Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

musings on…primum non nocere

In Medicine, Musings, Philosophy on Tuesday, 26 February 2013 at 07:04

for years, I have been hearing people “quote” a portion of the hippocratic oath that referencing “first do no harm” as the main point and an exact quote.   while not the type to directly correct someone, especially about something that i think a majority of people believe,  and it just makes me look like a philosophical snob or elitist.  that said, i heard someone mentioning the “first, do no harm” portion in conversation and ascribing it to the hippocratic oath again yesterday which precipitated this posting.  i don’t believe that people deliberately want to misquote or mislead others as this seems to be a generally held belief.

for the record, the original version of the hippocratic oath is as follows:

“I swear by Apollo the Physician and Asclepius and Hygeia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant:

To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parent and to live my life in partnership with him, and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in male lineage and to teach them this art—if they desire to learn it—without fee and covenant; to give share of precepts and oral instruction and all other learning to my sons and to the sons of him who has instructed me and to pupils who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, but to no one else.

I will apply dietetic measure for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice. I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and in holiness I will guard my life and my art.

I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work.

Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves.

What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself holding such things shameful to be spoken about.

If I fulfill this oath and do not violate it, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and art, being honored with fame among all men for all time to come; if I transgress it and swear falsely, may the opposite be my lot.

Hippocrates (c. 460–c. 370 B.C.).  The Oath and Law of Hippocrates.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.

as one can see in the oath the passage “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing” and “In whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm” (pp. 299, 301) IMPLIES to do no harm but the exact wording “first do no harm” (in latin, “primum non nocere”) is not in the hippocratic oath.

Hippocrates (c. 460–c. 370 B.C.).  The Oath and Law of Hippocrates.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.

clearly, there is an explicit and implicit understanding in the oath to “first do no harm” however, this is not part of the hippcratic oath.  the mention not doing harm IS in the hippocratic corpus.  not that there isn’t controversy surrounding the corpus as its true authorship is a much-debated topic, but we will ascribe it to hippocrates as some of the greatest philosophic scholars can not say for sure.  it has actually been postulated that many ‘authors’ had their hand in writing the many books of the corpus.  even so, the corpus is largely associated with hippocrates and we may never know for sure whose work it was or who contributed to it.

alas, for now, I leave you with the part most have come to accept of as one of the main points of the hippocratic oath:

in  latin, “primum non nocere” which literally means “first do no harm” is seen in one of the books of the corpus .  “As to diseases, make a habit of two things—to help, or at least to do no harm. The art has three factors, the disease, the patient, the physician. The physician is the servant of the art. The patient must co-operate with the physician in combating the disease.”

Hippocrates, Epidemics, book 1, section 11.—Hippocrates,trans. W. H. S. Jones, vol. 1, p. 165 (1923).

so, now you know if you didn’t already!

what’s all this about skepticism?

In Education, Philosophy on Sunday, 10 February 2013 at 08:37

What is Skepticism, Anyway?

By: Michael Shermer, Ph.D.

 I often hear, “Oh, you’re a skeptic, so you don’t believe anything?” No, I believe lots of things, as long as there is reason and evidence to believe.– Michael Shermer

As the publisher of Skeptic magazine I am often asked what I mean by skepticism, and if I’m skeptical of everything or if I actually believe anything. Skepticism is not a position that you stake out ahead of time and stick to no matter what.

Consider global warming: Are you a global warming skeptic? Or are you skeptical of the global warming skeptics? In this case, I used to be a global warming skeptic, but now I’m skeptical of the global warming skeptics, which makes me a global warming believer based on the facts as I understand them at the moment. The “at the moment” part is what makes conclusions in science and skepticism provisional.

Thus, science and skepticism are synonymous, and in both cases it’s okay to change your mind if the evidence changes. It all comes down to this question: What are the facts in support or against a particular claim?

There is also a popular notion that skeptics are closed-minded. Some even call us cynics. In principle, skeptics are neither closed-minded nor cynical. We are curious but cautious.

Or, I often hear, “Oh, you’re a skeptic, so you don’t believe anything?” No, I believe lots of things, as long as there is reason and evidence to believe. For example:

• I believe in the germ theory of disease.

• I believe that vaccines are good for societal health.

• I believe that fluoridated water reduces cavities.

• I believe in the Big Bang theory of the universe.

• I believe that the theory of evolution best explains life.

• I believe that the theory of plate tectonics best explains the the continents.

• I believe that the periodic table of elements best explains chemistry.

• I believe that JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald.

• I believe aliens are probably out there somewhere but that they have not visited Earth.

Being a skeptic just means being rational and empirical: thinking and seeing before believing. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this historical usage of the word Skeptic:

“One who doubts the validity of what claims to be knowledge in some particular department of inquiry; one who maintains a doubting attitude with reference to some particular question or statement.” And: “A seeker after truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite convictions.


Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:

Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.

Skeptics question the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it. In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the “Show Me” state. When we skeptics hear a fantastic claim, we say, “That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.”

You say you believe in Big Foot? I say, “That’s interesting, show me a body of a Big Foot creature and I’ll believe.”

You say you believe that aliens have landed on Earth? I say, “That’s fascinating, show me an alien body or a crashed spacecraft and I’ll believe.”

It is not always easy to evaluate claims, and so we skeptics have developed what the astronomer Carl Sagan called “the fine art of baloney detection.” Inspired by Sagan, at Skeptic magazine we produced what we call the Baloney Detection Kit, which consists of a list of questions to ask when encountering any claim. Here are a few:

• Does the source of a claim often make similar claims? Pseudoscientists have a habit of going well beyond the facts, so when individuals make numerous extraordinary claims they may be more than just iconoclasts.

• Have the claims been verified by another source? Typically pseudoscientists will make statements that are unverified, or verified by a source within their own belief circle. We must ask who is checking the claims, and even who is checking the checkers? The biggest problem with the cold fusion debacle, for example, was not that Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman were wrong; it was that they announced their spectacular discovery before it was verified by other laboratories (at a press conference no less), and, worse, when cold fusion was not replicated they continued to cling to their claim.

• Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only confirmatory evidence been sought? This is the confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek confirming evidence and reject or ignore disconfirming evidence. It is why the methods of science that emphasize checking and rechecking, verification and replication, and especially attempts to falsify a claim, are so critical.

• Has the claimant provided a different explanation for the observed phenomena, or is it strictly a process of denying the existing explanation? This is a classic debate strategy — criticize your opponent and never affirm what you believe in order to avoid criticism. But this stratagem is unacceptable in science. Big Bang skeptics, for example, ignore the convergence of evidence of this cosmological model, focus on the few flaws in the accepted model, and have yet to offer a viable cosmological alternative that carriers a preponderance of evidence in favor of it.

• Do the claimants’ personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions, or vice versa? All scientists hold social, political, and ideological beliefs that could potentially slant their interpretations of the data, but how do those biases and beliefs affect their research? At some point, usually during the peer-review system, such biases and beliefs are rooted out, or the paper or book is rejected for publication. This is why one should not work in an intellectual vacuum. If you don’t catch the biases in your research, someone else will.

Also in the Skeptics’ Toolkit is an aphorism often attributed to Carl Sagan, but was actually said by others before and in several different wordings, but regardless of its etymology this is a line you should keep in mind whenever someone regales you with an extraordinary claim:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

That is, the more fantastical the claim, the more skeptical you should be unless the evidence is equally fantastic.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today’s most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email tedweekends@huffingtonpost.com to learn about future weekend’s ideas to contribute as a writer.

Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-shermer/what-is-skepticism-anyway_b_2581917.html?ir=TED+Weekends&ref=topbar

giroux on the war against teachers

In Education, Education advocacy, Pedagogy, Philosophy, School reform on Monday, 4 February 2013 at 16:35

things that make you go, “hmmm…”



Marxism…or, “Whose turn is it to buy the smokes?”

In Philosophy on Sunday, 23 September 2012 at 13:12

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.“-Karl Marx

Marxists’ Apartment A Microcosm Of Why Marxism Doesn’t Work

November 13, 2002 | ISSUE 38•42 | More News

AMHERST, MA—The filthy, disorganized apartment shared by three members of the Amherst College Marxist Society is a microcosm of why the social and economic utopia described in the writings of Karl Marx will never come to fruition, sources reported Monday.  “The history of society is the inexorable history of class struggle,” said sixth-year undergraduate Kirk Dorff, 23, resting his feet on a coffee table cluttered with unpaid bills, crusted cereal bowls, and bongwater-stained socialist pamphlets. “The stage is set for the final struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the true productive class. We’re well aware of that here at 514 W. Elm Street, unlike other apartments on this supposedly intellectual campus.”

Upon moving in together at the beginning of the fall 2001 semester, Dorff, Josh Foyle, and Tom Eaves sat down and devised an egalitarian system for harmonious living. Each individual roommate would be assigned a task, which he would be required to carry out on a predetermined day of the week. A bulletin board in the kitchen was chosen as the spot for household announcements, and to track reimbursements for common goods like toothpaste and toilet paper.

“We were creating an exciting new model for living,” said Dorff, stubbing his cigarette into an ashtray that had not been emptied in six days. “It was like we were dismantling the apparatus of the state right within our own living space.”

Despite the roommates’ optimism, the system began to break down soon after its establishment. To settle disputes, the roommates held weekly meetings of the “Committee of Three.”

“I brought up that I thought it was total bullshit that I’m, like, the only one who ever cooks around here, yet I have to do the dishes, too,” said Foyle, unaware of just how much the apartment underscores the infeasibility of scientific socialism as outlined in Das Kapital. “So we decided that if I cook, someone else has to do the dishes. We were going to rotate bathroom-cleaning duty, but then Kirk kept skipping his week, so we had to give him the duty of taking out the garbage instead. But now he has a class on Tuesday nights, so we switched that with the mopping.”

After weeks of complaining that he was the only one who knew how to clean “halfway decent,” Foyle began scaling back his efforts, mirroring the sort of production problems experienced in the USSR and other Soviet bloc nations.

At an Oct. 7 meeting of the Committee of Three, more duties and a point system were added. Two months later, however, the duty chart is all but forgotten and the shopping list is several pages long.

The roommates have also tried to implement a food-sharing system, with similarly poor results. The dream of equal distribution of shared goods quickly gave way to pilferage, misallocation, and hoarding.

“I bought the peanut butter the first four times, and this Organic Farms shit isn’t cheap,” Eaves said. “So ever since, I’ve been keeping it in my dresser drawer. If Kirk wants to make himself a sandwich, he can run to the corner store and buy some Jif.”

Another failed experiment involves the cigarettes bought collectively. Disagreements constantly arose over who smoked more than his fair share of the group’s supply of American Spirit Blues, and the roommates now hide individually purchased packs from each other—especially late at night when shortages are frequent.

The situation is familiar to Donald Browning, author of Das Kouch: A History Of College Marxism, 1970-1998.

“When workers willfully become less productive, the economy of the household suffers,” Browning said. “But in a society where a range of ability naturally exists, someone is bound to object to picking up the slack for others and end up getting all pissy, like Josh does.”

According to Browning, the group’s lack of productivity pervades their lives, with roommates encouraging each other to skip class or work to sit on the couch smoking pot and talking politics.

“A spirit of free-market competition in the house would likely result in better incomes or better grades,” Browning said. “Then, instead of being hated and ostracized by the world at large as socialist countries usually are, they could maintain effective diplomacy with their landlord, their parents, and Kirk’s boss who cut back his hours at Shaman Drum Books.”

The lack of funds and the resulting scarcity breeds not only discontent but also corruption. Although collectivism only works when all parties contribute to the fullest extent, Foyle hid the existence of a $245 paycheck from roommates so he would not have to pay his back rent, in essence refusing to participate in the forced voluntary taxation that is key to socialism. Even worse, Dorff, who is entrusted with bill collection and payment, recently pocketed $30, a theft he claimed was “for the heating bill” but was put toward buying drinks later that night.

“As is human nature, power tends to corrupt even the noblest of men,” Browning said. “The more power the collective has over the lives of the individuals, as is the case in this household, the more he who is in charge of distribution has to gain by being unscrupulous. These Marxists will soon realize they overestimated how much control they would like 514 W. Elm as an entity to have.”

Retrieved from: http://www.theonion.com/articles/marxists-apartment-a-microcosm-of-why-marxism-does,1382/

Some thoughts on education…

In Education, Pedagogy, Philosophy on Sunday, 16 September 2012 at 11:26

there is a need for teaching to involve true socratic dialectic.  below is an article i found on how it can be done on today’s public schools.  following it is an article on paulo freire.  i believe his books should be required reading for those going into education (along with jonathan kozol’s books on education…all of them!).  i urge anyone in education who has not read kozol’s books to read at least one along with freire’s work.  i believe a better understanding of epistemology and pedagogy, in general, are crucial when trying to make a difference in the education of our nation’s children.


Making the Leap to Socratic Seminars

By Elizabeth Ely

Premium article access courtesy of TeacherMagazine.org.

Over the past few years, I’ve attended summer workshop after summer workshop that touted the merits of Socratic seminars. The discussions revolved around open-ended questions facilitated by not teachers, as I’d previously understood such seminars—but students. Perhaps it is appropriate that I often left these workshops with more questions than answers.

I just couldn’t picture how this would work in my 6th grade English/language arts classroom. How would I guide my students to discuss topics in a civil way and connect their ideas to their academic learning? How would I ensure each student was engaged? How would I assess students? What if no one had anything to say?

But this past year, I pushed aside my own desire for control and gave more agency to my students. It was risky, especially when facing high-stakes testing and a new evaluation system. But my students were more engaged in learning than ever. And I knew that I didn’t need to worry about the evaluation rubric if my students could sustain this kind of growth.

Listen, Discuss, Collaborate

Let’s face it—most middle school students don’t walk into our classrooms in August ready and able to participate in a Socratic seminar … or any type of academic discussion. But here’s how I got them ready.

From week one, I began to set expectations about three major skills: active listening, academic discussion, and collaborative teamwork. I also worked to create a climate in which it was safe for students to speak their minds—where it’s okay to take risks (and sometimes fail).

The first thing we talked about was active listening. Students need to understand that a discussion involves constant feedback and participation from all involved—and that even a listener’s body language can affect the tone and focus of the discussion. I solicited and recorded students’ ideas about what active listening is, creating a sort of “how-to” poster as they discussed.

During the first week, I built in lots of discussion activities in pairs, small groups, and whole-class arrangements. Students got to know one another, built a sense of community, and practiced their active-listening skills.

One of our first activities was “What’s My Lie?” Students wrote three statements about themselves—two true statements and one that was a lie. I did the same, then modeled the activity: I shared my statements with a student volunteer, who then guessed which statement was a lie and explained why. I confirmed or shared the correct answers.

Next, students mingled and performed the same activity, changing partners when prompted. I reminded students about active listening and encouraged them to thank their partners in the activity.

During the early weeks of the school year, our activities were very structured, gradually becoming less so. Students learned to initiate questions or engage in discourse without my dictating the order of responses.

Early on, I introduced strategies for responding to others in a civil way that sustains the discussion: “I agree, Bobby, but I would also add … ” or “I disagree, Sally, because the text says … ” or “That reminds me of the article/text/novel that … ”

As last year got going, I realized that my new role was to facilitate learning rather than deliver it. As I moved from table to table, I modeled active listening and academic discussion for my students while at the same time getting to know them and assessing their learning.

Next Step: Introducing Socratic Seminars

I now know you should never spring a Socratic seminar on students without introducing the concept. Period. For a seminar to be truly effective, I’ve found my students need to know what it is, why they’re doing it, what’s expected of them, and how they’ll be graded. They need time to prepare.

Two or three days before our first seminar, I took an entire period to introduce what Socratic seminars are like—and why we would be doing them.

Students need to understand the roles of the seminars in my classroom—and their importance. A seminar can be a discussion of articles or a novel students have read, or they can be the culminating point of an entire unit. Seminars can help students with pre-writing or serve as performance-based assessments.

It is also important for students to perceive seminar participation as an exciting privilege—a chance to be responsible for their own learning. I want them to see that I am interested in their insights. The more I stress the value of the activity, the more value students place on their personal performance.

I began the first introductory session by giving students background on who Socrates was and what “Socratic” means. I introduced Socrates as an ancient Greek philosopher and teacher who valued the power of asking questions, engaging in inquiry, and discussing rather than debating.

Then we talked about the seminar’s structure. I’ve found an inner-outer circle most effective with my 6th graders. I arrange student desks in two concentric circles. During the seminar, the inner circle discusses while the outer circle observes and assesses their inner partners. Halfway through the seminar, the groups switch roles.

I explained the seminar responsibilities of students: to be prepared with their handouts and texts, to take part in discussion when in the inner circle, and to evaluate the discussion when in the outer circle.

My favorite part was explaining my role as teacher, which is to open a Diet Coke and relax. They laughed, but by the end of the year, they realized how accurate this description had been.

This year, this introductory lesson will be followed by a class session in which we watch and analyze a video clip of a Socratic seminar in action.

Deciding What Matters: Student-Generated Rubrics

I took another risk this past year as I committed to a student-centered classroom: I decided students should play a role in designing a rubric for seminar participation.

I had initiated this process at the start of the year, when I first asked students to identify the characteristics of an active listener. Continued reflection on the “how” of our classroom activities led students to become much more aware of my expectations—and their own.

The day after I introduced the basic concept of Socratic seminars, I asked students to consider how the seminars should be evaluated.

I distributed a template with categories (participation, quality of discussion, and behavior/attitude) and scoring columns (exemplary, proficient, and emerging). I left the contents of the rubric blank, and asked student groups to generate indicators for each of the possible scores for the categories.

I recorded student contributions and solicited revisions along the way, encouraging as much specificity as possible. And I found that, given the opportunity, my students set high expectations for themselves—in part because they were so excited and honored to be able to take part in the seminars.

The rubric-building activity helps students become even more aware of what’s expected on seminar day. Just to make sure we were all on the same page, I posted the rubric to my class wiki, requiring students to review it for homework and “sign” their names on the wiki page.

Many teachers have practiced this kind of student-centered instruction. But it was revolutionary for me, a teacher who once felt more comfortable with a tightly scripted plan for each lesson.

Here’s what my principal said after observing a Socratic seminar in my 6th grade ELA classroom: “The only thing that could have made it more impressive was if you had just turned around and left the room.”

On that day, in that moment, I became obsolete and loved it. It was then that I knew I truly had a student-centered classroom—my students were motivated and engaged enough to learn from one another without me.

Elizabeth Ely is a 6th grade ELA and world history teacher at Walker Middle Magnet for International Studies in Tampa, Fla. She is a member of CTQ’s Teacher Leaders Network and plans to continue taking risks this year in the classroom.


food for thought…

Reference: Smith, M. K. (1997, 2002) ‘Paulo Freire and informal education’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [www.infed.org/thinkers/et-freir.htm. Last update: May 29, 2012]


paulo freire

Perhaps the most influential thinker about education in the late twentieth century, Paulo Freire has been particularly popular with informal educators with his emphasis on dialogue and his concern for the oppressed.

Paulo Freire (1921 – 1997), the Brazilian educationalist, has left a significant mark on thinking about progressive practice. His Pedagogy of the Oppressed is currently one of the most quoted educational texts (especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia). Freire was able to draw upon, and weave together, a number of strands of thinking about educational practice and liberation. Sometimes some rather excessive claims are made for his work e.g. ‘the most significant educational thinker of the twentieth century’. He wasn’t – John Dewey would probably take that honour – but Freire certainly made a number of important theoretical innovations that have had a considerable impact on the development of educational practice – and on informal education and popular education in particular. In this piece we assess these – and briefly examine some of the critiques that can be made of his work.


Five aspects of Paulo Freire’s work have a particular significance for our purposes here. First, his emphasis on dialogue has struck a very strong chord with those concerned with popular and informal education. Given that informal education is a dialogical (or conversational) rather than a curricula form this is hardly surprising. However, Paulo Freire was able to take the discussion on several steps with his insistence that dialogue involves respect. It should not involve one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other. Too much education, Paulo Freire argues, involves ‘banking’ – the educator making ‘deposits’ in the educatee.

Second, Paulo Freire was concerned with praxis – action that is informed (and linked to certain values). Dialogue wasn’t just about deepening understanding – but was part of making a difference in the world. Dialogue in itself is a co-operative activity involving respect. The process is important and can be seen as enhancing community and building social capital and to leading us to act in ways that make for justice and human flourishing. Informal and popular educators have had a long-standing orientation to action – so the emphasis on change in the world was welcome. But there was a sting in the tail. Paulo Freire argued for informed action and as such provided a useful counter-balance to those who want to diminish theory.

Third, Freire’s attention to naming the world has been of great significance to those educators who have traditionally worked with those who do not have a voice, and who are oppressed. The idea of building a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ or a ‘pedagogy of hope’ and how this may be carried forward has formed a significant impetus to work. An important element of this was his concern with conscientization – developing consciousness, but consciousness that is understood to have the power to transform reality’ (Taylor 1993: 52).

Fourth, Paulo Freire’s insistence on situating educational activity in the lived experience of participants has opened up a series of possibilities for the way informal educators can approach practice. His concern to look for words that have the possibility of generating new ways of naming and acting in the world when working with people around literacies is a good example of this.

Fifth, a number of informal educators have connected with Paulo Freire’s use of metaphors drawn from Christian sources. An example of this is the way in which the divide between teachers and learners can be transcended. In part this is to occur as learners develop their consciousness, but mainly it comes through the ‘class suicide’ or ‘Easter experience’ of the teacher.

The educator for liberation has to die as the unilateral educator of the educatees, in order to be born again as the educator-educatee of the educatees-educators. An educator is a person who has to live in the deep significance of Easter. Quoted by Paul Taylor (1993: 53)


Inevitably, there are various points of criticism. First, many are put off by Paulo Freire’s language and his appeal to mystical concerns. The former was a concern of Freire himself in later life – and his work after Pedagogy of the Oppressed was usually written within a more conversational or accessible framework.

Second, Paulo Freire tends to argue in an either/or way. We are either with the oppressed or against them. This may be an interesting starting point for teaching, but taken too literally it can make for rather simplistic (political) analysis.

Third, there is an tendency in Freire to overturn everyday situations so that they become pedagogical. Paulo Freire’s approach was largely constructed around structured educational situations. While his initial point of reference might be non-formal, the educational encounters he explores remain formal (Torres 1993: 127)  In other words, his approach is still curriculum-based and entail transforming settings into a particular type of pedagogical space. This can rather work against the notion of dialogue (in that curriculum implies a predefined set of concerns and activities). Educators need to look for ‘teachable moments’ – but when we concentrate on this we can easily overlook simple power of being in conversation with others.

Fourth, what is claimed as liberatory practice may, on close inspection, be rather closer to banking than we would wish. In other words, the practice of Freirian education can involve smuggling in all sorts of ideas and values under the guise of problem-posing. Taylor’s analysis of Freire’s literacy programme shows that:

.. the rhetoric which announced the importance of dialogue, engagement, and equality, and denounced silence, massification and oppression, did not match in practice the subliminal messages and modes of a Banking System of education. Albeit benign, Freire’s approach differs only in degree, but not in kind, from the system which he so eloquently criticizes. (Taylor 1993: 148)

Educators have to teach. They have to transform transfers of information into a ‘real act of knowing’ (op cit: 43).

Fifth, there are problems regarding Freire’s model of literacy. While it may be taken as a challenge to the political projects of northern states, his analysis remains rooted in assumptions about cognitive development and the relation of literacy to rationality that are suspect (Street 1983: 14). His work has not ‘entirely shrugged off the assumptions of the “autonomous model”‘ (ibid.: 14).

Last, there are questions concerning the originality of Freire’s contribution. As Taylor has put it – to say that as many commentators do that Freire’s thinking is ‘eclectic’, is ‘to underestimate the degree to which he borrowed directly from other sources’ (Taylor 1993: 34). Taylor (1993: 34-51) brings out a number of these influences and ‘absorbtions’ – perhaps most interestingly the extent to which the structure of Pedagogy of the Oppressed parallels Kosik’s Dialectic of the Concrete (published in Spanish in the mid 1960s). Here we would simply invite you to compare Freire’s interests with those of Martin Buber. His concern with conversation, encounter, being and ethical education have strong echoes in Freirian thought.

Further reading and references

Key texts:

Paulo Freire’s central work remains:

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin. Important exploration of dialogue and the possibilities for liberatory practice. Freire provides a rationale for a pedagogy of the oppressed; introduces the highly influential notion of banking education; highlights the contrasts between education forms that treat people as objects rather than subjects; and explores education as cultural action. See, also:

Freire, P. (1995) Pedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum. This book began as a new preface to his classic work, but grew into a book. It’s importance lies in Freire’s reflection on the text and how it was received, and on the development of policy and practice subsequently. Written in a direct and engaging way.

Biographical material: There are two useful English language starting points:

Freire, P. (1996) Letters to Cristina. Reflections on my life and work, London: Routledge. Retrospective on Freire’s work and life. in the form of letters to his niece. He looks back at his childhood experiences, to his youth, and his life as an educator and policymaker.

Gadotti, M. (1994) Reading Paulo Freire. His life and work, New York: SUNY Press. Clear presentation of Freire’s thinking set in historical context written by a close collaborator.

For my money the best critical exploration of his work is:

Taylor, P. (1993) The Texts of Paulo Freire, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Other references

Kosik, K. (1988) La dialectique du concret, Paris: Plon.

Street, B. V. (1984) Literacy in Theory and Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Torres, C. A. (1993) ‘From the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to “A Luta Continua”: the political pedagogy of Paulo Freire’ in P. McLaren and P. Leonard (eds.) Freire: A critical encounter, London: Routledge.


Lesley Bentley – Paulo Freire. Brief biography plus lots of useful links.

Catedra Paulo Freire (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Sao Paulo) – click for English version.

Blanca Facundo’s critique of Freire’s ideas, and reactions to Facundo’s critique – interesting collection of pieces.

Paulo Freire Institute – a wide range of material available about current work in the Freirian tradition. Click for the English version.

Daniel Schugurensky on Freireconsists of a collection of reviews of his books and links to other pages.

Q&A: The Freirian Approach to Adult Literacy Education,  David Spener’s review for ERIC.

The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All

In Education, Philosophy on Sunday, 16 September 2012 at 10:54

as promised, i am posting this for a reader.  while it is an old article, i think it is still pertinent.

The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All

Herbert J. Gans

Social Policy July/August 1971: pp. 20-24

Some twenty years ago Robert K. Merton applied the notion of functional analysis to explain the continuing though maligned existence of the urban political machine: if it continued to exist, perhaps it fulfilled latent – unintended or unrecognized – positive functions. Clearly it did. Merton pointed out how the political machine provided central authority to get things done when a decentralized local government could not act, humanized the services of the impersonal bureaucracy for fearful citizens, offered concrete help (rather than abstract law or justice) to the poor, and otherwise performed services needed or demanded by many people but considered unconventional or even illegal by formal public agencies.

Today, poverty is more maligned than the political machine ever was; yet it, too, is a persistent social phenomenon. Consequently, there may be some merit in applying functional analysis to poverty, in asking whether it also has positive functions that explain its persistence.

Merton defined functions as “those observed consequences [of a phenomenon] which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given [social] system.” I shall use a slightly different definition; instead of identifying functions for an entire social system, I shall identify them for the interest groups, socio-economic classes, and other population aggregates with shared values that ‘inhabit’ a social system. I suspect that in a modern heterogeneous society, few phenomena are functional or dysfunctional for the society as a whole, and that most result in benefits to some groups and costs to others. Nor are any phenomena indispensable; in most instances, one can suggest what Merton calls “functional alternatives” or equivalents for them, i.e., other social patterns or policies that achieve the same positive functions but avoid the dysfunctions.

Associating poverty with positive functions seems at first glance to be unimaginable. Of course, the slumlord and the loan shark are commonly known to profit from the existence of poverty, but they are viewed as evil men, so their activities are classified among the dysfunctions of poverty. However, what is less often recognized, at least by the conventional wisdom, is that poverty also makes possible the existence or expansion of respectable professions and occupations, for example, penology, criminology, social work, and public health. More recently, the poor have provided jobs for professional and para-professional “poverty warriors,” and for journalists and social scientists, this author included, who have supplied the information demanded by the revival of public interest in poverty.

Clearly, then, poverty and the poor may well satisfy a number of positive functions for many non-poor groups in American society. I shall describe thirteen such functions – economic, social and political – that seem to me most significant.

The Functions of Poverty

First, the existence of poverty ensures that society’s “dirty work” will be done. Every society has such work: physically dirty or dangerous, temporary, dead-end and underpaid, undignified and menial jobs. Society can fill these jobs by paying higher wages than for “clean” work, or it can force people who have no other choice to do the dirty work – and at low wages. In America, poverty functions to provide a low-wage labor pool that is willing – or rather, unable to be unwilling – to perform dirty work at low cost. Indeed, this function of the poor is so important that in some Southern states, welfare payments have been cut off during the summer months when the poor are needed to work in the fields. Moreover, much of the debate about the Negative Income Tax and the Family Assistance Plan [welfare programs] has concerned their impact on the work incentive, by which is actually meant the incentive of the poor to do the needed dirty work if the wages therefrom are no larger than the income grant. Many economic activities that involve dirty work depend on the poor for their existence: restaurants, hospitals, parts of the garment industry, and “truck farming,” among others, could not persist in their present form without the poor.

Second, because the poor are required to work at low wages, they subsidize a variety of economic activities that benefit the affluent. For example, domestics subsidize the upper middle and upper classes, making life easier for their employers and freeing affluent women for a variety of professional, cultural, civic and partying activities. Similarly, because the poor pay a higher proportion of their income in property and sales taxes, among others, they subsidize many state and local governmental services that benefit more affluent groups. In addition, the poor support innovation in medical practice as patients in teaching and research hospitals and as guinea pigs in medical experiments.

Third, poverty creates jobs for a number of occupations and professions that serve or “service” the poor, or protect the rest of society from them. As already noted, penology would be minuscule without the poor, as would the police. Other activities and groups that flourish because of the existence of poverty are the numbers game, the sale of heroin and cheap wines and liquors, Pentecostal ministers, faith healers, prostitutes, pawn shops, and the peacetime army, which recruits its enlisted men mainly from among the poor.

Fourth, the poor buy goods others do not want and thus prolong the economic usefulness of such goods – day-old bread, fruit and vegetables that otherwise would have to be thrown out, secondhand clothes, and deteriorating automobiles and buildings. They also provide incomes for doctors, lawyers, teachers, and others who are too old, poorly trained or incompetent to attract more affluent clients.

In addition to economic functions, the poor perform a number of social functions:

Fifth, the poor can be identified and punished as alleged or real deviants in order to uphold the legitimacy of conventional norms. To justify the desirability of hard work, thrift, honesty, and monogamy, for example, the defenders of these norms must be able to find people who can be accused of being lazy, spendthrift, dishonest, and promiscuous. Although there is some evidence that the poor are about as moral and law-abiding as anyone else, they are more likely than middle-class transgressors to be caught and punished when they participate in deviant acts. Moreover, they lack the political and cultural power to correct the stereotypes that other people hold of them and thus continue to be thought of as lazy, spendthrift, etc., by those who need living proof that moral deviance does not pay.

Sixth, and conversely, the poor offer vicarious participation to the rest of the population in the uninhibited sexual, alcoholic, and narcotic behavior in which they are alleged to participate and which, being freed from the constraints of affluence, they are often thought to enjoy more than the middle classes. Thus many people, some social scientists included, believe that the poor not only are more given to uninhibited behavior (which may be true, although it is often motivated by despair more than by lack of inhibition) but derive more pleasure from it than affluent people (which research by Lee Rainwater, Walter Miller and others shows to be patently untrue). However, whether the poor actually have more sex and enjoy it more is irrelevant; so long as middle-class people believe this to be true, they can participate in it vicariously when instances are reported in factual or fictional form.

Seventh, the poor also serve a direct cultural function when culture created by or for them is adopted by the more affluent. The rich often collect artifacts from extinct folk cultures of poor people; and almost all Americans listen to the blues, Negro spirituals, and country music, which originated among the Southern poor. Recently they have enjoyed the rock styles that were born, like the Beatles, in the slums, and in the last year, poetry written by ghetto children has become popular in literary circles. The poor also serve as culture heroes, particularly, of course, to the Left; but the hobo, the cowboy, the hipster, and the mythical prostitute with a heart of gold have performed this function for a variety of groups.

Eighth, poverty helps to guarantee the status of those who are not poor. In every hierarchical society, someone has to be at the bottom; but in American society, in which social mobility is an important goal for many and people need to know where they stand, the poor function as a reliable and relatively permanent measuring rod for status comparisons. This is particularly true for the working class, whose politics is influenced by the need to maintain status distinctions between themselves and the poor, much as the aristocracy must find ways of distinguishing itself from the nouveaux riches.

Ninth, the poor also aid the upward mobility of groups just above them in the class hierarchy. Thus a goodly number of Americans have entered the middle class through the profits earned from the provision of goods and services in the slums, including illegal or nonrespectable ones that upper-class and upper-middle-class businessmen shun because of their low prestige. As a result, members of almost every immigrant group have financed their upward mobility by providing slum housing, entertainment, gambling, narcotics, etc., to later arrivals – most recently to Blacks and Puerto Ricans.

Tenth, the poor help to keep the aristocracy busy, thus justifying its continued existence. “Society” uses the poor as clients of settlement houses and beneficiaries of charity affairs; indeed, the aristocracy must have the poor to demonstrate its superiority over other elites who devote themselves to earning money.

Eleventh, the poor, being powerless, can be made to absorb the costs of change and growth in American society. During the nineteenth century, they did the backbreaking work that built the cities; today, they are pushed out of their neighborhoods to make room for “progress. Urban renewal projects to hold middle-class taxpayers in the city and expressways to enable suburbanites to commute downtown have typically been located in poor neighborhoods, since no other group will allow itself to be displaced. For the same reason, universities, hospitals, and civic centers also expand into land occupied by the poor. The major costs of the industrialization of agriculture have been borne by the poor, who are pushed off the land without recompense; and they have paid a large share of the human cost of the growth of American power overseas, for they have provided many of the foot soldiers for Vietnam and other wars.

Twelfth, the poor facilitate and stabilize the American political process. Because they vote and participate in politics less than other groups, the political system is often free to ignore them. Moreover, since they can rarely support Republicans, they often provide the Democrats with a captive constituency that has no other place to go. As a result, the Democrats can count on their votes, and be more responsive to voters – for example, the white working class – who might otherwise switch to the Republicans.

Thirteenth, the role of the poor in upholding conventional norms (see the fifth point, above) also has a significant political function. An economy based on the ideology of laissez faire requires a deprived population that is allegedly unwilling to work or that can be considered inferior because it must accept charity or welfare in order to survive. Not only does the alleged moral deviancy of the poor reduce the moral pressure on the present political economy to eliminate poverty but socialist alternatives can be made to look quite unattractive if those who will benefit most from them can be described as lazy, spendthrift, dishonest and promiscuous.

The Alternatives

I have described thirteen of the more important functions poverty and the poor satisfy in American society, enough to support the functionalist thesis that poverty, like any other social phenomenon, survives in part because it is useful to society or some of its parts. This analysis is not intended to suggest that because it is often functional, poverty should exist, or that it must exist. For one thing, poverty has many more dysfunctions that functions; for another, it is possible to suggest functional alternatives.

For example, society’s dirty work could be done without poverty, either by automation or by paying “dirty workers” decent wages. Nor is it necessary for the poor to subsidize the many activities they support through their low-wage jobs. This would, however, drive up the costs of these activities, which would result in higher prices to their customers and clients. Similarly, many of the professionals who flourish because of the poor could be given other roles. Social workers could provide counseling to the affluent, as they prefer to do anyway; and the police could devote themselves to traffic and organized crime. Other roles would have to be found for badly trained or incompetent professionals now relegated to serving the poor, and someone else would have to pay their salaries. Fewer penologists would be employable, however. And Pentecostal religion probably could not survive without the poor – nor would parts of the second- and third-hand goods market. And in many cities, “used” housing that no one else wants would then have to be torn down at public expense.

Alternatives for the cultural functions of the poor could be found more easily and cheaply. Indeed, entertainers, hippies, and adolescents are already serving as the deviants needed to uphold traditional morality and as devotees of orgies to “staff” the fantasies of vicarious participation.

The status functions of the poor are another matter. In a hierarchical society, some people must be defined as inferior to everyone else with respect to a variety of attributes, but they need not be poor in the absolute sense. One could conceive of a society in which the “lower class,” though last in the pecking order, received 75 percent of the median income, rather than 15-40 percent, as is now the case. Needless to say, this would require considerable income redistribution.

The contribution the poor make to the upward mobility of the groups that provide them with goods and services could also be maintained without the poor having such low incomes. However, it is true that if the poor were more affluent, they would have access to enough capital to take over the provider role, thus competing with and perhaps rejecting the “outsiders.” (Indeed, owing in part to antipoverty programs, this is already happening in a number of ghettos, where white store owners are being replaced by Blacks.) Similarly, if the poor were more affluent, they would make less willing clients for upper-class philanthropy, although some would still use settlement houses to achieve upward mobility, as they do now. Thus “Society” could continue to run its philanthropic activities.

The political functions of the poor would be more difficult to replace. With increased affluence the poor would probably obtain more political power and be more active politically. With higher incomes and more political power, the poor would be likely to resist paying the costs of growth and change. Of course, it is possible to imagine urban renewal and highway projects that properly reimbursed the displaced people, but such projects would then become considerably more expensive, and many might never be built. This, in turn, would reduce the comfort and convenience of those who now benefit from urban renewal and expressways. Finally, hippies could serve also as more deviants to justify the existing political economy – as they already do. Presumably, however, if poverty were eliminated, there would be fewer attacks on that economy.

In sum, then, many of the functions served by the poor could be replaced if poverty were eliminated, but almost always at higher costs to others, particularly more affluent others. Consequently, a functional analysis must conclude that poverty persists not only because it fulfills a number of positive functions but also because many of the functional alternatives to poverty would be quite dysfunctional for the affluent members of society. A functional analysis thus ultimately arrives at much the same conclusion as radical sociology, except that radical thinkers treat as manifest what I describe as latent: that social phenomena that are functional for affluent or powerful groups and dysfunctional for poor or powerless ones persist; that when the elimination of such phenomena through functional alternatives would generate dysfunctions for the affluent or powerful, they will continue to persist; and that phenomena like poverty can be eliminated only when they become dysfunctional for the affluent or powerful, or when the powerless can obtain enough power to change society.

skepticism is healthy…

In Philosophy on Sunday, 16 September 2012 at 07:14

always view everything with a healthy dose of skepticism. make your own conclusions.

Socratic Dialectic and Constructivist Theory in Daniel Quinn’s “My Ishmael”-Lorie Ederr

In Education, Pedagogy, Philosophy on Tuesday, 11 September 2012 at 05:43

I wrote this many years ago (maybe 2005?) as a class assignment.  Not one of my best works, but thought I’d share anyway…

Socratic Dialectic and Constructivist Theory in Daniel Quinn’s “My Ishmael”

Lorie Ederr

          At its core, the book “My Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn, chronicles the relationship between Ishmael (a gorilla) and his twelve year-old pupil (Julie).  Ishmael and Julie embark upon a dialectical relationship in which Julie’s desire for knowledge and understanding are motivated by her need to feel useful, while Ishmael’s primary motivation appears to be the need to impart knowledge.  This dialectic is the basis of the book and the forum upon which Ishmael’s views of the world are expressed.

While it seems authentic dialectic is the goal of this relationship, as well as the type of dialogue illustrated in the book, this does not appear to be the case upon further investigation.  In Socratic questioning, the pupil is led through a series of questions in order to attain “truth” (Honderich, 1995).  For the sake of this paper, truth and knowledge will be interchangeable and understood to be defined by the constructivist view.  The constructivist view purports that knowledge is constructed by the interpreter based on his or her experiences and interactions.  Thus, it is not absolute and does not reflect an ontological reality (Honderich, 1995).  Socrates’ approach to teaching was to induce knowledge through a series of questions in order to gain a posteriori knowledge (Greco & Sosa, 1998).  This is illustrated in the book via Ishmael’s desire for Julie to attain the knowledge that he “gives” her.   This role-oriented questioning, in which the pupil takes a less active role in the learning process, is a component of Socratic questioning.  A purpose of Socratic questioning is to expose the pupil’s logic through reasoning, rationalization, elaboration, and thought development (Greco & Sosa, 1998).  It assumes the roles of facilitator and pupil.  It does allow for both teacher and student to take part in the questioning (as is seen by Julie’s responses to Ishmael), while a less egalitarian relationship would not allow for this.  This is the case with Ishmael and Julie, albeit, by Ishmael assuming the role of “teacher”, there is an imbalance of power that would not allow for authentic dialectic.

An example of this type of questioning can be found in Plato’s Meno (Boyles, 1996), specifically during the dialogue with Socrates and the slave boy. This can be directly related back to My Ishmael and Ishmael’s role in his dialogic relationship with Julie.  In Socrates’ dialogue with the slave boy, it appears he is utilizing Socratic questioning techniques to lead the slave boy to recall geometric truths (Boyles, 1996).  He does this through questioning and answering, and he elicits responses from empirical demonstration in which the slave boy is marginally participatory (Boyles, 1996).  His participation is limited because the relationship is not equal.  Julie is a more active participant than the slave boy, but the role of student and pupil is still evident, as is the imbalance of power merely by assuming these roles.  The teacher (Ishmael) has something to give and the student (Julie) is expected to come to certain conclusions in light of the information she receives.  In questioning a slave boy (and assuming the relationship of owner vs. slave), is it expected that authentic dialectic can be achieved?  Would the slave boy really question Socrates or show disagreement?  In addition, the questions Socrates asks are factual, data-driven, and specific (Boyles, 1996).  In a review of the dialogue, it is apparent that the slave boy only has to answer “yes” and follow Socrates’ lead (Boyles, 1996).  Seen in this light, the question is then posed as to whether or not the slave boy has really gained a posteriori knowledge and could have come to the answer if not “led” so strongly.  The argument can be made that Socrates uses this line of questioning to show the fallibility of this method (Boyles, 1996).

This passive versus active learner is seen in our education system today.  Teachers “deposit information” and “cover material”, mostly through didactic means, and the students are left to “get it” and utilize it (Freire, 1993).  This problem is also termed the “banking method of education” coined by Paulo Freire (1993).  Material (the lesson or concept being taught) is “deposited” by teachers and the students must then “withdraw” it (i.e. during an examination or during ‘testing.’)  The primary concern is not one of authentic dialectic in which the student constructs his or her own truths from his or her experiences and interactions.  The primary concern is one of “covering” specific material.  Once that is done, either in the absence or presence of authentic dialectic (most often in absentia of any authentic dialectic), the teacher’s job is done.  They have “covered” (deposited) the material.

Ishmael (or Quinn) has very strong opinions about our current education system.  According to him, a purpose of education is to keep people out of the job market and he does not see education as a means of preparing a student to become a part of the work force.  Ishmael believes that children who are left to their own devices will seek knowledge that is important to them and create their own meaning through personal constructs.  This does not appear to be the philosophy of the present educational system.  Instead, it seems the goal of the current educational system places strong emphasis on skills and job preparation so that when these students do go into the work force, they will be able to take care of themselves and promote the values of consumerism and capitalism (McLaren, 2003). Banking education attempts to conceal certain facts while placing emphasis on others and resists dialogue while treating students as mere depositories for the given material (Freire, 1993).  This “banking” appears to be most evident in relation to “high stakes testing” and “teaching to the test.”  This is additionally related to the point Ishmael makes regarding preparing graduates to have the skills necessary to gain income and purchase food, in such, reifying the “Taker” plan and becoming an inmate in the “Taker Prison.”

Constructivism can be viewed as the theoretical viewpoint Quinn is attempting to illustrate.  The constructivist view and approach to learning builds on current knowledge by allowing the pupil to explore and investigate based on his or her a priori knowledge, constructs, and experiences (Honderich, 1995).  Pupils are encouraged to actively construct meaning through exploration of interests, deduction, and evaluation (Greco & Sosa, 1998).  By dialoging with Julie, Ishmael wants her to create her own meaning from the stories and examples he gives her.  Whether or not he leads her to come to certain conclusions is of question, but seemingly, she comes to conclusions through experiential learning and self-exploration.  Julie’s reality is based on her experiences and a priori knowledge.

This is in direct contrast with another theoretical viewpoint known as objectivism.  The objectivist view postulates that all objects have intrinsic meaning and knowledge is stable and based on an absolute, ontological reality (Honderich, 1995).   Knowledge, in accordance with objectivist theory, is objective or absolute.  This is in opposition with the constructivist’s view that it is subjective, and thus, unable to be unequivocally regarded as a knowledge claim or “truth.”

In the same vein as objects possessing an absolute reality, Quinn attempts to utilize symbolism in his novel to make certain points, relying on the fact that all symbols will carry with them the same basic meaning for all readers.  He is representing the teacher/student relationship in the relationship between Julie and Ishmael.  By telling the story of the “Takers and the Leavers”, Quinn is symbolizing the impact that industrialization and capitalism have had on society.  When Ishmael tells of the “Great Dancing Revolution”, he is actually referencing the Agricultural Revolution that took place in our own society and the consequences of such.  A further example of symbolism is seen in Ishmael’s use of the phrase “Taker Prison”, which is a fairly obvious parallel to this society’s work force.

Peter McLaren (2003) illustrates the hegemonic practices that foster our educational system and keep the “oppressed” as the submissive culture.  These can be directly related to Ishmael’s views on education as a means of promoting industrialization which foster consumerism and capitalism.  Hegemony serves to keep the “oppressed” oppressed, as does the system of rules and laws made by the Takers to ensure the availability of food sources.  The Takers made it so the Leavers would have no choice but to work for their food.  The Takers took it upon themselves to determine for the Leavers the way in which they should live.  This is also evident in Freire’s (1993) and McLaren’s (2003) examples of the dominant culture (i.e. the oppressors) making rules and laws for others (i.e. the oppressed) to follow.  In today’s educational system, as in today’s culture in general, hegemony runs rampant.  The Takers are still making the rules and the Leavers must follow or risk starving.


          Allen, R.E., trans.  (1984).  The Dialogues of Plato.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Boyles, Deron.  (1996).  Sophstry, Dialectic and Teacher Education: A Reinterpretation of Plato’s Meno.  Philosophy of Education Society.

Freire, Paulo (1993).  Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  New York: Continuum Books.

Greco, John & Sosa, Ernest, eds.  (1998).  The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Honderich, Ted, ed. (1995).  Oxford Companion to Philosophy.  New York: Oxford Press.

McLaren, Peter.  (2003).  Life in the Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education.  New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

The Exploiting Business-Deron Boyles, Ph.D.

In Education, Pedagogy, Philosophy on Tuesday, 11 September 2012 at 05:06

This is a paper written by one of my former professors, Deron Boyles.  While it was released in 2001, it is maybe even more prevalent now than it was then.  I see this is the public schools all the time.  Deron’s descriptions and writing are SPOT ON!

If you are interested in the public schools, this is a great read!



Chaos poem

In Education, Grammar snob, Philosophy on Monday, 10 September 2012 at 17:56

The Chaos

Charivarius (G. Nolst Trenité)


Dearest creature in creation,

Study English pronunciation.

I will teach you in my verse

Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.

I will keep you, Suzy, busy,

Make your head with heat grow dizzy.

Tear in eye, your dress will tear.

So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.


Just compare heart, beard, and heard,

Dies and diet, lord and word,

Sword and sward, retain and Britain.

(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)

Now I surely will not plague you

With such words as plaque and ague.

But be careful how you speak:

Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;

Cloven, oven, how and low,

Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.


Hear me say, devoid of trickery,

Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,

Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,

Exiles, similes, and reviles;

Scholar, vicar, and cigar,

Solar, mica, war and far;

One, anemone, Balmoral,

Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;

Gertrude, German, wind and mind,

Scene, Melpomene, mankind.


Billet does not rhyme with ballet,

Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.

Blood and flood are not like food,

Nor is mould like should and would.

Viscous, viscount, load and broad,

Toward, to forward, to reward.

And your pronunciation’s OK

When you correctly say croquet,

Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,

Friend and fiend, alive and live.


Ivy, privy, famous; clamour

And enamour rhyme with hammer.

River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,

Doll and roll and some and home.

Stranger does not rhyme with anger,

Neither does devour with clangour.

Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,

Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,

Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,

And then singer, ginger, linger,

Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,

Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.


Query does not rhyme with very,

Nor does fury sound like bury.

Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.

Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.

Though the differences seem little,

We say actual but victual.

Refer does not rhyme with deafer.

Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.

Mint, pint, senate and sedate;

Dull, bull, and George ate late.

Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,

Science, conscience, scientific.


Liberty, library, heave and heaven,

Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.

We say hallowed, but allowed,

People, leopard, towed, but vowed.

Mark the differences, moreover,

Between mover, cover, clover;

Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,

Chalice, but police and lice;

Camel, constable, unstable,

Principle, disciple, label.


Petal, panel, and canal,

Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.

Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,

Senator, spectator, mayor.

Tour, but our and succour, four.

Gas, alas, and Arkansas.

Sea, idea, Korea, area,

Psalm, Maria, but malaria.

Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.

Doctrine, turpentine, marine.


Compare alien with Italian,

Dandelion and battalion.

Sally with ally, yea, ye,

Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.

Say aver, but ever, fever,

Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.

Heron, granary, canary.

Crevice and device and aerie.


Face, but preface, not efface.

Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.

Large, but target, gin, give, verging,

Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.

Ear, but earn and wear and tear

Do not rhyme with here but ere.

Seven is right, but so is even,

Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,

Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,

Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.


Pronunciation — think of Psyche!

Is a paling stout and spikey?

Won’t it make you lose your wits,

Writing groats and saying grits?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:

Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,

Islington and Isle of Wight,

Housewife, verdict and indict.


Finally, which rhymes with enough —

Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?

Hiccough has the sound of cup.

My advice is to give up!!!

The Law of Attraction

In Mindfulness, Philosophy, Well-being on Monday, 10 September 2012 at 07:10


The Law of Attraction is one of the most powerful and fundamental laws in this physical universe. Many of the “mysteries of life” can be clarified by a basic knowledge of this  important concept.
Fundamental principles of the Law of Attraction:

1) Definition  — “ That which is like unto itself is drawn “ * (see note at bottom)
2) Thoughts are energy and act like magnets, drawing to them thoughts of similar vibration.
3) When enough thoughts accumulate upon a given topic, it is drawn into the life experience. The more thought, the faster that topic is drawn.
4) The emotions act as amplifiers to thought. Powerful emotion, positive or negative, will draw the thought(s) behind them more quickly into the life experience.  Positive thoughts generate positive emotion and draw positive life experience, negative thoughts generate negative emotion and draw negative life experience.
5) Everything in the physical universe is composed of energy, and ultimately, of thought. Energy and mass are convertible. Each pattern of energy has a unique frequency or vibration. Thoughts are energy and each likewise has a unique frequency or vibration. Emotions are strong vibrational energy patterns which are powerful attractors of like energy.   Leading to  1).
6) When thought is in agreement with a persons inherently divine nature, positive feeling is the result. When thought is in opposition or contradiction to one’s inherently divine nature, negative feeling or emotion is felt.
7) Feelings are therefore the infallible guideposts which will lead inevitably toward the discovery of the true self and one’s inherently positive, divine nature.
8) Each being in the physical co-creates his/her universe by thought. Co-creation is actually attraction, utilizing the Law of Attraction.
9) Deliberate creation is the conscious and knowing use of the Law of Attraction.
10) Victimization, luck, or chance is the unconscious or unknowing application (or mis-application) of Law of Attraction.
11) Probability and statistics are less relevant in the presence of Creative Will (proven by experiment). Said differently, deliberate creation may overcome probability or chance.
12) That which is observed to be happening to another, but which is not present in the observer’s life experience, is the co-creation of the other, else it would be present in the observer’s life experience  (1).
13) The Law of Attraction is a natural result of the Law of Free Will. The ability to generate thought upon any topic (co-creation)  will attract similar thoughts like  it, and so into the life experience.  This acts as protection against anything that is unwanted, for by focusing upon that which is wanted,  that which is not wanted is not drawn.
14) That which is resisted persists, because that which is focused upon is drawn into the life experience. Fighting something that is not wanted always leads to its persistence in the life experience  (1)
15) That which is focused upon is attracted, whether it is wanted or not ( 1 – 5, 13, 14).
16) To get what you want, focus upon it.  Focusing upon what is not wanted, will invite that which is not wanted into the life experience (15)
16a) Protection from something unwanted is impossible, for one immediately activates the vibration of the unwanted thing, and so begins to attract more of it.
16b) De-activation of something not wanted is impossible, for in the attempted deactivation of the unwanted thing, one immediately activates the vibration of the unwanted thing, and so begins to attract more of it. “Try not to think of an elephant.”
17) No one or no thing can create in the experience of another, because no one can think another’s thoughts. Similarly,  no one or no thing can create in your experience, because no one can think your thoughts. Leads to free will (13)
18) Therefore the Law of Attraction protects us from everyone and everything, unless we choose to invite it through our thought. (17)
19) Each being cocreates what will be called a Sphere of Creation, with that being at the center, utilizing the Law of Free Will and the Law of Attraction.
20) The intersection of all Spheres of  Creation creates the common reality.
21) To ‘change the world’, first change your own reality. This will change one of the intersecting Spheres of Creation (your own)  and so influence the Whole.
22) The universe does not distinguish vibrationally between that which is offered from observation and that which is offered from imagination. The house you are living in is composed of vibrating energy patterns . The dream house you imagine in your mind is also composed of vibrating energy patterns. The Law of Attraction works equally well for both. Effective visualization can result in manifestation. To change your reality, practice visualization of what is wanted along with the feeling of what it would be like to have what is wanted.
23) Group meditation or visualization is an effective way to achieve change on a large scale. As the vibration of many Spheres of Creation are raised, the intersection of these with the other spheres comprising the Whole raises the overall vibration of the common reality.
24) All action is the result of a prior thought or thoughts, not the other way around.
25) To change your life experience, alter your thoughts about it before going into action. Altering your vibration can be 95% of the change process, resulting in an alignment of your energy with what is wanted, leading to action along the path of least resistance.
26) Duality or Polarity is simply the not-having and the having. Focusing on lack does not draw what is wanted (leading to not-having)  and focusing upon that which is wanted draws the having – of.
27) All scarcity is the focus upon lack. All abundance is the focus upon having that which is wanted.
28) All feeling is the result of prior thought. To change how you are feeling about an area of life , change your thought(s) upon it
29) The point of attraction is the point of feeling. E.G., If you are feeling poor, you cannot attract prosperity. To attract prosperity, you must feel prosperous. This may seem like a contradiction, but it is a natural result of Law of Attraction – that which is like unto itself is drawn.
30) Every single thing that is in your life experience is attracted by you, and is a reflection of your thoughts and emotions, there are no exceptions
31) Your present reality is  the result of all of your prior thoughts and feelings
32) A belief is a long-standing thought pattern
33) Karma is just a long-standing thought pattern  or patterns in an area of life, which keep attracting the same energy. To change karma, identify and change beliefs. Karma is an unnecessary, but  natural, consequence of Law of Attraction
34) Feeling good is a state of beingness, not doingness. Many think that in order to feel good they must  do something that makes them feel good, but it is just the opposite. First you think of doing something that makes you feel good, the doing of it only helps to hold your thoughts in the positive
35) All trauma has behind it, the Basic Thought(s) which created it. Effective therapy always empowers the client by clearing the trauma and uncovering the Basic Thought(s) which attracted the trauma. Uncovering the Basic Thought(s) behind the trauma will always lead to cognition, which is just recognition by the client of the Basic Thought(s) . This is simply Law of Attraction in reverse
36)  The universe is 100% fair. All things  in your experience are the result of the attractive power of your vibration in that area.  (1 – 5), (8), (9), (17)
37) There is no injustice. All beings are receiving exactly those things upon which they are focusing their attention.   (36)
38)  Scientific objectivity is a myth. Experiments which purport to prove hypotheses actually work by Law of Attraction. The experimenter attracts to him or her the energy or subjects which are in harmony with the experimenter’s intent. This is how  independent experimentation can “prove” opposite conclusions.
In a time-space universe, no two objects can occupy the same spatial coordinates at the same time. Therefore no two observers can have the same viewpoint, even if every observer in the universe were to view an event at the same time.  Objectivity is defined as “of, or having to do with a known or perceived object as distinguished from something existing only in the mind of the subject, or person thinking.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, College Edition,  1962). Since every observer has a different viewpoint, there cannot  be complete agreement as to the true nature or reality of an object. True objectivity requires an observer who can perceive the entirety of space-time all at once, as a whole, in any moment of time. But this is the definition of God. Since no observer can have the status of God, and since science rejects God, there can be no true scientific claim of objectivity. Stated another way:
39) The scientist performs an experiment and attempts to prove or refute RESULT_X. He is focusing on RESULT_X, therefore Law of Attraction is already working to deliver what the scientist is focused upon. The scientist uses rigorous procedures to ensure objectivity, all the while wondering whether or not RESULT_X will prove true by experimentation. And all the while Law of Attraction is busy giving him the energies or subjects corresponding to RESULT_X. The scientist proclaims  objectivity by saying :“I will not declare RESULT_X to be true until it actually manifests.” Meanwhile, a clairvoyant has written an article asserting that RESULT_X is true. The scientists laughs, scoffing at this unprovable assertion, and showing many pages of mathematical equations showing that there is only a 42% probability that RESULT_X will be proven true. The clairvoyant responds: “ I can see the energy  vortex  with the properties of RESULT_X around the scientist, therefore I know it will manifest.” The scientists hoots and scornfully tells the clairvoyant to “face reality”, and tells her she does not understand the mathematics behind RESULT_X and so is ignorant of the matter. All the while Law of Attraction is delivering to him the energies and/or subjects corresponding to RESULT_X, for he is focusing upon RESULT_X. When RESULT_X manifests, the scientists claims “I have objectively proven RESULT_X.” The clairvoyant says: “I already knew that!”  It’s all a result of Law of Attraction.



I have no actual reference/citation for this post as it has been cited in SEVERAL sources and never with reference to the original author.  Even so, it is an extremely powerful concept!

Sophistry, Dialectic, and Plato’s “Meno”

In Education, Philosophy, School Psychology on Monday, 10 September 2012 at 06:46

I was fortunate to have Dr. Deron Boyles as a professor in graduate school.  His teachings did more to influence my views and career than many others.  I am very grateful to have been able to take some of his classes and have always loves this paper.  I hope you enjoy!


Sophistry, Dialectic, and Teacher Education:
A Reinterpretation of Plato’s Meno

Deron R. Boyles
Georgia State University


Plato’s Meno offers students in teacher education programs a means through which to not only investigate the content of Meno, but also a means to construct and clarify their own philosophical positions.[1] This essay argues for a rereading of Meno, and in the process of highlighting the overall dialogue, attempts to achieve two specific goals: (1) reviving Plato’s indictment of sophistry as an important and timelyway to investigate what it means to achieve a deeper sensibility of teaching and learning; and (2) demonstrating that the Socrates/slave-boy “dialectic” is actually a display of sophistry, for sophists, to demonstrate the flaws of sophistry. By offering such an interpretation as (2), an argument is made against sophistry and for authentic dialectic (versus Socratic dialectic) in contemporary schools. To have authentic dialectic in American schools, teacher-education programs should engage teachers and prospective teachers in the kind of dialectic for which this essay argues. Using Meno to achieve dialogue is one way to realize this point, uniquely so as Meno is a dialogue about dialogue.



Accounts of Meno are plentiful, and they attempt clarification “differently.”[2] The point of full agreement for these accounts is that the dialogue raises a series of difficult questions: whether virtue can be taught (hence, what does it mean “to teach”); whether virtue comes through tangible means (for example, modeling, experience, innate “unfolding”) or through divine dispensation or luck; and whether Socrates really means what he says when he claims not to be a teacher. Plato uses the dialogue to highlight questions of teaching and learning, but is certain to interject his Theory of Recollection and to reiterate the idealist’s tenet that Forms exist a priori. Typically given, this essay calls these points into question in order to reveal the actual purpose of the episode: sophistry and dialectic. What results is a link of the two topics to an argument for studying Meno in colleges of education.

Sophists and Sophistry

There are at least two interpretations of sophists. The first interpretation is generous toward them and sees them as oral dialecticians whose ability to propagate rhetoric is of great value. Seen in this light, sophists are untainted by the later Platonic (negative) interpretation of them.[3] In fact, a growing number of linguists, literary theorists, and rhetoricians are mounting a small comeback of sophistry by calling attention to the oratorical and discursive merits of the tradition established by sophists.[4] They attempt to distance the rhetorical tradition of Homer from the pecuniary sophists who came after Protagoras.

By arguing for the former, early sophists are seen as altruistic pluralists intent on honing the oratorical tradition of Homer. Donovan notes, “Long before Socrates wrangled with the sophists on [the issue of eloquence in rhetoric]….Homeric epic had paved the way for both ways of conceiving of eloquence: either as a techné, that is, a discrete, particular, specialized ability or craft; or as an integral part of areté, overall human excellence.”[5] Both techné and areté are vital, even though Plato suggests that sophists were primarily concerned with the kind of poetic training that aided memorization and techné, and that areté had little or nothing to do with their purposes (both teaching and living in general). Accordingly, sophists were not interested in achieving excellence or virtue, only the money, fame, and social status which came with the perfection of their rhetorical craft. Modern thinkers intent on revising Plato’s “slanted view” highlight the democratic pluralism inherent in ancient sophistry. For example, Neel suggests that sophistry focuses on language and language influences status quo notions of opinion and truth. Therefore, the status quo must engage in sophistry for a public voicing of both sides of an issue to exist, as sophistry is really the rhetorical tradition of persuasion.[6] Similarly, Blair argues that “a sophistic education enables citizens to make decisions in a realm of contingency and competing [logics].”[7] As a result, sophistry, encapsulated perhaps by Protagoras’ maxim regarding man being the measure of all things, takes power from the mantle of the a priori and places it with the particulars. Those arguing for a kinder historical view of sophists point to the democratic potential embedded in Protagoras’ notion.[8] By placing power with the individual, members of a society are then made the focus of power and politics. Rhetoric and oratory find their homes within both notions of power/politics, and Homeric oratory is not only preserved, but furthered – sophistically.

For those opposed to sophistry, however, the argument for sophistry as a means for democracy is too contrived to have merit or to be authentic. Because sophists practiced rhetorical devices and poetic training, they may have increased the amount of information they memorized, but, for doing so, “diminished cognitive activities such as analysis, criticism, and the like.”[9] Democracy without analysis and criticism would not be democracy.[10] Schooling based on collected information and its transmission to passive students also goes against democracy. Hence, the second understanding of sophists and sophistry is less than kind. It views sophists as “for-hire” consultants who pass on the technical bits of information (through memorization and poetic training) for “success in life,” where “success” is measured in terms of performance, money, and fame. Sophists were more interested in persuasion than in searching for Truth (Platonic) or truths (socially constructed). Gibson concedes that sophists practiced what he calls “an adman’s view of language.”[11] Persuasion for the sake of persuasion is what Gibson means, and while the practice of rhetoric may be a valuable and/or necessary part of democratic life, the emphasis on it detracts from the kind of practices which provide the real foundation for democratic life (that is, critique and analysis).

Differently but related, Plato and Aristotle took a uniquely critical view of sophistry.[12] Rankin observes that both “had come to dislike the Sophists and what they represented; but neither of them…was primarily concerned with belabouring the intellectual failings of a previous generation. They were concerned by the continuing prevalence in the fourth century of fallacious arguments eristically aimed at victory, irrespective of the truth of the subject.”[13]

Sophistry in the Meno

Because Meno is a student of the sophist Gorgias, his initial questions in the dialogue are highly significant (70a). By asking questions about virtue, regardless of the shape in which virtue comes, Meno is seeking answers to his questions. A question, then, is useful to Meno insofar as it yields a concrete response (to be practiced, memorized, and mentally stored away for the purpose of transmission at a later time). Meno has no interest in investigating the questions for the sake of the investigation or to seek truth/wisdom. Instead, he is sincerely seeking a particular response. He wants an answer. One should not be surprised by this, as sophists operate on a plane of existence which highlights least common denominators in that they seek specifics and answers and particulars. They have to seek such rudimentary particularity because their livelihood depends upon it. In order to “give” people their “money’s worth,” sophists commit themselves to a role of provision. They are tellers in the rhetorical sense and tellers in the clerical/banking sense. Those who come to sophists as customers expect of sophists, and sophists provide, results.

Meno continues to demonstrate his sophistry in the beginning of the dialogue when he offers three different definitions of virtue. He first does more than attempt a definition – he provides an ordered list of what virtue is: for a man, managing the affairs of his city in such a way that he harms his enemies and helps his friends; for a woman, managing the affairs of her household and obeying her husband; and there are other virtues for the likes of children, old men, freed slaves, and slaves (71e-72a). Importantly, Meno’s list is taken from his teacher, the sophist Gorgias.[14] After Socrates’ discussion about the nature of virtue, Meno offers his second definition of virtue: the ability to rule (73c-74b). Such a definition is both too broad and too narrow at the same time. Allen puts it this way: “Too broad, because Meno forgets that ruling, if it is to qualify as a human excellence, must be just. Too narrow, because the definition does not apply, for example, to children and slaves.”[15] The definition is also circular, so Meno offers a third and final definition: virtue is the desire for beautiful things and the ability to attain them (77b-78c). After Socrates refutes Meno (by reduction), Meno modifies his definition: virtue is the ability to acquire good things, provided this is done in a just and pious way (78c-80d). Unfortunately, this position is circular like his second definition because both piety and justice fall under the category “virtue.” It is at this point in the dialogue that Meno calls Socrates a stingray (torpedo fish) and suggests that he is numbed by the encounter. What Socrates was attempting was elenchus or refutation, but was intending for the refutation to clarify for Meno the problem of “answer-getting.” That is, Socrates’ point was to show the fallibility of Meno’s “list-giving” – as “list-giving” (as opposed to seeking truth/wisdom) is much of the problem itself, but Meno was too much of a sophist to overcome his own sophistry.

Throughout Meno, then, sophistry takes its typical forms: persuasion for the sake of persuasion, answer-getting, the seeking of particulars rather than larger or deeper meaning (truths). Plato uses the character Anytus to make the value of sophists clear: “May no one of my household or friends, whether citizen or stranger, be mad enough to go to these people and be harmed by them, for they clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers” (91c-d).[16]

In addition to the sophistry within Meno, the dialogue also includes important sections like Meno’s paradox[17] and the opportunity for Socrates to elucidate the Theory of Recollection (80d-81e). This interaction is followed by the scene with Socrates and the slave boy. The scene is widely understood as Socrates’ demonstration of the Theory of Recollection outlined in 80d-81e. The interaction with the slave boy, however, is expanded by this essay to offer that the scene is really Socrates’ last chance to achieve the level of elenchus necessary for Meno to understand the limitations of his sophistry.

The Point: Dialectic as Sophistic Practice

It is traditionally held that the point of the conversation between Socrates and the slave boy (81e-86c) is Plato’s Theory of Recollection. This essay challenges the validity of this point by expanding the interpretation of the scene to suggest a very different position – that Socrates is really demonstrating sophistry, for sophists, to refute sophistry. Within the framework of what appears on the surface to be Socratic dialectic (where a questioner questions and an answerer answers and that’s it), Socrates leads the slave boy on a journey to recall geometric truths. Two points, then, stand or fall together: Socratic dialectic as non-dialectic, and the Theory of Recollection.

Socratic dialectic is questioning and answering, definitionally role-oriented (that is, a questioner questions and answerer answers), but the kinds of responses Socrates elicits are merely factual and come about from empirical demonstration rather than from rational means. Further, given that elenchus is the purpose of psychagogia (leading), a cleared mind does not exist without questions or without considered thought. The slave boy is only marginally participative and not only is he not seeking truth/wisdom, he always responds affirmatively and does not indicate confusion.

These concerns overlap and are better explained by recalling the text of the Socrates/slave boy scene. In the scene (81e-86c), Socrates draws one of Meno’s slaves out from the gathered crowd. According to Teloh, Allen, and countless others, he proceeds to demonstrate the Theory of Recollection by showing that all nature is suggenes (akin or interconnected) such that if one learns one point, it is possible to “recover” all of the rest (81d). Yet, if the dialectic is reread in light of sophistic procedures and the narrowly focused content, the scene offers a new point. Specifically, if Socrates’ part of the dialectic is edited out (and Meno’s few lines are also eliminated), the dialectic reveals a different meaning: the dialectic demonstrates sophistry. Witness the slave boy’s part of the dialectic:

I do.
Of course.
Of Course.
It does.
Four, Socrates.
Clearly it will be double, Socrates.[18]

That questioning and answering are both represented in the Socrates/slave boy scene is not in dispute. The problem is that the slave boy never says “no.” He is, instead, the object of Socrates’ leading questions, which, while they superficially exemplify Socratic dialectic, actually represent sophistry. The questions Socrates asks are specific. They are data-oriented (“eight,” “fourfold,” “two,” etc.). They are factual. He seeks dimensions and measurements, and while the example is a theorem, Socrates reduces theorizing to a practical answer-giving exercise based on empirical drawings in the sand. As a result, Socrates demonstrates the limits of sophistry by employing sophistry in front of sophists.

Because the dialectic is now suspect, so too must be the Theory of Recollection. Recollection is the reminiscence of prior and personal experience. It is a matter of remembering previous acquaintance such that there is a personal involvement also present in the world of Forms. When Socrates attempts to demonstrate the Theory of Recollection, he says to Meno of the slave boy, “do you see the progress in recollection he’s made so far? At first he didn’t know the side required for an eight-foot figure – and he still doesn’t. But earlier he supposed he knew and answered confidently, and did not believe he was in perplexity. But now he does believe it, and as he doesn’t know, neither does he suppose he knows” (84a-b). A nice dance around Meno’s Paradox, there is an important irony typically overlooked. The irony of the section is as comical as it is illustrative of sophistry.

Socrates has as his subject a slave boy. The “confident answer” to which Socrates refers is the same kind of confidence a 4th grader has when affirmatively responding to leading questions about geometric proofs. It’s laughable, and that’s the point. There not only is no personal interest on the part of the boy, hence no recollection, there is such an emphasis on empirical demonstration of technical characteristics (symbolically evidenced by drawing in the sand?) that Socrates must be smirking to himself that those he is “persuading” are too sophistic to see the problems with their own sophistry.

It is possible that the slave boy realizes he doesn’t know, which clears his mind of predispositions that would hinder true learning (versus sophism). The state is one where psychagogia is now possible, such that Socrates, or any interlocutor, can now “lead” the other to questions which, when repeated and repeated, define the search for wisdom. Clearing the mind in this way, however, does not mean the slave boy (or whoever) would be focused on the kinds of specific responses that instrumentalize the verbal exchange. Indeed, the mark of sophistry is that the Form is present in the material, not in the boy. It is because the material is already “informed” that the boy has no chance of being or becoming “informed.” A slave to Meno, the boy is also a slave to the material. Thus, the boy actually illustrates the limitation of sophistry because sophists not only do not have cleared minds, what keeps their minds cluttered is predispositional endpoint inquiry: they ask the kinds of questions which presuppose specific answers, and they ask those questions in order to get the answers. It may be the case that a questionless slave boy is better than a questioning sophist, but given the success of the slave boy in having a clear mind, more is required from him.

A Link to Teacher Education and American Schools

For schools, the Socrates/slave boy passage is hauntingly appropriate in that teachers and schools give lip service to student questions and student participation. Such a truth, however, is not solely the fault of teachers and schools. The culprit is sophistry and the degree to which sophistry has infected the very social mentality that expects contemporary teachers and schools to be sophistic. The parallels result from social influence and include the following: sophists and teachers engage in the type of authoritarian transmission of data which puts learners in passive rather than active roles; sophists and teachers use poetic schemes and memorization (by way of notetaking) as methods for “teaching and learning”; sophists and teachers are intent on covering material that students “get” and can “utilize”; sophists and teachers are expected (and therefore expect of themselves) to have answers; sophists and teachers operate on the assumption that utilization of information (instrumentalism) is the litmus test for successful teaching and learning. In both cases, societal expectations inform and/or define the roles just outlined, so blame is a fleeting waste of time. The point is to ask of society and teachers whether what they are perpetuating is actually education or mere training. If it is training, confusing education with training is a disservice to both notions, but this essay argues that American schools should use Meno as a means to change from sophistic training to education.

Emphasis on skills and job preparation for international competition is the same quest for certainty, superiority, and materialism the sophists sought in Athens. Preparing Athenians to speak well, sophists were much less concerned about the topic’s depth and importance. The substance of the talk was not as important as the outcome and the performance. Similarly, contemporary teachers (and society) expect students to “get” or “have” the kind of information that can be positively (and competitively) represented on a variety of norm-referenced tests. Performance and outcomes are publishable in print media, just as performances were publicly seen in the open forums of Athens. If it is persuasive, it is true.

Yet this essay submits a different point: by understanding another interpretation of the Socrates/slave boy scene in Meno, the value of authentic dialectic is set against the illustration of sophistry embedded in the Socrates/slave boy scene. Authentic dialectic requires the slave boy to be an active questioner with Socrates. Further, authentic dialectic requires for the slave boy the opportunity to say “no.” Without authentic dialectic, training institutionalizes itself, and as a result, non-critical citizenship and political as well as capitalist hegemony flourish. The very people best poised to counter such a spread are teachers: the very people who currently (and ironically) reinforce the hegemony of a language of technique (also known as sophistry). Simon puts it this way, “Where I come from, when we talk about teaching we usually talk about specific strategies and techniques to use in order to meet predefined, given objectives. It is talk carried out in the language of technique, and usually its purpose is to provide doable suggestions that can be tried out in the classroom the very next day.”[19]

Teacher education programs, however, offer a means through which to challenge the status quo. Studying Meno, for example, focuses scrutiny on dialectic – what it is and what it is not. Dialectic in a non-sophistic way means rejecting the language of technique in favor of critical interaction. To be a part of a dialectic about dialectic, though, requires of prospective and practicing teachers the kind of elenchus which is rarely comfortable and unable to be fit nicely in traditional pedagogy courses. Said differently, students in teacher education programs intensely demand the very language of technique that is the antithesis of authentic Socratic dialectic. Giroux’s concern is that such “students are very comfortable with defining themselves as technicians and clerks. For them to be all of a sudden exposed to a line of critical thinking that calls their own experience into question…is very hard for them. They don’t have a frame of reference [other than sophistry] to articulate the centrality of what they do.”[20] Therein lies the beauty of Meno. It, at one and the same time, is a dialogue about dialogue which questions what dialogue really means.

Study of the Meno, moreover, requires deep and wide readings, contemplation, self-evaluation, and critique. It also requires the abandoning of the pedagogical predisposition toward sophistry: that is, “tell me about the Meno, tell me what I need to know, tell me when the paper on it is due, and tell me how many pages it should be.” Such questions are realistic, not cynical, and those who raise such questions are not to blame. The questions represent the answer/particular/endpoint/result emphasis of sophistry. They are reminiscent of the ethos which informed the slave boy’s responses of “yes,” “yes,” “yes, Socrates,” “I think so,” “yes,” “yes,” etc. in that they are result-oriented questions presupposing a result-oriented result. This essay argues for authentic dialectic which, as such, has no presupposed (or supposed) form other than the dialectic itself.
*** For a response to this essay, see Hall.

[1] Two translations of the Meno are relied upon: The Dialogues of Plato, trans. R. E. Allen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 151-86; and Great Dialogues of Plato, trans. W. H. D. Rouse (New York: New American Library, 1984), 28-68.

[2] See, for example, Allen, The Dialogues of Plato, 133-50; and Michael Welbourne, “Meno’s Paradox,” Philosophy 61 (1986): 229-43. Allen and Welbourne both agree that the “paradox” is more of an eristic puzzle to divert attention to the Theory of Recollection, but both come at their discussions of the “paradox” in distinct ways: Allen uses other dialogues of Plato, and Welbourne contrasts Cartesian “enquiry.” Murray’s angle is to re-write the entire dialogue in specific terms of teacher education. See Frank B. Murray, “Meno and the Teaching of Teachers to Teach Excellently,” Journal of Teacher Education 45, no. 5 (November-December 1994): 379-90.

[3] Mario Untersteiner, The Sophists (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954), xv. Untersteiner briefly, but clearly, alludes to the “original” positive understanding held in pre-Platonic times. For support of this earlier understanding, see Rosamond Kent Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1972). See also, George Grote and Eduard Zeller’s 1905 book A Textbook in the History of Education; Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, vol.1 and 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1944); and James L. Jarrett, ed., The Educational Theories of the Sophists (New York: Teachers College Press, 1969).

[4] See Walker Gibson, “In Praise of the Sophists,” College English 55, no. 3 (March 1993): 284-90; Kristine L. Blair, “Isocratean Discourse Theory and Neo-Sophistic Pedagogy: Implications for the Composition Classroom” (Paper presented at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, 19-21 March 1992), EDRS, ED 352672; Brian R. Donovan, “Eloquence as Virtue in Ancient Theory” (Paper presented at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, 19-21 March 1992), EDRS, ED 346515; and Steven B. Katz, “From Poetry to Prose: Sophistic Rhetoric and the Epistemic Music of Language” (Paper presented at the 40th Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, 16-18 March 1989), EDRS, ED 333423.

[5] Donovan, “Eloquence as Virtue in Ancient Theory,” 8.

[6] Jasper Neel, Plato, Derrida, and Writing (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988).

[7] Blair, “Isocratean Discourse Theory and Neo-Sophistic Pedagogy,” 4.

[8] See G.B. Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). Kerferd seeks a more judicial interpretation of sophistry because the writings of sophists are so scarce and the writings about sophistry upon which we rely come from a “profoundly hostile Plato” (1).

[9] Henry Teloh, Socratic Dialogue in Plato’s Early Dialogues (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1986), 151. Thomas Davidson’s 1894 text The Education of the Greek People, and Ellwood P. Cubberly’s 1920 text The History of Education are similarly critical of sophists.

[10] See, for example, S. I. Benn and R. S. Peters, Social Principles and the Democratic State (London: Oxford University Press, 1959); and R. A. Dahl, Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956).

[11] Gibson, “In Praise of the Sophists,” 286. Interestingly, Gibson advocates looking again (and more kindly) at sophists and sophistry.

[12] Neither Plato nor Aristotle would argue against sophistry because of its lack of democratic tenets. In other words, Plato was not a democrat. Their critique of sophistry, harsh or extreme though it may be, is, however, very helpful when interpreting contemporary questions about teaching and learning in a (purported?) democracy. See also, Rene Vincente Arcilla, For the Love of Perfection: Richard Rorty and Liberal Education (New York: Routledge, 1995).

[13] H.D. Rankin, Sophists, Socrates, and Cynics (London: Croom Helm, 1983), 20. The reference is remarkable in its timeliness to present concerns about justice, jury systems, and members of the Bar.

[14] Allen, The Dialogues of Plato, 136. Allen reinforces the point that sophistry is about “passing on” information/data. Meno may not understand or know the meaning of the lists he provides, but he need not understand or know, as sophistry is concerned with memory, performance, and persuasion.

[15] Ibid., 137-38.

[16] The Rouse translation has Anytos [sic] identifying sophists in a more colorful way as “the manifest canker and destruction of those they have to do with” (57).

[17] If you know what it is you are inquiring about, you need not inquire, for you already know. If you do not know what it is you are inquiring about, you are unable to inquire, for you do not know what it is into which you are inquiring. See 80d-e.

[18] The rest of the slave boy’s “part” is as follows: I do. Of course. Yes. Of course. Yes. Certainly. Surely not. Fourfold. True. Yes. Yes. Yes. I agree. Yes. Yes, I think so. Yes. It must. Three feet. Yes. That follows. Nine. Eight. It certainly isn’t. Socrates, I really don’t know. I do. Yes. Yes. Of course. Yes. Four times. Of course. Yes. We have. I don’t know. Yes. Four. Two. Double. Eight feet. That one. Yes. Yes, certainly.

[19] Roger I. Simon, “Empowerment as a Pedagogy of Possibility,” in Holtz, ed., Education and the American Dream (Granby, MA: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1989), 135. See, also, Hugh G. Petrie, The Dilemma of Enquiry and Learning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[20] Henry A. Giroux, Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education (New York: Routledge, 1992), 16.


Musings on normal…

In Philosophy on Sunday, 9 September 2012 at 12:58

Musings on normal…

By Lorie Ederr

I heard a fellow psychologist say something to the effect of “you look at what’s normal for kids ‘Billy’s’ age and compare ‘Billy’ to normal kids” in discussing baselines and those fun kinds of things we psychologists discuss.  My conclusion directly from that statement, not via my feelings or own subjectivity, being that there is a quantifiable determination as to this state called “normal” and that it is, in fact, a measurable phenomenon.  And there I take issue.  First of all, the term “normal,” to me, is incredibly value-laden and negatively correlated the further and further you go away from the mean (i.e. societal norms).  The statement also suggests that you can actually quantify “normal” and use it as a baseline.  Now, in practice, I understand the speaker probably would just as easily have used the word “average” and probably did not mean (pun intended) anything negative by it.

Agreed it was not meant to be derogatory, merely descriptive.  Nevertheless, I have an issue with a mental health professional/educator/clinician  using the term “normal” because I do feel it is quite value-laden.  I am really not one of those to get into battles about words or labels (a necessary evil in my field…labeling to obtain certain services), but this one stuck with me.  And by battling about words or labels my example follows:  I have met deaf people that absolutely, positively want to be called “deaf” and are offended when people use the term “hearing impaired.”  This was explained by the deaf person who was called hearing impaired and objected to it this way: to him someone who is hearing impaired could possibly hear (maybe a little, maybe more, but not without difficulty), just  not as well as others and deviating from that bell curve of hearing. He explained, in his case and many others, a deaf person can not hear at all, thus prefers the term “deaf.”  And the converse is true for others…they want to be called “hearing impaired.”  So, I try not to offend anyone and also try not to use absolutes.  Everyone has their preferences and everyone should be able to identify as they want without putting an absolute label based on societal norms.   I try to oblige.  I think it was Adler who said pathology is brought about when people live by “shoulds” as it relates to what society thinks you should or should not do.

However, in regard to the usage of the word “normal” in that particular context, I do believe that “normal” is value-laden and could be taken to be insolent and/or disrespectful. The person who identifies as gay, for example, may not fall into the middle area of the bell curve (the , but would you use “abnormal” to describe them?  I would think, if anything, you could say “minority” because there are more heterosexuals than homosexuals, but that doesn’t make them abnormal.  If you were to apply the term normal to anyone that is a minority (African Americans, Native Americans, GLBTQI, those with physical disabilities, Asian Americans, etc.), I would hasten to guess that most would be offended by the term.  Would you ever consider someone who is blind to be “abnormal?”  I have never heard a blind or visually impaired person called “abnormal.” So, why do we use it to describe mental illness, learning disabilities, etc.?  We seem to be fine with abnormal vs. normal in certain situations (I do see it most in mental health) but would NEVER use it to describe the child born without the ability to see or hear.

I think if someone overheard you saying they were not “normal” (not falling within the 68.2% of the bell curve) it could be hurtful.   In fact, I will go a step further and say that I am pretty sure they would take it as a pejorative. I know I would.   As kids/adolescents many of us wanted to buck the norm and ‘express ourselves,’ (pink hair, a style of dress, an affinity for certain types of music, etc.) but, for the most part, we wanted to be a part of the crowd (i.e. “normal”).  If an educator or therapist were to tell you that your kid  was not “normal,” I would think you would, at the very least, be a bit concerned.  No one wants to stand out in a crowd.  Or, at least that’s how the saying goes.

That said, I do see kids and adolescents today being much more comfortable/secure in their own skin.  I am definitely generalizing here, but I do see more kids that seem content and confident with who they are whether it’s within that one standard deviation (or more) either way or not. I think about a scenario not totally unrelated, but maybe a bit.  A little background…I read a piece of research (that I now can’t recall or cite) studying age of onset and sexual identity/sexuality.  In essence, it was a longitudinal study that followed kids from pre-school into adulthood, paying attention to interests, friends, types of play, what they were drawn to, etc.  What it concluded (well, one thing…I am sure there was quite a bit that I can’t recall), was that sexual identity is ‘set’ by around age four.  Nonetheless, at some point society steps in and makes a confusing mess of it all.  You know girls play with dolls, boys play with trucks, pink os for girls, blue is for boys, no exceptions. We see it everyday when we walk into a store, on TV, in print, etc. I have heard many parents say that to their own children (“Johnny, boys don’t wear pink” or “boys don’t play with dolls”) and have even seen parents replace a doll with a truck if a boy chooses to play with the doll.  This is very common.

Back to the scenario…a kid is in class and someone uses “gay” in the pejorative.  You’ve heard it.  “Oh my gosh, that is sooo GAY!” when trying to say that something is stupid, less worthy, negative, not “fun,” etc.  (although, I hope we are more sensitive and evolved and would explain why that is not a good term to describe an activity, movie, etc.).  Well, for the kid who kind of knew he was not like some of his friends and may start realizing that he or she is “gay” and he may be starting to identify as gay, what is he going to think?  Gay=bad, stupid, less worthy, not deserving of attention, odd.  In that exchange, what could have been (although I don’t believe it should be used in that context) a term that meant one thing to the speaker (likely not meaning it to be related to a person) has now become value-laden, at least to that kid.  This type exchange took place in one of my schools.  I was speaking to a group of kids and one of them said a certain movie was “gay.” I asked him what he meant by that.  He said, “You know, like stupid or boring.”  In essence, I explained to the group that this could be a hurtful term to some, what it meant in our society today (lets leave out that it truly does mean lighthearted or happy because this was not how he meant it), and how it could be hurtful.  An African American girl in the group suddenly said “Then that would be kinda like calling me a ****** (I just can’t even type that word, but I believe you can figure it out). Not exactly like that, but I do believe they understood the main point I was trying to make.

While tangential in my musings, I am coming back to the my point…normal vs. abnormal I think we have to be cognizant of using value-laden terms when talking about kids or around kids, adults, anyone not falling “in the norm” when norm is used to delineate a statistical term not a descriptive one).  We may not be able to recall a great deal from childhood, but I am sure we all recall times unkind words were spoken.  I am ALL about “averages” and quantifiable things (thus the appeal of Descartes musings about brains and vats.  I have been called a “quantoid” when it was meant as a veiled insult and I was proud of it), but that is a story for another time).  So, to say someone is not within the average range sounds, to me, more neutral in its connotation (if forced to use a descriptive, as in test scores or percentiles).  At least more so than “normal” (unusual, atypical, divergent).  Point being, just think about who is around you and who can hear and think about the words you use. Moreover, if you could, maybe say what you want to describe as “abnormal” in a way that was less hurtful/value-laden (there are many words synonymous with abnormal). Or, just think how you would feel to be described as abnormal for something that may not be mainstream, but certainly doesn’t make you “abnormal.” I am not sure why hearing that conversation made me go off on this tangent, but it did get me thinking that we need to be mindful of varying values and points of view and how we speak.  At least I’m going to.

~be love~

Musings on skepticism…

In Philosophy on Friday, 7 September 2012 at 19:56


The skeptical position argues that we do not have any knowledge, nor do we know (and by know, this is understood in the case of the skeptic, to mean without a doubt and to the greatest degree of certainty) most of the things upon which we make knowledge claims.  The skeptics do accept appearances, but not positive beliefs.  They actively refuse to draw conclusions.  They feel that intellect is no more trustworthy than the senses, which are viewed as somewhat unreliable and fallible.  Descartes 1641 work titled Meditations on First Philosophy brought to light the following:  “All that up to the present time I have accepted as most true and certain I have learned either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely to any thing by which we may have been deceived.”[1]  Hume also regards the senses and sense perceptions as problematic when attributing an objects’ continued existence upon sense alone.  “To begin with the SENSES, ‘tis evident these faculties are incapable of giving rise to do the notion of the continu’d existence of their objects, after they no longer appeal to the senses.  For that is a contradiction in terms, and supposes that the senses continue to operate, even after they have ceas’d all manner of operation.”[2]

Both Descartes and Hume view the senses in a fallibilistic manner.  Descartes questions how one can trust something (the senses) implicitly when it has been shown to be misleading at times and thus, an unreliable source.  His position is that one can never truly know if a true perception is present, or if that perception is due to some sort of “faulty” sense, for instance a delusion or hallucination.  Hume brings into account the issue that, even if we attribute existence to an object based on our sense perception, does the object continue to exist even when we are no longer “sensing” it?  He questions how something can continue to exist, as well as continue to operate, when the operation of said object is reliant upon having a “sense” of it.  So, it would follow that the idea is that we can have sensory impressions, but to base our beliefs and knowledge claims on such would prove fallible.  Hume also felt that any beliefs or ideas that we hold are the result of both external and internal impressions.  Our experiences dictate our beliefs, and there is no way to evaluate whether our impressions regarding anything are realistic.

Consider the plight of the schizophrenic, who in some cases, can create an entire existence based upon what we label as hallucinations and delusions, which are then labeled as “untrue”.  He is able to justify that these things exist, as well truly holds the belief that these things labeled as hallucinations and delusions are true.  He may even experience physiological responses to these things that do not exist.  He will most likely base his knowledge claims on these perceptions.  If the majority conclude that the delusions and hallucinations, which cause him make certain knowledge claims are not true, they must then conclude that the senses are certainly fallible and apt to “trick” the perceiver.  In the case of the schizophrenic, his “untrue” perceptions, as well as the conclusions he comes to, are at times compromising to what one would consider the ability to live a “normal” life.   These impressions may be detrimental to the schizophrenic or make him unable to adapt to the world as we see it, and thus, he may be labeled mentally ill.  Granted, but can anyone say with absolute certainty that the sense impressions they experience are to be trusted implicitly?  Especially in seeing the veracity with which the schizophrenic holds certain things to be true.

I would tend to side with Descartes and Hume in taking the position that we can not base knowledge claims on something that has been shown to deceive prior.  Pojman goes on to state,  “We do not have a criterion to distinguish illusory experience from veridical perception.  The argument may be formulated in this way:

(1)  In order to have knowledge we need to be able to tell the difference between a hallucination (deception) and a perception.

(2)  It is impossible to distinguish between a hallucination (or deception) and a normal perception.

(3)  Therefore, we do not know whether any of our perceptual beliefs are true.

If this is so, then we do not have any knowledge of the external world.  All our experience could be illusory.”[3]  This at the very least should lead one to question the knowledge they hold to as well as the way they came upon that knowledge.  Can one ever be truly certain that they are not hallucinating, or dreaming something that they believe to be true?

Unger offers the following analysis: “For any sentential value of p (at time t) a man knows that p if and only if (at t) it is not at all accidental that the man is right about its being the case that p.”[4]  This would return to the notion that the ways in which we come to make knowledge claims can be faulty, or accidental.  These senses, perceptions, or impressions can lead us to make knowledge claims that are not rooted in certainty.  One cannot be certain that these claims are not derived from a false perception.  Descrtes offers the “dream argument” in which he assumes the position that as a necessary condition for knowing anything, one must first rule out the possibility that one is dreaming what one claims to know (Cartesian requirement for knowledge).  “Dreaming” can also be generalized to hallucinating, experiencing a delusion, etc.

Hume does concede to the notion that there are certain mathematical and logical truths that we can hold.  This is a less stringent view than that of the radical skeptics who would state that we can hold no knowledge claims, and by the same token, that we can not even make the statement that we can make no knowledge claims because that in itself is a knowledge claim we can not justify.  Hume does question our knowledge of the external world.  How can we know that those things, which we claim to be true regarding the external world, are in fact, as we claim them to be?  Pojman sums up Hume’s argument with the following: “The force of the argument is not that we don’t have justified beliefs, or even true justified beliefs.  We’re doing the best that we can, and perhaps that’s enough to give us truth.  But it’s not enough, claims the skeptic, to give us knowledge or justified certainty about the truth of our experiences.  We could be wrong about any of our appearances.  So we don’t have knowledge.”[5]

Following the question of the skeptics and the external world, Ludwig posits the following: ”Skepticism about the external world can be seen as resting on two fundamental assumptions about the nature of the mind-world relation:

(1)The content of the mind as a whole is logically independent of the nature and existence of the external world.

(2)The contents of the mind are all our evidence for the nature and existence of a world around us.

(1) alone is not sufficient for skepticism.  (2) adds to (1) the claim that all our evidence for the character of the world is in the mind, that we don’t, so to speak, start out knowing anything about the world around us.  (1) assures us that there is no logical connection between the mind and the world, and we could not show that our beliefs are justified by appeal to a contingent connection between the mind and the world because establishing such a connection would require us to have already established something about the world, which (2) assures us we have not.  Thus, if (2) is correct, and to be justified in believing anything about the external world we must at least be in a position to show that our experiences provide a ground for our beliefs, which can be justified in believing something about the external world only if there is some necessary connection between the character of our experiences and our environment.  Assumptions (1) and (2) are sufficient for skepticism, provided that knowledge requires minimally that one have more reason than not to believe that p in order to know that p, and that one be in a position to see that that is so.”[6]  A question to this would be, how we can come to know something in the mind without experiencing it in the external world (as in the first assumption).  It then follows to ask the opposite.  How can we know something from experiencing it in the external world only?  Shouldn’t the mind and the external world be considered in connection with each other, at least to some extent?  Ludwig would say that this is not the case and that no logical connection between the mind and the world can be justified.

A criticism of skepticism is that it is too rigid in its requirements that certainty, which is defined in terms of absolute certainty, be present, and that the certainty is defined as absolute.  The question to the skeptic could be, “Why does certainty need to be a requirement when making a knowledge claim?”  If being certain means that there is no doubt that it is not so, when is it then that we can come to this certainty?  Only when every other possible explanation and reason that this could not be the case is ruled out.  There seem to be very few, if any, things that this could apply to.  It would then lead that we cannot make many (or any) knowledge claims upon which we are completely certain.  That being said, one can still claim that things are the way they are, but not with a great degree of certainty.  One can assume that every day the sun will rise as it has every day before.  One can make that assumption and have some degree of assuredness attached to it.  But, can one truly say that they have absolute certainty that the sun will rise the following day?  Then, is the basis of this reasoning the idea that the sun has risen every day prior, so will do so again the next day?

Unger attempts to explain this.  “One tradition in philosophy holds that knowing requires being certain.  As a matter of logical necessity, a man knows something only if he is certain of the thing.  In this tradition, certainty is not taken lightly; rather, it is equated with absolute certainty.  Even that most famous contemporary defender of common sense, G. E. Moore, is willing to equate knowing the thing with absolute certainty.  I am rather inclined to hold with this traditional view is at least a fairly reasonable one.

To a philosopher like Moore, I would have nothing left to say in my defense of skepticism.  But recently some philosophers have contended that not certainty, but only belief, is required for knowing.  According to these thinkers, if a man’s belief meets certain conditions not connected with his being certain, that mere belief may properly be counted as an instance or a bit of knowledge.  And even more recently some philosophers have held that not even so much as belief is required for a man to know that something is so.  Thus, I must argue for the traditional view of knowing.  But then what has led philosophers to move further away from the traditional strong assertion that knowing something requires being certain of the thing?” [7]

Brought into point is the idea that philosophers have strayed from the notion that one must be absolutely certain in order to make a knowledge claim.  Unger writes, “That, in the case of every human being, there is hardly anything, if anything at all, of which he is certain.  That (as a matter of necessity), in the case of every human being, the person knows something to be so only if he is certain of it.”[8]  In the most strict, rigid requirements of the skeptics in regard to knowing something, I would agree that there is little to be certain of.  As for other philosophers moving from the traditional view, I think that is the only thing to do.  Once we have proven that at the very least, the skeptic argument needs serious consideration, the quest for knowledge is still sought.  Skepticism can lead to a sense of desperation in that if nothing can be known, what is the sense in trying?  In attempting to find other definitions, requirements, etc. to make knowledge claims, Unger concludes, “Whatever analysis of knowledge is adequate, if any such there be, it must allow that the thesis of skepticism be at least fairly plausible.”[9]  Though other epistemic philosophies and viewpoints on the constitution of knowledge are sought, and needed, the skeptical position should, at the very least, not be dismissed.  Moreover, it should be taken into account when what the requirements and constitutions of a knowledge claim should be.

It appears though, that in attempting to make knowledge claims without this certainty requirement, the argument always leads back to the senses.  More specifically, that the senses and our perceptions are what we use as a basis to make knowledge claims, and that they are not to be trusted implicitly.  “Suppose we abandon, or never reach, the idea or hope that our knowledge of the world around us is to be explained as being derived from some kind of knowledge or experience that is not itself knowledge of the world around us-something in us that is “prior to” or “underdetermines” the knowledge we are interested in.  What would we then need a philosophical “theory of knowledge” for?  It might seem that we would simply have liberated ourselves from an unrealistic restriction, and we could then go ahead and simply explain how our knowledge is possible.  But if we are free to explain it in terms of sense-perception that does amount to knowledge of the things around us, can we ever properly understand all our knowledge of the world-how any of it is possible at all?”[10]

This is not to say that the skeptics do realize the quagmire that they face.  The skeptics’ position can be one that is riddled with doubt and a difficult position to cling to.  Consider the following by Stroud, “When we manage to forget our philosophical reflections (or before we have been contaminated with philosophy), we keep a stock of beliefs that, at least provisionally, we do not call into question.  At the same time, in spite of how frustrating philosophical problems like this are, philosophy-and the confrontation with skepticism that it involves-seems to be a disease, which is very difficult to erase from the earth.  It is thus an oversimplification to say that the discussion leads to the unqualified acceptance of skepticism.  Rather, what we are led to accept are the irresolvable paradoxes philosophical refection brings with it.  Unfortunately, in the case of skepticism, if no philosophical theory is found to counter skepticism successfully, or if we cannot show its unintelligibility, the paradox may amount to living a schizophrenic life.  In this life the negative conclusion reached while philosophizing must coexist with the conviction, attained in non-philosophical enquiries, that the negative conclusion is wrong.”[11]

Hume proposes somewhat of a solution to living with the skeptics’ position, but not living as a skeptic.  He does not feel that we can trust our senses in making knowledge claims, being that they only convey a single perception, but cannot be guaranteed to exist in absentia of those perceiving, nor can they assume to be in continued existence.  He poses that we may not be able to have any knowledge of the metaphysical or external world.  He also sees the problems that holding a view such as this can present.  Therefore, he suggests that one does not live as a skeptic, but live as if we have knowledge of the metaphysical world, as well as the logical and mathematical truths he concedes to.  Hume does not feel we can gain or have empirical knowledge.  He does, however, feel that we can have beliefs that we are justified in holding to.

After becoming cognizant of the skeptical position, I would not feel comfortable in making claims, which I deem to be certain about.  That being said, I would also be uncomfortable in living as though that is the case.  The position of the skeptic must not be dismissed, but one must come to some sense of peace with it.  Being cognizant of the fact that our knowledge claims can be faulty is enough.  Applying that to everyday living would be disheartening.  I think we must be careful in making knowledge claims, especially those in which we state that we are certain, but to still go on as if.

[1] Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, in Pojman, “The Theory of Knowledge”, 40

[2] David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, in Pojman, “The theory of Knowledge”, 44

[3] Pojman, The Challenge of Skepticism, in “What Can We Know?  An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge”, 41.

[4] Peter Unger, A Defense of Skepticism, 218.

[5] Louis Pojman, “What Can We Know?  An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge”, 50

[6]  Kirk Ludwig, Skepticism and Interpretation, 318-319.

[7] Unger, 213-214.

[8] Unger, 216

[9] Unger, 219

[10] Barry Stroud, Skepticism and the Possibility of Knowledge, 550-551.

[11] Graceiela De Pierris, The significance of Philisophical Skepticism, 532-533.

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