THE "PHILOSOPHY" IN PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION

Bob Corbett

We will be talking about education. But the talk is formed. All of our talk is formed. All of the talk in this course will be formed into English. Many of you may well be able to talk about education in French, German, Spanish, Chinese or some other languages. The talk might be perfectly sensible and valuable, but this is a particular forum and the talk will have rules.

Further, the talk in this course will be in basically grammatical English. We might well get by is a rougher form of English, but were it to come up I would choose to either return the printed talk to the poster and ask for it in standard English, or I wouldn't use it.

Again, the talk in this course will be in what I will loosely call "polite" English. We won't be using rougher slang, courser language like cursing and such, nor will we use language that fits the description of rather blatant offensive speech.

All of you will be able to get along well in these languages, some better than others. There is a sense in which they are ALL English, but there are a specific version of English. Virtually all of you will be able to speak these languages and will know when you are in one and when not. Certainly it is clearer what is ENGLISH than what is grammatical English or what is polite English. The latter is particularly vague and honest confusions or mistakes might occur or differences of opinion. But we would have much less disagreement about what counts as English itself.

Similarly we will be talking, as best we can, in philosophical English. This is much trickier since many of you may have very little idea of what philosophical English is or know if and when you are speaking it. It may sound as unfamiliar as German if you aren't familiar with that language.

However, you aren't really as unaware of philosophical English as you may think. You already use the language at times and will have some skill with it. You just may not know what it is or know that you have, indeed, used it at times. In a similar fashion many people do not study grammar as such these days, and thus if asked if a certain sentence were grammatical they might not know. Or at least they might not know that they know. They might well know if it "sounds" okay, but not be sure exactly what is asked when we are asked, but is it grammatical?

Philosophy is a discipline in which we are committed to reasoning as the most reliable tool for knowing what is true. This commitment to reason demands that we make claims that we can defend with reasons. In normal English the basic unit of discourse is the sentence. In philosophical English the basic unit of discourse is the argument.

Thus in this course it would be quite uninteresting to hear that you "believe that we must have formal education for all children." That is simply a claim. It is not philosophical language. Rather, we would need a claim that said something like:

We must have a formal education for all children since the well-being of our economy depends upon an educated populace. Or, we must have a formal education for all children since individuals can reach their full potential only if they are educated in basic intellectual skills. Or, we must have a formal education for all children since .both of the above reasons, the educated populace argument and the individual development argument.

We were to have three people who uttered these claims we could really say they all agree. No. They all agree on the conclusion, but they don't agree on the reasons for the conclusion.

Philosophy is a specific language in which the meaningful unit of speech is the whole argument.

Now, just speaking this basic philosophical English is not quite enough. Philosophy, as we will practice it here, will involved using this basic rule and adding to it: -- since just uttering an argument does not make it true, we will open arguments to questions. Questions may well ask if the reasons are true, or if indeed, the reasons, even if they were true, would lead to the conclusion. (this latter is called the question of the logic of the argument. Let's take an example.

Here is an argument that most people would find to be sound (sound means an argument that uses true reasons to defend a claim in a logically acceptable manner). "You owe me $7.00 since I gave you a $20.00 bill and my purchase was only $13.00." We look at the bill in the merchant's hand and it is a $20.00 and we saw it handed over. We look at the merchandise and see that, with tax added, the bill is $13.00. We know that 20-13=7. Thus we would tend to think the argument is sound and the conclusion (or more technically, the thesis) is so.

But, suppose I say: "You owe me $7.00 since that would make me very happy." Now, I know you are broke and need money and would be very happy were I to owe you $7.00. However, if you are unaware of any other financial dealing with me, then you might find it odd that I would think the true sentence (your owing me $7.00 would make me very happy) logically leads to the claim that indeed you do in fact owe me $7.00. This is a matter of the logic of an argument.

In ordinary English we use many shortcuts. We assume lots of things are known and accepted by one another and thus much of our talk is in single sentences which make claims about the world we expect others to accept. But, in philosophical English we won't do that. We move more slowly, more carefully, forming arguments, questing one another, inquiring further and so on.

Further, often time an argument may be given which seems like the reasons logically suggest the thesis (belief), but we don't' think the reasons are TRUE.

Suppose I say: We shouldn't travel abroad this year since it is much too dangerous that we will die in a terrorist attack. Now, you might well believe that IF IT IS "TOO DANGEROUS" then indeed we shouldn't travel. But, you are not convinced of the truth of the supporting claim: "it is much too dangerous." So I might say, well, it's not clear to me that the dangers are so grave. What makes you believe that? Now I am asking for a further argument, a defense of the claim that it is much too dangerous. And so on. We may keep asking further and further questions until we are satisfied.

When does a philosophical argument end? It would seem we might go on questing arguments and disagreeing forever. Is there no end. Not really. Arguments do tend to end if all parties agree. That doesn't mean they are right, but only that they have no further disagreements. Or they may just continue on. We may have to act without knowing. Most of us would agree that we can't know the future of a stock for absolute certainty and we may ask reasonable questions about an investment. We may be satisfied about some things in the argument and not others. But a time comes when we buy the stock anyway, or don't buy it. We do this on limited knowledge, but much more knowledge than if we hadn't bothered with the process in the first place.

Perhaps this example can clarify why it is that we philosophers trust in reason so much. Many people do who aren't philosophers and who aren't aware that they do. If most of you were going to buy some stock you might well follow some version of what I call philosophical investigation, but on your proposed stock purchase. You don't have to. You could walk into a stock broker's office or an internet site and just randomly pick a stock and hope. If the money is a real risk to you, you may well not do that. Why? There is often an implied notion that reasoned inquiry is a good way to go.

What I call philosophical reasoning is not limited to philosophy. It is done in all the sciences, social and natural. It is done a great deal by all of us in everyday life. Just reflect on how we talk about a huge range of things. We make claims, give reasons and have others disagree with our reasons and discuss those disagreements, giving further reasons and so on. It is basically the same process, but we do this much more self-consciously in philosophy.

The upshot is this. I will be asking you questions which I will expect you to answer. I do not want non-philosophical answers. I want answers to my questions with your claims seriously and carefully supported by reasons.

Okay, in a way I have not only tried to explain the MEANING of philosophical discourse at a fundamental level, but I have, along the way, tried to give some reasons for why I believe it is valuable and why I want us to stick to this language as the dominant language of this course. If you are unclear about my meanings, please ask. If you think I am mistaken about some argument, please point our where and what makes you think it is a mistake. If you are just puzzled about something, just ask. Dialogue can continue.

One topic I think I'd best address here at the end. The word "philosophy" does not necessarily have only one meaning, and certain Bob Corbett does not own this word. Even some professional philosophers might not be happy with my description and want to reformulate this or that, or even think this is a really silly essay. More importantly, the word "philosophy" has a more common meaning in our language that is not at all consistent with my view. We hear people say they will give us their philosophy of life, or baseball or investment, or good food or whatever. And what follows is NOT an argument, maybe no arguments at all, but a list of conclusions. Philosophy in this sense means a belief system, perhaps even one that one lives by. This is a perfectly normal use of the word in English. But, it is NOT the sense of the word that I am using in this class when I ask us (demand us) to talk philosophy. Again, I don't claim my view is the true or right one or anything like that. It is just a very specific sense of the word, one I think I use like most people who are professional philosophers, or, for that matter, professional thinkers in fields of the sciences and even many other folks. If you wish, I have a technical sense of the term that may or may not be the one most commonly used in everyday English. That's okay. I just want you to be clear on how I am using the term and what it is I am expecting of your speech in this semester in this exploration of education.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu