Open Thinkering

Menu

Tag: philosophy

What’s the purpose of Philosophy?

When I was 18 years of age, I left my home in an ex-mining town, and went to university. This in and of itself was nothing unusual, especially given that my parents are both graduates, and my father has a postgraduate degree.

What was unusual was that, having been to, let’s say, not the best school, I felt that this would be a good use of the next three years of my life. After all, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do afterwards.

Even more unusual, especially given the patriarchal culture of the north east of England at the time, was that my father fully supported me in this. Even now, he says it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Perhaps it was the influence of my mother, a graduate in Theology, but I’ve always been interested in life’s big questions. We’re here on Earth for too short a time not to wonder about everything and everyone around us.

Still, some people look at my CV and wonder how my academic history has led to my job history. They wonder about the value and purpose of Philosophy. What’s it for, they ask?

To ask what philosophy is for is to ask, implicitly or otherwise, about its value. The anxious parents asking what their child could ‘do’ with a philosophy degree are really asking what value that degree will bring to their child’s life and career. But as soon as you ask about value, you’re only one or two well-placed questions away from falling into philosophical inquiry. If philosophy is useless or a waste of time, what things are useful, or a good use of time? What makes those things preferable to philosophy? What measure of value are we using to compare these things? Are there other types of value? Which is the right one, and why? Don’t look now, but we’re doing philosophy.

Patrick Stokes, ‘What’s philosophy for?’, New Philosopher #29

The latest issue of New Philosopher, a magazine to which I subscribe and eagerly anticipate every quarter, focuses on ‘the purpose of life’. For me, philosophy, or at least a philosophical approach to life, helps me figure out that purpose.

One common, incomplete definition of philosophy is that it deals with certain types of problems that other disciplines generate but do not solve themselves. Mathematicians or doctors might run into questions like ‘Do numbers exist independently of human thought?’ or ‘Do people have a moral right to refuse medical treatment?’, but these are not, strictly speaking, mathematical or medical science questions. They’re problems for philosophers of mathematics and medical ethicists, respectively.

Patrick Stokes, ‘What’s philosophy for?’, New Philosopher #29

I’d agree with my father in saying that my Philosophy degree was a great decision. It comes with lots of upsides, including a resistance to the hedonic treadmill, and clarity of thought.

There are downsides, though. The main one is that you can’t just switch all of this off. The questions and analysis keep on coming no matter where you are or what situation you’re in. That’s more useful in my professional than my personal life, I’d say.

But for anyone thinking about studying Philosophy, in any form, I’d strongly endorse the idea. Anything which gets us question why we do the things we do is alright by me.

Where to start? I’d point you to the work.of Alain de Botton, and in particular The School of Life. Many of their books are excellent. It’s far too easy to get stuck in the ‘history of ideas’ approach to Philosophy, which, while interesting, isn’t always immediately applicable to your own life.


This post is Day 41 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Letting go of my pre-pandemic self

Around 20 years ago, as part of my undergraduate degree in Philosophy, I took a module entitled Mind, Brain, and Personal Identity. The lecturer, George Botterill, a certified chess genius and extremely thoughtful guy, blew my mind by demonstrating via thought experiments that we can’t really be the same ‘person’ over a human lifetime.

We contain multitudes.

Ever since then, I’ve found this idea very liberating. I don’t have to be the same person I was when I was younger, I can choose to be different.

At the end of this year I turn 40. The worst of the pandemic will (hopefully) be over by then and I’ll also have finished most of my therapy sessions. As a result, it makes sense to think about how my pre-pandemic and post-pandemic life will differ.

For me, it’s worth remembering that Aristotle, perhaps one of the greatest thinkers ever to have lived, remained in Plato’s academy until he was almost 40 years of age. After this, he was tutor to Alexander the Great, and then wrote most of what he remembered for in the next 12 years.

I’m reminding myself of this, as there’s a tendency in our culture to think of people in their forties and later as being past their prime. That’s may be true in terms of physical prowess, but not in terms of things of lasting importance such as writing and thinking. Of course, I’m not putting myself in the same league as Aristotle(!) it’s just an illustrative example.

So I’m considering this time as a gestation period, as a time when I’m still in the chrysalis, waiting to emerge. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like in practice, but instead of looking back to being a caterpillar, I’m instead going to focus on turning into a butterfly.

Unlike the physical transformation that the caterpillar undergoes, my metamorphosis might be less obvious to those around me. Shifts in worldview and outlook sometimes are. But it’s an important thing to note for me: to give myself permission to let go of my pre-pandemic self.


This post is Day 37 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Musonius Rufus on meat

Further to yesterday’s post, I’ve continued reading the Roman Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus. It seems like he was a cool guy.

On the subject of food he used to speak frequently and very emphatically too, as a question of no small significance, nor leading to unimportant consequences, indeed he believed that the beginning and foundation of temperance lay in self-control in eating and drinking.

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

It would appear that he didn’t eat meat.

On the other hand he showed that meat was a less civilized kind of food and more appropriate for wild animals. He held that it was a heavy food and an obstacle to thinking and reasoning, since the exhalations rising from it, being turbid, darkened the soul. For this reason also the people who make larger use of it seem slower in intellect.

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

Having just come back from a beach barbecue this is top of mind at the moment. Thankfully, with friends and family we’re past the inane questions about the smell and taste of bacon butties. Yes I like the taste of meat. Yes I’ve realised it’s cruel to kill animals and eat them. No I’m not tempted just this once. No I’m not virtue signalling.

It’s worth noting that I do eat fish, although I try not to think too much about this, as I don’t have strong arguments as to why I’m pescetarian rather than vegetarian. To be quite honest, it’s a matter of convenience, as it makes me easier to cater for, and affords me more options when we go out for dinner.


This post is Day 18 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Living a good life is not a theoretical exercise

At another time the problem rose among us whether for the acquisition of virtue practice or theory is more effective, understanding that theory teaches what is right conduct, while practice represents the habit of those accustomed to act in accordance with such theory.

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

My go-to reading on Stoicism is Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, probably in that order. I hadn’t read Musonius Rufus before, despite seeing him referenced in Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic.

Picking up a copy of That One Should Disdain Hardships, I found that Musonius Rufus was a reasonably progressive thinker for his time on, for example, whether women should study philosophy. Like Epictetus and Socrates, it’s actually his students writing down what they’ve learned.

In one of the early chapters, Musonius Rufus explains that practice is more important than theory when it comes to virtue. He uses three examples to illustrate his points: physicians, sailors, and musicians. In each case he pits someone who knows the theory and can speak well about the subject against one who is practically skilled — but cannot speak well on the subject, and perhaps doesn’t know the theory. His interlocutors agree in each case that practical skill is better than theoretical knowledge and rhetorical ability.

How, now, in view of these conclusions, could knowledge of the theory of anything be better than becoming accustomed to act according to the principles of the theory, if we understand that application enables one to act, but theory makes one capable of speaking about it?

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

I have spent much of my adult life studying Philosophy, either formally at university or informally through reading and discussing. But living a good life is not a theoretical exercise, and that is why my Mastodon bio simply quotes Epictetus in saying:

Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.

Epictetus

This post is Day 17 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Why I still believe in badges [DMLcentral]

My latest post for DMLcentral is up. Entitled Why I still believe in badges, it’s a response to a comment by a Philosophy professor (who will remain anonymous) that Open Badges are merely a way that for-profit companies can get a slice of the action in Higher Education.

A quotation from the article:

While badges could, potentially, be used for nefarious purposes, it’s my belief that the open, distributed architecture of the code and community means that we can seek to improve our education both inside and outside the walls of institutions. This is not about ‘disrupting’ education for the sake of it or for private profit. This is about providing another way of doing things to promote human flourishing.

You can read the whole thing at DMLcentral. Please do comment over there (I’ve closed comments here).

Revolutionary tools do not a revolution make.

20110321-101930.jpg

A lot has been made of about the role of social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa recently. Whilst I don’t know enough about Egypt, Libya and Bahrain to comment on their internal political situation, what I do know is that it takes more than the mere ‘potential’ of something to make a difference in practice.

And so it is with education. Mark Allen’s contribution to the #purposed debate reminded me of the important difference between something’s being available and an individual or group having the requisite skills and critical faculties to use it in a new, interesting, or even revolutionary way. As I mentioned in my comment on Mark’s blog, one of the reasons I think everyone should study a little Philosophy and History is because it prepares one to consider the ways things might, could or should be rather than being limited to tinkering within existing parameters.

So next time you read or hear of a technology or service that is going to, is, or has ‘revolutionised’ something, think of the context and milieu into which that tool or idea has been launched. As with Purpos/ed, it’s very likely you’ll find more than a hint of latent demand and the ‘adjacent possible’ in there. It’s never just about the tool or service.

Image CC BY Rev. Strangelove !!!!

Why everyone should learn a little History and Philosophy.

Inductive EmpiricismI’m all for breaking down the arbitrary and artificial barriers between ‘subjects’. I can remember having no idea what to specialise in at age 16 (and so hedging my bets with Maths and Physics on the one hand, and English Literature and History on the other). Despite this wish to see more osmosis between subject areas, the knowledge, skills and understanding that come under the headings ‘History’ and ‘Philosophy’ I believe to be especially important.

OK, so I’ve got degrees in both of them but their erosion, I believe, cuts us off from the past and alternative ways of thinking about the world around us. And that’s not a good thing.

I’ve just finished reading Tom Holland’s excellent, eloquent Millennium: the end of the world and the forging of Christendom and have just embarked upon Jared Diamond’s ambitious Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive.* Diamond writes:

Past people were neither ignorant bad managers who deserved to be exterminated or dispossessed, nor all-knowing conscientious environmentalists who solved problems we can’t solve today. They were people like us, facing problems broadly similar to those we now face. They were prone either to succeed or to fail, depending on circumstances similar to those making us prone to succeed or fail today. Yes, there are differences between the situation we face today and that faced by past peoples, but there are enough similarities for us to be able to learn from the past.

It’s surprising, and encouraging, that many of those interested in educational technology have a background in the Humanities; the latter lends, I believe, a critical element that underpins a wider digital literacy.

I’ll be speaking several times this year on ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacy’. You can be sure that I’ll be stressing the importance of the criticality developed in the Humanities subjects over some of the shortsighted technological determinism that sometimes rears it’s ugly head online. I can say with some confidence that any time you wonder how Device X ‘will change education’ you’ve got it backwards.

So, long live History and Philosophy! (although not necessarily as discrete subject areas)**

Image CC BY-NC-SA mr lynch

*A good deal of my reading comes from serendipitous finds in secondhand bookshops. 🙂

**If you’re wondering, the choice of image for this post comes from it being one of the best tests I’ve found so far for the reading/understanding element of ‘digital literacy’. Why? Well, because you would have to understand:

  • The concept of a meme
  • That this is a derivation of a meme calledlolcats
  • How to search to find out what it’s referring to
  • Which websites to visit for reliable information on this (which to trust)

Methodology for Pragmatists

I had an extremely productive Bank Holiday Monday, writing c.5,000 words of the Methodology section for my Ed.D. thesis. The following is an extract that explains where the philosophy of Pragmatism originated.

The essence of Pragmatism is that there exists no standpoint from which to judge the objective truth or falsity of a statement or belief:

There is no absolute standpoint, and there is no exemption from standpoints; there are only and always relative standpoints… I can in reality think of no absolute whatever; I always tacitly place myself upon the scene as the observer who is beholding things in their relation to himself. (Lovejoy, 1930:81, quoted in Mounce, 1997:159)

Instead of being able to distinguish between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities in the world, therefore, we are left with only secondary qualities of which we can speak. The grass is not objectively green, it is only green to me. Pragmatism is a philosophy concerned with action and the practical application of meaning. It is concerned with the development of capacities and habits that allow for human beings to be successful and productive in the world. As we shall see, Pragmatist philosophers have little patience with definitions for their own sake.

As William James explained through the title and content of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, there is little ‘new’ in the philosophy of Pragmatism other than its name. Indeed, although Peirce coined the term ‘Pragmatism’ – later switching to ‘Pragmaticism’, “a term “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (Collected Papers, 5.414) – the ideas it represented have older origins and wider usage. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, demonstrated his adherence to a proto-Pragmatist project, stating:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (Emerson, R.W., ‘Circles’ in Goodman, R.B., 1995:25)

And later in the same essay:

Step by step we scale this mysterious ladder; the steps are actions, the new prospect is power. Every several result is threatened and judged by that which follows. Every one seems to be contradicted by the new; it is only limited by the new. The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism.

Peirce and James did formalised this way of thinking in such a way that it provided a philosophical approach to problem-solving. Peirce’s project was anti-Cartesian in approach and focus, whereas James was concerned with the concept of ‘truth’ – especially as it related to religious belief. In addition, they both discussed the skepticism to which Emerson alludes, rejecting it as debilitating. James in particular thought that cultivating a habit of doubt in relation to truth statements was indicative of an attitude rather than an intellectual position (Mounce, 1997:88). Skepticism is the result of confining one simply to the intellectual and theoretical sphere, as dangerous as confining one solely to the non-rational.

Instead, James argued that we should allow our ‘passional nature’ to help us decide upon the truth or falsity of statements and propositions:

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must decide an option between two propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question’ is itself a passional decision – just like deciding yes and no – and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.(James, 1918:108)

Like the historian, we gain certainty through commitment, by leaving certain areas unquestioned. Certainty both in history and science comes through being ‘imperfectly theoretical’ – i.e. Being theoretical up to a point. As Mounce (1997:99) puts it, “It is only in philosophy, where commitment is at a minimum, that scepticism flourishes without limit.”

As a result, endless definitions do not serve to advance our understanding of the world and move closer towards truth. ‘Bachelor’ is a oft-cited example of a definition that means something precise. However, an alien to our planet would have to understand the institution of marriage, which cannot be easily explained in a sentence, before grasping the meaning of ‘bachelor’. Instead of definitions, then, it is the commitment to a statement, proposition or belief that helps us make our ideas clear. To use another example from Mounce, there is no sharp demarcation between day and night but we still find it useful to use these terms (Mounce, 1997:104).

It is precisely the fact that Pragmatism allows for error and chance that makes it a practical philosophy. Instead of committing ourselves to omniscience when using the words ‘know’ and ‘certainty’ we use them as practical instruments to go about our business in the world. I, for example, know that I am to attend a conference in a foreign country soon. I can express this certainty despite my attendance depending upon my continued health, an absence of airline strikes, and various geological phenomena not taking place.

For Pragmatists, and James in particular, truth becomes close to utility – what is ‘good in the way of belief’. James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is a defence of this position. We cannot base beliefs on a theoretical conception of the world because this would, in effect, be a ‘view from nowhere’. Pragmatism, it will be remembered, is a philosophy that rejects the existence of an objective standpoint from which to ascertain the truth or falsity of a statement or belief. Reasoning is allied to experience rather than replacing it.

James was the original populariser of Pragmatism, the one who explained it to the intelligentsia of the early 20th century. However, it is important to briefly sketch the origins of Pragmatism in Peirce to understand the true aim of the overall project. Peirce rejected Cartesian dualism along with the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal world. To Peirce and later Pragmatists, what Kant termed the noumenal world – the unknowable world ‘as it exists in itself’ – is a fiction. Likewise, Peirce rejected Descartes’ recommendation to start from a position of scepticism:

Philosophers of very diverse stripes propose that philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is. One proposes that you should begin by doubting everything, and says that there is no one thing that you cannot doubt, as if doubting were as ‘easy as lying’… But, in truth, there is but one state from which you find yourself at the time you do ‘set out’ – a state of mind in which you are laden with an immense mass of cognition already formed, of which you can not divert yourself if you would; and who knows whether, if you could, you would not have made all knowledge impossible to yourself? Do you call it doubting to write down on a piece of paper that you doubt? If so, doubting has nothing to do with any serious business. But do not make believe; if pedantry has not eaten all reality out of you, recognise, as you must, that there is much that you do not doubt in the least. (Peirce, 1935(V) para 416:278, quoted in Mounce, 1997:21)

Meaning can only be grasped through practice, not through armchair philosophising, for Peirce and other Pragmatists. The ‘Pragmatic Maxim’ as formulated by Peirce states that a conception does not differ from another conception (either in logical effects or importance) other than in the way it could conceivably modify our practical conduct (Mounce, 1997:33).

It is this Pragmatic Maxim that I shall be using to test concepts surrounding ‘digital literacy’ in my Ed.D. thesis! 🙂

Bibliography

css.php