Two Kinds of Extra Understanding: Pre and Post

We argue here in this proposal for an educational remedy that two dimensions of understanding must be added to “retro-fit” education.

In the first addition, call it pre-understanding, a student is given an overview not only of the field but of his or her life as well as the “techno-commercial” environment that characterizes the globe.

Pre-understanding includes such “overall cautions” offered to you by Calderón de la Barca’s 17th century classic Spanish play, Life is a Dream (SpanishLa vida es sueño). A student would perhaps ask: “what would it be like if I faced this “dreamlike quality” of life, as shown by the Spanish play, and suddenly realized that a life of “perfect myopia” is not what I want.

Hannah Arendt warns similarly of a life “like a leaf in the whirlwind of time.”

Again, I, the student ask: do I want such a Hannah Arendt-type leaf-in-the-whirlwind-like life, buried further under Calderón de la Barca’s “dream state”?

But that’s not all: while I’m learning about these “life dangers,” all around me from my block to the whole world, humanity does its “techno-commerce” via container ships and robots, hundreds of millions of vehicles and smartphones, multilateral exchange rates, and tariff policies. Real understanding has one eye on the personal and the other on the impersonal and not one or the other.

All of these personal and impersonal layers of the full truth must be faced and followed, “en face,” as they say in French (i.e., “without blinking”).

Call all this pre-understanding which includes of course a sense of how my “field” or major or concentration fits into the “architecture of knowledge” and not in isolation without connections or a “ramification structure.”

Post-understanding comes from the other end: my lifelong effort, after just about all that I learned about the six wives of King Henry VIII and the “mean value theorem”/Rolle’s theorem in freshman math, have been completely forgotten and have utterly evaporated in my mind, to re-understand my life and times and book-learning.

Pre-and post-understanding together allows the Wittgenstein phenomenon of “light falls gradually over the whole.”

Without these deeper dimensions of educational remedy, the student as a person would mostly stumble from “pillar to post” with “perfect myopia.” Education mostly adds to all the “fragmentariness” of the modern world and is in that sense, incomplete or even disorienting.

Education in this deep sense is supposed to be the antidote to this overall sense of modern “shapelessness,” to use Kierkegaard’s term.

Essay 78: Education and the Problem of Pessimism

Karl Jaspers was part of the great trio or triumvirate of German philosophers of the twentieth century, along with Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt.

Jaspers’s basics are (from Wikipedia):

Karl Theodor Jaspers was a German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher who had a strong influence on modern theology, psychiatry, and philosophy. After being trained in and practicing psychiatry, Jaspers turned to philosophical inquiry and attempted to discover an innovative philosophical system.

Born: February 23, 1883, Oldenburg, Germany
Died: February 26, 1969, Basel, Switzerland
Education: Heidelberg University
Spouse: Gertrud Mayer (m. 1910–1969)
Awards: Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, Erasmus Prize, Goethe Prize

Our issue is not the interrelations of these three but the issue of Jaspers’s “pessimism,” given that we plan an education that completely “levels” with freshmen from day one and puts on their “plate” the whole truth without hiding or suppressing any dimensions of the life/knowledge fusion which is one of the backbone elements of this educational remedy. Jaspers argues that a unifying perspective of existence is impossible for man for the same reason that the goldfish is ultimately in the water which is in the goldfish bowl which is in the room none of which can be understood by leaving the water. Jaspers writes, “Existenz kennt keine Rundung als Bild…denn der Mensch muss in der Welt scheitern.”

(Philosophie Vol. II, German original, Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 1948, page 647)

This means: “Existence cannot be completed or rounded off and formed into a clear and final picture…man is forced into a kind of shipwreck in this world.”

Jaspers sees existence or life as a kind of “task” or “drama” that one stumbles through and not an object that one studies like a copper salt in the chem lab. Life is always “on the run” and stronger than the runner. Every life, no matter how seemingly prestigious, is characterized by (to use Prof. Stanley Cavell’s words) “little did I know” and you might add, “even at the end.”

Orthodox educators argue that freshmen in college are not ready to be burdened by such bleak or lugubrious views but we disagree and argue, as the great Polish educator Janusz Korczak (died in the Holocaust, 1942) sensed, students rise to the challenge the teacher places before them. If you treat them as childish they will behave childishly and if you take them seriously, they will be serious.

Thus, Jaspers’s view on human life as always a confused and confusing shipwreck will not be hidden from view but studied unflinchingly.

Essay 43: Knowledge Puzzles of “Far-Fetched Questions”

Heidegger (died in 1976), the German thinker (and Hannah Arendt‘s lifelong boyfriend) is walking along somewhere in France with Jean Beaufret, the French poet-philosopher, and wants to “delimit” what topics should be admitted and discussed and manage to dismiss other kinds of topics.  Heidegger says, “we do not need to ask what the connection is between Newton’s laws and the French national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’ or between Carnot’s Principle and the sign on the shop across the street, ‘This Store is Now Shuttered.’”

In Gulliver’s Travels, the satirical masterpiece, we find a scene where the Academy of Projectors (mad scientists profs.) are trying to make cucumbers out of moonbeams and have other crazy projects.  The Academy is described in the Laputa/Lagado “flying islands” section of the satire.  Again, we grin when we read these lines in Jonathan Swift and marvel at his inventive genius. It’s not quite as simple to pin down exactly why Heidegger’s or Swift’s examples of “crazy questions or projects” are so comically nutty.  Clearly, there are experiences we all agree on as being indicative of insanity or are at the outer limits, perhaps, of Quixotism (Don Quixote).  If a person tells you he or she plans to go to the roof and reach up and put the moon in their pocket and then go the county Registrar of Deeds and declare it their property, we see multiple impossibilities and figure the person is joking, drunk or insane.

On the other hand, many questions or projects that would seem silly at one point seem less silly now: an example is, say, bringing “dinosaurs” back via DNA “resurrections.”

Thus the “knowledge quest” and its parameters is evolving in strange ways, on top of all the other uncertainties.

The Heidegger/Beaufret dialogue, mentioned above, occurs in the following book:

Dialogue with Heidegger: Greek Philosophy
Jean Beaufret
Series: Studies in Continental Thought
Publication date: 07/06/2006
ISBN: 978-0-253-34730-5

Essay 42: The View From Nowhere as an Additional Problem in “Thinking About Thinking”

The View From Nowhere is a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel.

Published by Oxford University Press in 1986, it contrasts passive and active points of view in how humanity interacts with the world, relying either on a subjective perspective that reflects a point of view or an objective perspective that takes a more detached perspective. Nagel describes the objective perspective as the “view from nowhere,” one where the only valuable ideas are ones derived independently.

Epistemology (what we can know and why) is puzzling to the max if you ponder it for a moment. Think of a painting in a Boston museum. If you walk up to it, you see only the little piece in front of your nose so you back up and try to get an “optimal grip.” (to use Prof. Merleau-Ponty’s language.) If you walk all the way to China and try to see it from there, you will see nothing of it, no matter what telescope you might use. This is sort of what we mean by “the view from nowhere.” You’re way too far.

This brings us to the problem of the “detached observer” (modern versions of which stem from Descartes, who wants to get a bird’s eye view of all other bird’s eye views.  This is tricky and elusive for the obvious reasons. When Richard Feynman or some other physicist theorizes, is he not achieving a view from nowhere or is he? No one will deny a place to theoretical “standpoints” and “viewpoints.” The theoretician is himself a person who breathes, and sneezes, and yawns, and gets hungry and has to stretch his or her legs after too much sitting. One can’t quite “move into one’s own mind” since all theory is “embodied.”

Human beings have the unique ability to view the world in a detached way: 

We can think about the world in terms that “transcend” our own experience or interest, and consider the world from a vantage point that is, in Nagel’s words, “nowhere in particular.”

The strange human situation is seen from the fact that this “view from nowhere,” this “detached observer” theoretical stance, includes the theorist himself, the detachment and the theory as part of the “bird’s eye view” without any particular concrete bird serving as your ambassador or proxy.

“The unifying theme, as Nagel puts it at the beginning, is the problem of how to combine the perspective of a particular person ‘inside the world’ with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included.”

(Bernard Williams, 1986 book review, London Review of Books.)

We have already seen the problem of Husserl‘s (died in 1938) “rhomboid” or “matchbox” (i.e., you can’t see the entire matchbox all at once) or Ortega y Gasset‘s “orange” (i.e., you cannot see the back or obverse or reverse of a spherical orange unless you walk around it and lose the first view from the front) and all this “partial viewing” takes place on “Neurath’s boat.” (Where we’re like sailors on a knowledge ship and can’t go back to any origins and can’t discuss Platonism with Plato himself. The Harvard philosopher Quine, among others, mentions this problem.) The ship movies forward and the “matchbox/orange” are viewed in some cabin on the ship (i.e., your field, such as chemistry or history or biology).

Lastly: think of the opening line of Thomas Mann’s (died in 1955) great novel, Joseph and His Brothers: “Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?”

In other words, there is no way for us as “knowledge detectives” to go back to the origins of ourselves or our history since that’s all unrecoverable and lost “in the mist of time.”

A student embarking on a “knowledge quest” (university education) should not dodge these puzzles and mysteries but look at them “unblinkingly.”  A deep education means all the dimensions of the quest are in front of the student and not wished away.  This includes the student’s own danger of being lost as “a leaf in the whirlwind of time.” (Hannah Arendt phrase we have already seen.). Career aside, there are multiple “Rubik’s Cubes” here if the student wants to experience the deep and the wide.

Essay 8: “Aletheia:” Unhiding Dimensions of Life as Part of a Deep Education

Greek thinkers of antiquity had a deep concept of “unhiding or rescuing truths from oblivion” and this is captured in the Greek word “aletheia” which means reversing Lethe (i.e., forgetfulness).

We claim here that “aletheia” (i.e., “unforgetting”) is in fact a pillar of real education which has a commitment to every kind of holism. The basic truths of a life are indeed part of the whole education. The student needs to see “all of it” from the start.

The Danish thinker Kierkegaard (1813-1855) says in his essay “Repetition” that any person who never at some point “circumnavigates what life is will never really have a life.”

In other words, real education would mean a circumnavigation of what life is with a circumnavigation of what knowledge is in a kind of “double helix.”

Without confronting these circumnavigations from the beginning, one is simply stumbling along in a grades-driven fear-fog.

Hannah Arendt, the German-American thinker who died in 1975, warns us about living a life “like a leaf in the whirlwind of time.”

Henry David Thoreau tells us in Walden he wants to “front” (i.e., confront or face up to) life itself and not come to the end of his life and realize he had not lived.

In the classic American novel, John Marquand’s The Late George Apley, the protagonist realizes when it’s too late that he was brought up to become who he is and was and never really reflected on himself or his life and never really understood anything. He never “saw” anything.

We claim in this educational remediation book that a university education cannot just be a frantic stint in a modern “knowledge factory” with its conveyor belt of grades, semesters, course contents forgotten three days after the course.

Stanley Cavell, the recently deceased Harvard philosopher, in his masterful memoir, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, he gives us in its title a sense of what must happen (i.e., the insight that I knew little)—if students are not apprised of these deeper dimensions of life right from Day 1, in a process of “unhiding” the whole story and aletheia.