Why bother with the philosophy?

How you think people learn informs all your interactions with your children. If you view learning as a creative act in a critical-rational process, you will value highly the idea of consent in decision-making. If you believe people learn through divine revelation or by having knowledge poured into them, that will inform your interactions in a different way from if you think that they learn through conjectures and refutations: you may well think coercion necessary.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: Posted on 9th August 1995

The idea that epistemology might be relevant to everyday life is surprisingly controversial, at least amongst some educationalists and parents. It is as though there is a choice about whether philosophy enters one’s world view or not. In fact, it always does, whether one chooses to acknowledge it or not. Certainly, one can be “against philosophy” or “a pragmatist”, as some like to be called, but all that means is that one’s philosophical ideas are (probably) a hotch-potch of ad hoc theories which when scrutinised may be shown to be errrrr, lacking, problematic, internally inconsistent, etc.

It might be thought that the debate about how human beings acquire knowledge is an academic one, and not directly of interest to parents and educationalists, but given that current educational practice, for example, is based upon a universally-instituted compulsory regime, backed by the power of the state, the truth or falsity of the underlying philosophical theory acquires a moral significance. Specifically, to be factually mistaken about the mechanism of human learning makes one under the circumstances morally culpable.

For example, a scientist may work on the problem of the effectiveness or otherwise of a vaccine against an infectious disease. His debate with colleagues of a different view may be purely academic, but if he participates in a universal compulsory system of vaccination backed by state power, and it turns out that the state’s theory—which he endorsed—is false, and the vaccination (or lack of vaccination, as the case may be) has harmed people, then he is culpable—he is morally responsible for that harm, and this is especially true if he has neglected properly to acquaint himself with the rival theories.

The situation in epistemology and education and child-raising is in a way even more extreme than this, because the prevailing assumptions in educational practice and child-raising about the mechanics of human learning directly contradict not some minority dissenting view that deserves not to be taken seriously, but the view that is the prevailing one in the philosophy of science, namely Popperian epistemology.

How you think knowledge grows informs all your interactions with your children, and there is no getting away from that. If you believe human beings learn through divine revelation or prayer, that will inform your interactions in a different way from if you think that they learn through conjectures and refutations. Depending upon whether or not your theory is that your divine revelations are superior to those of your child, you may or may not feel duty-bound to override the child’s ideas in the name of your more direct line to God. Whereas if you thought that learning is a creative act, in a critical-rational process, you’d place high value upon the idea of consent in decision-making.

If you believe that knowledge grows through rote learning (maths facts??) then you may try to “tattoo” on your child’s brain as many facts as possible (no doubt in most cases by extreme coercion, since that is what it usually takes to make someone do something so totally boring and mindless), and in so doing, destroy the child’s ability to think in those areas.

If you believe that everyone has his own reality, or that there is no such thing as truth, or that there is no such thing even in principle of a better or a worse way to raise children, your interactions with your children will be different from those of people who do think it worth trying to find better ideas, or to identify unhelpful ones, about how to raise children.

If you think knowledge grows through induction or “reinforcement” or passive acquisition of facts, you will be behaving in a completely different way towards your children from if you believe that knowledge grows through a creative critical-rational process in which the individual is an active searcher and problem-solver, not a passive receiver of perceptions or whatever. And you might regard the child’s inferior “ability to directly perceive reality” as evidence that his “ability to perceive reality” is not up to yours, and that thus he needs coercion, when in fact, he just disagrees with you.

If you believe that children are vulnerable to bad ideas just like bodies are vulnerable to poisons, then you will no doubt try to censor your child’s exposure to a wide range of things. If you are wrong, you are objectively harming your child. So whether you like it or not, your philosophical ideas are important and do affect what you do to your children and how you educate them.

The fact is, epistemology is relevant to education and child-raising, and so this attitude of “throw out philosophy and concentrate on practical things” is entirely misconceived. Epistemology has profound practical implications, which we should do well to consider. (And that applies whether my particular ideas are right or dead wrong.)

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Why bother with the philosophy?’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/why-bother-with-the-philosophy

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