Monday, October 02, 2006

Rationality to the Rescue!

Hugo Holbling is skeptical of appeals to introduce philosophy in schools "as an antidote to mass stupidity in one form or another":
[I]nstead of trying to make children study how to spot a logical fallacy, we should recognise that philosophy is already being used to justify some pretty horrible treatment of people across the world even as the fallacies in these justifications are passing with little or no comment from intellectuals.

Sure, rational skills may be misused in rhetoric, but what in the world is that "instead" doing there!? If bad reasoning is used to defend the indefensible, surely it would help to have more citizens capable of diagnosing this. (Perhaps our disagreement can be traced to Hugo's identification of critical thinking courses with "the use of philosophy as yet another tool of oppression". Bizarre.)

Hugo also quotes approvingly Feyerabend's criticism of such appeals for failing to mention "the real problems of our time... war, violence, hunger, disease, and environmental disasters." Granted, those things are amongst the worst in the world -- and hence the most important to address. But I don't see how it follows that there can't be any good in addressing other issues. ('Hi Doc, I think I broke my leg.' 'Shush, you're distracting me from world peace!')

Further, this neglects the distinction between first-order and meta-politics. It may sometimes be helpful to abstract away from first-order disputes, and look instead to how we can improve our political process as a whole. Even from a straightforwardly utilitarian perspective, there are good reasons to want to invest in rational capital rather than myopically focus on the pressing issues of the day.

Hugo concludes:
Next time you hear someone advocate putting a red cape on philosophy and logic, I suggest it would be worth bearing all the above in mind.
But I'm not about to give up on the 'what is it like to be a bat'-mobile quite yet.


  1. Holbling has two "l"s. I didn't make the "bizarre" identification; Feyerabend did. The question was why an increased ability to spot fallacies would be a good thing when those who (presumably) already can let governments get away with them - a claim that could be false or too general but isn't "bizarre". I didn't suggest that "there can't be any good in addressing other issues" and nor did Feyerabend; he took exception to philosophy being used to "direct humanity" and the presumption this involves. He didn't advocate any myopic focus. I suggest you trying reading with a little more charity in future.

  2. Typo corrected - sorry about that.

    You praised Feyerabend for opposing "the use of philosophy as yet another tool of oppression" - and that quote is from you, not him. (I suppose it's possible that you support the abstract motivation whilst thinking its application to critical thinking courses is misplaced; but you certainly gave no indication of this, so it's reasonable to interpret you, too, as making the bizarre identification.)

    Whether a more logically skilled public "would be a good thing" is a different question from whether teaching those skills constitutes "yet another tool of oppression". What I found "bizarre" was your latter claim, not the former. Changing the subject is not any kind of response to this. All in all, I think my reading was an entirely reasonable one, and it's hardly fair to call me uncharitable for failing to ignore what you actually wrote in favour of what you perhaps should have written. After all, such interpretive paternalism is uncharitable in its own right. I assumed that you were using language to communicate, so that when you wrote "yet another tool of oppression", you meant yet another tool of oppression, and not something completely different, e.g., not useful. My mistake, apparently.

  3. Richard, you didn't even address the 90% of the post that actually explained what Hugo meant by "tool of oppression" and then when he pointed it out again in his reply you still didn't engage in what he said. As Hugo said a couple times already, Feyerabend was against the idea of "directing" people to goodness. If the decision isn't theirs to make - but rather the philosophers' decision to make - then this is oppression.

  4. Okay, but it isn't clear to me what that means. In what respect do critical thinking classes "direct" people in an oppressive way that takes away their "decisions"? (Is this something like radical feminist critiques of western logics as "patriarchal", "phallogocentric", etc.? Like, we're denying kids the right to reason fallaciously, or something? I don't get it...)

  5. Well, it isn't clear that the petition in question is talking about "critical thinking" classes. What the petition said was that new categories should be created to direct humanity. Feyerabend said that these new categories should be offered to humanity, not imposed on humanity in order to direct it. Feyerabend thought that if people's lives would have to be "trimmed" in order to fit into these new categories, then it should be their choice and not the philosophers' choice.

  6. I guess one might reasonably object to that part of that particular petition, then. (It's hard to be sure because I haven't a clue what the petition is talking about with its talk of "new categories" to "direct humanity". The unclarity alone is cause for suspicion.) But Hugo's post addressed the broader issue of teaching philosophy and logic, and it's this that I was responding to.

  7. "But Hugo's post addressed the broader issue of teaching philosophy and logic, and it's this that I was responding to."

    No, Hugo's post addressed the issue of "putting a red cape on philosophy and logic" and about using them as an "antidote to mass stupidity." I don't see how his post could be interpretted as being about "the broader issue of teaching philosophy and logic."

  8. Yes, I mean the broader issue of teaching these things for civic purposes, to "invest in rational capital", and develop a citizenry better equipped to engage in critical thinking. It is broader, obviously, than that one petition. Hugo's page is down at the moment so that limits what I can add here, but it should be clear enough from the quotes I discussed in the main post -- especially the first one.

    Anyway, I don't see this discussion going anywhere, so I guess I'll leave it at that.

  9. No, it isn't clear at all from those quotes. It isn't clear because that isn't what he was talking about. That's what you were talking about. As I said, his blog post had nothing to do with the "broader issue."

  10. God this is frustrating. Your previous comment explicitly quoted two (related) broader issues. The question whether philosophy/logic classes should be advocated for the 'heroic' civic purpose of alleviating "mass stupidity" is obviously a broader issue than that one petition. I'm beginning to wonder whether you're disagreeing with whatever I write for just the sake of being contrary. It's really not helping my blood pressure anyway.

    If you absolutely must continue this tiresome discussion, at least do something useful like offer some new evidence that can help me to understand where my misunderstanding lies. That last comment of yours consisted in nothing but asserting your disagreement. That's not helpful, it's just gratuitously grating.

  11. Yes, it is frustrating. Hugo wasn't talking about "the broader issues of teaching philosophy and logic." That is, he wasn't talking about whether or not they should be taught. He was talking about the narrow issue of using philosophy and logic as some sort of cure-all for society's problems. Yes, this is broader than just that one petition, but no it isn't as broad as the issue of teaching philosophy and logic in general. This is why you misread the quote that begins with "instead ..."

    "I'm beginning to wonder whether you're disagreeing with whatever I write for just the sake of being contrary."

    That says more about you than it does about me. Like Hugo, I would ask you to be more charitable than that.

  12. "Yes, this is broader than just that one petition,"

    And that's all I meant by "broader" in the context of that earlier comment.

    Anyway, getting back to the substance, if Hugo doesn't mean to criticize the teaching of philosophy for the sorts of civic purposes I've pointed to, then that's grand news. Surprising -- it's certainly not the impression I got from his post -- but a welcome clarification.

    (But I'm unsure what you mean by "some sort of cure-all for society's problems", and who this description is meant to apply to. Obviously my post is about the civic purposes of philosophy, i.e. to alleviate "society's problems". Is your idea this: that my topic is broader than HH's because my advocacy is not so naive as the "cure-alls" that HH is opposing? It's not at all clear where critics would draw the line here, so I reasonably thought that he meant for his criticisms to extend to the sorts of positions I'm discussing -- that they would qualify, in his mind, as "putting a red cape on philosophy". But again, if I was mistaken in that, great! Glad to hear it.)

  13. "The real problems of our time... war, violence, hunger, disease, and environmental disasters."

    * Would be greatly reduced if people always and everywhere thought straight about politics and sociology and if all logical fallacies everywhere ceased

    *Violence would be much rarer because it's usually instrumentally irrational in addition to almost always being immoral.

    *Hunger would be eliminated because food would be distributed more efficiently and Production would run more smoothly.

    *Desiase would be rarer because the scientific process would work better.

    *The environment would be better catered for because. The bogus controversies generated by groups like oil companies wouldn't exist. Read some of the texts these groups make, they depend on logical fallacies, strip them away and there is nothing left.

    *There would probably be no war or at the very least war would be much rarer if logical fallacies were not committed.

    *On the other hand if you try to solve these problems without a solid grounding in proper reasoning, whether gained through formal education or not, you'll probably just make them worse.

    So the next time you hear someone advocate putting a red cape on practical politics and down playing the need for reasoning, I suggest it would be worth bearing all the above in mind.


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