This is very like starting a new blog. I am coming back to this changed and changing, with a much clearer sense of my personal, communal, and political commitments. Looking back over these archives, I notice my too-great intellectual proximity to discourse communities marked by their active self-isolation from the vibrant global cultural diversity that characterizes this and almost every moment in recent centuries. I have regularly mistaken these communities’ love of exoticism for genuine cultural interest and modulated myself to be in dialogue with them. Push comes to shove, though, what most of these communities seem to value most is a capacity to interact with other cultures as a free consumer, a relationship that doesn’t make them more than superficially responsible for the shape their interactions with other peoples and their cultures take.
Educators negotiate between two related but distinct demands: (1) the need to preserve knowledge and (2) the need to prepare students to apply knowledge. While complementary in education, the two are not necessarily closely linked. In the United States, they have become distant from each other at all levels of intellectual labor. I have been circling this issue, not quite making progress until I found myself talking about Thomas Kuhn over on the Archdruid Report. There is a way to frame the issue historically in reference to the Enlightenment that clarifies the basis for the present-day disjoint between these two demands. I want to talk through that in the hopes that better grasping that provides us with some insight into fixing the disjunction today.
I have been thinking about philosophy a lot these days. The value of speculative philosophy has been at the forefront of that. I’ve talked a little around that topic with mention of a philosophy of error, but that only captures part of the thrust of speculative philosophy. Alongside the concern with error and its capacity to deepen our understanding, there is also a concern with consciousness.That concern with consciousness provides a counterpoint to the concern with error and, moreover, provides philosophy with a foundation and direction that error alone cannot. I want to talk toward and around that point a little.
Philosophy is famously (or infamously) amorphous. Sometimes it means little more than having to do with some folks we call philosophers; other times, it seems to be an opinion about the nature of this or that thing. I can be philosophical by reading Nietzsche, wondering if quarks really exist, talking about the virtues of capitalism or communism, explaining why I think a certain medical procedure is ethical or not, considering whether human nature is altruistic, and talking about what makes me happy or sad. Questions or statements of meaningfulness often find their way to the philosophical banner, whether they are about living a meaningful life or making sense of what a statement or idea means. Philosophy abuts both religion and science, sometimes in competition with them, sometimes cooperating with them, sometimes serving as the middleman negotiating between them. Go very far with this, it starts to seem like everything has to do with philosophy.
Of course, if something has to do with everything, there is a danger that it itself is nothing. After all, if it can be applied to any subject, doesn’t that imply that it, in fact, has no proper content of its own? Like the skeptical neuroscientist who suggests consciousness has no real effect on the world, that it is merely an epiphenomenon of strictly determined biological and chemical processes, might philosophy be just the epiphenomenon of ‘real’ knowledge? Or, perhaps, might we wonder if what we call ‘philosophy’ is nothing more than a too-big-for-its-britches word that refers to just thinking about stuff in a deliberately peculiar fashion?
I haven’t stopped chewing over the topic of my last post; it opens onto quite a few topics that I would like to write about here. Rather than try to cram all of those topics into a single post, though, I have decided to break them out into a loose series of posts that will all be identified with the [CPE] tag you see above. As you might guess, all of these posts will be united around issues of cosmos, paradigm, and education. Education may seem like the odd-man-out in this equation, but it occupies an essential place in the discussion. This series began in what I thought would be a single post on the failures of contemporary education, but in proceeding to trace that I found myself involved in a much larger series of topics.
The failures of contemporary education have deep roots that extend back into the roots of European modernity itself. It is surely easy to be cynical about the state of contemporary education (and I am sometimes), but I don’t want to get stuck in cynicism. Rather, I want to examine the failures of education by vieiwing them as a sort of higher order ‘interesting errors.’ Like interesting errors, they are worthy of study so that we can see more clearly the way in which those failures reveal useful truths as an ill-fitting pair of clothes reveals something of how we move. One of the more important failures is the failure to integrate cosmos and paradigm.
By cosmos I mean a totality organized according to unified principles and the sense of enclosure it gives to human society. The sense of a cosmos gives members of society a set of ideals through which they are able to regulate themselves and their society. A paradigm, by contrast, is partial. It refers to a specific set of phenomena and proceeds to provide an explanation of the phenomena’s behavior. On a purely conceptual level, these two patterns do not appear to be in conflict. In fact, there seems to be a complementarity to the way in which the phenomena described by a paradigm can be integrated into a bigger picture, cosmological model. However, in historical terms, these two modes of approaching the world are deeply at odds with each other and efforts to resolve those tensions are part of what structures the failure of education.
The subsequent [CPE] posts will all be centered at getting at this historical conundrum and thinking (i.e., speculating) about how we might get beyond it.
I can’t remember when I first heard Dudley Hersbach’s bit about error, but it’s a good one to repeat and discuss in Hegelian terms:
And often, the key thing, if you’re going to be wrong, is to be wrong in an interesting way—because you tried some excursion in thought that took you over somewhere and gave you a new perspective. That’s the kind of thing to try to emphasize.
This plea for a broader notion of science and scientific endeavor applies equally well as a description of the Hegelian vision of speculative philosophy’s relationship to knowledge in general. It is also, like Hegel, frustratingly vague on the matter of what it means to be ‘wrong in an interesting way.’ What does a ‘new perspective’ entail and why does it even matter?
When folks talk about certain sorts of spiritual practices, ranging from those of the African Diaspora to contemporary (neo)paganism, a few words tend to enter into the discussion pretty quickly. The most common is ‘syncretism,’ followed distantly by ‘eclecticism.’ The two words are often used in ways that make them nearly synonymous with each other. I’m not a big fan of legislating language, but I’m going to suggest that this habit isn’t particularly helpful in talking about these practices. What’s more, I’m going to suggest that the term ‘syncretism’ is used too often without specification, making it a term that means too little and too much all at once. In this post, I want to draw a distinction between eclecticism and syncretism and then proceed to discuss in detail some specific sorts of syncretisms in the hopes that it might nourish a more meaningful conversation about the way these religious practices originate and develop.
In making these sorts of distinctions, I’m drawing on discussions in psychology and philosophy. The distinctions aren’t entirely my own and the issues raised in the religious discussion have parallels in other (lively) disciplinary discussions. That said, the strategies I’m employing to specify forms of syncretism are my own (though clearly owing more than a little to the sort of philosophical distinction-making pioneered by Plato and Aristotle).
A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded this article about a bacterial infection spreading through the water pipes of a hospital. It is eye-opening on a lot of levels, not the least of which includes the increasing danger hospitals may pose to health as more and more antibiotic resistant forms of bacteria develop. I’ll leave that particular issue for others, though, and focus on something else.
In response to the article, another friend grimly joked that this was just bacteria reminding us who was at the top of the food chain. The food chain bit was just a joke, but it made me realize how deeply embedded that concept of the food chain was and how poorly it captured what was going on. It’s a soup, I thought. It’s the bacteria reminding us that our food chain is in their soup.