Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Fool's Paradise

I just saw Helen Mirren in Shakespeare's The Tempest -- highly recommended -- and was reminded of a great line from the loutish Stephano. It makes a telling comment on the popular notion that thanks to the internet we no longer need to pay musicians:

STEPHANO: "This will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing."

I can't say it worked out so well form him, either.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

More on testing

Here's Marion Brady on standardized tests:
A telling excerpt:

Standardized, subject-matter tests are worse than a waste. We’re spending billions of dollars and instructional hours on a tool that measures one thought process to the neglect of all others, wreaks havoc on the minds and emotions of teachers and learners, and diverts attention from a fundamental, ignored problem.

That problem? Longshoreman and college professor Eric Hoffer summed it up a lifetime ago. Because the world is dynamic, the future belongs not to the learned but to learners.

Read that sentence again. Then read it again. Even if standardized tests didn’t cost billions, even if they yielded something that teachers didn’t already know, even if they hadn’t narrowed the curriculum down to joke level, even if they weren’t the main generators of educational drivel, even if they weren’t driving the best teachers out of the profession, they should be abandoned because they measure the wrong thing.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Order of Things Pedagogical

Regarding the three terms of the course title, it occurs to me to wonder what ought to be their natural order. We would seem to need understanding before we could teach, but then again learning probably precedes understanding, if we take as paradigmatic the natural, playful, pre-linguistic learning of small children, their visceral absorption of the world. Likewise, the propensity of children for curiosity and active exploration long precedes teaching, both temporally, and as a fact about human nature that probably alone renders any sort of teaching a conceivable undertaking.

If this is right, then ‘Learning, Understanding, Teaching’ would be the right order of priority, as well as an order of importance. Early in the course we asked whether and how a teacher (or the architecture of a teaching context) might suborn curiosity. We still don’t know the answer in any detail, but we may have a sense of why the question remains important.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


A report from the seamy underbelly of the standardized testing machine:

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Epistemology Problems in Science

The general public, and also many scientists, often underestimate how difficult it is to control all the relevant variables in a study, or even know what they are, and how processes like publication, peer review, and replicability are more fallible as epistemic safeguards than we tend to assume. This article in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine thoughtfully raises some of these issues. (The link only gives you the opening paragraphs; to read the whole article you would need to subscribe, or even [gasp!] go to a library. It's all just SO twentieth century!)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Metaphors to Learn By

If there were a written exam in this course, I might propose this.

Consider the merits and limitations of each of the following metaphors for teaching and learning:
Chemistry (catalyst, structural transformation...)
Music (repetition, variation, improvisation...)
Farming or gardening (nurturance, growth...)
Cave (captivity, illumination...)
Muscles (exercise, development...)
Computer (programming, data processing...)
Medicine (diagnosing, curing...)
Military (discipline, hierarchy...)
Container (emptying, filling...)
Clay (shaping, molding...)

Extra credit: supply some additional metaphors, and discuss the different sorts of learning and teaching that they might lead to.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

History and Real Learning

"You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures."

-- William James, quoted in Jacques Barzun, The Culture We Deserve (Wesleyan University Press) p. 110.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why I'm Not a Lawyer

You might have seen the story in the Post a couple days ago about a Virginia man who was acquitted of the charge of passing a stopped school bus. The statute says: "A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from either direction, any school bus which is stopped ... for the purpose of taking on or discharging children."

The fellow's lawyer argued that absent the preposition "at" before "any school bus," the law is unenforceable, since what it seems to say is that drivers must stop the stopped school bus (no doubt what the driver was thinking at the time). But inserting "at" into the sentence would create further ambiguity by suggesting a false specificity about where drivers are to stop. In fact the real ambiguating feature is a misplaced comma, which should follow "approaching" rather than "stop."

However, the lawyer's capitalizing on the grammatical ambiguity is a clear and deliberate amphiboly, and sloppy punctuation aside, the statue's intended meaning is perfectly clear to a reader honestly seeking its meaning. This case illustrates neatly how an adversarial system of law aims at neither truth nor interpretive charity, but merely suborns sophistic gaming -- and blinkered literalism.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Interpreting Siegel

Some of the SLAPs from yesterday suggest a fairly fundamental confusion about the actual position Siegel is arguing for in his final chapter. Perhaps this is due to a few more Santa's elves (excuse me, subordinate clauses) than you are used to interpreting.

Here's the frame: Some educational theorists (including some postmodernists, feminists, and postcolonialists) argue that taking inclusion seriously requires us to reject Enlightenment Liberal ideology. Siegel attempts to show that, to the contrary, this inclusive project relies directly on liberal moral/political analysis of why people who have been unfairly excluded deserve the special attention required to include them, as well as why such inclusion is a worthy goal. Thus to reject liberalism in promoting inclusion is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if you'll pardon the cliche.

One could of course contend that he has not adequately made his case, or has in other respects overstated the implications of his argument, as he does perhaps in his denial that inclusion has important epistemic implications. It would be unfair, however, to criticize him for claims he does not make. Siegel is not always a graceful writer, and he may sometimes repeat himself more than necessary, but he is really an exceptionally clear writer and thinker, when we pay attention to his actual words.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In Defense of the Humanities

Here is a sharply worded critique of SUNY Albany's recent decision to eliminate a number of major programs in the Humanities. It touches on several themes we have been discussing this semester.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reason and Critical Thinking

This may already be obvious to the rest of you, but I've been trying to sort out precisely how Siegel distinguishes reason/rationality from critical thinking. Here's a first stab at it.

A capacity for reason seems to be natural to humans, and perhaps in varying degrees to some other social animals. Presumably we developed this capacity because it was some use to us in meeting our needs. Therein lies a limitation of our natural reason, for our normal habit is to use it instrumentally to determine means for attaining some end, putting the tool down when we've got what we want. (As a description of how we typically use reason, this mirrors Peirce's Doubt/Belief Hypothesis).

The interesting thing about most tools, however, is that we can use them for many things other than their original purpose. In the case of reason, Socrates (among many others) discovered that we can turn it back on itself to inquire whether the ends we seek are good, not just whether we are pursuing them effectively. With this discovery the non-moral, merely calculative aspect of reason is transformed into a normative quest, both for knowledge and for goodness -- possibly what Hegel means when he describes Socrates as the inventor of morality.

We might properly call this quest critical thinking, and so understood it is clear why it must have a characterological ("critical spirit") component in addition to the skill elements. It is also clear both why critical thinking as such is teachable (where bare reason is a pre-existing ability that we can only refine through instruction), and why teaching it is a difficult and delicate business, as is any instruction that seeks to change the habits and character of learners as well as the contents of their cognitive minds.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is Rationality a Conspiracy?

In his SLAP for this week, Michael, asks a very interesting question. One of the problems we found with Radical Constructivism was it's in-principle irrefutability, which looks like a strength but is actually the opposite, for if like a conspiracy theory nothing can ever in principle constitute counter-evidence, then neither can anything count as evidence for it. Michael wonders whether rationality, as Siegel defends it, doesn't suffer the same flaw, since the defense is reflexive, showing that the skeptic presupposes rationality in the very asking.

Suppose I claim you need a hammer to make a house, and you challenge my claim. Exotic materials and tools (nail guns, screws...) could give your objection some traction, making the humble hammer less central to the process, but because of the physics of our world and our shared goal of an architectural structure to live in, you would really be proposing just to hammer by other means. Thus that you can't seem to succeed in your criticism of my claim is simply an artifact of the circumstances we find ourselves in, which factually necessitate hammers (or at least hammering with things we don't call hammers). It is not the result of a sophistic dodge on my part to make my position unassailable in principle.

Like hammering, reasoning and knowing are so basic to our shared project of living in the world and in human communities that challenges to them tend unwittingly to presuppose them. This is in part why ancient Skeptics came to abandon altogether the search for knowledge, or even its refutation, instead seeking a happy life in the suspension of judgment. They couldn't show that knowledge was unattainable (which would have constituted a knowledge claim), so they tried instead to pursue a different kind of goal altogether.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Constructivist Foundations

Here is the URL for the latest issue of the journal Constructivist Foundations. It contains both an essay by David Kenneth Johnson ("Footprints in the Sand") and Ernst von Glasersfeld's last publication, in which he has some things to say about Bridges to the World. You have to sign up for access, but there is no charge.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Elements of Teaching and Learning

I look forward to each of your blogs, summarizing in your own unique voices the gist of our attempted compilation yesterday. We will all learn a lot from each others' ways of framing the matter. A couple more issues occur to me that did not come up in detail:

Teacher as personal inspiration/foil -- especially relevant in character development, a teacher who is sufficiently inspiring for her human qualities, or sufficiently repellent to inspire students to want to be better than that, may subtly teach merely by her presence. The latter underscores our observation that teacherly intent underdetermines the extent and content of learning.

Empathetic Imagination -- As we have observed, one of the reasons knowledge of a subject is not equivalent to the ability to teach it is the difficulty of remembering what it was like before you grasped the subject. Great teachers know their subjects, but also can empathetically imagine what it feels like for students who do not, so as to build bridges from there to here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Siegel and Intellectual Virtues

After reading chapter two of Rationality Redeemed, I hope you have a fuller understanding of the intellectual virtues in the Toolkit, and why they may constitute aspirations and pre-conditions for inquiry and judgment generally, not just in philosophy.

Of course, it remains to be seen how we might teach them, or whether we can teach them directly at all.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Importance of Being Asleep

It occurs to me that another good example of a case where it is inappropriate to employ reason is while asleep. We have good grounds for thinking that sleep is necessary for physical health, and that the apparently random, non-linear and non-rational (or even irrational) psychological processing of dreams (whether remembered or not) is indispensable -- perhaps we wouldn't even be capable of reason without it.

None of this suggests that critical thinking is less important as a core educational goal than Siegel says it is, but it helps put it in perspective, and underscores the strength of his definition.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Twain on Lying

Gregg Camfield's talk tonight made some fascinating suggestions about the importance of lying well and ironically as perhaps the only bulwark against a civilization (or Sivilization, in Huck's spelling) based on lies. It put me in mind of some of our conversations about teachers and Tricksters, and the question of whether the purpose of education is to prepare young people to take their place in the existing order of things, or rather to equip them to challenge that order. My intuition is leaning toward the latter.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Waiting for Superschool

Here is a serious and well informed critique of the popular new documentary "Waiting for Superman" by educator and critic Diane Ravitch. The potent sort of dishonest mythmaking the film represents might help us remember that Plato was not crazy to be suspicious of the power of poets.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Constructing Social Reality

Here is a link to a Colin McGinn review of John Searle's new book Making the Social World. I think some of McGinn's criticisms may miss the mark, though I haven't actually read the book yet. I have read his earlier The Construction of Social Reality), in which he develops the useful observation, not that reality itself is socially constructed, but that human institutions (money, universities, marriage...) often are pure products of our aggregate intentions. For example, money is a really existing thing, and an important force in the world, but can only exist because and as long as we collectively behave as though little scraps of paper with ink on them have exchange value.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Constructivist Romp

Here is a link to Keane Lundt's dialogue "The Importance of Being Ernst." Enjoy.

Monday, October 25, 2010

State of the Blog Report

I note with pleasure that this week, for the first time in the semester, we had an 87.5% participation rate (that is, seven out of eight of you contributed at least the minimum, stretching a little for some posts that weren't up on Friday). What starts to happen at this level of contribution is that some of the threads generate a little energy, good questions get followed up with thoughtful insights from various perspectives, and each of us can easily find threads that intrigue or annoy us enough to stimulate comments and responses. Some really good questions didn't get explored much (or at all), but they might well have had they gone up a little earlier -- and there's still time!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Try Again?

What, specifically, do members of the class find appealing about Radical Constructivism?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Defending Constructivism

Our discussion on Thursday identified some difficulties with Radical Constructivism. We should be careful not to dismiss it too lightly, however. I propose we attempt to compile a list of the theory's virtues -- features we think are in themselves valuable, aside from any problems the theory may have.

To start, we might agree that it's useful to think about students actively integrating what they learn into the conceptions of the world they make for themselves out of all their experience, rather than just passively absorbing what we give them. Such an image could make a big difference in how we relate to them pedagogically.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Different (and Very Modest) Proposal

Suppose, instead of the previous suggestion, I were to reward each student monetarily in the event that everyone fulfilled the minimum blogging expectation in a given week. (We could make the amount a percentage of the princely sum that St. Mary's College is paying me for the semester!)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

New Blogging Proposal

Here's a suggestion for confronting the disappointing fact that only about half the class typically fulfills the minimum blogging expectation in any given week. What if full blogging credit for anyonein the class were contingent on everyone's participating at the minimum level? This might leverage peer encouragement and support, and it speaks to the basic point of the assignment, which is that it reaches critical mass by drawing us all into the discussion.

I anticipate that many of you will react strongly to this suggestion; I urge you to make your case for or against very thoughtfully.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Something to consider, as you re-work your CRITO outlines into drafts, is that you might need to scale down to keep the project manageable in the scope of a short essay. One good way to do this is to replace your thesis with one of your premises. Each premise is, after all, the conclusion to an argument of its own, and one of them may well be interesting and controversial enough to be your thesis. You can then think of this essay as a first step or down payment on an adequate treatment of your original thesis -- someday (and explaining the larger project can make a good introductory framing element).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Essay Contest

Those of you interested in environmental matters and/or philosophical issues of private property might be interested in this essay contest:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bill Ayers interview

An interview with teacher, educator, and former Weather Underground radical Bill Ayres.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Socrates' partial failure

In today's discussion the general opinion was that though he gives it his best shot Socrates fails in Republic, either to define Justice as such or to show that a just person is always in a better state than an unjust one. In some sense these failures are structurally inevitable, if (as Sayre suggests) Justice is one of those things that are too important to learn through mere reason.

We also discussed the possibility that Socrates nonetheless succeeds on another level in affecting the young men's character -- for example, none of those named as part of this discussion went on to join the Tyranny of the Thirty in 404 (some others of Socrates' former companions in fact did so). If he does accomplish this, it cannot be simply because he is a better reasoner than Thrasymachos (whom he certainly tames in verbal combat), for as we have observed some of Socrates' own key arguments seem as shamelessly sophistic as Thrasymachos' own. (Always presuming we understand the arguments and are interpreting them with sufficient charity). Rather, he succeeds because the young men find his character and intellect more engaging than the alternatives -- what they learn, if anything, is to admire Socrates.

If this is right, then we have witnessed a rather remarkable slight of hand, the educational failure masking a larger but ambiguous success: can we countenance a model of a teacher who teaches no real content, but simply models an admirable character in seeming to do so?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Two Kinds

There are those who appreciate binary dimorphisms, and those who don't. For the former, here is a piece on current educational trends in the media and politics by Marion Brady:
"Teaching, many long-time teachers know, isn’t a simple matter of transferring information into a kid’s head, but a far more complex, multi-step process. The teacher has to (a) “get inside” that head to figure out what’s thought to be true, right, or important, (b) understand the kid’s value system well enough to offer ideas sufficiently appealing to warrant taking them seriously and paying attention, (c) choose language or tasks that question old ideas and clarify new ones, (d) get feedback as necessary to decide how to proceed, (e) load the whole process up with enough emotion to carry it past short-term memory..."

Plato's Epistemology

One of you wondered why we are reading the difficult and fairly technical material in Book VI, given that it may not even be Plato's view (only a theory!) or even the primary thing that Socrates wants G&A to learn, and it would seem to have relatively little directly to do with issues pedagogical. This is a fair question.

One reason I think it is worth our time is that such systematic reasoning about the nature of being and knowing does seem to be a critical step -- though only a step -- in Socrates' attempt to prepare students to learn what's most important. In this regard it is another example of his principled caginess, as he presents such allegedly pure rationality as the lesson plan itself, when actually there's much more at stake.

Another is that if we are to evaluate Sayre's contention that for Plato the most important insights are inaccessible to language and logic, but rooted in emotion and image, and requiring a special quality of intellectual intuition, we need to see how such an idea might develop. Later in the course we will talk about critical thinking as a central goal of all learning (Siegel), and we will need to understand this, as it may present a pointed challenge to that view.


Here's a thoughtful piece by Kwame Anthony Appiah on what our descendents are likely to condemn us for. You may have to register for the online Washington Post to read it, but that's free and easy to do.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Politics and Whales

I got to thinking about Steve's very interesting question at the end of class, about why it is that Plato's Republic has for so long been interpreted as essentially a political tract, despite the fact that the text itself says many times and in many ways that it isn't. the claim is not unlike saying that Herman Melville's Moby Dick is about a whale -- not precisely false, but so misleading as almost completely to miss the point. (Some of you literature students may remember that Moby Dick sold poorly during Melville's lifetime, partly because he declined Hawthorne's generous offer to review it, and because everyone else mistook it for an adventure tale for boys.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Being Together and Insight

By now have a solid image of sunousia in Socratic pedagogy. Remember that this conversation has been going on for hours, and has replaced both the dinner and the spectacle with which Polemarchos and Adeimantos lured Glaucon and Socrates to Cephalos' house. No one has eaten but Socrates, who pronounced his feast of words unsatisfying because undisciplined at the end of Book I. Yet even Thrasymachos remains in the circle, and everyone is paying close attention.

The claim Sayre makes for sunousia is that it embodies the "something more" about learning that is not exhausted by the memorization of information, or even by the process itself of giving and weighing arguments, the practice of which can really only prepare us for insight into the most important things. I believe it was Nate who suggested that this seemed like a mystical or supernatural claim, but perhaps it is something more mundane than that.

Suppose I were to present a simple argument. I could list the premises and conclusion, but (if it's a good argument) the conclusion does not just follow sequentially; it follows as an inference. The inference is a relationship between premises and conclusion such that you see that the latter follows. There is really no way I can discursively show you the inference if you don't literally experience it for yourself, with a kind of insight that transcends the list (though of course the list supports it). (For a hilarious example of refusing to accept an inference despite assenting to the premises, see Lewis Carroll's "What the Tortise Said to Achilles").

Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Education in Crisis?

Some perspective on the perennially breathless debate on the state of education:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Moral Relativism (again)

Issues of moral relativism are, strictly speaking, beyond the scope of this course, but in many ways getting some clarity about basic morality is propaedeutic to our collective project. Perhaps it would be good if a course in moral philosophy were prerequisite for one like ours. Teaching and learning, at least among social beings like humans, always involves relationships with others, so it must operate on some set of presuppositions about the nature of those relationships and the boundaries that ought to govern them. Thus moral philosophy, and value theory generally, are deeply implicated in any serious thinking about pedagogy. In particular, standpoints that skeptically presume the indeterminability of moral questions, or reduce all answers to such questions to collective agreements or subjective preferences, would actually (if sound) make our project impossible.

Here, therefore, is a short argument, a reductio ad absurdum, of such views, and thus indirectly in favor of the fallible tractability of moral norms:

Suppose all moral propositions were nothing but subjective preferences. It would follow that we could never even in principle criticize anyone else’s behavior or moral views, since ex hypothesi whatever they believe would be true (for them), so long as they sincerely believed they were right (and sincerity is subjective, so not available for public inspection). It would also follow that no-one could ever, even in principle, make a mistake about what was right or wrong. Thus if Hitler says he sincerely believes that Jews are vermin, then that’s okay according to our supposition (too bad for Jews, and others who disagree), and we have no conceptual basis from which to criticize his view, or the actions he takes on the basis of it (including genocide). Suppose then Hitler has a conversion experience after encountering a kindly Jew, and adopts the view that Jews are as worthy of respect as Aryans and everyone else. Just as we had no basis to criticize him before, now we have no grounds to praise his conversion. Hitler himself cannot even honestly say he was wrong but had discovered his mistake, since whatever view he holds at any given time is by definition just fine – true for him, true for now, but subject to random change without notice.

So the bullet you would have to bite to equate moral propositions with purely subjective preferences is a bitter one indeed. We couldn’t even claim that murder was wrong; we could only express our idiosyncratic personal distaste for it, like an exotic food that a few people enjoy – to each his or her own – but that just happens to strike the rest of us as yucky. But who knows, maybe one day it will catch on!

Faced with this disastrous consequence, many people retreat to the idea of collective agreements or cultural determination of moral norms. What most people think is right and wrong, or what a culture determines is a part of its way of life, on this view actually determines right and wrong in any given time and place. This position presents some of the same problems as the other one: What of a society such as ours, that used to own slaves but has abolished the practice? Should we say that slaveholding was morally just fine until we collectively decided not to do it, and now it’s exploitative and wrong? What do we say of the brave minority of dissenters who actually brought the change about, in part by explaining to the rest of us on objective grounds why the practice – even while still popular – was in fact brutally immoral? At the very least this theory makes mincemeat of many otherwise meaningful ways of speaking about our world.

The real problem for the cultural norm/collective agreement theory, though, is that it actually collapses into the personal preference view. As Midgley points out, cultures aren’t monolithic bubbles; each is a dynamic amalgam of many influences, kept vital by constant change arising through dissent from both within and without. In all cultures and societies, what precisely the cultural norm or general agreement consists of on a moral question will depend on who we ask, and we’re once again back to individual preference and its difficulties.

Remember, by the way, that truth (see toolkit) is a relationship between statements and what is the case, so the phrases “true for you but not for me” or “true for us but not for them” are incoherent. To qualify as true, our beliefs must hook up with reality, which is the same for everyone no matter what we think. To those who persist in denying that there is any moral reality for moral claims to hook up with, I submit the proposition: “However much one might want to, it would be wrong to strangle one’s mother under almost any circumstances.” If there is anyone unwilling to accept this as a fact, we should hope they live very far away from their parents, and for that matter from us.

Etymology of Knowledge

The term ‘epistemology’ derives from Greek, but is not actually an ancient Greek word. Coined in 1820 as an English translation of the German Wissenschaftslehre (the title of a book by Fichte more recently translated as The Science of Knowledge). It’s root is episteme, a general term for knowledge or understanding prominent in Plato, plus logos (speech, word, discourse, reason). Episteme, in turn, comprises the prefix epi- (on, against, near) plus the verb histemi, to put or place. The root is ste-, place or determine, a variant of the Proto-Indo-European stha- or sta- which we know from modern words like static, station, stanza, obstinate, and Rajasthan. Thus etymologically, at least, ‘understanding’ is a very close relative.

In 1820, every formally educated person had studied Greek, so the coinage made intuitive sense. These days such terms can seem unnecessarily technical and daunting; maybe a little background helps.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Socrates on Music

Even at the literal level of the argument in Republic II and III, Socrates’ critique of music and the poets acknowledges just how powerful these media are in human life: there would be no need to edit them for style and content if they were merely diverting, rather than formative. He not only observes the depth at which music touches our consciousness (“…rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the psyche and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them…” 401D), which we now understand to involve neural integration unmatched by other cognitive processes (See Leviton, This is Your Brain on Music); he is clearly aware of just how plastic human nature is as a whole. Socrates here expresses this insight negatively, in terms of risk and corruptibility, but the flip side is our potent educability. He assumes neither that humans are naturally good nor that they are bad; he observes, rather, that we are capable of learning.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Value-Added" Assessment

Here's an article thoughtfully critical of the new initiative to use student test scores to rate teachers' performance over time. In light of the conversations we've been having, I am struck particularly by the author's reference to the initiative's commodification of learning -- treating knowledge as "things" that students acquire from teachers. His suggestions about the political and economic subtexts are also intriguing, if true. Proponents of value-added assessment speak of identifying effective teaching techniques so as to disseminate them, but what if technique is only a small piece of what a teacher does -- what if the experience of learning has crucially to do with a relationship with the teacher? It's difficult to see how you would clone that...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Trying Out One's New Sword

In Republic I, Plato's character Socrates attempts to defend the idea of justice as a human moral virtue against Thrasymachos' explicit immoralism. Several of you have expressed skepticism about the very possibility of any objective morality (which both S. & T. presuppose, in the sense of 'objective' we explain in the philosophy toolkit). We will have to have a serious discussion of the question of moral relativism at some point, and propaedeutic to that conversation, here is a famous article by the philosopher Mary Midgley. Let me know if you have trouble with the URL, which sends you to a chapter in a googlebooks offering:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Debate or Conversation?

You will have noticed that in Book I of the Republic, as elsewhere in the Platonic corpus, there is persistent tension about method – of inquiry and hence pedagogy – alongside the obvious discussion of justice. Some of the young men seem to view discussion mainly as competitive sport, and the sophist Thrasymachos in particular would much prefer a competition of persuasive speeches, a debate, over Socrates’ wimpy question-and-answer style.

This distinction between debate and various other sorts of conversation roughly parallels the distinction in our modern classrooms between didactic lecturing styles and discussion-based learning. Thus I hope you will pay close attention to the merits and limits of both as Plato presents them.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Covert Paternalism on Campus?

A flier recently distributed on campus for new and prospective students and their parents contained the following statements:

1) “95% of St. Mary’s students live on campus.”

2) “Students who live on campus have a higher average GPA than those living off campus.”

Given the nature of the publication we might guess the intended inferences are that:

3) Living on campus will place a student among the majority

And assuming somewhat dubiously that:

4) Being among the majority is generally a good thing

It would follow that

5) It is best for students to live on campus

Such an inference, if intended, may commit an ad populum fallacy. Premise 2 perhaps seeks to reinforce this message by suggesting, via a possible false cause fallacy and some statistical confusion, that:

6) If you choose to live on campus your GPA will likely be higher than if you do not.

Though of course there is no good reason to think this will be so in any individual case, or that there is any direct causal link between the two.

Aside from logical problems, the use of these statistics and their likely implications in a publication for parents or prospective students suggests a covert strategy to encourage on-campus living. Of course, there is nothing wrong with promoting on-campus living. Such a deceptive strategy, however, risks insulting those who, for a variety of reasons, live off campus (and are, as the flier concedes, a small minority, thereby compounding the offense).

Friday, September 3, 2010

Objectivity of Intellectual Virtues?

Sharon's questions in class yesterday about the intellectual virtues ("Why these rather than some others?" and "Aren't the habits of highly reasonable people subjective?") got me thinking.

Suppose I gave you the periodic table of the elements, and you asked: Why these rather than some others? Naturally I would answer that these represent certain useful, regular features of the chemical world as we have discovered it. By analogy, I take this (abbreviated, summary) list of intellectual virtues to represent key objective features of an effective knowing process as we have collectively discovered it. (Refer to the toolkit for how to interpret the term ‘objective’ in this statement).

Of course, the toolkit does not give an argument for why these particular habits are effective means of refining knowledge and avoiding error, but then neither does the periodic table. Presumably some sense of why they make sense will emerge as we attempt to employ them.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Revolution in learning and teaching?

The Department of Education has released the “National Educational Technology Plan” According to the Chronicle of Higher Education. “To achieve these goals, the National Educational Technology Plan (NETP) calls for revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering. It urges our education system at all levels to:

• Be clear about the outcomes we seek.

• Collaborate to redesign structures and processes for effectiveness, efficiency, and flexibility.

• Continually monitor and measure our performance.

• Hold ourselves accountable for progress and results every step of the way.

“Just as technology is at the core of virtually every aspect of our daily lives and work, we must leverage it to provide engaging and powerful learning experiences, content, and resources and assessments that measure student achievement in more complete, authentic, and meaningful ways. Technology-based learning and assessment systems will be pivotal in improving student learning and generating data that can be used to continuously improve the education system at all levels. Technology will help us execute collaborative teaching strategies combined with professional learning that better prepare and enhance educators’ competencies and expertise over the course of their careers. To shorten our learning curve, we can learn from other kinds of enterprises that have used technology to improve outcomes while increasing productivity.”

[from Linda Coughlin in "The Academic Ear"]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Course Description

Philosophy of Teaching, Learning, and Knowing

St. Mary’s College
Fall 2010
Anne Arundel 103
Tuesday and Thursday, 12-2 pm

Professor Matthew R. Silliman
Office: 102C Anne Arundel Hall
Phone: 895-2147; Email: or
Office Hours: Tuesday and Thursday after class, and by appointment


* Plato, Republic (Bloom translation recommended and available in bookstore;
other translations are acceptable provided they have Stephanos numbers
for cross-reference)
* Harvey Siegel, Rationality Redeemed? (available in bookstore)
* David Kenneth Johnson and Matthew R. Silliman, Bridges to the World
(we will discuss availability of this text in class)
* Various articles

Course Description

This seminar will explore some questions in the philosophy of education, understood as a branch of applied epistemology. That is, we will take theoretical and practical questions about teaching and learning to represent concretized hypotheses about the nature and process of getting, having, and sharing knowledge or understanding. We will thus examine some major treatments of pedagogy and epistemology in the history of Western philosophy (with at least passing comparisons to such alternative approaches as those of Confucius and the Hindu Advaita tradition). We will also explore some contemporary educational ideas, in particular the radical constructivist views currently in vogue in schools of education around the world.

Philosophical issues in teaching and learning have been largely neglected by professional philosophers in recent decades (with notable exceptions, as we will see), while by and large teachers and teacher educators have limited training in philosophy. Such mutual neglect and compartmentalization does discredit to both professions. Here is a character in Bernhard Schlenk’s recent novel The Reader articulating the point to his son:

Don’t you remember how furious you would get as a boy when Mama knew better what was good for you? Even how far one can act like this with children is a real problem. It is a philosophical problem, but philosophy does not concern itself with children. It leaves them to pedagogy, where they’re not in very good hands. (p. 141)

As Professor Berg suggests in this passage, one central paradox of teaching is the many-faceted problem of paternalism: how can we reconcile the need for direction in both content and method with the need for the autonomy, curiosity, and enjoyment that are desiderata of effective learning? I am currently co-authoring a book, in dialogue, on the subject of education, and this paradox is one of its central themes. Since our seminar is, after all, one kind of classroom setting, it will itself will function as a place both to discuss such issues, and at the same time as a proving ground for experimenting with possible resolutions of them, both practical and theoretical.


READINGS: Because our discussions will determine the pace and direction of the course within some broad instructor-imposed boundaries, I will not publish a schedule of course readings (which is likely quickly to be obsolete, and so misleading). Thus you must rely on our collective decisions toward the end of each class meeting to determine what to prepare for the next meeting.

WEEKLY SLAPS: Each student will bring a question, developed in my prescribed SLAP format, to the first class meeting each week, as a basis for our conversation.

BLOGS: Every student will also be responsible for reading posts on the weblog I will maintain for the course ( in preparation for class, as well as setting up and regularly updating their own blogs, and commenting on others’. I expect a minimum of one blog post and one thoughtful , though not necessarily lengthy, comment on someone else’s blog each week as basic fulfillment of this requirement. For these purposes, each week will end at midnight on Sunday, and there is no way to make up missed blogging.

EVALUTION of each student’s performance in the course will be based on SLAPs, quantity and quality of blog contributions, class leadership and participation, and preponderantly on two concise scholarly essays. We will discuss the details of these essays, which we will develop in multiple stages, at the appropriate time.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Last Chance Bloggers!

In the spirit of gift, we have one last chance (ending at midnight Sunday) to get full participation in the blogging element of the course. Two thoughtful contributions to your own blog and/or someone else's thread is all it takes!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Epistemology and Metaphysics

Due to an unfortunate oversight, next semester's course in Epistemology and Metaphysics competes with another philosophy course in its time slot, and is consequently under threat of cancellation for undersubscription. All students who have enjoyed prior philosophy courses, including logic, world religions, first course, constructing reality, owning and belonging, etc., will find that this challenging topic takes their understanding of philosophy to the next level. Please speak with me or Professor Johnson right away about signing up for the course as soon as possible, so that we can keep it on the schedule.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Waldron & MacPherson

From different perspectives and in different vocabularies, Waldron and MacPherson diagnose a similar difficulty: how to understand and justify property as a general, inclusive right. MacPherson's strategy is to modify the exclusiveness of the concept, stipulatively/hypothetically re-defining property as a right to participate (not be excluded). Waldron reinforces this suggestion by observing that we already, and for good reason, accept many limitations on individual property acquisition and use.

These solutions are suggestive, and are certain to raise objections from the defenders of absolute individual property rights (notably liberatarians, but others as well). Given MacPherson's analysis of the original motivations behind those who framed these concepts, however, it is hard to see how they can do so without presenting themselves as defenders of radical inequality (i.e.: oppression).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Self-Interest Fundamentalism

A suggestive article by Joe Brewer that challenges some of the conventions of economic (and educational) orthodoxy:

Among his interesting points is the suggestion that certain dangerous and pervasive errors in our thinking about human decision-making were solidified in military mathematics labs during the cold war (I would say they have deeper roots). Also, when he comes to describing the way forward, he miraculously rediscovers some rather Hegelian insights. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Waldron on Hegel

It is refreshing to see a writer so clearly and straightforwardly attempt to understand Hegel. Waldron is a good example of my contention that, whereas we may from time to time require a difficult genius to push the boundaries of thought using convoluted prose and technical terminology, this necessity does not condone herds of third-rate imitators mouthing the terminology and presenting the obscurantism as the genius itself. Rather, what we need from interpreters of difficult, brilliant texts is the sort of clear, patient understanding and evaluation that scholars like Waldron provide.

That said, with an inherently difficult subject even the clearest of analyses can be hard to follow, as when Waldron argues that property for Hegel is necessary even if it is something eventually to be discarded: "... his thesis is that without property, no man can develop to the stage where he is capable of responding to the sort of demands to which the principle of property might properly be subordinated" (The Right to Private Property, p. 350). Convoluted as this sounds, it's clearer than Hegel, and probably not susceptible of further simplification.

But to what sort of demands might the principle of property properly be subordinated? It does seem to me that you have to have something before you are in a position to give a gift, and as Hegel might say, a gift is at the same time the outright negation of the property you have in the thing...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hegel's Dialectical View of Slavery

Obviously, since for Hegel self-actualization through the development of our bodies and minds, especially through "self-consciousness's apprehension of itself as free," is the means by which we take possession of ourselves and come to possess our own identities, slavery would be radically unacceptable. He makes abundantly clear that the arguments in favor of slavery (and remember, he is writing in the early 19th century, when such arguments were matters of current debate in many parts of the world) are objectifying and inauthentic (not to say bogus).

He surprises our tidy liberal sensibilities, however, by also observing that the absolute rejection of slavery is equally one-sided, since it adheres to "the concept of man [sic] as mind, as something inherently free. The view is one-sided in regarding man [sic] as free by nature."

I take his point here to be that to think we have enabled humans to be free simply by abolishing slavery radically underestimates what is involved in enabling freedom, in becoming free. We aren't free simply because we are not enslaved; we are free only when we actualize our potential, and the process by which we become able to do this is a social learning curve that may well involve phases of subordination (here see the Master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Mind). For example, I was a student of philosophy for a long time before I ever professed to teach it (and serious humility is still warranted).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Green Economy?

Here is a clear, balanced, mainstream (Nobel Laureate) economist's take on what we need to do about climate change. I find some of Krugman's arguments compelling and refreshing. Some of his other recommendations seem contaminated with calculations of what seems politically feasible, which may be dangerous -- as Bill McKibben points out, physics does not negotiate.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Equality and Fairness

One interesting idea raised by the epistolary dialogue is William Ryan's "fair shares" concept of equality. Manuel aptly wonders whether it might be an oddly stipulative definition of equality, but it's a powerful idea either way. The suggestion is that we (and Bentham, among others) have confusedly limited ownership to those paradigm cases of individual rightful possession and control, neglecting the infrastructural nature of most of what makes our material lives good -- and to be useful, infrastructure must be shared. The more property is deployed and managed for our collective good, on this view, the less important its individual distribution will be to our well being.

We will see presently whether this somewhat obvious insight poses a challenge to Hegel's construction of property as the sine qua non of fully developed human identity.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Mauss Roared

The tipping point in Mauss, it seems to me, comes on page 46, where he says (italics omitted for technical reasons):

"If one gives things and returns them, it is because one is giving 'respects' [i.e.: paying respects?] -- we still say 'courtesies'. Yet it is also because by giving one is giving oneself, and if one gives oneself, it is because one 'owes' oneself -- one's person and one's goods -- to others."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ownership of the Genome Challenged in Court

I have no illusions that we yet understand the foundational concepts and justifications of property well enough to go traipsing off into current legal disputes, but this article touches on an interesting and hot topic that is likely to shape the future to a significant extent.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hau We Do Business

On page 20, Mauss comes close to suggesting that gift, as a quintessential mixing together of lives, is the prototype of all trade, even contract and exchange.

In partial defense of this bold thesis, consider the degree to which a written contract is little stronger than a simple verbal commitment. I agree to mow your lawn once a week all summer in exchange for $450, paid out at $40 weekly. There is not much either of us can do if the other doesn't follow through with the commitment, so we decide to put it in writing, formalizing it in hopes of making both the activity and the payment more secure. But notice how much time, trouble, and money it would cost either of us to enforce the contract -- certainly more than it could possibly be worth to either of us.

You might think that a contract with much larger stakes, say between large corporations, would be more worthwhile to litigate, and of course this often happens. However, the process is hugely expensive for both sides, and frequently drags on for many years in the courts, while both sides must do without whatever the contract promised them.

We might re-conceive a contract, then, as a kind of collective prayer that we don't need to litigate it -- an act of shared trust in each other, whether out of good will or the expectation that both sides will see compliance as in their interests. A contract may be, at root, merely an agreement to mingle our lives in a conjoined faith, offered to each other as a gift.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Ancient usury meant the loaning of money (or anything) at interest, and was fiercely proscribed or severely limited by several major religious traditions. As transactions of this sort became imperative for the development of large-scale economies and international trade, however, the definition of what was proscribed morphed into excessive rates of interest (which, as a scalar rather than an absolute notion was susceptible to vagueness and hence upward creep -- consider ruinous 21% credit card rates that are not illegal). It is tempting to blame usury, traditionally a sin, for many of our modern economic inequalities, but though it is certainly an enabling condition, its demise as a social constraint on economic exploitation is at least as much a consequence of present economic arrangements as a cause of them.

It has both downsides and upsides. For example, The fact of easy credit for home buyers puts upward pressure on the cost of homes, thus forcing everyone who wants to own a home to borrow at interest (the rates may be modest, but the amortized outlay over many years is often two or three times the sale price of the home, or more). Those who would have preferred to save their money until they could buy a home outright are mostly priced out of the market by this process, and by the steady march of inflation to which it contributes. On the other hand, the increased price of homes makes it possible for them to be better designed, more energy efficient, etc. than they would otherwise be, since the greater market value of homes permits builders to invest more in their design and construction. Unless this just leads to larger homes (which it sometimes does), it can substantially improve the housing stock, and the quality of life of those connected to the building trades.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Hyde and the Gift Economy

Among the many things I find fascinating about Lewis Hyde's analysis is the suggestion that the modern world has taken a dangerous turn in reducing all exchange to commerce, thereby devaluing the many sorts of human activity, including perhaps the most important (arts, nurture...), that cannot survive such reduction.

Unlike Marx, Hyde does not envision a revolutionary future in which bourgeois property is abolished and all resources are shared freely according to need. More modestly, he hopes to carve out an economic sphere parallel the commercial one in which precisely those activities and goods which we value most highly, but which are not economically viable according to monetary cost-benefit analysis, have space to flourish.

This is an appealing image, though I need more detail about how it works in practice, and what progress it has made in the third of a century since Hyde wrote this. Also of interest, however, is whether once we construct such an alternative economy we would be able to stop there. Perhaps, once we seriously consider what is most valuable, we could no longer allow the commercial economy free reign to ravage the planet and our souls in pursuit of shareholder profit. Perhaps a National Institute of Arts, Letters, Motherhood, and the Creative Commons would have to regulate and democratize the commercial economy to ensure that it stopped fomenting war and served, rather than undermine, genuine need -- and something akin to Marx's revolution would have taken place after all. I wouldn't expect Exxon, Microsoft, Archer Daniels Midland et al. to cooperate quietly, however, so Marx might also have been correct about the process not being pretty.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Measuring Happiness

In light of our discussion of Bentham and Mill, you might enjoy this exploration of some of the new sociological research on self-reports of happiness:

This research raises many questions, including what people might really mean when they report on their own happiness. The deeper question, however, which Kolbert touches on at the end, is whether happiness really is the only thing that matters, as utilitarians insist. For example, if radical income or wealth inequality does not seem to make people unhappy, does it follow that we have no reason to treat it as a problem?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

What part of 'know' don't you understand?

In the owner’s manual to my new (used) car I encountered the peculiar sentence: “Substances used in the manufacture of these components are known to the state of California to be carcinogenic.” Aside from the epistemically odd subject – can states know things? – the use of the term ‘knowledge’ here is at first a little jarring. One wonders how exactly California comes to know something of this sort, and if it has achieved such knowledge, why must it be qualified by geography? Surely if California knows something, Kansas and New Hampshire know it as well!

On second thought, of course, it is clear that this proposition must be the outcome of a legislative process, which ratifies what a majority of the legislature or the electorate take to be compelling clinical research demonstrating the products’ carcinogenic properties. Shy of banning the products outright, the state issues a warning based on what it knows – an informative nudge rather than a mandate. This is in fact a kind of precising legal definition of knowledge, and I think it is a useful one. We might at first have expected the sentence to say “the State of California believes these products to be carcinogenic,” but that way of putting the point seems too hesitant, as though it were a matter of personal opinion (are states persons now, too?) rather than the appropriate cognitive response to a preponderance of evidence.

The reason I think this is a good use of the term ‘know’ is because, though it sounds a little odd at first, it exhibits a healthy grasp of most knowledge as the best inference honestly drawn from the available evidence, regardless of the effect of that inference on convenience or commercial interests. We do not properly restrict the word ‘know’ to those few cases (tautologies, excluded middles…) where we cannot logically be wrong. Climate change deniers are using such an unrealistic standard of knowing to prevent us from taking action. But we know too much already about where that will lead us.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Is Marx a Lockean?

Marx is deeply critical, both of the Smith/Bentham utilitarian axis, but also of Locke. Some of his animosity for the latter may be more a matter of attitude than of actual disagreement, however, as he regularly invokes the essentially Lockean principle that the product of labor properly belongs to workers.

Marx’s critique of Bourgeois capital is at root a critique of the system of industrial labor, whereby those who do the work do not control the means of production (materials, machinery, organization) or reap its benefits. In this respect he thinks industrial capitalism is no improvement on feudal serfdom (or perhaps even worse, because of urbanization, pollution, the disruption of social structures, and traditional relationships to the land), simply changing one kind of slavery into another. Yet his alternative vision of workers not alienated from the process and product of their labor would in its own way constitute a kind of ownership society. The slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” echos in several ways an essentially Lockean vision of responsible ownership grounded in need, limited by reason, and deeply egalitarian in spirit.

Marx might well protest that, unlike Locke’s view, his rejects private property, but as the Manifesto makes very clear, he is not at all opposed to the autonomy of individuals or their right to provide for themselves and craft/express their identities through their work. Rather it is Bourgeois property he rejects – the right to use one’s resources as capital to subjugate others for profit. The property he defends, then, is not very far from what one might glean from one interpretation of Locke. But even if this interpretation of Locke is too generous, Marx would still have to supply some account of why workers are entitled to control the means of production and enjoy the product of their labor. It is difficult to see how he might do this without Lockean presuppositions.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bentham on Equality

Bentham is the principal founder of the consequentialist moral theory we call utilitarianism. For a rather harsh critique of a fully developed application of utilitarianism (that of Peter Singer) which will help you to grasp both the nature of the theory and some of its limitations, see this article by Peter Berkowitz that I cribbed from David Johnson's Daily Phlog:

Berkowitz asserts that utilitarianism does not, contra Singer, entail the principal of equality. Bentham vigorously disagrees, and in the passage we are reading this week he gives an interesting argument for it. Let's discuss on Monday how and whether that argument works to support a rough equality of ownership.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hard-Wired for Empathy, Fairness

This review of Alison Gopnik's new book The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life describes some fascinating new neurological research about how babies' minds and brains work. Among other things, very young children seem to have an acute and subtle sensitivity to others' intentions, and a powerful sense of empathy. One might easily infer from these innate tendencies a strong propensity to develop a sense of property rights. These directly inferred property rights might be of many sorts, not just those arrangements we now see in the industrialized world (such as those framed by Smith), but some such rights or other seem inevitable if these findings about infant cognitive development are right.

Thinking About Adam Smith

For our purposes, one thing to notice about The Wealth of Nations is the broadly utilitarian presuppositions it embodies. It has as strong a dose of individualism as does Rousseau, for example, and a marked preference for maximization of quantifiable goods.

Smith argues against the protection of domestic markets, on the grounds that this "unnatural" (watch out for the emotive force of that term!) regulation of markets will be 1) unnecessary if domestic products are cheaper than imports 2) have no effect if they cost the same, and 3) be harmful (i.e., to the individual purchaser) if they are costlier. But he has just completed an account of the salutary effects and general preferability of healthy local markets. Here an individualist bias may cause him to miss a larger potential collective benefit in stability, mutual assistance, and collective security possible with well-crafted and flexible regulation.

It is worth noting that he is not uniformly against government regulation. Most of the places he rails against it pertain specifically to mercantilist capitalism (state-sponsored international trade monopolies, such as the British East India Company, etc.) that were rampant under European colonialism. He is quite correct; such policies generated vast wealth at the direct expense of both domestic and foreign workers.

Smith's occasional excesses perhaps illustrate one danger of leaning too heavily on the Lockean notion that property relations have a basis in nature. We don't want to discard the insight simply because it risks exaggeration, however...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Adam Smith's Invisible Hands

Here is a fairly comprehensive treatment of Smith's use of the metaphor of the invisible hand, showing that our fixation on it since the mid-twentieth century is misplaced.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


It's pretty clear, even from this excerpt from The Origins of Inequality, that Rousseau prefers what he calls savagery to civilization, and thinks it's all been downhill -- though inevitably and irreversibly so -- since we abandoned near-total self-sufficiency. Leaving aside the dubious historicity of this image, what he seems most vociferously down on is the ownership of land -- just the concern Shelby raised with respect to Locke. As we saw, it's not so clear that full ownership is the right model for land use rights even on Lockean assumptions, given what we now understand about ecological processes and the scarcity of sustainably productive land in the current century. Perhaps, unlike the obviously appropriate private ownership of personal items like clothes and toothbrushes, all land should be held in some sort of commons trusts, and leased to those who will use it wisely.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Owning and Possessing

Shelby is quite right to observe that owning and possessing are closely allied, though distinct. In fact, possession is neither necessary nor sufficient for property. I can, at least under prevailing cultural practices, rightly claim to own something that is long out of my possession, such as the circular saw I loaned to a colleague six months ago, or the car I bought in graduate school that someone stole in Chicago (wherever it is it's still mine, dammit, and I want it back even if it is 40 years old now). Likewise I may possess many things that do not belong to me, such as the snowblower my neighbor stores in my garage in exchange for letting me use it, the stack of library books on my desk (both cases of justified possession that do not entail ownership) or the Bob Dylan CD I once vindictively hid from my ex-wife when she moved out (a clear case of theft and other moral limitations).

Yet frequently we do possess what we own, and also own what we possess, and possession (or the control over things that it implies) seems a logical precursor to more formal property arrangements. We might speculate that the rightful ownership Locke describes as existing in a state of nature could have grown out of the pragmatic and psychological attachment people tend to have to the things they make, use, and identify with.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lockean Limits on Property

I take the following as a preliminary list of how Locke thinks property acquisition is naturally limited by the same principles that justify it:

1. "Enough and as good" clause

2. Spoilage proviso

3. Rational purpose (need fulfillment for enjoyment of life)

4. Charity (an entitlement of the needy, not merely a duty of the comfortable)

In respect of this last restriction, here is a passage from the First Treatise (I, 42): "God, the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his Children such a property, in his peculiar portion of the things of this World, but that he has given his needy Brother a Right to the surplusage of his Goods, so that it cannot be justly denied him, when his pressing Wants call for it...As Justice gives every Man a Title to the product of his honest Charity gives every man a Title to so much out of another's Plenty, as will keep him from extream want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise."

As before, we will want to see whether such an entitlement has a credible secular parallel to justify it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Mixing one's labor

Another set of issues we might try to sort out is what's underneath the metaphors Locke uses for how what he calls labor generates property: mixing, investment, etc. Even granting that we understand 'labor' in the special sense we discussed -- the exercise of volition (liberty) with intent to manifest one's identity in the world, paradigmatically in acts of self-preservation -- how is the mixing supposed to make the end product our own? As Nozick asks rhetorically, if I pour my can of tomato juice into the ocean, have I made the ocean mine or foolishly dissipated my tomato juice? Less flippantly, why is it that Locke says I am entitled to the whole product of my labor, rather than just to the value that my labor has added to the natural commons with which I have mixed it?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Locke's Central Impulse

It is easy to bring to the reading of Locke a predisposition to view property in a certain way, and to seem to find support for that view in the text (as the libertarian theorist Robert Nozick, for example, convinced himself that he was carrying out Locke's program). Given this tendency to project our assumptions onto Locke, and the richness the text exhibits when we're fishing for clues for any particular view, we must take on the difficult task, in all intellectual honesty, of trying to see where Locke's own most fundamental commitments lie.

The chapter on "Paternal Power" is very revealing in this regard, I think. It purports to distinguish the power of fathers over their children from that of rulers over their subjects, and does so clearly, but it also charts in some detail the reasons for and limitations of the ownership of children by their parents. Here property is only a little bit about rights, but a great deal about responsibilities and the limitations of power.

Another indication that Locke's account of property is as much about obligations as it is about acquisitiveness appears early in the First Treatise. I will share the passage with you in class on Monday, when we can also enumerate the various constraints Locke places on ownership, and discuss whether and to what extent the invention of money undermines them.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

So What Does Locke Mean by Property?

As I hope will emerge more clearly as the text unfolds, property for Locke is whatever is proper to someone. That is, one's property is a right to anything, which may not be violated without consent. What is properly and justifiably one's own flows from the exercise of one's volition in the fulfillment of one's needs for survival and the rational enjoyment of life. His "labor" theory is a specification of the process whereby that exercise of volition, in the appropriate circumstances, entitles one to what that exercise produces. It is the metaphor that bridges from Life and Liberty on the one hand, which Locke thinks are obviously and undeniably our own, to the products of our labor on the other hand, our estate (the more usual referent of the term property).

We are entitled to our stuff, that is, by the proper use of our selves, and the term property, Locke insists, when used precisely, encompasses this whole complex: "By property I must be understood here, as in other places, to mean that property which men have in their persons as well as goods" (II, 173). In other words, property as a whole is "Life, Liberty, and Estate" (II, 87).

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Owning Land

A follow-up to the land ownership thread on Keane's blog: Locke's commonsense account of what justifies title to land is, as our own perspective now allows us to perceive, rather specific to European culture, agriculture, and history. He extends his labor theory of property to land tenure, which relies for its persusasiveness on the way labor can multiply the productivity of land in agricultural contexts. Thus it seems obvious to Locke's contemporaries that the 'savages' in America are squandering natural resources by not building permanent settlements and farming more productively.

Ironically, the claim that one loses title to one's land by neglecting it, which ought to be a populist principle favoring land reform (landless poor willing to work could justly appropriate the land of absentee owners who did nothing with it) was actually used to disenfranchise indigenous people who had rather different patterns of life and ideas of ownership. This process was underway long before Locke. Here's John Winthrop, Jr. writing in 1629 (a text which Locke does not cite, but is obviously familiar to him):

"[the Indians in America] enclose noe Land, neither have any settled habitation, nor any tame Cattell to improve the Land by," so they were only entitled to their cornfields. Thus "the rest of the country lay open to any that could and would improve it. We may lawfully take the rest, there being more than enough for them and us."

So here the "enough and as good" clause and the labor theory of property applied to land function ethnocentrically as a justification for colonial appropriation.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Property as basis for Government in Locke

Ownership plays a central role in Locke's Second Treatise of Government because, Locke argues, it is a desideratum of any justifiable system of government that it respect people's property. This seems fair enough, though it places a heavy burden on what property is, where it comes from, and whether it can be justified. Thus we will read the entire Second Treatise (it is quite short), but our main focus will be on the even more compressed account he gives of the nature of property -- or rather on the several accounts that seem more or less loosely braided together in his treatment. One of our main tasks will be to attempt to tease apart these threads and understand them, both separately and together.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Preliminary Questions about Property

What are the features of a property-right? Many accounts include the right to possess (even in absentia), use, consume, transfer, profit from, and even waste one's property. Less prominent are discussions of the responsibilities that accompany ownership, including (on some accounts) to share it with the needy, preserve it on behalf of future owners, use it productively, and avoid acquiring more than you can make good use of.

What is the origin of property, and how (if at all) does this inform our normative understanding of contemporary arrangements?

Can a right of private property be justified at all? If so, how does such a justification work, and what are its limits?

Are there alternatives to private ownership on the one hand and government control on the other?

In what ways is ownership dependent on, or independent of, the social relationships and institutions that make its exercise possible?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Paeon to Unquantifiable Value

In this unusually engaging commencement speech, Margaret Edson speaks as a classroom teacher to what is of value but won't fit on a pie chart or a bottom line. Thanks to David Langston for calling it to my attention.