:

Knowledge Based Education – We oppose the teaching of value clarification and similar programs that focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging a student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. Rather, we encourage the teaching of critical thinking skills, including logic, rhetoric and the analytical sciences.

Now, I should say that I am a philosopher, have taught courses in critical thinking and logic, and I am puzzled by the ambiguity of this passage. Let me first describe some of the problems with this passage. In general, the ambiguity of party platforms can often be intentional. Such ambiguity works in favor of the political party (not just the Republicans) since alleged supporters can read into it what they want about the intentionally ambiguous passage.

First, “value clarification” is not very clear as a term. Does the term pick out attempts to teach about values that the Republicans disagree with? If that is so, then the rest of the party platform becomes instructive in deciphering the passage. While I suspect that to be somewhat the case, I have no evidence for that at all. Again, the ambiguity prevents me from really knowing what they have in mind, that is, if they had anything specific in mind at all. Value clarification could be reading Hamlet and thinking its violence too objectionable, or thinking the Tempest advocates paganism.

Is value clarification a problem only for literature only? What about social studies? If a dedicated historian taught a complete and exhaustive survey of the Founding Fathers and among them it was found a percentage of Deists and not all of them were Christian, would that be value clarification?

More than that, what is the problem with clarifying values? In ethics, moral reasons are often used interchangeably with the term “values.” The moral reasons we give about a variety of topics are often unreflectively acquired, and this acquiring does not mean that they are not important or even wrong. Some of the moral reasons we learn at church and family are vitally important. It’s just that if we have solid reasons to support our moral judgments, then we are in a better position to think more clearly (and therefore critically) about them.

Second, “programs that focus on behavior modification” is equally ambiguous. Given that some beliefs can cause us to change our behavior by adopting a different position on something through the very freedom they admire, especially after hearing evidence to the contrary, I wonder what type of programs they have in mind. Would a conservative parent protest the inherent diversity of a gym class’s students as indoctrinating multiculturalism? It’s not very clear. Since the phrase “undermining parental authority” is present, I tend to think that this passage has more to do with local control of public schools, which may or may not be a good thing, but is consistent with the platform. Largely, such a judgment depends on context, the virtue of the school teachers, parents and students, the communal respect of knowledge, and the relationship between community as a whole and the school in question. In some cases, I can imagine local control a force for good as well as ill. However, the ambiguity of “behavior modification” opens up another question concerning “fixed beliefs” and the already mentioned “parental authority.” If you will permit me, a digression about beliefs is in order. It will be brief, and then I will return to the topic at hand.

The role of beliefs is inextricably bound to action. Beliefs are not simply propositions in which some are true and others false. Beliefs inform how I will act in response to the world. If I believe that the best way to avoid tigers is to run towards them, as my friend, I would hope you pull me aside and tell me that I am wrong. In this way, beliefs express our relationship and habits we maintain towards the world. Now let us engage in a silly, but necessary imagined scenario (what other philosophers have called a “thought experiment”). If Paul is misinformed about how to avoid tigers, he may develop habits that stem from his belief. Let us assume that he has developed the habit of pulling the tails of younger cubs of tigers. In this universe, he has ran the high probability of scaring off only small cubs by pulling their tails (and let us assume again that in this universe the small cubs who have had their tail pulled run away regardless if tigers in the real world ever really do when their tail is pulled), never has Paul met or know about large tigers. Since Paul moves with the tribe, let us equally assume that somehow despite this ill acquired belief, Paul transmits this knowledge to his son John, and let us say John exhibits the same high probability of tiger avoidance that his father Paul did. Now, John has been taught by tradition to pull cubs’ tails. Assume that John has a son named Ringo. Unlike Paul or John, Ringo learns the same tradition, but is attacked by a mother tiger and dies. Grandpa Paul and John learn something new in the death of Ringo. He learns that there are large tigers, and that his beliefs about tiger avoidance have been very mistaken.

Now, the above thought experiment is strange, and what we should be doing is thinking about that thought experiment as an analogy for tradition in general—even in our own times. In this case, which is not to say in all cases, some beliefs of tradition lead to bad consequences. Therefore, as a philosopher, I cannot see why anyone would think that beliefs should be fixed or that tradition is its own warrant such that parental authority is beyond reproach any more than school teacher teaching my child. Both parents and teachers are accountable to the truth we learn from studying the world. In fact, any person anywhere that claims to know something of the world must fall under the sword of truth. We can think here that “truth” is a norm to which all our beliefs should aspire, and this leads me to returning to the passage above.

Critical thinking skills are praised in the platform; I have to commend the Republicans for that one. Critical thinking is valuable, but once you see what critical thinking is (at least as taught in philosophy) it’s hard to square that with calling for respect of fixed beliefs and parental authority. Critical thinking is the study of the structure of arguments used to support conclusions we take to be beliefs. As such, critical thinking involves a set of skills brought to bear in analyzing the situations we face, whether they are completely new or a problem stemming from tradition. Logical skills conceptualize and analyze the arguments used to justify the various positions people take in relation to the problem we are facing. Again, the question is if the tradition has good reasons to support it, then those reasons and evidence become important not just for the tradition, but for everyone. As such, critical thinking could openly oppose fixed beliefs and parental authority just as much as supporting good beliefs of parental authority. The point of critical thinking is, however, we must be open to revising our beliefs due to evidence and consequence. As a fellow tribesman, once we learn Paul and John’s belief about tigers, we will see that they are need of evidence to teach their children to reliably avoid tigers.

So here is my particular problem with the phrasing from above. We should think of beliefs as more fluid and open to revision, but never as fixed. That’s just good critical thinking, and is directly in tension conceptually in the passage above. Fixed beliefs promotes rigidity, and if one among many purposes of education is to be competitive in a global market, then students – whether at university, secondary, or primary school – must be adaptable, open to evidentiary concerns, and recognize that our beliefs are more fluid than we typically acknowledge.