Monday, November 9, 2009

value of philosophy

A colleague and I are scheduled to tape an interview on campus tomorrow, to discuss (among other things) the value of philosophy to our students, to the university, and to the culture at large. Just in case we don't get all the right words out, here are two of my favorite sources on this topic-- Bertrand Russell and John Lachs:

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect…

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good. Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy

Teaching the young involves activities that pull in different directions: the culture’s practices and values must be handed on, but they must also be criticized and suitably revised. In doing the former, teachers act as servants of the past, giving a favorable account of the fruits of long experience. In doing the latter, they labor for the future, presenting ideas for how our practices can be improved. The first activity is centered on sketching the geography of what exists and explaining the rules governing it; the second is about the ways the possible can bring improvement to the actual. The first without the second yields stagnation, the second without the first creates chaos. When properly related, the two preserve what is of value from the past even as they encourage active dreaming about a better future. John Lachs, MTSU Lyceum address, 4.14.09

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The most valuable piece of advice I had ever heard given to a classroom full of freshman was “Think for a moment about everything you believe. Everything you have ever been told and/or taught by your parents, relatives, teachers, friends and community leaders. Question it; find every fault in/with everything you know or think you know. Only once you have done that can you begin to build a sturdy foundation for your beliefs; but remember; don’t settle in to deeply, you should continue to question; constantly question.” Professor Michael Sniderman MTSU Accelerating Intelligence News