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 107: Critiquing Geniuses Respectfully: “Stances” and “Circum-Stances”

A very deep intellectual exercise or “gymnastic skill” is the ability to critique a giant of intellect without flippancy or fear.

To acknowledge someone’s absolute greatness but sense human blindnesses and logical omissions is not childish or sophomoric but simply acknowledges the truth that one mind can’t “swallow” all of truth, as William James teaches us.

Take the case of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish genius thinker. His thinking is endlessly deep and rich. However, since life is a mix of “stances” (explored by people like Kierkegaard with profundity) and “circum-stances” (the hyphen is used here intentionally to emphasize that these practical details and situations surround us).

Consider this insight into Kierkegaard’s family finances:

About his birth S. K. (Kierkegaard) once remarked with somber wit that “it occurred in that year (i.e., 1813) when so many worthless (literally, ‘mad’) notes were put in circulation.”

He had in mind the great inflation which only two months before his birth brought financial ruin to most of the well-to-do families in Denmark.

To provide for its part in the Napoleonic Wars the government had issued a prodigious number of bank notes, which resulted of course, in a complete collapse of credit. The only security which did not sink to a a small fraction of its nominal value was the so-called “Royal Loan.”

Upon that, because the bonds were held briefly by foreign governments, Denmark was obliged to pay the stipulated interest in gold. The elder Kierkegaard had invested his whole fortune in this security, and therefore, from the general crumble of values he emerged not only as rich as he was before but relatively richer than ever.

(A Short Life of Kierkegaard, Walter Lowrie, Princeton University Press, 1974, page 23)

This Walter Lowrie standard biography of Kierkegaard shows you how these “circum-stances” were a kind of material background or financial basis which gave him, Kierkegaard, the basic economic and financial support system his life “stood” on. His genius was his own but his family background and financial realities cannot be completely ignored. Lowrie’s biographical book in various places tells you how Kierkegaard went on to manage his estate and how unlucky he sometimes was in financial matters.

A person “walks” on two practical “legs,” money and health.

When Kierkegaard (or Dostoyevsky, say) maps out the human soul, he tends to ignore these “preconditions” or economic supports so a completely reverential admirer of his could say that his depth psychology might have been even better had he included these two “practical legs” in his analyses.

Remember too the first sentence of the great American classic novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, where the author, Booth Tarkington, tells you that the magnificence of the Ambersons dated from 1873 when they uniquely got a “bounce” from the grave financial crisis which sank just about everybody else.

This reminds us of the Kierkegaard family, 1813, when the family, whether by dumb luck or shrewdness, benefited from the turbulence of Danish war finance.

“Stances” and “circum-stances” would be linked in an even deeper synthesis where these historical and financial dimensions are part of the story.

Such a critique of Kierkegaard (say) is not meant to be brickbats for their own sake or cranky grousing or facile negativity but a signpost as to what is needed to get even more out of these geniuses.

Essay 103: “Nervous Breakdowns” for Countries or Regions?

Hannah Arendt who became world famous with her Eichmann in Jerusalem 1960s book, says in her essays that Europe in the twentieth century was determined by a kind of national “nervous breakdown” in and centered on Germany.

If we allow for the fact that this is a “façon de parler” (way of expressing something) and not a rigorous comparison (a country is not one person writ large) Arendt’s figure of speech is suggestive and evocative.

Here’s an example. In 1919, Walter Gropius (died in 1969) gave a speech to students of his “Bauhaus” school, which sounds like a person picking up on a kind of national nervous breakdown:

First of all, Walter Adolph Georg Gropius was a German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School, who, along with Alvar Aalto, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modernist architecture. He is a founder of Bauhaus in Weimar.

Gropius says (July 1919, speech to Bauhaus students):

“We find ourselves in a tremendous catastrophe of world history, a transformation of the whole of life and the whole of inner man.
We now have to forget the time before the war, which was totally different.

The more quickly we adapt to the new changed world, to its new, if austere beauties, the sooner the individual will be able to find his subjective happiness.
We will be more spiritual and profound as a result of the German distress.
As the economic opportunities sink, the spiritual ones have already risen enormously.”

(quoted in German Expressionism, University of California Press, 1990, edited by Rose-Carol Washton Long, page 250, “July 1919 Gropius speech to Bauhaus students”).

We are reminded of Kierkegaard’s (died in 1855) anatomy of the kinds of human despair in his The Sickness unto Death.

The Gropius despair is a bit different because it mirrors a real or imagined German national catastrophe which is folded into a “catastrophe of world history.”

World War I and its aftermath loom as a kind of infinite “desolation row” for Gropius and we cannot judge what percentage of the despair is German and what percentage has to do with Gropius’s subjective state of mind.

In any case, we do have the sense of a “nervous breakdown” atmosphere, nationally and personally.

Might we also wonder if Anglo-America is flirting with such a “nervous breakdown” in 2019?

Essay 18: What Is Education?

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish thinker at the highest level, a kind of Danish Pascal.

In his Fear and Trembling essay, he asks:

“What is education?  I should suppose that education was the curriculum one had to run through in order to catch up with oneself, and he who will not pass through this curriculum is helped very little by the fact that he was born in the most enlightened age.”

(Kierkegaard, “Fear and Trembling”, Problemata, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954, page 57)

Education at its deepest level is understood here as a process of “catching up with oneself.”

Every student who ever lived and who will ever live is both a student (which is a social role) and a person (an existential task).

Education, if profound, would “put on the table” both modes of going through life and then assign the “homework” of “circumnavigating” a life and an education and hold them together in one’s mind. Catching up with oneself is the effort to fight off and climb out of “lostness.”

Lostness is depicted in such classic American films from 1999 as Magnolia and American Beauty.

One can be lost in a city, in life, or in the cosmos. (Walker Percy’s novel, Lost in the Cosmos, is an exploration of this.)

In the “brutal sociology” of American life and society, there are “winners and losers.” (Remember the scene in the American classic movie, The Hustler, where Paul Newman (“Fast Eddie”) calls George C. Scott (“Bert”) a “loser.”

Catching up with oneself involves the fending off of this brutal American cultural bullying and help the person/student hold on to one’s self and know how to use an education to help in this. Thus, catching up this way achieves and protects one’s self-possession.

The reader may remember the movie classic A Man for all Seasons, in which there’s a scene very relevant to this where “Thomas More” played by Paul Scofield, reminds “Richard Rich,” (the relentless amoral opportunist) that self-possession is the highest good and if one loses that, one loses everything of value. He, “Thomas More,” describes it as a bit of water in your hand that falls on the ground and can’t ever be recovered.

Catching up with yourself is education’s help in keeping a grip on this “water in your hand.”

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.

Essay 3: Why Descartes-Type Assumptions Might Confuse This Type of Holism Quest

René Descartes, who died in 1650, and whom you remember from high school Cartesian coordinates, points the way to the modern intellectual assumption that everything should be explained by means of the mathematical sciences which then eventually gives us the Steven Hawking sense of reality (i.e., science will yield final certitude and thus we’ll know “the mind of God.”)

Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time concludes explicitly with a rousing vision of science as the ultimate triumph of the rational mind eventually revealing “the mind of God.”

To get our bearings on this set of beliefs, go back to Descartes’ masterpiece from 1641/42, Meditations on First Philosophy, one of the world’s great books. “Meditation 2” of this book starts with:

“So serious are the doubts into which I have been thrown as a result of yesterday’s meditation that I can neither put them out of my mind nor see any way of resolving them. It feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the top. Nevertheless, I will make an effort and once more make an effort and once more attempt the same path which I started on yesterday.

Anything which admits of the slightest doubt I will set aside just as if I had found it to be wholly false; and I will proceed in this way until I recognize something certain, or, if nothing else, until I at least recognize for certain that there is no certainty. Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakeable.

I will suppose then, that everything i see is spurious. I will believe that my memory tells me lies, and that none of the things that it reports ever happened.

I have no senses. Body, shape, extension, movement and place are chimeras. So what remains true? Perhaps just the one fact that nothing is certain.”

The reader will sense a radical vision of infinite doubt looking for an “Archimedean point” of one certain item. The reader can easily see why mathematical constants such as the ubiquitous pi would be something to cling to since one assumes that 22/7 or pi will be the same forever. What else could it be, one thinks.

What we are doing in this book doesn’t look for any “Archimedean point” of final certainty at all. What we want to do is to introduce exercises in holism, giving a more wide-angle view of a field, course, topic, lecture, book, educational experience. We are not in Descartes-type “new certainty” business and don’t look for eternal truths or axioms.

In fact, let’s use Descartes own words here to “extract” some connectedness on the spot:

He says:  “I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the doubt.”

Let’s call this a kind of “knowledge vertigo.” The reader might sense that there is a “family” of such dizziness. You think of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  That some psychological panic attack which he tries to explain in the movie. Kim Novak, the female protagonist in the movie, has her own kind of dizziness and falls into the ocean. You can have dizziness from hunger, overtiredness, inner ear infection, salmonella, anxiety, etc. Kierkegaard (1813-1855) discusses a dizziness and vertigo of a person “lost in the world” like a sailor lost at sea with no direction.

In other words, one can use Descartes description of his own “certainty chasing” panic to build a taxonomy of dizzy feelings and get a more holistic sense of such phenomena without insisting on any “eye in the sky” perspective on everything based on a rebuilt version of certainty.

In other words, these Cartesian quests could block the reader from connecting things at a more intermediate or “meso” level, neither micro (too small) nor macro (too far away).

Essay 2: Connectivity and the Need for Meta Intelligence

Arguments without end and our attitude to them:

A reader of this book might ask:

How far does this quest for more holism go?  Are there limits on this type of inquiry?

This is a very good question.  In order to answer this, we quote something from the famous French historian, Michelet, who died in 1874:

“Woe be to him who tries to isolate one department of knowledge from the rest….all science [i.e., knowledge] is one:  language, literature and history, physics, mathematics and philosophy; subjects which seem the most remote from one another are in reality connected, or rather all form a single system.”

(quoted in To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1940, page 8)

Our attitude to such radical system building is non-committal. Rather we say, you the student should pursue flexible forms of increased connection and holism while you acquire knowledge and extend it and not worry about some once-and-for-all system underneath or beyond everything. We propose exercises in holism and all exercises are replaceable with new ones or better ones and there’s no “final layer” or hidden “mind of God” to use Stephen Hawking language. The existence of some underlying or final system is something like an “argument without end” (to use Pieter Geyl language).

This argument is captured by the classic “fight” between Hegel (the person that Marx and Kierkegaard rebelled against and who died in 1831) and Adorno in the twentieth century.

Hegel says: The whole is the true. Adorno (who died in 1969) says: The whole is the false.

We skip all such fights.

Thinking about University Knowledge Again:

One cannot major in every field. One cannot make everything a university offers your specialty or concentration.

“Sartor Resartus:”  The great British critic Thomas Carlyle (who died in 1881), close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote a famous satire called “Sartor Resartus or The Tailor Retailored” where he lampoons a certain Professor Devil’s-crud who teaches at Don’t-Know-Where University and is Professor of Everything.

Obviously, we are not proposing the creation of professors-of-everything and propose nothing more than the heightened ability to “zoom out” of academic fields, topics, lectures, topics, campuses.

A person who has similar intuitions is Alfred North Whitehead of Harvard (died 1947) who says in his essays on education that the real purpose of university education is to enable the learner to generalize better using that person’s field as a help or aid.  The purpose of a university cannot be fields and monographs within fields alone.