The Matter With Things. Chapter 4. Judgment

In Part 1 of his most recent book, The Matter With Things. Our Brain, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World, Iain McGilchrist discusses The Hemispheres and the Means to Truth. Currently I am reading and discussing the nine chapters that make up this first part of the book with a group from Channel McGilchrist, who meet once a month to discuss one or two chapters at a time. To date we have met and discussed Chapters 2 and 3:

The Matter With Things. Chapter 2: Attention

The Matter With Things. Chapter 3: Perception

In Chapter 4 McGilchrist discusses Judgment as a means to truth and asks the question, what roles do the hemispheres play in reaching beliefs and making judgments?

In Chapter 4 McGilchrist notes the difference but also overlap between hallucinations which result from perceptual distortions associated with right hemisphere dysfunction, and delusions (distorted reality judgments) which also result from right hemisphere dysfunction. He writes (p.135)

‘Distinguishing delusions (distorted reality judgments) from hallucinations (distorted perceptions) is to some degree arbitrary, since misperceptions can give rise to misbeliefs, and misbeliefs give rise to misperceptions. Added to which, all perceptions involve a judgment undertaken before we are aware of it. We don’t see a shape, a texture, a bunch of colours, and only then deduce ‘a tree’. We see the tree whole and immediately, because somewhere way below consciousness we are discriminating what fits best in the context in which we find ourselves.’

Altered perceptions are treated separately from altered judgments in psychiatry, but it is artificial to separate them as they might affect each other. Altered perceptions result in things like hallucinations; altered judgments result in thinking bizarre things or delusions. The question is, how much can we trust the testimony of the left and right hemispheres? On its own the left hemisphere tends to delusion.

The thrust of this chapter is summed up on p.180, where McGilchrist writes that ‘Virtually all delusional syndromes are more commonly the result of right hemisphere than left hemisphere dysfunction;  ….’ And ‘Overall, in general it is the judgments on reality made by the right hemisphere that are more reliable.’

In the preceding 45 pages, McGilchrist presents an extensive synthesis of the research into hemispheric difference in pathologies of judgment (e.g., delusional misidentification, paranoia, Othello syndrome and more) and altered role of the body (e.g., Phantom limb, xenomelia and more). To be honest, I found this chapter tedious. Perhaps this is because after 10 years or so of reading and re-reading The Master and His Emissary, I don’t need further scientific research to convince me that we are living in a world dominated by the left hemisphere. I am more interested in what the implications are for how we live our lives.

Some of the ideas in this chapter that might implicitly inform how we live our lives relate to:

Pessimism, optimism and realism (p.150)

  • the left hemisphere is .. unreliable in daily life: it has a tendency to jump to conclusions, to become entrenched, to be unwilling to see other points of view and, frankly, to make stuff up, if it needs to, in order to maintain its point of view. It has a desperate need for certainty. (p.154)
  • Optimism is related to denial by the left hemisphere.
  • Insight is very largely right hemisphere dependent. (p.150)
  • Although relatively speaking the right hemisphere takes a more pessimistic view of the self, it is also more realistic about it. (p.150)
  • … depression has repeatedly been shown to be associated with greater realism – provided the depression is not too severe. (p.150) Depressed patients make better judgments.
  • The evidence is … that.… up to a point, being depressed gives you insight. (p.150)
  • Insight into yourself and your own illness is dependent on the right hemisphere.
  • The right hemisphere is important for reality testing.

False ‘memories’ and confabulation (p.155)

  • … the left hemisphere just is not reliable about the self. And since, in a sense, the self is all we know directly, that’s got to be a handicap.’ (p.158)

Magical thinking (p.158)

  • Magical thinking is associated with creativity. (p.158)
  • … ‘magical ideation’ is by definition not in itself delusional, though it may be on a continuum with delusion. It simply suggests a greater willingness to consider connexions, some of which are no doubt non-existent, but some of which may simply not be recognised in the current Western standard model. (p.1610
  • … to be ‘totally “unmagical” is very unhealthy’, and reduces one’s capacity to appreciate value and to take enjoyment in life. (p.162)
  • Most people engage in magical thinking. There are certain truths that can only be understood through a myth. Deep truths can’t be encompassed in words.

Judgments formed on intuition (p.162)

  • There are differences between men and women. There is more specialisation in each hemisphere in men, and more overlap between the hemispheres in women.
  • In normal adults, sex differences in functional cerebral asymmetries have been reported in a wide range of areas, including decision-making …. but extending to areas such as language, working memory, spatial orientation, spatial attention, face perception, verbal and musical creativity tasks, emotional ‘processing’ and appreciation of beauty. Except in the case of language, males have generally been found in every one of these areas to be more reliant on the right hemisphere than females. (p.163)

The role of reasoning in forming judgments (p.167)

  • both hemispheres contribute to reasoning. (p.167)
  • the old dichotomy – left hemisphere rational, right hemisphere emotional – is profoundly mistaken, on both counts; not to mention the fact that reason and emotion are never entirely separable. (p.167)
  • the tendency of the left hemisphere is to treat things as more certain than they are. (p.169)
  • Induction is associated with the left hemisphere. Induction is based on an assumption of the normal and expectable (p.169). The left hemisphere tends to reach hasty conclusions on the basis of what seems likely. (p.170)
  • The left hemisphere is more likely to act on its theory as though it represented reality. (p.179)
  • Deduction  … is seeing something is implied by what one knows, and is latent or implicit in it …
  • … the right hemisphere is our bullshit detector. (p.172)
  • … unlike the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere can operate with several types of uncertainties: inexactness, incompleteness, probabilities, fuzziness, observer error and so on. (p.174)

So, as McGilchrist writes in the summary to this chapter (p.180)

‘Both hemispheres play a part in reasoning, and when the situation is relatively simple, completely specified and the outcome in accord with expectation, the left hemisphere plays the key role; when any of these conditions does not apply, the right hemisphere is more reliable and veridical.’

As on the previous zoom calls, although the discussion was interesting and enjoyable, I did not feel any the wiser at the end of it. More questions were raised than answered, such as:

  • In a non-clinical setting, is it possible to be able to identify predominantly left hemisphere individuals? If so, could two of the identifying traits be blanket cynicism and fragmentation?
  • Is it possible that hemisphere specialization or preference could lead to the evolution of two distinct human species? Homo Machine/Bureaucrat v Homo??
  • How do we use this work to understand early childhood development?
  • What are McGilchrist’s genuinely helpful contributions to neuroscience or philosophy? How do we best judge the value of his work?
  • What is belief? How does this differ from world view? Where does emotion or pre/unconscious fit into belief? Is personal investigation the best way to find truth?

Thanks to Laura Thomas for collating these questions.

The next meeting of this reading group will be on Friday 8th July at 4.00 pm UK time, to discuss Chapters 5 (Apprehension) and 6 (Emotional and Social Intelligence) of The Matter With Things.

References

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Epistemic Injustice by Miranda Fricker (some brief comments)

This is an important idea, developed by author Miranda Fricker, Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. It is something many of us will have experienced, i.e., we have been wronged specifically in our capacity as knower.

This happens all the time to my husband who has been a quadriplegic for 57 years and as such uses a wheelchair. Despite this, he had a successful academic career. However, this did not and does not prevent many people from assuming that being in a wheelchair equates to lack of intelligence, or the capacity to speak knowledgeably. For example, he often experiences people directing answers to his questions to me over the top of his head. According to Miranda Fricker, this is an example of ‘testimonial injustice’.

‘Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word.’ (p.1).

 ‘Epistemic Injustice. Power and the Ethics of Knowing’, was the book discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network last month. The discussion was introduced by Dr Alison MacKenzie @QUBelfast. I have to admit that I didn’t read the book. Perhaps it was simply the wrong time for me to try. At the time I just didn’t have the energy or motivation to engage with the academic style of writing, but I did look for secondary sources (see list below) and found a couple of videos and a few articles which helped and meant that I did feel that I could still attend the reading network zoom call.

Much of the discussion in the online meeting focussed on testimonial injustice. Most people had examples from personal experience that they could recount. Less time was spent ‘hermeneutic injustice’ which is the second form of injustice that Fricker writes about.

‘Hermeneutic injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.’ (p.1)

‘An example of the first [testimonial injustice] might be that the police do not believe you because you are black; an example of the second (hermeneutic injustice) might be that you suffer sexual harassment in a culture that still lacks that critical concept.‘ (p.1)

Despite not having read the book, I enjoyed the zoom call and left it rather wishing I had read the book. I think if I had persevered, I probably would have got a lot from it. Dr Alison MacKenzie raised these questions for us to discuss:

  1. What are the merits of Fricker’s work? And does it speak to your own experiences of either testimonial or hermeneutical injustice?
  2. What are we to make of Fricker’s claim that Joe (Enduring Love) merely experiences incidental hermeneutic injustice when the police fail to take his claims seriously that he’s being stalked (p.158)
  3. Relatedly, do you find anything problematic in the claim that a person who experiences a medical condition about which little is known merely experiences ‘circumstantial epistemic bad luck’? (152)
  4. Could Fricker be accused of structural gaslighting because of her failure to engage with the work of black feminist philosophers? (This is the argument of Nora Berenstain, 2020, Hypatia, 35/4)

As ever, the reading network group went its own way and didn’t directly address the speaker’s questions, but the questions are always useful for future reference.

And also, despite not having read the book, I wanted to mark here the idea of Epistemic Injustice, which once you know about it, you can see all round you, not least in yourself, or at least that is my experience.

Here is the list of secondary sources I accessed:

Philosophy Bites. Miranda Fricker on Epistemic Injustice (13 mins)

Miranda Fricker on testimony and the power of words (6 mins)

Huzeyfe Demirtas (July 2020) Epistemic Injustice

University of Bristol Epistemic injustice resource page

Epistemic Injustice Community Engagement Project

Miranda Fricker – Epistemic Equality? (41 mins)

The next meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network will be on June 21st, when the group will discuss Martin Buber’s The Knowledge of Man. The book will be introduced by Prof Sam Rocha. This is already proving to be an even more challenging read, but since it consists of selected essays, I hope to have read at least some of them before the meeting.

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network is an open group which anyone can attend. Details of how to join the zoom call are usually posted on Twitter a few days ahead of the meeting. See @PhilofEd

‘Dancing in the Dark’ and dwelling in uncertainty

Dancing in the Dark – A Survivor’s Guide to the University is the next book to be discussed on April 19th by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network. This is a delightful, curious, and thought-provoking tiny book which defies attempts to pigeon-hole it into a category and particularly not into an academic category, despite reference to the University in the title.

There are many things to like about this book. It really is tiny, roughly 10 x 14.5 cm and about 50 pages in length, but there is no sense that this has been for cost-saving purposes, for example by cramming a lot into a limited number of pages. The font is a good size, there is plenty of white space and there are many pages of intriguing artwork by artist and dream whisperer Geoffrey Baines. In short it is a lovely object in it’s own right, which you can easily slip into a pocket or bag.

And before starting to discuss the content of the book, I should also mention that it is beautifully sold by Golden Hare Books. It came with a bookmark and a message on a postcard from the sales team. The personal touch made receiving the book such a pleasure.

So, what is this book about and who is it for? The authors, Anne Pirrie, Nini Fang and Elizabeth O’Brien say that it is for anyone working or studying in a university who feels they are fumbling around in the dark, but I think it doesn’t have to be confined to this sector. This book is for anyone who is uncomfortable with uncertainty, or not knowing; anyone who feels ‘locked down’ by their and others’ expectations, anyone who questions whether they are good enough for whatever it is they are doing; anyone who equates being ‘in the dark’ with failure.

The authors say that they ‘challenge the binary between shadows and light – and in respect of form – between lightweight and gravitas.’ ‘Our aim’, they say, ‘is to reinstate the shadows as a place of possibility and to reassure the reader that the entertainment of doubt is the heart of the educational project’. In other words, we can embrace being ‘in the dark’, embrace uncertainty and ambiguity, embrace not knowing; and more than this we can be open to doubt, be curious, and learn to ‘dance in the dark’.

What I particularly like about this book is that the authors have created a sense of ‘dancing in the dark’ in the way they have written and presented their ideas. Despite the fact that they reference philosophers, sociologists, psychoanalysts, poets, and artists, they do not present this as an academic text. True to their words, they have challenged the binary between lightweight and gravitas, they have explored the interplay between shadows and light and resisted being governed by ‘linear understanding of learning processes’. They share their ideas with us through conversation and narrative, drawing on their personal experience, and resisting closing circles of inquiry. They do not offer solutions or practical assistance but invite us to acknowledge the essential unknowability of the ‘Other’ and leave the circle incomplete.

Reference:

Pirrie, A., Fang, N. and O’Brien, E. (2021). Dancing in the Dark. A Survivor’s Guide to the University. Tilosophy Press.

See also Roy Williams’ wiki post – Dancing in the Dark/Seeing in the Shadows

Source of image 1: https://goldenharebooks.com/

Source of image 2: https://www.henrimatisse.org/the-dance.jsp

Footnote:

Elizabeth O’Brien, together with Victoria Jamieson, founded the Philosophy of Education Reading Network

What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari

What is Philosophy? is the question that Gilles Deleuze (French Philosopher, 1925-1995) and Felix Guattari (French psychoanalyst, 1930-1992) explored in the last book they collaborated on and published in 1991. Of their collaboration Deleuze wrote. “We do not work together, we work between the two…. We don’t work, we negotiate. We were never in the same rhythm, we were always out of step.” (I have selected this quote because it resonates with my experience of working collaboratively, so I just want to mark it here).

This is also the book that has been selected by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network for discussion online on March 15th

‘What is Philosophy?’ is an inquiry into the nature of philosophy itself, i.e., metaphilosophy. The question is a metaphysical question.

I am not completely unfamiliar with the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Between 2014 and 2016 I spent quite a bit of time exploring some of the ideas they discussed in A Thousand Plateaus – principally The Rhizome (see page on Rhizomatic Learning on this blog), but also Lines of Flight; Multiplicities, Wolves, Tribes and Pacts; Smooth and Striated Space; and Nomadism. However, there was a lot in A Thousand Plateaus that I never got to grips with. My experience of this book is similar.

Deleuze and Guattari’s language is abstract and difficult to understand. Yes, it is often imaginative and sometimes poetic, but that hasn’t made it any easier to read.

They start the book by writing:

“The question what is philosophy? can perhaps be posed only late in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely…….It is a question posed in a moment of quiet restlessness, at midnight, when there is no longer anything to ask.”(p.1).  It is also a question that is often posed as an icebreaker on the short adult education philosophy courses that I attend and, I realise now,  the answers provided by the participants (including myself) are exactly what Deleuze and Guattari say philosophy is not. Philosophy is not, argue Deleuze and Guattari, contemplation, reflection, or communication.

In this book Deleuze and Guattari are interested in how philosophy is distinct from other disciplines, in particular how it is distinct from the sciences and arts. What are the similarities and differences? A novelist generates stories, and a scientist generates empirical knowledge about the world, but a philosopher generates concepts. The philosopher is the friend or lover of wisdom, and the philosopher ‘is the concept’s friend; he is potentiality of the concept.’ (p.5). Philosophy is the creation of concepts.

Philosophers seek to define philosophy, but also to determine the boundaries without which there would be chaos. Deleuze and Guattari try to avoid chaos.

In what follows I am not going to discuss the whole book, but just the first two chapters, ‘The Introduction: The Question Then ….’ and Chapter 1, ‘What is a Concept’. I have found a very useful secondary source which has helped to explain these chapters (see Varsity Bookwork playlist on YouTube), which I am going to draw on heavily 🙂

Philosophy is not contemplation

In seeking to define what is philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari don’t just fill the space, but determine the boundaries (define it) by saying what philosophy is not.

‘It is not contemplation, for contemplations are things themselves as seen in the creation of their specific concepts.’ (p. 6)

Contemplation has always been considered important by philosophers, as far back as the Greek philosophers. Plato said that Ideas must be contemplated. For Deleuze and Guattari the question is, ‘how can you contemplate an Idea, if you don’t know what the Idea is?’ Asking what is the Idea is a conceptual and philosophical question, which has to be asked first before we can contemplate the Idea. So philosophy and concepts come before contemplation. We need concepts first before we can contemplate them. Contemplation considers the concepts that philosophy generates.

Philosophy is not reflection

Philosophy is not reflection, write Deleuze and Guattari (p.6),

‘… because no one needs philosophy to reflect on anything. It is thought that philosophy is being given a great deal by being turned into the art of reflection, but actually it loses everything. Mathematicians, as mathematicians, have never waited for philosophers before reflecting on mathematics, nor artists before reflecting on painting or music. So long as their reflection belongs to their respective creation, it is a bad joke to say that this makes them philosophers.’ (p.6).

On page 122 of his book, Negotiations (1997), Deleuze writes:

‘In barren times philosophy retreats to reflecting “on” things. If it’s not itself creating anything, what can it do but reflect on something? So it reflects on eternal or historical things, but can itself no longer make any move. Philosophers Aren’t Reflective, but Creative. What we should in fact do, is stop allowing philosophers to reflect “on” things. The philosopher creates, he doesn’t reflect.’

Neither reflection nor contemplation are creative activities, but reflection and contemplation are different, because contemplation contemplates concepts, but reflection does not involve thinking about concepts. Reflection is a mode of thinking distinct from contemplation. It doesn’t need concepts. Contemplation needs concepts.

Philosophy is not communication

Deleuze and Guattari also write that philosophy is not communication, because communication ‘only works under the sway of opinions in order to create “consensus” and not concepts. The idea of a Western democratic conversation between friends has never produced a single concept.’ (p.6).

Thus, the aims of philosophy and communication differ. Philosophy aims to create concepts; communication aims to generate consensus (agreement between people).

Deleuze and Guattari do not deny that communication plays an integral role in philosophy. It is part of philosophy but is not itself philosophy. No matter how many people share an opinion it doesn’t make it true. For Deleuze and Guattari, philosophy is about getting us to see where disagreements are; this is where creativity can thrive and a new concept can emerge.

In an interview with Deleuze conducted in 1990 (so before the publication of ‘What is Philosophy’), Deleuze said ‘We’ve got to hijack speech. Creating has always been something different from communicating.’

For Delueze and Guattari, philosophy is a necessarily disruptive act which challenges the status quo; creativity is synonymous with disruption, and philosophy is a creative act.

This is as far as I am going to go in this post. There is a lot more. I have barely scratched the surface. As it says on the back cover of my copy of the book:

‘The first part of the book [ as well as the concept, also] explores … the ‘plane of immanence’ in which [the concept] can be born and the ‘conceptual personae’ which activate it. It concludes with a brilliant account of philosophy’s relation to social and economic development, from ancient  Greece to the modern capitalist state. Part two considers other forms of thought: science, art, literature and music.’

However, just this short section has implications for educators. Deleuze and Guattari have argued that philosophy is distinct from the sciences and the arts, describing disciplines such as the human sciences and sociology, epistemology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, logical analysis, computer science, marketing, design and advertising as ‘increasingly insolent and calamitous rivals that Plato himself would never have imagined in his most comic moments’. (p.10).

Saying clearly what philosophy is not, helps to make the case for Philosophy as a unique discipline, a discipline much needed in education today.

Update 15-03-22

Dr Kay Sidebottom who will introduce the discussion about this book, has now posted three questions for us to consider:

Update 09-03-22

An individual extensive response to this book by Roy Williams, can be found here – http://resonancesofknowledge.pbworks.com/w/page/148119147/0%20-%20Knowledge%20Tools%20and%20Affordances

If you access the link you will see that this is a work in progress.

References

Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, F. (1991). What is philosophy? Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1990). Negotiations. Columbia University Press.

Additions R, Ewald F, C. C. (1990). Control and Becoming, Gilles Deleuze in conversation with Antonio Negri.

Varsity Bookwork YouTube Playlist: What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari

Reading for Life. Martha Nussbaum

The second book of 2022 to be selected for discussion by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network is Martha Nussbaum’s collection of Essays on Philosophy and Literature , ‘Love’s Knowledge’.

The group is organising itself differently this month. The book was selected in the same way as I have described before, although this time we only voted for this month’s book, not for the next 3 months.

Given that Martha Nussbaum’s book was thought to be too long to read and discuss in one meeting, and that it is composed of a series of independent essays, we were then asked (via Twitter) to let the organisers, Elizabeth O’Brien and Vicky Jamieson, know which chapters we would like to read and discuss.

Then came the surprise for those of us who had suggested chapters.

Just for something different, since the chapters stand alone together, how about each of us comes up with a question/provocation for one chapter we’ve suggested?

And that is how I ended up with Chapter 9 – Reading for Life – to come up with a question/provocation for, the chapter on which this post is based.

Like some of the other authors we have discussed in the PhilofEd group, Martha Nussbaum has been on my radar for a number of years, but I haven’t read anything by her until now. First impression: extremely dry and difficult to read. Not particularly enjoyable for me, but at this stage I really know very little about her work as a whole, so I may, in the long term, change my mind.  The irony is that Chapter 9, Reading for Life, is about the relationship between book and reader, and how a book should be the reader’s closest friend, with whom the reader has an intimate and loving relationship. So far, I have not developed an intimate and loving relationship with this book!

Nussbaum asks the questions: What is happening to readers as they read? Are people changed by what they read? If people are changed by what they read, then there are ethical and moral implications for both writer and reader, and of course, for educator.

In this chapter, Nussbaum considers the disdain with which ethical criticism of literature has been held over the years. It is often thought to be dogmatic, simplistic, emotive and ‘irretrievably subjective’. This quote below, which I find helpful in explaining why ethical criticism is thought by some to be important, does not come from Nussbaum, but from an article by Marshall Gregory (1998), ‘Ethical Criticism: What it is and Why it Matters’.

Most of us cannot evade the deep intuition that identifying with characters in stories can exert a powerful influence on the quality and content of our own lives. To analyze how fictions exert this influence and to assess its effects is ethical criticism’s job. What literary criticism needs in particular is a theoretical basis for inquiries into and judgments about the potential ethical effects of literature and narrative art in general. We need theoretical grounding because practical ethical criticism goes on all the time, often conducted in a most helter-skelter, contradictory, and intellectually incoherent way. Some contemporary critics may want to insist that ethical criticism is irrelevant, but ethical criticism’s century-long rejection in the academy is matched in scope only by the ceaseless talk about ethical issues that goes on inside and outside of the academy. The persistence of these issues as foci of constant and passionate controversy gives the lie to ethical criticism’s irrelevance. We may not always know how to live with it but we certainly cannot live without it. Ethical criticism cannot be evaded by epistemological relativism, by emotivism, or by the view of art as “mere entertainment,” for none of these views engages the overwhelming evidence both in literature and in life that imitations of fictional models comprise an important source of conduct for most of us much of the time. The aims of ethical criticism are to lead readers to a better and clearer understanding of certain issues: that literary effects are always potential, never determined; that moral and ethical criteria are unavoidable in both understanding and evaluating narratives; and that almost all critical approaches rest to some extent on ethical presuppositions that may be silent but that are always present………….

Nussbaum discusses ethical criticism through the work of Wayne Booth, in particular his book, ‘The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988), in which he makes a ‘compelling case for the coherence and importance of ethical criticism’. For Booth and Nussbaum, critical ethical discourse is essential to a just and rational society. For Booth, ethical criticism should be more than questioning what this work tells me about my moral duty. We should be able to ask certain questions of the text, such as, What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well?  Ethical criticism should look at the work as a whole and not take characters or particular sentences out of context. It does not have a single dogmatic theory of what literature should be or do, but it can take a stand against certain things such as sadism, racism, and sexism. It does not need to be preachy or formally insensitive, and it is not about the consequences of reading, but about what becomes of readers as they read.

How are our desires and thoughts shaped as we read? Booth suggests that some texts (he uses the example, Peter Benchley’s Jaws) narrow the range of our conceptions and sentiments, but others, such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, enable readers ‘to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than they could manage on their own’ (p.223). They also enable readers to change their minds and break down long-term entrenched, but possibly misinformed, views on life.

But what about Philosophy and Literature? Is the friendship we have with a novel different to the friendship promised by a philosophical treatise? Nussbaum suggests that ‘Novels … as a form of writing, have a distinctive, and a controversial ethical content.’ (p.237). We succumb trustingly to novels, but ‘philosophical texts, on the whole, do not invite the reader to fall in love’. (p.237). Nussbaum seems to suggest that philosophical criticism could learn from ethical literary criticism and become ‘less abstract and schematic, more respectful of the claims of the motions and imagination, [and] more tentative and improvisatory.’ (p.239). It could, like literature, appeal more for the emotional engagement of the reader.

Richard Eldridge in his review of Reading for Life explains Nussbaum’s view as follows:

‘Once we see human lives as courageous or cowardly, creative or routine, loving or narcissistic responses to such constraints and forces, then the treatise, the favored form of philosophical expression in modernity, immediately becomes less attractive as a vehicle of human understanding of human possibilities. Instead, it will be “texts that narrate the experiences of beings committed to value” (149), novels and perhaps related historical and biographical works of sustained narration, that will have the most to show us about how we might best live in response to our constraints and to the incommensurability of goods’. (Eldridge, p.190)

And…

‘It is through our emotional reactions – aversion, fearfulness, sympathy, grief, awe, love, reverence, or boredom as may be – to narratives that we learn the best possibilities of human life and the best paths toward them that various contexts make available’. (Eldridge, p.191)

Iris Murdoch doesn’t fully agree with Nussbaum. In “Philosophy and Literature” in Men of Ideas (ed. Bryan Magee), she says that she sees “no general role of philosophy in literature” (p.242). She draws the following distinctions between literature and philosophy: literature does many things, philosophy does one thing (has one aim); literature is natural, philosophy is counter-natural; literature arouses emotion, philosophy tries to eliminate emotional appeal; literature is indirect, philosophy is direct; literature has no problem to solve, philosophy seeks to solve a few technical and abstract problems; literature is concerned with aesthetic form, philosophy does not aim at formal perfection. (Cited in Holland, 1998).

There is, of course, much more in this chapter that could be discussed. Richard Eldridge raises some interesting points in his review of this essay, which Martha Nussbaum thought worthy enough to respond to. In seeking to respond to the request from the Philosophy of Education Reading Network organisers, I have focussed not on how we read, for example on whether we can distinguish Booth’s three voices, the narrator (the character who tells the story); the implied author (the sense of life or the outlook that reveals itself in the structure of the text taken as a whole); and the writer (the real-life person, with all her or his lapses of attention, trivial daily pursuits, and so forth) (Nussbaum, p.233). Instead, I have focussed on the value of ethical literary criticism and the different affordances of literature and philosophy. So, the question I would like to raise for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network, which I hope is sufficiently provocative to promote discussion is:

Do we agree with Martha Nussbaum that ethical literary criticism gives a fuller appreciation of Reading for Life than philosophical criticism, and if so, why?

Further questions raised by members of the PhilofEd Reading Network in relation to other chapters are below.

Chapter 5

Moral communication, moral imagination, and love are tied to the singularity of others. To what extent does an attention to singularity complicate and/or complement pedagogical approaches otherwise committed to social transformation/change?

Chapter 11

Assuming that education should help students better know themselves, what role(s) can literature and/or philosophy play in this process? What conceptions of the emotions and the intellect might hamper/help in this regard?

Chapter 12

Reading Nussbaum’s reading of Beckett (and bearing in mind that Beckett began to publish his literary works in 1930s) what are your thoughts on relation, life, and education?

See https://www.philofed.com/community-blog for further context in relation to these questions.

Update 07-02-2022

Whilst reading and writing about Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Reading for Life’, I have had an enjoyable email exchange with my friend (and past research colleague) Roy Williams, who joined the Philosophy of Education Reading Network last month for the first time. Roy has written his own response to this chapter, and to Nussbaum’s book more generally, on his wiki. It makes for fascinating reading. See http://resonancesofknowledge.pbworks.com/w/page/147886971/Reading%20-%20in%20and%20out%20of%20time

References/Bibliography

Martha Nussbaum (1990) Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wayne Booth (1989) The Company We Keep. An Ethics of Fiction. University of California Press

Gregory, Marshall W. (1998) “Ethical Criticism: What It Is and Why It Matters.” Style 32, no. 2, 194–220. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42946423

Richard Eldridge. (1992). Review. Reading for Life. Martha Nussbaum on Philosophy and Literature. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 2 (1), 187–197. Retrieved from https://works.swarthmore.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1306&context=fac-philosophy

Nussbaum, M. C. (1992). Reply to Richard Eldridge. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 2(1), 198–207. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/20163514

Iris Murdoch, “Philosophy and Literature,” in Men of Ideas ed. Bryan Magee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982) p. 230.

Holland, M.G. (1998) Can Fiction be Philosophy? https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Lite/LiteHoll.htm

Rachel Aviv (2016) The Philosopher of Feelings. The New Yorker

Ana Sandoiu (2016) Martha Nussbaum on Emotions, Ethics, and Literature. The Partially Examined Life. A Philosophy Podcast and Philosophy Blog.

Lines. A Brief History by Tim Ingold (Notes)

“Line making of one sort or another is as old as speech. For as long as people have been talking to one another, they have surely also been gesturing with their hands, and of these gestures a proportion will have left traces on surfaces of various kinds.” (Ingold, 2016, p.153)

The first book of the year to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network was Tim Ingold’s Lines. A Brief History. When I first opened the book, I was delighted and intrigued. The book, as you might expect, includes many illustrations of line drawings, including Richard Long’s well known work ‘A Line Made by Walking’, but also a number of beautiful line drawings from different cultures, such as the kolam designs from Tamil Nadu, South India. This reminded me of my own photos of kolam designs that I took when visiting Kanchipurum in 2012.

Source of image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157629620573535

I did at this point wonder what this book might have to do with education, since there is no reference to education in the index, but I speculated that it might have something to do with linear thinking, which it does, implicitly, but not explicitly, and this is not the main theme of the book.

So, at the beginning of January, I started reading the book with great enthusiasm, only to find it very hard work. This is not a bedtime reading book. I had to devote several hours to it, and made many notes, but even then, although I found it interesting, I just couldn’t seem to pull my thoughts about it together. It took the Philosophy of Education Reading Network zoom meeting (which is always held on the third Tuesday of the month) to begin to untangle my muddled lines of thought, although I suspect that the book is one of those that requires several readings to fully absorb.

Ingold starts the book with the question: ‘What do walking, weaving, observing, singing, storytelling, drawing and writing have in common?’ and answers it by saying that they all proceed along lines of one kind or another. ‘It takes only a moment’s reflection’, he writes, ‘to recognize that lines are everywhere. As walking, talking and gesticulating creatures, human beings generate lines wherever they go. It is not just that line-making is as ubiquitous as the use of the voice, hands and feet – respectively in speaking, gesturing and moving around – but rather that it subsumes all these aspects of everyday human activity and, in so doing, brings them together into a single field of inquiry’. (Ingold, 2016, p.1)

Chapter by chapter Ingold explores different types of lines. In the first chapter he explores the relationship between language, music and notation, the distinction between speech and song, the script and the score and the origins of musical notation. I found this a difficult chapter to follow, but Ingold uses eye-catching headings such as ‘How the Page Lost its Voice’, and ‘The Word Nailed Down by Print’, which help to capture the imagination and interest.

Through the following chapters Ingold develops his taxonomy of lines. There are:

Threads, filaments, such as a ball of wool, violin strings, whiskers, rhizomes, Threads have surfaces but are not drawn on surfaces. The making of threads is a human speciality.

Traces, such as two-dimensional drawings and surface decoration. A trace is any enduring mark left in or on a solid surface by a continuous movement, A trace can be additive (chalk on a blackboard, snail slime) or reductive (scratched into the surface, e.g., footprints, made with or without tools). Interestingly Richard Long’s line made by walking is neither additive nor reductive.

Cuts, cracks, and creases, made by rupture in a surface

Ghostly lines, e.g., survey lines, lines of longitude, latitude, line of the equator, and imaginary lines which form the constellations in the night sky.

Source of image: http://www.constellationofthemonth.com/2014/10/the-plough.html

In writing, knitting, embroidery and lacework, threads may be transformed into traces, and traces into threads. ‘It is through the transformation of threads into traces (as in knotting, weaving, brocade and text) that surfaces are brought into being. It is through the transformation of traces into threads (as in mazes and loop designs) that surfaces are dissolved’. (Ingold, 2016, p.54)

There are also: Trails and routes and lines on cartographic maps, Storylines and Plots, and Genealogical Lines, and Ingold discusses the development of drawing, writing, calligraphy, printing and engraving in relation to lines.

Lines, Ingold tells us, can be active and dynamic flourishes, going where they will for movements sake, having no beginning or end. These lines take us on a journey. These are wayfaring lines, winding, irregular, and entangled.

Or lines can go from point to point. These lines are in a hurry. The line that connects adjacent points is static.

Over history the line has been shorn of movement. It is no longer a trace of a continuous gesture but fragmented into points. Wayfaring has been replaced by destination-oriented transport. Transport lines are straight and regular and intersect only at nodal points of power. Transport lines restrict movement and divide and cut the occupied surface into territorial blocks (Ingold, 2016, p.85).

Tim Ingold argues that over time the line has become increasingly linearized, fragmented and straight. The wayfaring line, which he believes to be the most fundamental mode by which living beings, both human and non-human inhabit the earth, is no longer valued. Instead, in modern times, straight lines are ubiquitous. ‘The inhabitant is one who participates from within in the very process of the world’s continual coming into being, and who, in laying a trail of life, contributes to its weave and texture.’ (Ingold, 2016, p.83)

Thinking about lines is to think about the world in terms of processes – of becoming rather than being.

So, what has all this to do with education?

Vicky Jamieson, who led the discussion in the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s January zoom call, raised three questions for us to consider.

Is there space in education to teach children to attend, and to learn from what they observe and experience, and embrace the unfinished and incompleteness? And how might we as educators bring education out of the ordinary?

Ingold casts doubt over the contemporary way of life – life which often demands linearity in the pursuit of certainty, logic, and rigour. Chapter 6 explores the implications of straight lines: straight lines have a clear sense of direction (p.167). Education has just experienced a rupture in its ‘straight line’. How might this fragmentation and rupturing of the line be a passage for the future of education?

Ingold draws a distinction between the traveller and the wayfarer. He elevates the path of the wayfarer over that of the traveller. For Ingold, wayfaring is where life is lived where knowledge is forged along the way. As Ingold writes, ‘[i]ndeed the wayfarer or seafarer has no final destination, for wherever he is, and so long as life goes on, there is somewhere further he can go’ (p.76). How might we, as educators, cultivate wayfarers?

These questions led to a fruitful discussion on what the implications of thinking about education as an open journey along an active and dynamic wayfaring line might be, as opposed to moving along a dotted line, from point to point. The group discussed whether learners can make their own lines, threads, and traces, and whether they can cope with the complexity of tangled and interconnected lines.

Whilst Ingold does not discuss education in his book ‘Lines. A Brief History’, he does briefly in this short video (10 mins).

Here he tells us that educators should lead novices out of their fixed positions and expose them to the world. We should learn to attend and respond to the things around us and become more attuned to the world around us, just as a skilled hunter is attuned to the properties of the environment. Not only is the world waiting for us to attend to it, but we should also be waiting for the world. We must push out into the unknown, being both prepared and unprepared. Human life is lived in this tension between mastery and the unknown, and between patience/waiting and responding to world as it is.

At the end of his book, Tim Ingold writes: ‘What matters is not the final destination, but all the interesting things that occur along the way’ (Ingold, 2016, p.174). If just this one sentence was embraced by educators, it would be a challenge to our current straight and dotted line approach to education.

 And the PhilofEd discussion was summed up on Twitter with the following thoughts:

‘Tonight’s meeting closed with two different, possible, difficult, beautiful entreaties – to be wayfarers, not knowing things together, and to write and spend time beginning with “I wonder…’

Reference

Ingold, T. (2016). Lines. A Brief History. Routledge

The Purposes of Education. John Hattie and Steen Larsen

This book, published in 2020, will be discussed by the online Philosophy of Education Reading Network next week. The book records a series of conversations that took place between John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Steen Nepper Larsen, an Educational Philosopher from the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University.

John Hattie is known for his evidence-based quantitative research on student achievement and his book Visible Learning, which has been described as the largest ever synthesis of meta-analyses of quantitative measures of the effect of different factors on educational outcomes.

In a review of The Purposes of Education Steve Turnbull writes:

Hattie needs little introduction. He’s the “meta-man”, or to be more accurate, the “meta-meta-man”. His magnum opus, Visible Learning, synthesised more than 800 meta-analyses and became a handbook for educators worldwide, drawn no doubt to its user-friendly ranking of teaching strategies by their impact on learning outcomes.

If you do happen to be new to Hattie’s work, then there are plenty of articles about his concept of visible learning on the web. In a nutshell Hattie’s Visible Learning research synthesises findings from 1,400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies involving 300 million students, into what works best in education, and comes up with 250+ influences on student achievement. (Hattie’s work has been ongoing over many years so the figures relating to number of analyses etc. change according to the date of reporting).

Source of images: https://visible-learning.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/VLPLUS-252-Influences-Hattie-ranking-DEC-2017.pdf (Click on the images to enlarge).

See also Hattie’s Visible Learning Metax website, where he shares his methodology and data

The significance of this book, The Purposes of Education, is that Steen Larsen is (or at least has been) a fierce critic of John Hattie’s work.  In the final paragraph of his 2015 paper ‘Know thy Impact. Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo’, Larsen makes the stinging comment:

One does not have to run (through) the big data of 240 million students to proclaim that well-prepared teachers are a sine qua non for teaching and learning. But this simple fact does not make deep and critical questions to John Hattie’s axioms, ways of investigating learning processes, use of meta-studies, and recommendations to educational stakeholders, superfluous. The concluding remark must be that the advantage of John Hattie’s evidence credo is that it is so banal, mundane and trivial that even educational planners and economists can understand it.

Steen Larsen questions whether learning is a visible phenomenon. Who should it be visible for? For him blindness is an inevitable part of educational seeing. He mentions that Hattie’s work is focussed on developing visible learning strategies for the teacher and that Hattie never actually talks to the learners. He argues that students, teachers and researchers are blind to each other’s rationales. ‘The teacher and the learner do not see the world in the same perspective’. (p.6)  He further argues that ‘learning can never be an instant, simple and visible phenomenon—neither for the teacher nor for the ‘key figure’, i.e., the learning subject.’ (Larsen , 2019, p.3). The effects of learning are sometimes not realised for years to come. Instead of focussing on quantitative analysis and a statistical approach to student achievement, Larsen suggests that we consider the notion of the German concept of Bildung, the idea that education might lead to ‘the edification and the eloquent formation of the individual’s character, wisdom, judgment, and fertile curiosity (Larsen, 2017, p.175).

It says something for John Hattie that he was willing to meet with his fiercest critic and have these intense conversations, in which they tried to answer the following questions:

  • What are the purposes of education?
  • Does educational data speak for itself?
  • What is the role of the teacher?
  • Is learning a visible phenomenon?
  • Is it important to teach and learn specific subjects?
  • What is the role of neuroscience research?
  • What is the relationship between educational research and educational politics?
  • What is the role of the state in education?

In this short video below (14 mins) Hattie and Larsen talk about the writing of The Purposes of Education in a very good natured way, but it becomes clear that, whilst (as seen in the book) there are things they agree on, fundamentally they have completely different philosophies of education.

Hattie claims that his research has been misinterpreted, but whether or not this is the case, his statistical, quantitative approach to student achievement has been very influential on government departments and policy makers for education around the world. Students/learners are now observed and tested more than ever before. Surely as Larsen says, ‘The purpose of education is much more demanding and challenging than enhancing visible learning processes and results.’ (Larsen, 2019, p.10)

References

David-Lang, J. (2013). Summary of Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie. The Main Idea, 1.

Steen Nepper Larsen. (2015). Know Thy Impact: Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo. Journal of Academic Perspectives Know, 1(1), 1–13.

Larsen, S. N. (2017). What is education? – A critical essay. In A. B. Jørgensen, J. J. Justesen, N. Bech, N. Nykrog, & R. B. Clemmensen (Eds.), What is education? An anthology on education (pp. 157-185). Próblēma.

Larsen, S. N. (2019). Blindness in seeing: A philosophical critique of the visible learning paradigm in education. Education Sciences, 9(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci9010047

Carsten Henriksen (2020). A New Perspective on John Hattie

Carly Boreland. (2021). The North Wind : A Critical Perspective on the Purposes of Education. Journal of Professional Learning, 1–4.

Will Fastiggi Summary of John Hattie’s Research

The Imperfect Stitch and the Beauty of Asymmetry

My friend (and past research colleague), Frances Bell, is attending an online free motion building quilting course run by The Crafty Nomad. I have been enjoying watching her progress as she posts images of her practise samples to her Flickr site, and rather envying her skills. Frances has already made some beautiful quilts so it was interesting to read her explanation of why she is doing this course:

What I am hoping to learn from this course is more about constructing a design – putting together different elements into an overall design. The project that I’ll do in a couple of weeks will have 12 coloured rectangles separated by white space so that’s plenty of opportunity for experimentation.

The image above was the first photo that I noticed. I really liked the trailing thread in the top left hand corner, which I saw as ‘breaking the boundary’, an idea that for some reason appealed to me. Frances explained the stitching that breaks the boundary was where I started’, which of course made sense (you have to start somewhere), but I still prefer to think of it as breaking the boundary! Frances went on to explain that ,

we are encouraged to have a high contrast between the thread and fabric colours. This is so that the “mistakes” stand out so we can work on avoiding them. Then in the projects we will choose a thread that blends with the fabric to make any mistakes recede. I think there’s a powerful message in there for learning/education in general. There’s a lot of controversy about “safe spaces” but I do like the idea of an educational space where learners are comfortable to acknowledge what they will do differently next time.

This idea of making mistakes stand out is further developed by Frances in another practise sample that I really like.

My reaction to this sample was: This is lovely. I like the different coloured stitching on the white background – very subtle and delicate, and once again Frances responded that this is a technique used to highlight errors:

I love variegated threads – they tend to distract from errors. I have chosen a different contrast thread for each module specifically to highlight errors while learning on practice pieces.

Quite by chance, at the same time as having this exchange with Frances I have come across the idea of ‘the imperfect stitch’, or ‘Persian flaw’, which is a deliberate error in an otherwise perfect work of art. The errors are not intended to detract from the beauty of the work of art (which could be a rug, a piece of embroidery, a quilt, or a piece of pottery), but rather to be subtly introduced (so subtly that the imperfection might be difficult to detect), to signify the inherent humanity and imperfection of the artist.

‘A Persian rug is perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise’.

In the eyes of the Persian rug makers and in other cultures of rug makers, such as the Navajo rug weavers, ‘Only God is perfect’. Flaws are an integral part of being human. Similarly, according to Iain McGilchrist, in Chinese architecture, the last three tiles are always left off the roof. The first great Chinese historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, records:

Even heaven is not complete; that is why when people are building a house they leave off the last three tiles, to correspond. And all things that are under the sky have degrees. It is precisely because creatures are incomplete that they are living .

(Ssu-ma Ch’ien’ quoted in The Matter With Things (TMWT) by Iain McGilchrist , p.840)

When I first came across the photos of Frances’ work which I like so much, I hadn’t read Iain McGilchrist’s chapter on The Coincidence of Opposites (Chapter 20) in his new book, The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. In this chapter Iain writes about the importance of asymmetry. Here are a few quotes from the chapter:

‘There is also a necessity for slight imperfections in DNA transcription for there to be change and creativity: evolution.’ (p. 840, TMWT)

‘Sameness is indeed sterile, and cannot give rise to anything.’ (p. 840, TMWT)

‘Balance needs to be constantly disturbed and restored. Symmetry breaking is everywhere in living organisms.’ (p.840, TMWT)

I realise now that this is why I was drawn to Frances’ practise samples with their errors, which I find so attractive. They include an asymmetry which is a beautiful expression of the combination of sameness and difference, order and disorder (TMWT, p.839). For me, the art of deliberate imperfection seems one worth pursuing, and one which helps to ensure the uniqueness of the art.  I wonder what Frances’ tutor would make of this idea, and indeed Frances herself?

References

Patowary, K. (2017). The Art of Deliberate Imperfection

Why Imperfect Quilts are Beautiful

Deliberate Mistakes in Handmade Persian Rugs and Carpets

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

Mackness, J. (2021). The Coincidence of Opposites. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

Josef Pieper. Leisure the Basis of Culture (Notes)

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670)

Josef Pieper’s book is the next one to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education online Reading Network on Tuesday 16th November. This is not a book I would have thought about reading if I had not been attending these reading group sessions, and to be honest, it is not a book that has captured my imagination as much as some of the other books have (see posts under the PhilofEd category). But clearly the group member who chose this book feels it is important enough to discuss, and I have heard it described by others as an important text for our times, particularly I would think, for workaholics. If you have ever considered the question of whether you should live to work, or work to live, then this book/essay might provide some answers.

My copy of the book includes two essays, which were originally written in the form of lectures, given in Bonn, Germany, in the summer of 1947. The first is Leisure. The Basis of Culture; the second is The Philosophical Act. In this post I am only going to briefly consider the first. I may come back to the second at another time.

Josef Pieper was writing in Germany after the end of World War II, a time when Germany needed to be rebuilt, a time when a lot of work needed to be done. He recognised that the issue of work is at the centre of the economy, but he disputed the meaning of work. Who is work for? His book is about the primacy of leisure. He believed, along with Aristotle, that the real purpose of work is leisure.

“We are unleisurely in order to have leisure” (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics), where unleisurely refers to everyday work. A search online shows this often quoted as: ‘We work to earn our leisure’.

Whilst Pieper’s writing seemed out of place when first published, it now seems increasingly relevant, given that we live in a ‘total work’ culture where we always need to be doing something. Even when we are supposedly resting, we are ‘doing’. The reality is that we can’t escape work. It is always with us. We might expect that this would lead to vibrancy, but instead it often leads to boredom. If we don’t have something to do we are at a loss.  Boredom results from a problem with a person’s grasp of reality. As G.K. Chesterton said, “There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

In this very short essay (68 pages in my version of the text), Pieper discusses knowledge, leisure, and worship. The essay is concerned with sociological and cultural realities, but also with what it means to be human and to live an authentically human life.

Starting with a discussion of knowledge, Pieper points out the connection between knowledge and leisure.

‘… leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin scola, the English ‘school.’ The word used to designate the place where we educate and teach is derived from a word which means ‘leisure’. ‘School’ does not properly speaking, mean school, but leisure.’ (p.21)

Pieper discusses how the concept of knowledge has changed in the modern world. Modern philosophy views knowledge as active and outward, but in ancient times it was receptive and open. For the Ancients and in Medieval times there were two different kinds of knowledge, ratio (discursive reasoning, examining, analyzing, picking apart) and intellectus (a receiving of what is true; knowledge as purely receptive, gazing on reality, contemplation of your own existence). The Ancients prized intellectus. In modern times the only kind of knowledge that is valued is ratio, which depends on our activity. Ratio favours the hard sciences over literature, philosophy and theology, science over wisdom, and what we can determine for ourselves over what we can receive.

This kind of knowledge (ratio) is associated with labour, effort, and suffering. ‘Hard work … is what is good’(p.31). ‘Man mistrusts everything that is effortless’ (p.34). Knowledge is valued only for its utility, how it serves the concrete, material or economic. It used to be that education and knowledge were sought for their own sake, free of utility. This is where we get the term liberal arts, which had a value in themselves, independent of utility. The goal of the liberal arts was to grasp reality itself. Today the liberal arts are not given as much weight as the STEM subjects. We learn how things work but we don’t ask why they exist in the first place. The liberal arts have now become utilitarian and knowledge has become exclusively active. Today we know by our own acting not by receiving; we value knowledge according to the effort put into achieving it, and to the extent that it is useful for the here and now, for society.

Pieper goes on to further discuss our mistaken understanding of the meaning of leisure. We think it’s about escaping from work, but this is not authentic leisure. Leisure is not a time to ‘veg out’, but rather to engage in active contemplation of reality. Leisure, Pieper writes, means a certain stillness, an inner absence of preoccupation, an ability to be calm, to let things go, to be quiet. This is the opposite of the modern demand for activity. True leisure has the capacity to receive, to be still and allow the mystery of life to reveal itself. It is found in simple things such as listening and being aware of nature. It is not about entertainment, which is often designed to keep reality from intruding.

Leisure requires a celebratory spirit or attitude, which comes when we affirm that the world is good and we appreciate its goodness. Leisure is only possible when we are in harmony with ourselves. Leisure is not there for the sake of work. It is useless. The power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world. This takes some effort on our part to carve out those times and places where we are going to be at rest. We typically think that we rest in order to work, but that makes leisure dependent on work. It makes work the determining factor. Work is a good thing but can become a vice when it is removed from its proper place. Stillness, uselessness, and a celebratory spirit are characteristics of leisure.

Work should facilitate leisure. True leisure is a condition of the soul, not the absence of work. It’s not not doing something. It is doing something, but a specific type of activity, which allows things to happen and adopts an attitude of inward calm and silence. For Pieper the highest form of leisure is worship and the ultimate good in life is union with God.

Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10) could be rewritten by Pieper as ‘Be at rest, or be at leisure, and know that I am God.’ Pieper believed that we have to set aside time and space and be at rest, in order to realise who we are.

There are some key ideas in Pieper’s essay, such as Sloth (acedia) and the incapacity to leisure, Proletarianism, and Deproletarianization and the opening of the realm of leisure, which I have not covered here. I have just made notes on the ideas that stood out for me. I will be interested to hear what questions are raised by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network in relation to Pieper’s writing, and how they relate it to education.

References

Pieper, J. (1965). Leisure the Basis of Culture. Fontana Library

Sensus Fidelium. 2016. Leisure: The Basis of Culture – Rev Scalia

The Burrowshire Podcast. 2020. The Art of Leisure

Maria Popova. Leisure, the Basis of Culture: An Obscure German Philosopher’s Timely 1948 Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Human Dignity in a Culture of Workaholism.

Michael Naughton. 2010. Teaching Note on Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture. An Integration of the Contemplative and Active Life. https://www.stthomas.edu/media/catholicstudies/center/ryan/curriculumdevelopment/theologicalethics/NaughtonTeachingNote.pdf

Andrew (2021) Rethinking Leisure in the Age of Total Work

Source of image: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/93731235981297063/

Martin Buber – I and Thou (Notes)

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s book for August 2021 is Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’. My copy is the translation by Ronald Gregor Smith, who translates the original title ‘Ich Und Du’ as ‘I and Thou’, rather than I and You. Between the ages of three and fourteen, Buber lived in Lvov, Galicia with his grandfather, Solomon Buber, who clearly influenced his thinking and direction. Solomon Buber was a scholar of Jewish Law and a deeply religious man. From 1924 to 1933, Martin Buber lectured in Jewish religion and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. In 1938 he left Germany to join the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Between 1897 and 1923 Buber’s interest lay in mysticism; between 1923 and 1938 in dialogue and the dialogical relationship with nature; and between 1938 and 1965 in attentive silence and a deepening recognition of ‘the eternal’.

It is easy to recognise ‘I and Thou’ as a profound and beautiful book, but it is not easy to read. Ronald Smith acknowledges this in his Preface, where he writes:

‘To the reader who finds the meaning obscure at first reading we may only say that I and Thou is indeed a poem. Hence it must be read more than once, and its total effect allowed to work on the mind: the obscurities of the one part (so far as they are real obscurities, and not the effect, as they must often be, of poor translation) will then be illumined by the brightness of another part. For the argument is not as it were horizontal, but spiral; it mounts, and gathers within itself the aphoristic and pregnant utterances of the earlier part.’ (p.xiii)

I and Thou (published in 1923) is a short book, only 95 pages long including the Postscript which was written by Buber in 1957 to answer questions raised about the ideas he expresses in the book, but it reads like a long book, as it includes so many aphorisms which need careful thought and attention. This is not a book that can be skim read. I had to go to secondary sources, which I have listed under References at the end of this post, to help me make sense of the text.

The book is written in three parts which, put simply, cover how we address or speak to each other, how we address or speak to Nature/the world/society, and how we address or speak to God.

Buber starts the book by explaining that there are two modes of engaging with the world, which he describes through the use of two word pairs, I-It and I-Thou. Buber calls these primary words, which do not signify things but intimate relations. It is not possible to be an I outside of these relations.

‘There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou and I of the primary world I-It ‘ (p.3)

‘When a primary word is spoken the speaker enters the word and takes his stand in it.’ (p.4)

Buber’s overarching concern is that we are trapped in a world of ever increasing I-It communication and dialogue, where we hold ourselves apart from the Other, and treat each other like objects to be manipulated. (I think Iain McGilchrist would describe this as treating each other as ‘things’. There are so many parallels between Buber’s and McGilchrist’s work that I am really surprised that I can find no reference to Buber anywhere in McGilchrist’s first book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.)

In the first part of his book, Buber explains that  I-It is the language of objectification, where the primary temporary modality is the past.

‘The I of the primary word I-It, that is the I faced by no Thou, but surrounded by a multitude of content, has no present, only the past. Put in another way, in so far as man rests satisfied with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no present content. He has nothing but objects. But objects subsist in time that has been.’ (p.10)

Buber calls the I-It mode of engaging with the world, the mode of ‘experience’ (which covers both inner emotions and sensory experience), where the I is an objective observer, cataloguing, calculating, analyzing, and describing, rather than being in active relation Buber tells us that I-It does not make for a ‘whole’ human being. For this we also need I-Thou.

For Martin Buber ‘… he who lives with It alone is not a man’ (p.24). Man needs ‘I-Thou’ relationships, where we communicate with our being rather than with words. I-Thou is about mutuality, seeing someone in his or her depth, speaking to the Other with your entire being, saying Thou with all that you are, standing in present relation, in the here and now – not completely separate, but not completely fused, maintaining just enough balance between close and distant to retain a sense of who you are.

In this beautiful passage from p.6 of his book, Buber sums up the difference between I-It and I-Thou relationships, by considering a tree.

I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air – and the obscure growth itself.

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognize it only as an expression of law…

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation.

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.…….

Martin Buber (1958) I and Thou, p.6)

I-Thou experiences cannot be willed. They are given to us by grace (God’s grace), but we have to be open to I-Thou experiences and choose to enter these moments.

In Part 1 of his book, Martin Buber considers how, at an individual level, we tend to objectify each other (I-It) rather than enter into mutual relation (I-Thou). In Part 2 Buber extends this to thinking about society as a whole. His thoughts about how advances in society since the time of the Industrial Revolution have led us to being trapped in an I-It world, are as relevant today as when he wrote the book. All our institutions (school, work, marriage etc.) can reinforce the I-It mode of attending to the world, which Buber says is stagnating as a result.

‘… in times of sickness it comes about that the world of It, no longer penetrated and fructified by the inflowing world of Thou as by living streams but separated and stagnant, a gigantic ghost of fens, over-powers man. In coming to terms with a world of objects that no longer assume present being for him he succumbs to this world.’ (p.38)

Buber talks about knowledge, art and teaching as all needing more I-Thou relation. Knowledge has become about accumulating concepts, art about analysis and making money, and teaching about imparting knowledge. All focus on the I-It, rather than being open to relation. We should recognise that I-Thou is the locus of all genuine creative activity, all spirituality and all becoming in transcendence.

Interestingly Buber says that there is nothing inherently wrong with the desire to make money or obtain power. There is nothing inherently I-It in economics and politics, it’s the way we live them out. Man’s will to profit and power are fine so long as they are not dominated by It. He explains this as follows. ‘Man’s will to profit and to be powerful have their natural and proper effect so long as they are linked with, and upheld by, his will to enter into relation.’ (p.35) Buber envisions a society (community) in which human beings have a loving responsibility to all other human beings, including those they have not met. This is a new sort of community built on absolute encounter with the eternal Thou, that is, with God.

In Part 3, Buber focusses on the eternal Thou, that is, on our relation with God. I found this part of the book the most difficult to follow, maybe because it is impossible to describe God. God cannot become an It. God must always be a Thou.

The eternal Thou can by its nature not become It: for by its nature it cannot be established in measure and bounds, not even in the measure of the immeasurable, or the bounds of the boundless being; for by its nature it cannot be understood as a sum of qualities, not even as an infinite sum of qualities raised to a transcendental level; for it can be found neither in nor out of the world; for it cannot be experienced, or thought; for we miss Him, Him who is, if we say ‘I believe that He is’ – ‘He” is also a metaphor, but ‘Thou’ is not’. (p.77)

As Buber explains, all attempts to find God in the It world have reduced the idea of God to something which could not possibly be the omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient creator of the universe.

He explains that the active solution to a world dominated by I-It, where man feels oppressed by causality, powerless, and as though he is living a meaningless life lacking in freedom, is to enter into relation with God. Why? Because whilst each human experience inevitably peters out into experience, the eternal Thou can never degenerate into an It.

But to encounter the eternal Thou (God) we must be ready for it in both active and passive terms. Actively, we must truly want this encounter, we must let go of thinking we are in control and we must hold I-It and I-Thou in harmony; passively we must wait for God to meet us.

When we enter into relation with God, we enter into relation with everything else in the world. Our encounter with God is both exclusive and inclusive, exclusive because we fully enter into the relation, inclusive because we are relating not only to God but also to the whole Universe.

Buber is not able to describe an encounter with God, but he does say what it is not. It is not a feeling of dependency. God needs us as much as we need God. It is a mutual relationship. It is not an immersion of union between ourselves and God. It is important that we retain our individual selves (whilst losing the drive for self-affirmation) and keep the encounter in a dialogical relation between two separate beings. It is not logically coherent but involves logical conflicts and paradoxes. Paradox is an essential component of the religious moment. We should not substitute the idols of knowledge, power, artistic beauty and erotic love with God. Religious relation is not idol worship of the right idol, and religion is not a crutch, but requires strength and willpower. We cannot predict, control or understand the world. Saying Thou to God transforms us. We lose all duty and obligation. We are filled with loving responsibility for the whole world.

Buber believed that the way forward, away from a domination by I-It relation, is to build community based on members’ relation to each other and to God. He pointed out that these communities have existed in the past but gradually their need for continuity in space and time resulted in relating to God as It. But if we can build community based on members’ relation to each other and to God, the everyday life becomes holy and divine encounter is involved in every act of daily life. We need to bring the holy into everyday life through building of community and relation with God.

‘The world of It is set in the context of space and time.

The world of Thou is not set in the context of with either of these.

Its context is in the Centre [God], where the extended lines of relations meet – in the eternal Thou.’ (p.69)

18-08-21 Update

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network discussion on Martin Buber’s I and Thou was introduced by Amanda Fulford is Professor of Philosophy of Education, and Head of the Department of Professional Learning at Edge Hill University, who posed the following provocations for discussion:

  • Criticisms have been levelled at Buber’s I and Thou that his language is overly obscure and romantic. Walter Kaufmann makes this claim in his translator’s introduction to the work. Given this, is there a risk that the reader is seduced into thinking the text is more profound than it actually is? Does this undermine the central distinction in I and Thou?
  • Is there a hierarchy in Buber’s work that elevates the I-Thou (and thus denigrates) the I-It? What would this mean for certain ways of knowing?
  • Can I-Thou relations be extended beyond human others, and what would this mean for our relationships with, say, animals, or the environment?

And our discussion ended with Jessica Lussier (@miss_lussier) raising the following questions for us to reflect on and discuss on Twitter (@PhilofEd):

  • What role does language play in Buber’s I-Thou relation?
  • What role does feeling/affect play in this relation?
  • How might this allow us to extend I-Thou relations beyond the human?

References

Buber, M. Ich Und Du (1923 Translated by Ronald Gregor Smith and published as I and Thou by Bloomsbury Revelations Edition (2013)

Smith, M. K. (2000, 2009) ‘Martin Buber on education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/martin-buber-on-education/ . Retrieved: 05-0821]

Spark Notes Study Guide. I and Thou. Martin Buber. https://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/iandthou/summary/

Dodson, E. (2014) Buber in Ten Minutes. https://youtu.be/16Cr82mLhkw

Source of Image:  https://infed.org/mobi/martin-buber-on-education/