Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Making of Meaning

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I had to sign up for an Intro to Philosophy class this semester; were we going to spend an hour every morning talking about whether the desks we were sitting in were really there? If so, I hoped somebody would just go ahead and shoot me and put me out of my misery. Luckily, this turned out not to be the case, and despite being a freshman "Cultural Foundations" course that everyone has to take regardless of major, it fits quite nicely into my psychology education. My professor has structured his syllabus around one specific subject, and that is learning. How do people learn, is essentially the question he sets out to answer through the semester. At the end, our final project is a 5-page paper about our reaction to a piece of art, and most importantly, how we came to that reaction. It can be anything: a book, a film, a symphony, or a painting. Whatever, as long as it is something that challenges or confounds us in some way (maybe I should write my paper about this movie....).

Anyway, the professor's hypothesis is that few people ever really learn anything beyond what he calls a "nominal understanding," which is the ability to speak about something well enough that you sound like you know what you're talking about, but really don't. Even most PhD's, he proclaims, only have a nominal understanding of whatever field it is in which they toil. He enjoys giving an example (and this works especially well at academia wank-fest cocktail hours, apparently) of the best way to shut down conversations: when someone starts chiming in with their opinions on something (say, middle-class tax breaks or minimum wage) just look at them quizzically and say, "I didn't know you've been studying microeconomics for the past 10 years." It works for smaller things too, like going to the movies. When your buddy starts complaining about the film, or critiquing it in some way, look at him and say, "I didn't know you were an expert in film theory." Naturally, my professor says, don't do this if you want to have any friends left, because it just makes you an asshole, but people can't really respond to it.

Yes, he's quite full of himself, but he's grown on me over the semester. I like the way he teaches, and that he comes at it from a mix of philosophical, psychological, and sociological perspectives. American schools (and most schools, in general) don't teach you how to think, they teach you how to memorize and be a robot. Everyone knows this already (at least those of us who think), but he argues that most students could easier write a paper on their favorite sport than they could about how they think about things (thus, our final paper). Students know their own minds and selves least of all.

Our first reading in the class was a paper published in 1981 by William G. Perry, a professor in San Francisco who had, through extensive research, outlined the 9 steps people go through in cognitive and ethical development. Most people, he claims, don't get past about step 4 or 5.

Step 1 is rote regurgitation of facts and numbers told to you by your teachers, because they are the "authorities" and they know the answers. Eventually one begins to understand that even the authorities disagree on some things, and they can't all be right, but eventually they'll get to the truth. By step 4, most people have begun to discover relativism, and realize that many people and opinions can be correct, but that they (and theoretically the student) must support their opinions with data, or some kind of supporting opinion. Eventually one questions their own opinions, beliefs, thoughts, ethics, etc., and by step 9, one has theoretically made one or many commitments (philosophical and ethical) and they must balance and be supported. The description of step 9 is thus:

This is how life will be. I must be wholehearted while tentative, fight for my values yet respect others, believe my deepest values right yet be ready to learn. I see that I shall be retracing this whole journey over and over - but, I hope, more wisely.

It seems quite similar (to me, at least) to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which basically states that one cannot be self-actualized until their physiological and esteem needs have been met. But at which point, one is then free to be the best, most productive person they can be. Naturally, one must have food (basic facts) before one can think too much about their priniciples and contributions to the world (self-actualization). Grossly simplified, but something along those lines.

How many people do you know could even tell you what their values are if you were to ask? And if they could tell you, do you think they'd be correct? It's rare that one's true values correspond to what they claim their values to be. And thusly, they don't know themselves or their own minds.


zen imbecile said...

I want you to ask your profe something for me.

Does he believe that people who haven't studied microeconomics for 10 years shouldn't comment on middle class tax breaks?

OR does he believe that asking questions like the ones you've provided prove how most people are at step 4 or 5 of cognitive/ethical development rather than step 9.

The Fire Next Time said...

The latter, I would imagine. He's all for discussion. All he's trying to prove with those antecdotes is that most people only have a very limited understanding about most things of which they speak. They doesn't mean they shouldn't speak about them; but it also doesn't mean they shouldn't expect to be challenged.

I'm also totally putting words in his mouth by responding to you, as I'm sure his answer would be much more thoughtful and nuanced than my reply.

AC said...

I've never understood why anyone becomes a philosopher. It makes as much sense as going to typewriter-repair school. Whenever we begin to accumulate real knowledge about a subject, we remove it from philosophy and give it a separate name to signify, "Hey, now we actually know something." Physics, chemistry, metallurgy, medicine, political science, linguistics and a bunch of other stuff started out as philosophical disciplines. They began to peel off from philosophy when they adopted the scientific method.

Philosophy is entrusted only with questions that cannot be answered by forumlating hypetheses and testing them empirically. Usually, or at least historically, this is because philosophers have been asking the wrong questions.