Archive for September 3rd, 2011

Intellectual History

For the first time in my life I am teaching a course about the intellectual history of western thought.  It is HON 101, the introductory Honors seminar, originally designed by a now departed philosophy professor.  The way it was taught at the start was to focus primarily on Plato and the Greeks, as philosophers generally consider that to be core knowledge that all educated individuals should have.

However, that person is gone, and there are no full time Philosophy professors able to teach the course.  Moreover, there is no reason why that should be the introduction to the honors program.   I offered to teach it in a different way, as a course in intellectual history.   In it we’ll read bits from Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Copernicus, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Newton, Galileo, Pascal, Grotius, Hobbes, Bayle, Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Vico, Burke, Bentham, Mill, Mazzini, Wallace, Huxley, Chamberlain, Nietzsche, Freud, Heisenberg and Fromm (we’ll actually read a whole book from Fromm — Escape from Freedom).

This may seem a stretch for a professor of Political Science, but for the last 15 years I’ve had a side interest in understanding the development of western thought, realizing that it is impossible to truly understand who we are as a culture without learning about the ‘great conversation’ that has been going on for over 2000 years.    I’ve got a good group of students and the course is off to a great start.

To start the course we look at the foundations of western thought:  Plato, Aristotle and Jesus (or Hebrew thought brought into the Roman Empire via Christianity).   Plato’s idealism (or better, Platonic realism) and Aristotle’s more wordly realism not only set up the core of future philosophical debates but will reflect fundamental directions in western thought via their influence on the Roman Catholic church.   Augustine’s neo-platonism will define early Church teachings, while Aquinas will bring in Aristotle.

After that look at the ancient foundations we begin with a film — The Final Days of Sophie Scholl, which I wrote about as “moral courage.”   I ask students to watch the film and try to identify philosophical and moral dilemmas and how people on each side look at the issue.  I want them to try to understand the Nazi perspective too — it’s easy to just dismiss what we know to be wrong and even evil; trying to understand why people thought that way is important.  They are also to think about what freedom meant.   The  West has created great good with democracy and individual rights; in fact the notion of “individualism’ is a western construct.   But it has also been shown to be capable of great evil.  The holocaust,communism, and colonialism has all come from the West.

Obviously, a one semester course cannot do justice to the nuances of western thought.   But it can give students a kind of scaffolding upon which to plug in their future education.   It’s not just learning facts and ideas, but seeing how they fit in the framework of the cultural conversation that’s defined who we are.   They’ll learn to understand different perspectives and thus become immune to ideological rigidity.    There are a lot of people who waste their lives and minds believing in a “cause” or an “ism,” not realizing they’ve become trapped in a pseudo-religion like Marxism or “Objectivism.”

A lot of people want to find or at least think they have the “right” answer.  Psychologically that can be very important for some people, uncertainty is difficult.   Others bask in the sense that they’ve figured out the truth and enjoy the idea that they are superior to all those who don’t see the truth they think they grasp.   But uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of western thought; certainty only comes with a leap of faith — and even then it’s subjective certainty.   If that leap of faith is wrong, then one is certain but wrong.

Grasping that is the real source of wisdom — it goes back to Socrates, and the claim that “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”   What is delightful about the quote is that it also shows the limits of even logic.   The petty logician would say that the quote contains a contradiction — how can he know one thing and yet know nothing?  But that’s the point — even our linguistic constructions are frail and limited.   What appears to be a contradiction in our linguistic constructions shows only their limits, not a true contradiction in reality.  That shows any philosophical system to be a house of cards, built upon language usage which by definition is vague, arbitrary and creates false boundaries and barriers.

Once one realizes that the claim of certainty is the true sign of foolishness and ignorance it becomes possible to understand diverse perspectives and have a true capacity to critically assess and understand how the world can be seen in a myriad of ways, sensitive to context and recognizing the limits of human understanding.    We have only our senses and intuition.  Our senses perceive a small portion of reality; our intuition is subjective.   Beyond that, we have imperfect language to communicate ideas.   We do our best with what we have, but if we don’t understand its limits and the diverse ways it can be used we can be deluded into false certainty and blindness.

Yet there is a sense of satisfaction in accepting uncertainty and letting go of the desire to “be right” and “know for sure.”  It is liberating to be able to survey a multitude of perspectives and understand them, and then craft one’s own “best guess” with the knowledge that there is no answer card.  You bet your life, you make your own choices, and all the dogmatists and ideologues out there are simply deluded fools.  Only someone who knows the limits of their capacity to truly understand reality keeps an open mind and recognizes the joy of learning and growing.   And that’s the goal of a course like this — to inspire students to recognize the joy of life long learning.