Friday, March 07, 2014

It's all according to how you see it

"This is the same problem I see across the discipline. It's a problem of vision, afflicting me more than any other. It's the problem I have with how Pascal's Wager gets presented, and it's a problem I had with how Christians and non-Christians have presented the gospel. We introduce kids to an entire system of thinking about learning: the textbook presentation. We even use this phrase to signal the acceptable, the always-correct, the cheap and easy trust in a truth just handed to us: it's a 'textbook case', her performance was 'textbook', this is the perfect 'textbook example'. It's a truth that's safe, and so people who cannot risk their thoughts only ever want to know the textbook's version. The textbook says Pascal's Wager does this and this and this and the acceptable refutations are that and that and that and now thoughtful questions asking you obviously for obvious answers. But replace 'Pascal's Wager' with any notable case. The trolley problem, the p-zombie, the analogy of the cave, Anselm's Ontological Argument, the categorical imperative, the butterfly dream, the middle path, the Tao. This is how we teach this to people. We teach this."

"What's one solution?"

"I don't know if there are any solutions in a system that evolves. Nothing is really a problem. But it's like this, for me.

"Suppose you have two competing systems for approaching problems. One of them is always trying to figure out and resolve concepts by analyzing the appropriate instances in which one can use the concept for generating and constructing other concepts. The other is always trying to figure out and identify the puzzles in a concept by situating the instances of their use in an interconnected cloud of relations within multiple substantial dimensions of freedom, material and cultural and ideological and genealogical to name a few. Call the first one 'Analytic' and the other 'Continental'. There is no need at all to think either of these completes the entire field of possibilities for how we think and work and live conceptually, but despite this glaringly obvious reality, it still dominates the mindset of philosophers in the Empire nations that their particularly small dustup suffers the world. The analytics try to find a universal language for their problems by clarifying away the impurities through abstraction. The beauty is the form. The continentals try to find the language itself as causing the erasure of meaning's proliferation along so many dimensions of freedom. The form is the beauty. The one wants univocity. The other wants ambiguity. The one gives assurance. The other gives play. The one gives solidity. The other gives fluidity.

"You hear it in the criticisms. The one being rigid is inflexible to handle variation or difference. The other being lax is incapable of self-regulation and self-discipline. The one being univocal must erase the trace of difference. The other being ambiguous must clarify its abstract jargon and impure reasoning. The shift in this must is crucial, too. But what we have to teach our students is that all of this just isn't true.

"What's true is that how we frame the problem is always what defines and reveals. We are storytellers and crafters, because what we need to do is use the imagination—all its surfaces and textures deep in our conceptual souls ruffling our feathers, stroking our fur, grinding at nails, rubbing our nipples, twitching our clits—to push the mind towards abstraction, symbolism, metaphor, figure. We need to be able to use the wealth of our bodily sensations and our desire to feel these things to manufacture and anticipate objects that have no physical or material reality whatsoever. We have to practice these arts of outwitting and outmaneuvering what inside us is incapable of conceiving the unreal world. So we have to think, if we are at all responsible to the craft, of things our other person will already accept and believe; we have to listen to our listeners so much better than they listen to themselves.

"Let me tell you this story I heard from a student of mine. He spent a lot of time out on his farm as a kid, tending to all the different animals out there. Lots of people have dogs and cats. Not a lot spend time around the other four leg factions. Far fewer spend time around all the kinds interacting with each other. But people watch shows, read books, see pictures, go visit zoos bored. They know all there is to know about dumb animals. But my student, he spends a lot of time out on his farm. He watches the animals interact with each other. The cat and the goat. The chicken and the dog. The duck and the rabbit. The rabbit and the goat. The chicken and the duck. The goat and the duck. And in all of this watching, he learns their language, the interspecial language they all use to warn, plead, cajole, solicit.

"So, he starts to talk their language, enjoys what company they keep with a two leg, starts hearing this new language on the horizon. A subtle, non-conceptual language. It's a language the animals only somewhat speak themselves. It's something alien, but yet curiously familiar. It's a language that says something in words he couldn't say. It's slow, subtle, silent. But it's there, and it says something, so he says to me, deep in his soul where he didn't even know it could be human. No, that's not right. He did say it was something like that. What did he say? He said it wasn't human but he didn't know it could be him."

"Did, did he say what that sounded like?"

"Yes, but you're not going to like this."

"What? Whatever. Tell me."

"He said it was slowed down, but if you speed it up, it begins to sound like a countdown. 'CHANGE' and then a sequence of numbers he said was like a countdown. Like it were all a machine. Counting down to change. I remember that story. We have to remember the stories behind how we work out the concepts, because there's no point in remembering a title or a name if we have nothing to embody it for us in all those dimensions of freedom. It's just a hollow chain of words—maybe worse, just non-signifying puffs of air, like language outside our own language sounds. Alien. Foreign. But just on the verge of being something familiar. A lot of our best ideas came from people working out how to talk to some damn person, and learning to communicate means learning to listen to our listeners. We forget that intimacy, well, we'll forget how to love what we are doing as philosophers."

I thought about this conversation today while I was helping a student think about philosophical problems. She is learning how to do philosophy from a textbook, and the person grading her performance—I'm not sure with these kinds of distributed, multiple-campus electromatic courses a person teaches these things if it's not a story—had prepared a wrong multiple choice question. To win the question, you had to choose the false answer. The right answer was false, as false as the other wrong answers, excepting the one true answer what was wrong. We worked out what the true answer is, but I confirmed for her that, in life, we sometimes have to choose the right answer regardless of the truth if we want what they are selling for the compromise.

I have compromised many times in my life. I have been right, consequently, more times than I care to admit. I just was so thoroughly beaten in my soul I couldn't tell what was the difference, anymore, between right and wrong and true and false. Maybe you can't tell the difference, yourself, too. Maybe, if that's the case, you need to start listening to what your soul is telling you about when it is right to be right and when it is true to be wrong. Only when you have done this will you know the way.

So I told her to choose what she feels is best. She passed her test; I don't know the specifics. But after helping her with her classwork, I am glad to do what I do in the classroom. Philosophy is not something one can teach through a textbook. We make great textbook students this way, and we keep the market in textbooks and textbook cases well funded. Money approves approval, afterall, so we feel confident we're doing something rational and sound.

I'm not so sure. I'm just not sure that's right.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Is this wise?
Is this yours?
Is this love?

Real Time Web Analytics