Education as a sacrament [3/4] (preparatory notes for my talk at ResearchED Malmö)

Please note: these are just notes that I wrote for my own benefit for the talk. They are incomplete, poorly cited, and the grammar is slovenly, but I was asked to put them online and I’ve not had time to tidy them up. I’ve divided them into four parts, of which this is the third. The other three sections can be reached via these links:

III. Dissolving the metaphysics

  1. At this point, we might feel like we must resort to the second of the conclusions I mentioned at the start:
    • It is recognised that education involves questions of ‘values’ but these questions are seen as irresolvable, and thus merely a matter of opinion.
  2. However, hopefully, by trying to explain how we might be able to clear this metaphysical mess up, I will show that such a collapse into relativism isn’t necessary.

i. There is no essence of a concept or word

  1. Wittgenstein pointed out that the meaning of an expression is (with minor qualifications) its use within the context (or language-game). We often fail to recognise that one word can have many different meanings, or uses. Instead, we try to shoehorn multiple concepts together believing that we have established the essence of a concept.
  2. Think about the word ‘knowledge’. Philosophy commonly breaks down knowledge into three types, acquaintance knowledge, ability knowledge and propositional knowledge, but this doesn’t really seem to cover all of these different uses, and what would count as a synonym in each case:
    • ‘I know I am right!’
      • I’m sure I’m right
    • ‘I know the kings and queens of England from 1066 to the present day’
      • I can recite the kings and queens…
    • ‘Oh, that’s very knowledgeable of you!’
      • I’m surprised (impressed) that you said that!
    • ‘I know what you mean’
      • I sympathise with you
    • ‘She knows her football’
      • She makes insightful comments about football
    • ‘I know Dave’
      • I’ve met Dave
    • ‘He’d known better times’
      • He didn’t use to have such bad luck/be poor
    • ‘From now on, I’d like to be known as Dr Johnson’
      • I’d like to be called Dr Johnson
    • ‘I’ve had a tip from someone in the know’
      • I’ve had a tip from someone with inside information
  1. It seems silly and more than a bit contrived to call equate ‘I’m sure I’m right’ with ‘propositional knowledge’. This entirely ignores what the word ‘know’ is doing in this sentence. Here ‘I know’ is being used to combat some form of doubt which has made itself known. Can ‘sympathise’ be reduced to propositional knowledge? Of course not. If someone was pouring their heart out to me and I said, ‘I have propositional knowledge of your situation’, I’m not sure that would do the required degree of comforting.
  2. Wittgenstein described the connections between all the different uses of a word as ‘family resemblances’. The point is, that when we attempt to find the essence of a particular concept, when we try to find what connects all the uses of a word, we end up ignoring the complexities and multiplicities in its meaning.

ii. Logic is not a priori, necessary or universal

  1. What about the issue of logical certainty? As aforementioned, Wittgenstein described words as being used in language-games, these games are like little rituals. He called them games because they are rulebound. Each little game works according to a set of norms or expectations. If you try to veer outside of these norms, then no one will know what you’re talking about. These games overlap with each other, and some games contain other games. A good example is going to McDonalds. There is a clear routine and set of possible responses and questions. But if I am asked, ‘what drink would you like with that?’ And I respond with, ‘aaargh!’ Then the poor teller would probably feel quite baffled. This is not because ‘aaargh!’ Is meaningless in itself, in the correct context it might make perfect sense.
  2. O. Mounce (1973, p.349) explains that one of Wittgenstein’s reasons for introducing the notion of a language game…

… was to free us from the idea that logic constitutes what he called ‘the a priori order of the world’, the idea that logic is, as it were, ‘prior to all experience’. He wished us to see rather, that logic- the difference between sense and nonsense – is learnt, when, through taking part in a social life, we come to speak a language. Logic is to be found not ‘outside’ language but only within the various language games themselves.

iii. Certainty and other absolutes can only be shown and not said

  1. Now let’s look at one example of the word know. When does it actually make sense to say ‘I know such and such’, and when does it not? What we notice is quite counter-intuitive:
    • The phrase ‘I know’ actually only makes sense when there is a possibility of doubt. When we say it, we are trying to convince someone that, despite their doubts, something is true.
    • If there actually is no doubt, then (unless we are doing philosophy) it actually comes across as very odd. Imagine if I just walked up to someone and said, ‘I know these are hands!’
    • The same is true for phrases like – ‘I am certain’ etc…
    • (As per Peter Hacker’s writing on this)
  2. This is the nature of philosophical discussions, we often forget that they are divorced from the practices of real life, that enable sentences to make sense. Consider the following remark by Wittgenstein (1977, §467):

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.”

  1. What we can see, is that we cannot sensefully state facts of which we are certain. Certainties are shown not said.

iv. Everything that can be said is at best, only contingently true

  1. We will never be in a position to say that any sentence can be stated with certainty, with necessity. There will always be exceptions, always further modifications and qualifications to be made.:

Nothing makes claims to meaning true or false in the way that the fact that it is raining makes true the assertion that it is. F. R. Leavis said that the form of a critical judgment of a poem or novel is, ‘It is so, isn’t it?’ and that the form of the response to it is, ‘Yes, but…’ It’s a fine way of characterising the essentially conversational nature of judgments in the realm of meaning, their objectivity as well as their necessary incompleteness. Always, it is assumed, the text would be before the conversationalists, and the never-ending ‘Yes but…’ requires that one remain open to it, in a responsiveness that is both vital and disciplined by the critical concepts constitutive of thought in the realm of meaning. (Gaita 2002, p.92)

  1. Furthermore, I would argue that this very similar to Popper’s falsification principle. If there is no means of falsifying a sentence, it’s not really a judgement at all – it’s just a gesture, an exclamation.
  2. The situation is very similar when it comes to discussions of values. The common assumption nowadays seems to be that anything goes and therefore it’s all a matter of opinion, and we can choose what is right and wrong. This is not-very-well-hidden nonsense.
    • Remember the kind of bafflement with which others would react were I to tell them that ‘I know these are hands!’ When someone behaves badly, we feel that same sense of bafflement (combined with horror or sympathy for the victim). It may be the case that the actor might be able to provide us with some kind of fact that will make us go, ‘Oh, I see!’ but equally not.
  3. However, there is a more important point, and I think profound point to make here which connects up all the previous discussions.
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