November 10, 2004

No Authority?

I was very excited that Blakely created this blog but haven’t had time at all to even read it. It’s that time of the semester when things are starting to pile up and you never know if you are coming or going. But Stephen White canceled Epistemology tonight so I have some unexpected free time. Then on the way home I heard something on NPR that has awaken me from a confused slumber (well not really, but it definitely has me thinking).

I think the show was Fresh Air and they always have various editorial commentaries. Tonight there was a lady who is a high school English teacher and was talking about the struggle of teaching high school students. She talked about the way students struggle without authority in interpreting books like Huck Finn. She said that you start to get the idea that maybe Huck isn’t the most reliable narrator and Twain keeps the characters alive in such a way as to make it ambiguous who the good guys and bad guys are. We aren’t sure what to think of the different characters and it isn’t clear who we should be rooting for. The teacher said that this lack of authority is difficult for her student and they are constantly asking her to define these issues for them. They want to know whether or not Hamlet is crazy or just acting. She gave a third example that I thought was really good, but now I am drawing a blank.

What she was trying to stress is that what she and any good teacher try to do is to get the students to think about these questions and answer them for themselves.

So why am I writing about this? Well, it really struck me that this is one of my primary problems with my own study of philosophy. Obviously philosophy is all about learning arguments from various perspectives, thinking about them, and then making our own conclusions about them. We try to use rigorous critical thinking and reasoning in our analysis, but ultimately it is up to us, the individual philosophers to figure out how to interpret things and criticize them. (There may be another branch of philosophy in which you spend the time and effort trying to figure out what so-and-so meant when they said whatever they said. I don’t think this is very interesting philosophy and it certainly isn’t what I want to be studying. That should be more a matter of history of philosophy than actual philosophy, but this is beside the point—almost.)

But what struck me was how much I identify with the students desperately clinging for some solid ground or truth (I think those were the speaker’s words, or at least a close paraphrase). I don’t have a very strong background in philosophy and I am always trying to figure out what it is I am supposed to be getting from the various arguments. What did so-and-so mean when they said what they said? What are the standard interpretations and am I getting it? I am always trying to extract from my professors what it is I am supposed to be thinking about the various philosophic positions. But really it isn’t their job to break it down for me in that way. Maybe they are just supposed to make the questions just clear enough so that I can think about it and do the analysis for myself. Maybe I need to quite struggling for the right interpretation and analysis and just find my own.

But as I am writing this, that just seems like an obvious point. Of course we are supposed to be looking for our own philosophic voice. Nevertheless, I am not sure I want to go all the way (still clinging?). I am here to get my philosophic footing and a part of that must be learning the sort of history of philosophy stuff that doesn’t really interest me that much. Don’t I have to learn what others have said and what the traditional interpretations are? Don’t I need a sort of broad view, lay of the land sort of thing before I can jump in to do my own work?

The question I am trying to ask is how much of my study here should be about assimilating information versus really doing philosophy? Can you assimilate without doing philosophy? Can you do philosophy without assimilating it?



Blogger Blakely said...

These issues have been much on my mind here. I think our task is difficult and ill-defined for a variety of reasons.

The program itself, officially, seems neutral about whether we find our philosophical voices; its requirements are 100% about assimilating information. (I think this is part of the reason there's such a painful rift between professors and students.) Not that professors don't want us to find our voices; if we do, I'm sure they'll be happy. But it's incidental to passing comps.

I also think there's a difficulty posed in the task of assmilating analytic philosophy in particular: that, since it's organized into problems and arguments, it's harder (for me, at least) to get hold of the motivations for particular arguments or views--or even whole communities within philosophy. It's easier, in a standard "History of Modern Philosophy" type course, dealing with Hume, say, to sympathize with the problems Hume considers--and easier therefore to find one's voice with respect to them. This may be because there's less esoteric jargon connected with earlier work in philosophy; but also because earlier philsophers don't assume we can just detach philosophical problems and the important arguments about them from their motivations--which may include a lot of presuppositions that need explicating.

Not that there aren't some students whose being-philosophically consists in the positing and refuting of argument in general. These people, I think, have an easier time finding a voice. They're able to do what they do best philosophically when given a bunch of arguments to assimilate.

I'm not particularly troubled by the need for authority in general (I hate it), but since we're trying (at least, unofficially) to find our ways into philosophical communities, we need people to instruct us in those communities' ways of talking, to correct us when we're wrong--which never seems to happen enough for me--;and finding one's voice will consist in that.

I am troubled by how long it has taken me, personally, to assimilate some of what we must learn. We must assimilate entire communitites with different ways of speaking, going only on their arguments. I feel like I've spent a lot of time in confusion about the stuff that grounds these arguments, about the language; there I could use some more authority, would like it if people were very explicit.

When I went to talk to professor Baz and he asked me what I'd "done" at Tufts, I was horrified. Try to pass comps, of course. It was in the wake of this horror that I made one of my suggestions to the suggestion box--that we have a Master's Thesis. (Don't worry; they'll never do it.)

Probably my concerns aren't exactly yours. But the topic of what we (or anyone) should be doing as students is close to my heart.

11/12/2004 12:21:00 AM  
Blogger Dub! said...

Personally, I’m trying as hard as possible to not think about any grand scheme or prime motivation for my being here. I also sometimes wonder if I should be getting a broad overview or if I should start specializing and start doing philosophy, but in the end, I just pay attention to whatever strikes my fancy, with occasional excursions into what is expected of me (comps, essays, etc.). If I assimilate information, that’s fine; if I develop a philosophical voice, that’s good too. I imagine that later in my career I’ll have to hunker down and plot out what I’m doing, but I don’t see much need for that now. Nancy Bauer has great things to say on this subject. Anyone concerned about the “point” of their time spent here should talk to her.

Out of the two options Tucker gives (assimilating knowledge or doing philosophy), I think this program is clearly focused on doing philosophy. Both Azzouni and Dennett have said as much in introductions to their books. The courses we take, for the most part, ride roughshod over historical continuity, focussing instead on stripping arguments down to their purest logical form. Blakely put knowledge assimilation at the forefront of this department, and I take it she did so because much of the program focuses on passing the comps. I’m not so sure. There’s much more to the Tufts experience than the comps – most of the courses offered touch on the comps only incidentally if at all. But moreover, I don’t think the comps are about assimilating information as much as they are about being able to quickly come up with arguments in your own personal voice. Everything I’ve heard suggests that the graders only really care about you cogently making an argument. In fact, there’s no way that anyone could be totally prepared for all the questions before getting them -- the professors know that you’re going to be reading about internalism and externalism for the first time just a couple of nights before, so they can’t grade you on how researched you are on the subject. They want to see if, under a constrained time period, you can argue something in a certain field. This doesn’t necessitate having a personal voice, of course – but having one sure doesn’t hurt.

Maybe I’m just one of those people whose (as Blakely says) “being-philosophically consists in the positing and refuting of argument in general.” I don’t think of myself like that, but I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if it were so.

I see the lack of authority in this program as mostly a good thing. There’s a lot of open-endedness. If you think a Master’s thesis is what you want, Blakely, maybe try doing an independent study with someone? I think my desire to write an opus when I was here is what led to my FIVE MONTH LATE DDI debacle. There are always options.

Oh – one last note. I would personally love to see a formal debate (or conversation) between some of our professors. I learn best when probing my professors here to see what they actually think and why they think it. Recently, I’ve taken to (secretly) playing the views of our professors off one another to see how they would respond, and it’s usually pretty interesting. Eliminating the middleman (me) and directly staging a debate (or conversation) between professors would just be cool.

11/12/2004 12:56:00 PM  

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