What can Philosophers Offer Education?

To mark World Philosophy Day, Gerry Dunne discusses the relevance of the subject in our lives

What can philosophers offer education? For many people, this may appear to be an abstract question with no definitive answer. To begin, this short article tackles philosophy’s public relations problem. From here, it then moves to unpack its “value”, both within a theoretical, and pragmatic educational framework.

The first issue at stake involves determining the causes of Philosophy’s PR problem. In order for philosophy to flourish and continuously evolve, we need to dispel the archetypal image of the aloof armchair philosopher as an omniscient misanthrope, as someone, whom, given enough time, and armed solely with the rigours of logic and reason, can objectively work out right from wrong, or at the very least - the optimal ways of ‘Being-in-a messy-world’.

Ask an ethicist whether cognitive enhancers are right or wrong and you’ll get a range of answers. Ask a patient who is about to undergo life-saving surgery with a surgeon who has just reached the end of a 14 hour shift, and you will undoubtedly get another answer. Ask an ethicist whether sperm donors ought to have their issue limited, and you will get a range of answers. Ask a couple who are desperately seeking to conceive via these methods, and again, you will undoubtedly get another answer.

Most people will agree that the image of a family debating the merits of different philosophical theories around the dinner table is very much the mark of a civilized society. Should Brexit be overturned given the majority exercised their votes based, in part, on a web of untruths? Are gender quotas good for feminism? Should teachers be offered monetary incentives to secure better grades?  Ought philosophy replace religion as a mandatory subject in schools? Are we morally obliged to provide free drug-testing for everyone at music festivals? These thorny questions lead to the sorts of conversations that many people would gladly walk through snowstorms to be part of. Any safe space where ideas are exchanged and interrogated, examples sought out, clarity insisted upon, counterexamples offered - any platform where each person is challenged to make their reasons visible so that they can be stress-tested, is unquestionably one of the measures of a progressive society.

The philosopher Merleau-Ponty tells us that we live in an interrogative world - a world that we luckily get to ask questions of - but also a world which asks questions of us. In this interrogative world, people are faced with making informed judgments on: what we ought to believe or accept (cognitive rationality); what we ought to do or perform (practical rationality); and what we ought to prefer or prize (evaluative rationality).

These are not easy questions of course. And nor should they be. They require careful and thoughtful analysis. They demand time, effort and lucidity. They require informed judgments based on evidentiation and the rationally convicting force of reasons. And, as you might expect, even though we might try to ignore them, they are questions that follow us around until such time as we propose putative answers.

Naturally, philosophy is fertile ground for students to nurture both the dispositions and abilities of the idealized critical thinker. Such dispositions or habits of mind might include: a desire for truth; a deep sense of wonder at the way our world works; a relentlessly questioning and enquiring mind; a love of wisdom; a propensity for finding fault; a safe cracker’s zeal for cogent argumentation; an unshakable sense of open-mindedness and impartiality, and a judicious use of credible and defensible sources.

Other abilities may include, but are certainly not limited to: formulating cogent arguments; critically evaluating the rational force of reasons, arguments, claims or evidence; forensic questioning of ideas and concepts; identifying and excavating unwarranted assumptions; interpreting and explaining; making justifiable inferences using inductive and deductive reasoning; formulating evaluative judgments; seeing multiple sides of a given issue; reinterpreting the world within the prism of reason and experience; collaborative reasoning; metacognition (being critical of one’s own reasoning); argument mapping; solving problems, conceptual engineering; calculating cost-benefit analyses, and engaging in enquiry-based learning which involves a careful, critical examination of an issue in order to come to a reasoned judgment.  Of these dispositions and abilities, there are two I would like to briefly explore in more detail.

1)      Wisdom:

The first quality philosophers demonstrate is their unwavering commitment to, not only searching for, but also cherishing wisdom. They are like sniffer dogs when it comes to tracking down wisdom. Picture the greatest libraries of the world, the Bodleian, the Admont Library in Austria, Trinity College Dublin, New York Public Library etc. Now, think about the genres we group our literatures into - we have medicine, art history, hurt literature, natural science, and so on, and so forth. One can go to any given section and extract propositional knowledge about Impressionist paintings, or the science behind the first face transplant. There are billions of books bursting our library shelves. And yet, somehow, even amongst this wealth of knowledge, we still have no designated section for wisdom. Why is this we might ask? Since philosophers love wisdom and pursue it at all costs, in many ways their task is to walk through the library of experience and search for answers to T. S. Eliot’s Sphinx-like challenge in his poem ‘The Rock’:

“Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

To be sure, philosophy forces us to pause, to carefully and thoughtfully ask ourselves the types of questions we often like to avoid. Questions like: What is a life well lived? Do we somehow in the process of living, forget what is important in life? How exactly do we distinguish between wisdom and knowledge? What does it mean to flourish? Is there a difference between happiness and contentment? How do we find meaning in our lives? Why is there something rather than nothing? Are there limits to scientific endeavor? Should we campaign against the use of sex robots? And how do we make informed judgments about what to believe based on competing and conflicting claims that emerge from deliberations on these topics, especially via the vast infosphere, that is, the World Wide Web?

2)      Critical Thinking:

Critical thinking is often an assumed outcome derived from the business of doing philosophy.

‘Critical’ is an addendum we use when a person asks the question: am I, or another person, warranted in believing X and Y? Are the reasons and evidence we give sufficiently strong enough to withstand pressure from contradictory reasons and evidence?

This need not be construed as a destructive endeavor. If one views critical thinking as contributing to critical thought by way of a grand dialectic, then we are all collectively working on adding new connections to our communal plumbing system (knowledge). Our collective responsibility lies in ensuring each connection is secure, free from air locks, and that the water remains pressurized.

The water running through the pipes is thought (hard water), mixed in with critical thought (soft water), and like all systems, this eventually leads to a build up of limescale in the pipework.

At times, the critical thinker needs to flush out the system (pipes) in order to maximize the efficiency of the radiators. What is more, they must become skilled in isolating and expelling air locks (bad reasons for beliefs or actions, or in some cases, the wilful arrogance of ignorance). The hotter the radiators, the more optimal the temperature for the successful bombardment and friction of these ideas on a molecular level, and thus by extension, the greater the chances of philosophical progress.

To conclude, this short list is of course not by any means exhaustive. Depending on whom you ask - philosophers have been described as conceptual engineers, plumbers, charlatans, or unintelligible sophisticates who scorn simplicity and lucidity. Regardless of your feelings on the subject, philosophers need to read the world with a newspaper in one hand and a philosophy book in another. They should not be afraid of promoting their subject. Instrumentalism is easy to sell, but true education as a battle within oneself, tends not to look so well on a college prospectus. This is, without question a challenge, but much like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave in Book VII of the Republic, no-one ever said education would be easy.

* Gerry Dunne is a former secondary school teacher who lectures in Philosophy of Education at Marino Institute of Education, and has also worked in teacher education at Trinity College Dublin. He is a founder member of Philosophy Ireland, which seeks to promote philosophical inquiry in schools and society.