Concerning debates (especially on Edutwitter): Brute facts and ideology

1.

To begin with, I would like to start with what might seem like a rather odd, but I would argue useful, definition of certainty. This will provide us with something of a foundation on which to build. I will define certainty as inconceivability of the opposite, as incredulity.

Imagine that someone told you that they think ‘it is perfectly reasonable to punch elderly people for fun’. One would then assume something like the following:

  • (i) The person is telling a (bad) joke
  • (ii) You have missed a key part of the story or context (e.g. the person cannot speak English and has just repeated a sentence verbatim without understanding it)
  • (iii) The person is lying to themselves

(There is an obvious (iv) but I shall discuss that below in §7)

Having been able to rule out (i) and (ii) you are left with (iii). I would posit, that this sensation of incredulity is the nearest that we can get to any kind of certainty in an argument, the feeling that we simply cannot understand why the other person is saying what they are saying. However, this sense of certainty about the proposition in question is not final, it hangs in the air only so long as one is not provided with a context which renders the proposition conceivably true. Since I cannot think of such a context, it remains inconceivable to me. I cannot say the proposition is absolutely or objectively untrue, since I cannot possibly know whether any such context will come about. Were I to state it as if it were an absolute truth, I would therefore be deceiving myself.

This position is not postmodern or relativist in the sense that anything goes – anything goes only if the context exists which allows it to go. If one (honestly) finds something inconceivable, then one can justifiably take one’s position to be brute fact[2] (here, I shall define a brute fact is one which appears so obviously true that it is not in need of justification – but it does not mean that it is true outside the context in which it was uttered, and it does not mean that exceptions cannot be found in the future.) I understand, however, that this is obviously subjective in the sense that we are relying on people to be honest.

2.

Thus, I would argue, that, whilst we cannot state anything objectively we can become more objective, and search for that sense of incredulity, by constantly seeking contexts and cases which dispute our own propositions, and then refining our positions accordingly, until we have limited its possible interpretations as far as we can. This process of refinement is ongoing, because of the temporary nature of our certainty. This is what we do when we conduct research. We take a proposition: ‘it is always wrong to restrain students’, and then we test it with various what-ifs (what if they are hurting another student and will not stop) refining our initial proposition (it is always wrong to restrain students unless…) until we can think of no more exceptions, and we end up with what appears to be a brute fact. For example, the learning scientists, yesterday published a blog-post entitled ‘On the Potential Limitations of Spacing and Retrieval Practice in the Classroom’, which did precisely that.

3.

Often, however, the questions that are asked of us, or the statements that we discuss are far more general. Yesterday, for example, Sam Freedman got in a bit of hot water on twitter for suggesting that people should not be proud of the British empire. For what it’s worth, I have quite a lot of sympathy with that position, but, using my criterion of certainty laid out in §1 I could only say, ‘It is inconceivable to me, now, that I could be proud of the British empire’. I cannot then generalise that to anyone else. If I were to come across someone who was proud of the British empire, then we could certainly have discussions about what that meant, and perhaps I would conclude that they were self-deceiving, suffering from a mental illness, or telling a bad joke, but it is also likely that I would discover that I had missed some key fact that suddenly rendered their position intelligible to me, or vice versa. In such situations, it is normally the case that our discussion reaches the point where neither of us have the inclination to continue – with some topics, then we may conclude that this is ok and we can live and let live. If the argument has not been concluded to the point of certainty, then is seems fairly obvious that we are in no position to make judgements about the other person since the topic has not been fully explored.

I am not against such general questions, and often I leap in two footed with an ill-thought-out opinion simply because it encourages me to think and be tested and then refine my own positions. I would call this kind of discussion ‘sparring’, rather than ‘fighting’. I do, however, believe that there are two dangers here:

  1. That such general questions are treated with more gravitas than they deserve, and ‘sparring’ and ‘fighting’ are confused.
  2. If you ask a general question, then you cannot complain if you get a general, i.e. subjective answer.

4.

Such general statements do not really have what we could call a ‘truth-value’, or at least the truth-value of such statements is vague. What I mean by this, is that statements such as these are uttered or written with very little in the way of a criteria of correctness. Clearly a statement like, ‘traditional/progressive teachers are bad’ is not a brute fact, and if it is not a brute fact, then we need to find some common ground on which we can carry out a fair test. Hopefully, in such a discussion, some criteria will be offered (in the form of reasons) and the conversation can continue – often, especially on twitter, arguments end up with numerous criteria all being discussed simultaneously, and it just ends up in a big mess.

If there is no test, then there cannot really be a contradiction either. If I say ‘blue is best’, and you say ‘no it’s not’, if neither of us offer any criteria, the conversation ends there – the contradiction is superficial and meaningless. I would proffer that the reason people say such truth-valueless statements, is not so much because they believe them, but more as a simple expression of their identity, of the tribe to which they aspire to belong. Where there can be no criteria by which to judge a statement, it is, to me, a brute fact that the bearer of that position would be unjustified in judging me for not agreeing, never mind forcing me in any way to abide by such a position.

5.

Where we are in a situation which neither concerns brute facts, nor appears to have a straight-forward criterion of correctness, it can appear to be the case that we have hit an ideological impasse. Given the confusions surrounding various uses of the word ideological, it is worth exploring that a little here. The Oxford dictionary has the following:

1. A system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy. ‘the ideology of republicanism’

1.1 The set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual. ‘a critique of bourgeois ideology’

I shall deal with definition 1.1 first. Often, the word ideological appears to be used as a rebuke (presumably in sense 1.1). As Tom Bennett wrote: ‘what they usually mean is “YOU are driven by blind adherence to dogma but I am unbiased and see the world objectively”’. Indeed, Sam Freedman, in the debate described above, was accused of being ideological. This is clearly a sloppy accusation: if the accuser means that the thoughts of the accused are based on an unsubstantiated proposition, then surely it would be more constructive to identify said proposition, rather than simply allude to it. If said proposition is unidentifiable, then the accusation of being ideological is equally ideological (in the sense they are using it) and they have been condemned by their own words.

In answering Rufus William’s question ‘Is it possible for there not to be ideology in education?’, Andrew Old responded with: ‘We want children to be educated in what we think is worthwhile, and ‘what is worthwhile?’ is an ideological question.’

I would perfectly agree that this can be an ideological question (in both senses), but more importantly, I would argue it is a general question, for which we would have a morass of criteria to work through before we got anywhere near to any brute facts.

Perhaps the best approach is not to dive into this morass, but rather to establish specific examples and contexts related to the question. For example, imagine that one’s school was planning on removing Drama GCSE from the curriculum – at first glance this may still appear to be a question requiring an ideological response, but it needn’t be. I, though not teaching Drama, might sense that I have an obligation to inquire as to the reasons. I speak to the head, and she explains that the Drama teacher is leaving, very few students have opted for Drama in year 10, and that due to recent budget cuts, the school can only continue to run if they cut one subject. Given these details, and given that I believe the head, I am convinced that she is not imposing a belief upon anyone, but simply doing her best. My chagrin, therefore should not be directed towards her, if it needs to be directed towards anyone, but towards the budget cuts. In order to refrain from being ideological (in sense 1.1) concerning the budget cuts, I ought then seek out the decision makers here and discover the context for their decisions. All too often, however, establishing the context for each individual decision is too hard, and so we lazily fall back on an accusation of people being ideological (1.1). If we cannot discover the context, then all we have are our suspicions – and again, to air these as if they were objective, is to be hypocritical, to be ourselves ideological (1.1).

(NB: Rufus William posted on this himself here.)

6.

Definition 1 (‘a system of ideas and ideals…’) is rather more difficult. Firstly, let me mention the idea of an ideology as a theory. A theory is a supposition, it may be (again in specific contexts) our best explanation, as in the big bang – in which case it has the quality of a complex brute fact. Many theories, however, do not have this quality, for example Marxism. To use such a theory as a justification for one’s actions, is to act upon the belief that this theory is correct – one is therefore unjustified in imposing this on anyone else.

Tom Bennett gave the following two definitions, which I assume were pointing to something like this definition:

  1. ‘An ideology is a loosely connected set of strategies focussing on the achievement of a set of values.’
  2. ‘Ideology is a set of values that loosely cohere into practical aims. Everything is guided by them/has them.’

Firstly, there appears to be a difficulty here: what comes first, the values or the strategies? Are the values the aim, or is the aim derived from the values?

If the values are the aim, then I would argue that being ideological is indeed a bad thing, since no appeal to the achievement of a set of values can logically override a brute fact, and any moral obligations manifest therein. This is the difficulty with those who say that they just do ‘what works’ – works for what? The ends are still justifying the means. The situation with the second definition is a little messier, and I believe gets to the nub of the issue.

The obligations manifest in a brute fact, are not the same as the values we hold. To be guided by our values, is to be guided by a series of heuristics, or rules of thumb. ‘I believe it is wrong to punch people’ is a very useful moral rule of thumb, but one can easily think of occasions where it is not true. This still has the quality of a generalisation rather than a brute fact. Thus, again, such a value cannot override a moral obligation manifest in a brute fact. It may be the case that everything is guided by them, but it certainly needn’t be. I would like to be someone who is guided by my obligations, not values – I’m not, most of my decisions are pretty selfish, but I’d like to be.

7.

The difficulty comes if people genuinely see different moral obligations manifest in these brute facts – if they make different moral judgements. I would argue that this is less frequent than one may assume.

As I described here, the rules of language are embedded in our practices. If our practices are the shared then so are our rules. These rules also govern our use of moral terms, and thus, one can no more label a moral action as virtuous than misuse any other word. If one ever does have a disagreement with another to the point of brute fact and one is convinced that they are not joking, mentally ill, self-deceiving or that one has not missed out a key point, then it is not a disagreement concerning facts, it is a disagreement in one’s practices and entire form of life. The Piraha people of the Amazon allow their toddler children to play with large knives[3], I cannot be in any position to judge them for that though, because we share so little in terms of practices. If I lived with them for years, then perhaps we might be able to establish some shared criteria by which we can discuss the matter, but till then, I can say nothing. If we ever meet aliens, however, there is every chance that their forms of life are so different to ours that communication will be as minimal as that between humans and lions. Our practices evolve around our needs, and if we don’t have shared needs then we will struggle. Between teachers, however, I would expect that our forms of life are similar enough, our everyday practices are similar enough that we can establish shared criteria, recognise the same brute facts and see the same obligations manifest within them.

8.

I suspect, though obviously cannot prove, that one frequent cause of disagreement is simply humiliation. When one declares a position (and they are not in a ‘sparring’ mood) then they are, to some degree, putting their ego on the line. People often derive their obligations from their identities rather than the other way around. I discussed this difference here. This is a mistake, and results in one finding one’s self inextricably entwined with a set of ‘values’ which are often nothing more than beliefs or generalisations. I feel such humiliation daily upon realising that I was wrong, but the price one will often have to pay to maintain and protect one’s ego will be self-deception. One will deny even those facts which one knows to be brute to survive. If we are arguing with someone, then it is clearly important that we try not to humiliate them.

To truly listen and discuss, to truly seek out and recognise brute facts, we must be open, compassionate, and recognise that the ideas we hold dear may be nothing but will-o’-the-wisp. And if this turns out to be true, then we will get over it: we probably shouldn’t define ourselves by what we believe, but by the obligations we fulfil.

[2] I am using the term in the sense used in G.E.M. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy, 33.124 (1958), 1. There are other uses of the term, but it should suffice to say that in this post, I am simply referring to that which it would be inconceivable to deny.

[3] Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (London: Penguin Books Limited, 2013). p.198

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