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Arthur Melzer is co-founder and co-director the Symposium on Science, Reason, and Modern Democracy in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University.
“On the Pedagogical Motive for Esoteric Writing”
Journal of Politics, Vol. 69, Issue 4, November 2007
- If the end of education is to foster the love of truth, this love cannot be presupposed in the means. The means must rather be based on a resourceful pedagogical rhetoric that, knowing how initially resistant or impervious we all are to philosophic truth, necessarily makes use of motives other than love of truth and of techniques other than “saying exactly what you mean.” That is why, for example, the earlier, classical tradition of rationalism recognized the inescapable need to speak in philosophical poems and dialogues as well as treatises.
- p. 10
- The first danger of reading books is that it allows you skip too many stages, shortcutting the proper intellectual development. Especially harmful is that it prevents the humble confrontation with your own ignorance. Reading makes you prematurely wise. Before you have had a chance to face the questions and live with them a while, you have seen the answers. Books give a false sense of knowledge and sophistication based on borrowed wisdom, on the belief that you know what you have only read. Thus, they rob you of the proper state of mind for true education.
- p. 12
- Intellectual humility and the keen sense of our ignorance are the necessary starting points for genuine philosophical development; therefore, books—even as they transmit brilliant philosophical insights—undercut philosophy at its root.
- p. 13
- The philosophical writer stands in danger of harming his readers in the very act of trying to help them, by fostering an unhealthy presumption, passivity, and dependence.
- p. 18
- Philosophical education requires not merely that one avoid discouraging the reader ... from employing his own mind, but that one positively motivate him to think and, above all, to think authentically and for himself. One must somehow induce in him a new level of awakeness, inner-directedness, and self-ownership. ... The central paradox of philosophical education, whether in writing or in person, is this: how can one transmit to others something that can never genuinely be given from without, but only generated from within? For that is of the essence of philosophy: it can never be done for you. It is our “ownmost” activity: you must do it all for yourself or you haven’t done it at all.
- p. 18
- By the time a student is old enough to be thinking about philosophical questions, he is already fully immersed in a world of beliefs and answers. He is trapped in a cave of illusions. Thus, his education must begin by lighting up and then questioning the things that he already believes, the foundations of the life that he is already living. He cannot jump out of his skin and make a new beginning: he must start from the inside and slowly, painstakingly work his way out.
- p. 20
- The internal or dialectical critique of received opinion does not take place in a single stroke, but in a series of successive approximations to the truth, each of which will seem in its time to be the final one. The student must not be encouraged to race through these stages to the end, but on the contrary to settle down and live with each for a while, so that he has the time to truly take it in and absorb it—and to allow it to transform him. Our lives do not change as quickly as our thoughts. If the student tries to move too fast, he leaves his life behind, and his thinking becomes purely intellectual. He ceases to believe what he thinks and think what he believes. Tempo is everything. Prematurity—showing the student more than he is ready to understand or digest at the moment—is the great wrecker of educations. As Rousseau remarks in Emile, “never show the child anything he cannot see.” Again: the child “must remain in absolute ignorance of ideas ... which are not within his reach.”
- p. 22
- Only a person fully in touch with the irrational temptations buried within him has a chance of becoming genuinely rational.
- p. 33
- One cannot philosophize in public any more than one can make love there.
- p. 35
- The idea of progress … is that human knowledge tends continually to advance because each generation can build on the achievements of the preceding one. Yet, there is an unstated presupposition here regarding the matter of transmission. Faith in progress is based on the (very un-Socratic) assumption that wisdom or knowledge can not only be taught but can be “published” in the modern sense: written down in books in such a way as to be easily and genuinely appropriated, so that the next generation, after a brief period of learning, can begin where the previous one left off.
A second, related assumption of modern progress-philosophy is that intellectual production functions in essentially the same way as economic production: the progress of both results from “teamwork,” from the practice of the division of labor or specialization within a group. And just as the essential precondition of the economic division of labor is exchange, so the precondition of intellectual specialization is the efficient exchange of knowledge—through publication.
In the modern period, the whole enterprise of philosophy and science has been organized around this idea of progress. The pursuit of knowledge has become uniquely “socialized,” become a team effort, a collective undertaking, both across generations and across individuals within a single generation. This has affected our whole experience of the intellectual life. The modern scholar or scientist ultimately does not—and cannot—live to think for himself in the quiet of his study. He lives to “make a contribution” to an ongoing, public enterprise, to what “we know.” And at the core of this effort at collective knowing is the modern institution of publication.
- The philosophic life—the radically personal effort to see life whole—can never be genuinely pursued as a collective enterprise of specialists.
- p. 42
- In every age people are strongly tempted to rely upon the thinking and findings of others. And this can often seem like a useful shortcut. But if philosophy is to remain authentic and not degenerate into a “tradition,” then above all it must resist this dangerous temptation—the very temptation upon which modern progress-philosophy seeks to build.
- p. 42