Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Being philosophically naïve

When I was a graduate student in philosophy, I sometimes thought that the initial wonder and enthusiasm that drew me to philosophy as a high school student was in danger of being eclipsed by the pressure I was feeling to show how philosophically sophisticated I was. I loved the rigor and depth of the work I was doing on the graduate level, but I also often felt like a fraud. What did I really know about philosophy anyway? It seemed to me that I had to be very careful not to make obvious all the gaps in my philosophical knowledge. And no matter how much philosophy I read and how many classes I took, there were (and are) many gaps.
A criticism frequently heard in upper level philosophy classes and professional philosophy circles is that a particular point is "philosophically naïve." As a grad student, it was clear to me that philosophical naiveté was not a quality to be flaunted. But what is philosophical naiveté and why is it something to be avoided?
As I understand it, to be philosophically naïve is to lack knowledge about the long intellectual history of the discussion of many philosophical issues, and so to miss the depth and complexity of particular questions. That is, to be philosophically naïve is to see the issue as simpler than it is and therefore to analyze it in ways that are superficial, given the history of the discussion in philosophy about it. By contrast, to be philosophically sophisticated is to demonstrate a familiarity with the relevant philosophical work on a particular topic, and an understanding of which questions are interesting and which less so.
I have thought a lot about philosophical naiveté and sophistication since graduate school. Because I work with pre-college students, some of them very young, many of the philosophy discussions we have would be considered philosophically naïve. The students with whom I work generally do not have much understanding of philosophy’s long intellectual history, and they approach questions such as “What is knowledge?” or “What is the right way to live?” without any real sense of the sophisticated ongoing discussion taking place about such questions.
So, on the one hand, young people’s explorations of the questions of philosophy don’t often appreciate their historical and intellectual complexity. On the other hand, though, such “naiveté” can make possible a fresh perspective. Young students examine these questions openly, with few preconceptions about what they already know and about which answers are more interesting than others. They tend to lack self-consciousness about showing how smart and/or knowledgeable they are -- they plunge in to explore questions new to them without worrying that they should know something they don't.

"We were small and thought we knew nothing
Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle."

From The Railway Children by Seamus Heaney
Sometimes a first look at a question, without knowledge of other people’s previous ideas about it, can yield a novel way of seeing something. After all, central to philosophy is the critical examination of all of the things we think we know. Analyzing a question of philosophy from the point of view of one who knows nothing has the potential to illuminate new ways of understanding. In this sense, it is our imaginative facility for wondering about the world that is the essential intellectual tool.
Can naiveté be in some ways an asset to philosophy?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What are thoughts?

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds. . . .

From Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens

Over the past six years I have taught philosophy to the same general group of children, starting in kindergarten. Each year I’m amazed on the first day of philosophy when the students are invariably right back in it, as if six or so months hadn’t elapsed since the last time we talked about philosophy together. What I really notice as the students have gotten older is how much more philosophically rich our conversations are becoming, and how much more they talk directly to each other instead of directing all their comments at me. They are so alive during philosophy class, passionately interested in the questions and seeming to have little fear of speaking their thoughts in the group.

In fifth grade we started each session by reading a couple of pages from Harry Stottlemeir’s Discovery, a philosophical novel written by Matthew Lipman for the purpose of doing philosophy with children of around this age. The novel portrays a group of children about this age having philosophical discussions, and when I read it with students it always inspires many questions. One of my favorite discussions that we had this past year was about the nature of thinking.

Do thoughts require language? Can you have thoughts without knowing you’re having them? Can we control our thoughts? Do we think when we’re asleep? One child asked whether dreaming can be defined as thinking when sleeping. It quickly became apparent to the children that what they thought they understood – what thinking is – was actually far more puzzling than they’d expected.

This led to an animated discussion about dreaming, and about whether we can know when we’re dreaming and when we’re not. One young boy said, “Isn’t it possible that everything is a dream? That there is some being on another planet or something who controls what we do, and we think we’re in this class but really we’re always dreaming.” I told the class that this comment echoed a famous argument by the philosopher Descartes, who asked us to think about whether we can ever really know that we are not dreaming or being otherwise fooled into thinking we are doing what we seem to be doing.

At this, one girl who had obviously been deep in thought about these questions, raised her hand and said, “Jana, can I come up to the board and draw what I’m thinking? I can’t express it in words, but I think I can draw what I mean.” She came up and drew two pictures: one of a person lying in bed dreaming, and the other of the dream the person is having. What if, she said, this (pointing to the picture of the dream) is really happening, and this (pointing to the picture of the sleeper having the dream) isn’t real at all?

I’ve thought often about that moment since then. This question about the nature of thought is extremely puzzling. What is thinking? Does it require language? Can newborn babies think? I’m tempted to say no, they can’t, but then I wonder, so when does thinking begin? Does it coincide with the acquisition of language? If so, how is it that this young girl couldn’t, as we say, put her thought into words, and so drew the expression of it instead? Is the thought there before the expression of it? Sometime I will have a thought, but I can’t quite express it, it’s just out of reach. Do I start thinking once I access that thought and can express it? So was this young girl having a thought, say, which she was having trouble expressing, and once she was able to draw it she was able to think about it? Is having a thought different from thinking?

The drawing led the class in a different direction, to a discussion about whether something has to be able to be seen and touched to be real. Is the mental world real? Are numbers real? One child said excitedly, “It’s possible we have all of it wrong!” Another child responded, “No, because if we’re having the dream then we must exist, even if we can’t be sure that the dream is real and what we think is real isn’t.” Everyone thought about this comment for a while, and we agreed to talk more about it the following week.