Saturday, January 31, 2009

Downsides of the Written (or typed) Word

Toward the end of Phaedrus there is a famous argument against writing, only partially undermined by the fact that Plato in fact wrote it.

Perhaps the students in this course find the argument compelling, not against books as such, but against blogging, or so it appears from the microscopic torrent of participation here. I would love to see you make the case, but you'll have to do so under the shadow of Plato's paradox, since you'll be doing so on a blog.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Scientific Methods

I recently had a conversation with a scientist colleague about the phrase "the scientific method." I objected to the definite article, on the grounds that if you describe "the" scientific method broadly enough to include all scientific inquiry -- historical methods in paleontology and experimental ones in physics, for example -- it will be so broad as to cover many forms of inquiry -- some kinds of journalism, say, or the work of police detectives -- that are not science, at least by conventional description.

Good, systematic inquiry in any field shares certain epistemic and characterological features, in that it is designed and bids fair to get at the truth of some question and honestly attempts to put that goal before any other. Specific fields of inquiry, including the special sciences, have crafted particular methodologies within those general parameters that are suited to their objects of study -- purpose-built tools of their trades. Thus it is useful to speak of the methods of physicists or biologists, and proper to call these methods scientific, but probably tendentious to speak of one single method that demarcates the work of the sciences from that of all other endeavors.

In the second part of Phaedrus, Plato's Socrates proposes the method of "division and collection" as indispensable to the true art of rhetoric (and not incidentally perhaps a modification of his earlier theory of forms). Such a method might make knowledge more accessible, and hence represent a softening of Socratic aporia. He describes it as the method of philosophy; might it be the basis of what we now call "the scientific method?"

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Phaedrus on certainty and likliness

A shift that might be worth noticing in Phaedrus is that from persistent talk of what is likely in the first part, to an emphasis on what we can say for certain in the second. It perhaps suggests an (attempted?) ascent of the divided line, away from mere impressions and probabilities and toward knowledge with Parmenidean traits (changeless, eternal), and it mirrors the shift from persuasive speeches and myth-making to the more systematic discourse on rhetoric.

Straightforward as that may seem on the surface, it generates some ironic questions if Plato's character Socrates maintains his traditional aporetic stance -- can he possibly exemplify the true rhetorician, who knows whereof he speaks?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Phaedrus and Education

Last semester, Kyle wrote about Republic as embodying, in its dialogic relationships and arc, the theory of education which its conversants were describing. This has always struck me as exactly the right way to understand that dialogue (rather than as a political program, for example).

Now on this reading of Phaedrus I find myself drawn to a similar reading. Nehamas and Woodruff struggle (with some success) to decide whether the book is fundamentally about eros, or rather rhetoric (they decide on the latter). This conundrum seems much easier to resolve, however, if we read the dialogue as an instantiation of the "true rhetoric" (nearly indistinguishable from philosophy) that Socrates describes in the second part -- as applied directly to the education of Phaedrus himself. As ever, Socrates perceives the charcater of his student, and presents the truth (as far as he understands it) in precisely the rhetorical form, and using precisely the examples, likely to move that particular student.

Perhaps it is foolish even to raise the question of what one thing a dialogue this rich is about, but education comes as close to a comprehensive answer (and a basis for a complete interpretation) as we're likely to get.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What's a Liberal Arts College?

I had an interesting conversation with some students the other day, while trying to get them to imagine what the phrase "liberal arts college" might mean -- aside from a basket-weaving school for Democrats, which is pretty much what it sounds like to most people. They made some good efforts, for example “a college where you study a little bit of a lot of things,” which I suppose is one way to get at the idea of becoming broadly educated. Others suggested that it has something to do with studying art and having an inclusive spirit – both good things in their own right, but not quite the liberal arts in the relevant sense. Consider the terms separately:

Liberal: “Liberal” here is not opposed to political conservatism, but is rather the opposite of (intellectual) slavery. Such an education, when successful, liberates you, especially your mind, to think, learn, inquire seriously for yourself, responsible to and (ideally) dependent on no authority but the truth and your own well-honed skills (discernment, attention, reasoning, intuition, imagination). This prepares you to figure out what you need to know to make a living, but more importantly it liberates you to be a free citizen, a participant in political and cultural deliberations, and a free creator of your own life.

Arts: These skills (discernment, attention, reasoning, intuition, imagination...), or rather these skills along with the disposition to deploy them regularly and wisely, are the “arts” in the liberal arts. So it's not the disciplines as such that define the arts, but the abilities and dispositions that the students acquire by engaging those disciplines (hence the importance not only of breadth – “studying a little bit of a lot of things” – but also depth, engaging one or more areas of study with intense scholarly rigor. [Incidentally this is what I see as the greatest potential of our honors program, insisting as it does that serious students to do deep, difficult work outside their departmental comfort zones.] Building lifelong habits of curiosity and rigorous inquiry is serious work, not mere dilettantism.

College: A college (Latin collegium) is not just a school but a council or community of equals -- colleagues -- pursuing shared goals in a context of mutual respect and trust. When this works as it should, the students and their professors become team members with a common objective, not pupils beholden to teachers for their pearls of wisdom and grades.

Putting this all together, we might describe a liberal arts college as, at root, a community for fostering the skills and habits of intellectual freedom. Not much of a bumper sticker, but it’s a place to start thinking about it.