Part 7, Notes on “The Liberal Arts Tradition” by Clark and Jain – “Philosophy”

(Link to notes on last section.) (Link to book on Goodreads.) (Link to notes on next section.)

Almost done – a couple preliminary thoughts before I get into the chapter proper.  First, perhaps the best comment made so far about the classical education project, for my money:

What might it look like once again to comprehend in a single vision what modernity has separated into the objective and merely quantitative realm of scientific knowledge and the radically subjective qualitative realm of love, meaning, and value?  It is time that the West once again had a vision for the whole of reality, in which God, His image, and His creation are the interpenetrating centers.

Second – I do think the classical education framework has lessons for the “normal” education system, which often wants integration between subjects but isn’t sure how to do it, so you sometimes get what seem to be random subject pairings just for the sake of pairing.  An intentional return to the historical integration that did exist could be quite beneficial.

Anyway – this chapter is about philosophy, the near-apex of the classical curriculum, surpassed only by theology.  This is a long chapter that actually had a lot to say about the sciences (perhaps seen as the peak of the modern educational curriculum?).

Philosophy, then, is founded from the beginning upon the conviction that knowledge is not about power but about truth.

Ah… a lesson it would be nice for the modern world to relearn.  Historically, they say, there was a three-fold division of philosophy

  • natural philosophy: exploring causes in the realm of nature, an obvious modern derivative being the natural sciences
  • moral philosophy: the branch that considered man as God’s image, both individually and in relationships, one modern derivative being the social sciences
  • divine philosophy / metaphysics: comprehending eternal and spiritual truths, one modern derivative being what we usually (today) just call philosophy

First, some more about natural philosophy…

Probably what I most appreciated from this section was repeated comments that natural philosophy, as opposed to modern science, understood that humans had a “natural” place in the natural world, if you will:

This common life marked by the imitation of nature full of wonders was a source from which much of the rest of their philosophy, whether natural, moral, or divine, followed.  Thus their entire educational endeavour was, as has been said, undergirded by piety both to the human place in natural reality and to a shared life in community.

To some extent of course we still understand trying to live in harmony with nature (the modern environmental movement being an obvious example)… though even then it might be a bit much to say it affects our philosophy in any serious way, we just don’t want to destroy the planet.  But very often we are eager to use technology to run rough-shod over nature and remake the universe in our desired image without any hesitation… and there really is no better example than the modern transgender movement, where even the natural characteristics of the sexes will be made to yield to our desires and our chemistry.

Practically… they made many comments about the need to do natural science in a way that led to “wonder and wisdom” (and perhaps worship)… a fine thing to say, I did think in some cases it was a pleasant-sounding comment they rushed past way too quickly (it’s a short book).  One practical suggestion they did make was to repeat the great experiments of the past:

Teachers can assist students in experimental verification of the greatest and most beautiful experiments.  Reconstructing the canonical experiments transforms lab experiences into a creative endeavour instead of a technologically mediated cookbook exercise. It unites the wonder and the wisdom.

It’s a good thought – speaking as a science teacher, one endless problem we have is that we only have so much time, we can’t do everything.  And good science teaching today is careful to develop lab activities that require creativity and are not cookbook, though they are not usually the canonical experiments of history.  There is much much more that could be said about science education that they aren’t covering here… but I do understand the particular emphasis they are trying to return to science.

OK, I think I’ve said enough about science!  What about moral philosophy…

Recall that the social sciences are the big modern derivative from moral philosophy.  Two big emphasis I appreciated were:

  • The “laws” of the social sciences are much more subject to violation than the laws of the natural sciences, yet this often goes unacknowledged, and the pronouncements of the social sciences are given more authority than they really should be (at least when we like them!).
  • The modern social sciences contain assumptions about man’s purpose that go unexamined (and are often unstated and unacknowledged).

Today in social science, man has no fixed nature or end to which he is obliged, and moreover in natural science there is no fixed reality to which he must be fitted.  Instead, by his “subduing of reality” each decides upon reality’s nature.

I don’t need to say much more here – yes, absolutely fundamental questions about the nature of man need a bigger place in the social sciences (and, perhaps by extension, our national public discourse today).  The biggest errors in our public discourse today (and they are also infecting churches at a rapid rate) are anthropological.

The central question of moral philosophy is therefore anthropological.  What does it mean to be human?  What is the nature of man?  This is a core question which necessarily involves understanding the purpose (telos or final cause) of humans as well.

Finally, metaphysics…

Metaphysics, they say, is concerned with issues like the problem of universals and the nature of causality.

…what is man?  Is the concept “man” only an amalgamation of the multitude of particular examples of men that exist?  Or is there some essence to man that is a universal truth?

And then,

We are left adrift in a sea in which truth really is the will of the strong.  Metaphysics defends the culture from this philosophical collapse into relativism and nihilism.

And that is most assuredly where we are as a culture today.  You will see even the natural sciences, which are still decently respected as tools that lead to objective truth, derided as weapons of oppression if they start preaching conclusions the prevailing nihilism doesn’t want to hear.

Finally, they propose three practical recommendations (for all the branches of philosophy):

  1. The natural and social sciences should be taught within a narrative, including an historical narrative, that makes them something more than a series of logical propositions.
  2. We need to recover philosophical realism within both these fields of study.
  3. The entire classical curriculum should be respected and appreciated by a holistic philosophy – a difficult idea to explain quickly (and, in a way, what the whole classical educational project is about).

One more post about theology and the rest to come.