Essay 24: Education and the Limits of Knowledge

A student should be made aware of the constraints on education or the “knowledge acquisition” effort.

All such efforts face two fundamental constraints:

  1. Ortega’s orange
  2. Neurath’s boat

In his masterful Meditations on Quixote, the Spanish thinker Ortega y Gasset (died in 1955):

“Some people demand that we everything as clearly as they see an orange before their eyes. But actually, if seeing is understood as a merely sensorial (of the senses) function, neither they nor anyone else has ever seen an orange in their terms.  The latter is a spherical body, therefore with an obverse and a reverse. Can anybody claim to have the obverse and the reverse of an orange in front of him at the same time? With our eyes we see one part of the orange, but the entire fruit is never presented to us in a perceptible form; the larger portion of the orange is concealed from our eyes.”

Husserl (died in 1938), the German philosopher, uses the same metaphor with a rhomboid (like a matchbox) he would show his students trying to get them to see what they could not see. One can twirl the matchbox and bring different sides and aspects into view and the students can walk around it at various speeds. One can never see the entire matchbox.

Deep education is partly the commitment to simultaneously inspect and “circumspect” the Ortega orange or the Husserl matchbox.

The orange and matchbox problem is made even “stranger” by the deep fact that all of this takes place on something called “Neurath’s boat” named after Otto Neurath, the Austrian thinker who died in 1945.

Neurath’s boat” refers to a powerful image he conjured up in 1921 according to which the entire body of knowledge is compared to a boat that must be repaired at sea: “we are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom…” (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1996, page 259)

Any part of the ship can be replaced, provided there is enough of the rest on which to stand. One cannot go back to the shipbuilder and there is no drydock for repairs. We knowledge “sailors” have to replace planks and do repairs “on the fly.” We can’t go back to Plato and Aristotle and discuss with them our interpretations of their thought and perhaps make adjustments for all the centuries between us.

We can’t start again (although Descartes thought he could with his “method of doubt.”)

William James (died in 1910) says in his writings that we must accept that one human mind can’t “grasp it all” and that all real knowledge is “relational.”

All of these constraints should neither be avoided or dodged but put in front of students from day one, since real and deep understanding, which is what education at its best can offer, must consider the overall truth of the “knowledge acquisition” situation.