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?