Should professors “profess”?

Here is an interesting reflection on the purpose of teaching.

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

30 thoughts on “Should professors “profess”?”

  1. I’m not sure I understand what the author is suggesting by the end of his reflection, but if it became more widely accepted that professors “profess” in addition to what they already are supposed to do, I wonder how that might affect hiring decisions. Would it be reasonable, I wonder, for an atheist on a hiring committee under such circumstances to take into consideration whether an applicant is more or less likely to put students at greater risk of retaining or contracting theistic pieties?


  2. I think, from this point of view, that the idea of a university that makes no commitments, a university that simply presents uninterpreted facts, is rather absurd. Universities should stop pretending that they or their missions are not interpretive.

    Two ways of taking this:
    1) An atheist on a hiring committee should take into consideration what a candidate will profess. And he would, not unreasonably, want the truth (as he understands it) to be professed. Catholic universities should hire Catholics. etc etc

    Trouble with 1: While I do think professors should profess more (or at least be more honest about the fact that that they are professing), I do fear a ghetto-ization of viewpoints. Catholics would have their little intellectual ghetto, secular humanists would have theirs, etc etc. I think this is a mistake.

    2) We could still desire diversity of opinion, but stop pretending that the professors (who disagree) are not professing something. When professors pretend to not profess, you end up with:
    “College thus becomes a type of four-year buffet where the student, safeguarded by the scrupulous “objectivity” of his instructors, makes knowledge and meaning for himself, without fear of interference from those serving him the banquet.”

    But I think professors should interfere with their students. Students need formation and guidance. Professors should “witness to them”. They should call them to account, press them, argue with them. And they should argue with them from a point of view, that is, they should present what they take to be true. A student of mine is currently grappling with Sartre. He is free to do so, and I am happy to help him out. But I also freely tell him that I think Sartre’s project fails, that Sartre is wrong. That is, I profess to him. And I don’t really do so from some “objective” weighing of the strengths and weaknesses of the position. Rather, a professor should want to impose his ideas on his students. I’ve thought it through, I am convinced that Sartre is wrong, and I am going to try to convince the student of as much. Teaching has to do with the truth, so professors should profess the truth of things as they see them.

    How to avoid the ghetto-ization of the academy? I am sorry to toot my and Huenemann’s horn, but I actually think we make a good mix here at USU on this account. If we were to both profess, students would be (and in fact are) exposed to two competing witnesses. There is power in each of the witnessing accounts. Students are left to make a judgment about which witness they find more compelling. But instead of getting bland “objective” presentations, they get hearty professions of two competing interpretations of the truth of things. (I just wish the students that end up siding with me had as cool of a name as “Huenemanniacs”).

    Trouble with 2: The trouble with 2 is that the students are left to play the part of “impresarios or lion tamers”, they are made to be judges “and yet we are not competent to be judges” (I am quoting Strauss). The ultimate danger here is that students become misologues. Plato has a suggestion for avoiding this consequence — indoctrinate before you educate:
    “And isn’t one very effective precaution not to let them taste argument while they are young? I mean, I don’t suppose it has escaped your notice that when young people get their first taste of argument, they misuse it as if it were playing a game, always using it for disputation. they imitate those who have refuted them by refuting others themselves, and, like puppies, enjoy dragging and tearing with argument anyone within reach.” (Plato, Republic)
    The trouble, then, is this: We are not perfectly rational beings and our beliefs are shaped, indeed must be shaped, by inculturation as much as by reason. I am very moved by Plato’s account of this in the Republic – education (dialectic) can only begin once indoctrination is complete.


  3. At this point I’m imagining Kleiner marching around old main carrying a sign and chanting “indoctrinate before you educate”.

    I don’t think Plato’s generalization is true for all young people. My counter-generalization (also thereby false) is that young people who respond to argument in this way are the ones with an argumentative nature. Not to be confused with the young people who have a capacity for deep and complex thought. So I wouldn’t plan my academy around these exceptions except that I might choose to exclude them from my academy.

    Luckily I have no power over anything like that.


  4. For Plato (at least in the Republic), the issue seems to be this: moral virtue, right opinion, and even certain intellectual virtues are necessary conditions for doing philosophy in the first place. Absent those qualities, philosophy will be destroyed and will become mere sophistry. Those that do not have the required moral virtue/right opinion/intellectual virtue should not do philosophy – it is bad for them, bad for the polis, and for philosophy. (Aristotle echoes similar sentiments when he restricts the discussion of ethical philosophy in NE to those that are actually virtuous and are sufficiently intellectually mature). Plato ensures this in the Republic by having quite rigorous tests of the guardians, allowing only those that demonstrate an immovable fidelity to the true opinions they have been indoctrinated with to proceed to dialectic.
    But Mike is right, planning an academy around such things would be quite difficult. There is no one size fits all age for when students have this kind of intellectual maturity (even presuming they have right opinion). I think it is fair to say that most high schools are not exactly doing a bang up job in terms of inculcating intellectual virtue in their students. But, as a I say all of this, I just finished reading and grading two great papers from Intro students.


  5. I’m not sure what Kleiner means by indoctrination but if he means “teaching someone to accept doctrines uncritically” (WordNet definition) then I don’t think indoctrination is a necessary precondition for thinking critically. Not that a naive disposition won’t precede a more critical one but I don’t think teachers need to reinforce a naive disposition at a certain point in order to produce a critical disposition.

    The example that immediately comes to mind is my friend teaching his son to avoid putting his hand on the stove. He told him “don’t touch the stove, it’s hot” but also he let him experience touching the hot stove once to help him understand why. I don’t see why education can’t continue in that way. And I don’t consider that way “indoctrination”.


  6. I am playing with this as I go. I am not sure what I think about the role of teachers in this regard.

    First, I don’t think that the endgame of philosophy is “critical thinking”. The purpose of philosophy is not to become a “critical thinker” or the creation of a “critical disposition”. Rather, the end of philosophy is wisdom (understood as the apprehension of truth). “Critical thinking” is simply the carcass that is left of philosophy once skepticism or relativism have won.

    Since the endgame of philosophy is wisdom, it is worth asking what qualities students must have in order for them to be able to apprehend the truth. Experience by itself is not enough, at least not for some philosophical truths. This because how we are inclined to approach our experience will have an enormous impact on what we think that experience is telling us. Plato and Aristotle both think that certain moral and intellectual virtues, along with some true beliefs, are necessary conditions for philosophical inquiry. Absent those necessary conditions, philosophical education cannot reach its end (truth, wisdom).

    The list of moral and intellectual virtues need not be all that long. Perseverance, integrity, courage (moral virtues) along with gnome (good sense) and the capacity to size things up (intellectual virtues) look like good candidates. As far as what beliefs are required, Plato in the Phaedo thinks there are two basic beliefs required: (a) that there is truth and (b) that reason and argument can discover truth. A denial of either of these would be “pitiable”, and the study of philosophy by those who do not hold either of these views would be bad for them, philosophy, and the polis.

    The point would be this:
    a) The virtues are not acquired through argument, virtue is acquired through imitation. Ethics classes don’t make people more ethical. Our students moral formation is largely complete by the time they make it to our classrooms. If they don’t have integrity or good sense, it is unlikely that we will inculcate those habits of character over the course of a semester. And if they do not have these qualities, it may well be that teaching them the tools of philosophy is bad for both them and the polis. Don’t give arsonists cans of gas.

    b) One does not arrive at the belief that there is truth and that argument can arrive at truth via argument. One must simply have been “indoctrinated” into this belief. It is a “first principle”, a necessary belief to even get started. Without that belief, philosophy simply becomes sophistry.

    There is, then, a “faith seeking understanding” model at the heart of philosophy. Philosophers must believe certain things. Certain true opinions are necessary conditions for the progress toward wisdom. To play off Anselm, philosophers do not understand in order that they may believe those things, rather they believe those things in order that they may come to understand.


  7. I don’t know how much that helps. Critical or careful thinking are instruments, not ends. If you cut away the end (truth) as skeptics do, then the instruments become the ends. And philosophy departments become pre-law programs.
    You can become a careful thinker and still be a sophist. See Thrasymachus. He is a very careful thinker, and has “critical thinking skills”. He can make arguments, make objections, anticipate problems with a view, etc etc. But he is a worse candidate for philosophy than Glaucon. There is a reason Thrasymachus has to be all but dumped from the dialogue after Book I. The unjust and those who do not think argument can lead to truth cannot do philosophy.


  8. I’m not trying to discredit holding truths or anything. I think something like a fallibilist‘s approach to truth is our best bet (as opposed to relativism). But.. I think careful thinking and how a person holds truths is part of a way of being that’s superior to other ways of being. I’d also contrast careful thinking with wasteful thinking (argument for argument’s sake and/or refusal to stay focused on relevant issues).

    I somewhat agree with you that “virtue is acquired through imitation” but I’m not sure that requires indoctrination. I think Socrates’ approach is sufficient and I don’t think that’s indoctrination but it may be that what you’re calling indoctrination is roughly equivalent to the natural pre-reflective state in which case it doesn’t need to be taught, it’ll already exist when the philosopher arrives on the scene.

    What I question is whether deliberate indoctrination is really necessary before you educate. I think not (but I’m a fallibilist so I could be wrong).

    As far as the thought that critical/careful thinking leads to law school — sounds like an optimistic view of lawyers. :)


  9. I’m not a fallibilist, so I can’t be wrong. :)

    Obviously I think careful thinking is a good, but it seems to me to be an entirely instrumental good. I don’t know that a careful thinker necessarily has a superior way of being. Better to be a simpleton with true beliefs than a careful thinker with false ones? The character issue and the beliefs we have as we enter into philosophy matter because careful thinking does not guarantee much. Again, Thrasymachus is a careful thinker – perfectly capable of staying focused on relevant issues, etc. His problem is not that he lacks the tools of careful and critical thought. Same with Callicles (Gorgias). These guys are plenty smart, cunning, etc. Their problem is that they have false opinion and vice. That is their only problem, as it were.

    Socrates is a hero to [almost] all, that is why I’ve relied on Plato so much.

    Weak view (Phaedo, early dialogues): Philosophy is possible only if the student has two beliefs: that there is truth and that argument and reason can arrive at truth is necessary.
    You cannot argue for these beliefs, since these beliefs must be held in order to think that the argument could prove something true to begin with. Thus, the young should be indoctrinated with the view that the world is intelligible and that human intelligence can apprehend truth. If they don’t show up in the class with these views, then philosophy risks devolving into sophistry.

    Strong view (Republic): Not only must you believe that there is truth and that argument and reason can arrive at truth, you also have to have moral virtue and true opinion (about the good, true, and beautiful) in order for philosophy to be fruitful.
    This requires a much more complete indoctrination (as we all know from the Republic), perhaps even including noble lies, banishment of poets, severe restrictions on what is allowed to be taught, etc etc etc.

    The latter, strong view, is arguably taken by Newman in his “Idea of a University” where he argues that the only universities that deserve the name are Catholic universities (and he most certainly does not mean places like contemporary Notre Dame!).


  10. What do you mean “a simpleton with true beliefs”? That sounds false by definition to me. I mean, I understand ignorance is bliss but a simpleton with true beliefs wouldn’t be a simpleton.


  11. Simpleton was a poor choice of words. I didn’t mean a fool. What I am presuming here is the Republic distinction between ignorance – opinion – knowledge. Opinion lies between ignorance and knowledge. But opinion can be either true or false. True opinion is like knowledge only it lacks an “account”.

    Let me put it this way:
    Better to be a person who does not do much “careful/critical thinking” but has true beliefs or a person who does lots of “careful/critical thinking” but has false beliefs? It is not obvious to me that the latter is a superior way of being.

    I think the Republic and its characters are instructive here.
    Thrasymachus is the worst character – he willfully disbelieves the necessary true opinions that make philosophical inquiry fruitful. Philosophy is simply impossible for him. Any training in philosophy for a man like Thrasymachus would harm Thras, the polis, and philosophy.

    Cephalus is a little better off. He has a partially true opinion of the nature of justice, does not have the right beliefs about reason/argument but at least does not willfully reject them. He is not nearly erotic enough to be a philosopher. Best for Cephalus to simply be instructed in true opinion.

    Glaucon is better off still. He is not yet a philosopher, but seems to have satisfied most of the moral requirements and seems to have true opinions about the power of reason/argument. And he is an erotic man.

    Socrates is the best off. He has true opinions but no account. Philosophy is possible for him. It is not quite possible for Glaucon. Socrates says, once they reach the account of things (the Good), that Glaucon “will not be able to follow me here”.

    I think Socrates (via Plato) in both the weak and strong versions above would affirm this view: the person with false beliefs about reason/argument cannot do philosophy (and cannot become wise) no matter how much careful/critical thinking he does. At least those beliefs need to be indoctrinated, ideally from a very young age. Don’t worry, Mike, I already am actively indoctrinating my children in this way!


  12. “Ignorant people say stupid things like ‘Ignorance is bliss'” Harrison Kleiner

    Simpletons can hold true beliefs because the truth of the belief does not depend on the sophistication of the belief. A farmer who works all day and has no time to read deeply or become formally educated but gives his heart and values to what he understands as divine law, whether through his religion or law. These things are still true regardless of his simplicity in participating in them, so he is a simpleton with true beliefs. This is the core of the Republic regarding many in the city who, so to speak, never leave the cave. It isn’t because the ruler is some evil oppressor, but because they can’t leave for the thriving of the community, or other factors. Not everyone can be president, can have a drivers license or be given a loan for a house or let loose in the city. Human reality is that we are for many reasons unequal, and part of the ruler’s obligation is to ensure, through noble lying and other things Kleiner (ie Plato) mention, that these people receive as proper an education through art and example as possible, so that their souls no matter their skill capacity are guided toward the light of the good, toward truth. This is why the philosopher (kings, rulers) cannot sit in the sun all day, they must also be dragged or compelled back down in to the dark to see in the dark as they do in the sunlight, to know and understand this reality, and to guide their fellow man to the good and the just as best they can. This is as important for the laborer as it is for the upper echelons as well, for unguided or improperly crafted skill can be used for evil just as properly guided skill can be good.

    There will still be those who do not respond to the upbringing at all (“incurable evil” as Plato made ever so brief mention of in the Republic) and they must be removed. Thrasymachus may still be ‘saved’ to use a really loaded term, but these incurables will never be, and part of this indoctrination is to maintain social unity and cohesion so that such evil can be properly confronted. Without indoctrination or authoritative tradition, without understanding of argument leaning towards truth, this evil can slip in to the city and people unrecognized. This is the fatality of democracy, anarchism etc.


  13. Nice exegesis of the Republic, Blood and Ashes. No clock cleaning required at all.

    The question is how much of this indoctrination is required for one to be a candidate for fruitful philosophical inquiry? The Republic certainly takes the “strong view” I outline above. I’d be satisfied with the “weak view”. But either way I think (following Socrates here) that some indoctrination into true beliefs is required, even if only the “minimal belief” that (a) there is truth and (b) reason/argument can apprehend truth (though those beliefs are not so “minimal” in our day where skepticism and relativism reign).

    I don’t recall saying that first line. But if I am did, I am glad. It is funny.


  14. I’m not being very clear.

    I wasn’t trying to nitpick with the simpleton comment. What I mean is that if you have true beliefs, say, about farming then I wouldn’t consider you a simpleton. If you hold the set of all true beliefs then definitely I don’t think you’d be a simpleton. A simpleton (in the non-fool sense) might have a couple lucky true beliefs I suppose but not a bunch of true beliefs about a number of areas of inquiry. At that point they cease to be a simpleton whether they can provide an adequate account of their knowledge or no.

    I still don’t see why you’d need to hold a belief uncritically (indoctrination) in order to engage properly in philosophy. I could see how you’d at least need to hold the beliefs “there is truth” and “argument can lead to truth” at least contingently but that’s as far as I get. I may need to re-read the Phaedo and see how all that falls out. It’s been a while.


  15. Why would more than the contingently held belief that ‘there is truth and argument can lead to truth’ be necessary? To take a stab at answering this I will parrot Plato’s Republic: (I am harping on this a bit because I recently wrote and presented a paper on this. This back and forth with you, Mike, is helping me sharpen it up).

    Ascent up the cave requires one to convert (turn around). But the mind cannot turn around on its own, rather the “whole soul” must turn.

    “just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being”

    The intellectual power, spiritual power, and the appetites must all turn. The erotic desire for the Good (philosophy) requires that the whole soul, not just the “mind”, be properly oriented toward the Good. If parts of the soul do not turn, they will prevent the intellect from actually moving.

    But the other parts of the soul (spirit and appetite) must be trained (I’ve used the potentially distracting term “indoctrinated”) into the right orientation. This must be done, as it were, prior to the person doing philosophy (it is a condition of the possibility of doing philosophy). In other words, they must learn to heed the intellect because of the intellect’s authority (even though the intellect only has true opinions and not wisdom), for it is only once they are properly oriented by true opinion (about the Good) that the ascent up the cave (philosophy) can begin.

    So, for whatever it is worth, I think Plato wants something much stronger (even in what I call the “weak view” above) than Mike. Your child should be reared from the very beginning, long before they can actually reason, to love reason and to love truth and to be morally virtuous. Arriving at college, they will love reason and the truth not contingently but in an unquestioning way (to question the value of reason is, Plato says, “pitiable” and the “worst thing that can befall a person”). Then they are ripe for philosophy.

    I have some attraction to this view.


  16. to question the value of reason is, Plato says, “pitiable” and the “worst thing that can befall a person”

    I like that. Do you have the exact citation by chance? I guess putting that all together like that is more of a paraphrase. Oh well.

    I usually approach this sort of question from a different angle. I agree with Foucault (and Pierre Hadot) that “before Descartes, a subject could have access to the truth only by carrying out beforehand a certain work upon himself which made him susceptible of knowing the truth.” And I think that way of thinking is possibly still true but I don’t think this “work” is indoctrination so much as character formation which I take to be more of teach by example sort of thing. Socrates isn’t so concerned with knowing this or that, he doesn’t think he knows anything. But he is concerned with being in this or that way, a person’s approach to truth and how they hold their beliefs is an essential ingredient in that. So I view people that hold beliefs dogmatically or don’t adequately explore contrary ways of thinking as having a character flaw (they’re not properly oriented toward the good). I also think a way of being can be transmitted without a whole lot of talk or any sort of well articulated belief system. My grandfather, who I didn’t talk with much at all (though I spent a decent amount of time with him), probably left the greatest impression on me as far as the way of being I aspire to. Anecdotal I know but that’s how it fits together for me.

    I’m sure I’d be a better interlocutor if I had read those texts more recently. I don’t even have my Plato unpacked yet.


  17. Hmmmm. Kleiner, do you think two wise people would necessarily have the same set of beliefs?

    Mike, what sort of ‘truth’ is Foucault/Hadot talking about?

    Back to the original essay: I’d like to hear from more students, but my guess is there’s no shortage of university teachers ‘professing.’ I’ll bet what is really rare is the classroom experience in which students feel as if what they say might really go somewhere interesting that the professor hadn’t foreseen.


  18. Would two wise people have the same beliefs? Not only do I take the answer to be “yes”, I am kind of surprised by the question. I am assuming that what we mean, at least in part, by a “wise person” is someone who “has apprehended what is true”. Truth is not subjective, so the two wise men would have apprehended the same truth. They might articulate in different ways (being is said in many ways) and they might show forth that truth differently in their lives. But you would not have one wise man saying “God is absolutely evil” and the other saying “God is absolutely good”. I take it that the philosopher kings are all in agreement about the nature of the Good.

    As is usual in conversations with Mike and I, we have a praxis-theoria thing come up. I do not so sharply divide “way of being” from “seeking knowledge” in the way that Mike does. I think Socrates is concerned with BOTH knowing this or that AND being a certain way. These are not either-ors. In fact, what I have been arguing is that, for Socrates, a certain way of being (the philosophical life) requires certain true opinions. And being in a certain way (shaped by true opinion and moral formation) is a necessary condition for coming to know this or that.

    I think the word “indoctrination” has not been helpful. Though I don’t want to go where Foucault goes, I can fully sign on to this: “a subject could have access to the truth only by carrying out beforehand a certain work upon himself which made him susceptible of knowing the truth”. I also have some sympathies with Hadot, so Mike and I might not be too far off.
    What I mean by “indoctrinatinon” is this: I don’t think one can wait to let the subject “do the work on himself”. At that point, much of the work has already been done. Parents and culture do a lot of the work, before the person is even capable of thinking about it. I am raising my daughters to have certain character traits and beliefs. (All parents do this, it is basically unavoidable). They are much too young to “think critically” about these things. In fact, by the time they are old enough to think critically, they will already be largely formed. Parenthood is, then, an awesome responsibility. Their moral habits will be acquired largely by imitation of Amy and I, along with whatever else they pick up from the culture at large. Their beliefs will come mostly from Amy and I (what we tell her and how we live) along with what she picks up form books and culture.

    I used “indoctrination” because sometimes that is what I am doing. To “indoctrinate” is to instruct in fundamentals. Here is a real example: Two nights ago my 3 year old Madeline asked, “Will Santa only bring me presents if I am good?” My reply, “No, honey, Santa will bring you gifts no matter what. That is what it means to give a gift. When we give gifts we don’t ask for anything in return. That is how Jesus loves you, honey. Did you know that? Of course, Daddy still wants you to be good, because in order to be happy you have to be good.” Some time later she was helping me with the dishes, looked up at me and said, “Hey Daddy, I am being good right now because I want to be happy.” I smiled broadly.
    Isn’t that a kind of “indoctrination”? Maybe you have a better word for it. I would like a better, word, though I think “indoctrination” gets a bad rap – I consider it necessary and indeed good so long as you indoctrinate with true beliefs (and sometimes even noble lies). I make no bones about this, I will work like mad to get my daughters to believe in an almost unquestioning way that (to take my little lesson to her the other night): (a) Love is unconditional and (b) happiness requires goodness. I am teaching them these things because I am utterly convinced of the truth, goodness, and beauty of those principles. I am, as it were, professing to her.


  19. I was closely paraphrasing Phaedo in those little quotes, Mike. (Stephanus#s provided below).
    “There is a certain experience we must be careful to avoid … … That we should not become misologues as people become misanthropes. Thee is no greater evil one can suffer [sometimes translated as “the worst thing that could befall a person] than to hate reasonable discourse.” (Phaedo 89d-e)

    “It would be pitiable when there is a true argument that can be understood if a man who has dealt with such arguments as appear at one time true, at another time untrue, should not blame himself or his own lack of skill but, because of his distress, in the end gladly shift the blame away from himself to the arguments, and spend the rest of his life hating and reviling reasoned discussion and so be deprived of truth and knowledge of reality.” (Phaedo 90d)

    “We should not allow into our minds [sounds like unquestioning allegiance] the conviction that argumentation has nothing sound about it [that it cannot achieve its end, which is “truth and knowledge of reality”].” (Phaedo 91)


  20. I thought the article was on to something more than you (Huenemann) seemed to think. Maybe I am all wrong on this. Maybe I just read too much pomo stuff and have come to believe that everyone in the academy thinks it is “impossible” to say anything, that any “act of profession” is simultaneously an “act of violence”.

    Worth noting that, in my Intro course, I try not to profess. When we read Plato I defend Plato as vigorously as I can. Same with Thomas, Descartes, Hume. I trust my students enough to let them come to the truth on their own. (By the way, end of class polling over the last few years sees about 40% of the class be Thomists, 40% sign on with Hume, 18% sign on with Descartes and Plato gets just 2% when I ask, “if you had to sign on to one of these views, which would it be?). But mostly, I think, students are hesitant to sign on to something. The end result, quite often, is students who have been “stung by the broad torpedo fish”, who leave the class not knowing what to think. This is largely a good thing, since a big part of philosophy is encouraging questions. But one unsaid point in the article is that wonder need not come from a position of utter nakedness. The starting point need not be utter confusion, a position of no commitments (a la Descartes). In fact, such a position would make real progress toward truth impossible (in the view of Plato, both in the weak and strong view above). The classical view, to the contrary, is that wonder and philosophical inquiry need to begin in right opinion, not utter confusion. This is because wonder is naturally oriented toward something (the good, the true, the beautiful).
    So do we do our students a favor when we perform elenchus on them, but don’t follow up with a witness?

    Aside: Nothing like big piles of grading to get the discussions going on the blog! :)


  21. Charlie- good question. I’m not exactly sure what Hadot/Foucault mean but the context (here) in Hadot was the ancient philosophical schools. The schools might have different takes on what counts as good but it seems the “knowledge” that the philosopher tries to transmit to the initiate isn’t conceptual but rather (to borrow from Hadot) moral intent. “knowledge and lack of knowledge have to do not with concepts but with values” (p. 33) (aside — ergo, stupidity is not related to intelligence). So maybe the truth that we’re after here is self transformation and what we know when the day is done (it’s never done) is how to live.

    But the way I’ve appropriated it is more that genuine self transformation and knowledge of any particular area of inquiry requires immersion, externalities. If you want to become a doctor you go to medschool and start practicing medicine. If you want to know french you’ll be better off in France than in a book. Experience for me is a knowledge trump card so I’m forced to defer frequently. This also implies for me that “know thyself” requires submitting oneself to a variety of contexts (theoretical & otherwise). And what can be gleaned from the philosophical schools and other philosophers generally is methods to better “listen to the gentle voice of each of life’s situations” (Nz).

    Do you have any better ideas about what sort of truth they’re talking about? This wikipedia paragraph on Foucault was interesting to me but I don’t know much about him.

    Kliener’s anecdote about his daughter is odd to me because I’d think he’d be wanting to transmit to his daughter that she should be willing to do good even when it makes her unhappy. Maybe that case doesn’t arise?

    How about a teaching method we’ll call “profess plus”. With P+ a professor explains her own views when they come up but forces his students as best they can to face the philosopher they’re teaching on that philosopher’s own terms even when the profs view is at odds with the phil they’re teaching. I can remember facing Kant in one of Charlie’s classes and pushing to the point where it was hard for Charlie to keep walking with Kant but he kept trying I suppose because if he had not he felt he’d be doing a disservice to Kant and the class. I remember feeling the same about Hobbes in one of Wilcox’s classes.

    The fact that it was sometimes hard to get at the profs’ opinions in some of the classes made it intriguing to gather what their opinions really were outside of class.

    I’m not convinced that avoiding indoctrination leads to “utter confusion” or that holding beliefs contingently is equivalent to “hating reasonable discourse”.

    As usual, reconciling Socrates on a number of different fronts isn’t easy for me. He is large.

    I’m willing to throw in a few dollars to make Kleiner an “indoctrinate before you educate” t-shirt. Anyone with me?


  22. I don’t want to derail anything by trying to dissolve the “conceptual” vs “lived” distinction that Mike is driving at, but the highest object of philosophy in the Republic is the Good, not Being. This is why Levinas (a hard an attacker on “conceptual philosophy” as there is) can appropriate the Republic.

    Foucault is Nz’s child. To understand what Foucault means by truth is largely to understand what Nz means (though the will to power has been glossed in more “sociological terms”, relations of power structures).

    I know a fair amount of Foucault. I’ve read much less of Hadot, and don’t know much about him beyond his Philosophy as a Way of Life book. I was surprised by the connection between Hadot and Foucault. I sort of read Hadot as an “existentialized ancient”, but one still concerned with the truth of reality and such things. He seems very sensitive to the personal side of that encounter. He appreciates the subject’s experience and the need for subjective transformation, he’s tuned into the subject and truth in the subject without thinking that “truth is subjective”. But this is just my sense based on very limited readings. Foucault has no interest in the truth of reality. And for him, self-transformation will not be oriented toward anything, rather it will be pure artistic freedom.

    I am pretty much Aristotelian in my ethics, that is the root of my connection between virtue and happiness. I think you inculcate the habit of right action using reward and punishment and being a good role model. The truly virtuous person chooses the good for its own sake (not for the sake of happiness). But this seems to come fairly late in one’s moral development. Children have to be formed through the play of pain and pleasure. The most important part of the moral formation of children is teaching them to take pain and pleasure in the right sorts of things. I suppose this is how some use the Santa myth – but I use the Santa myth for Christian ends concerning the meaning of Christian love, not for behavior modification.

    I pretty much take the “profess plus” approach in my courses. Some students in my Intro leave convinced that I am a Cartesian! Some have thought I was atheist (after reading Hume and Sartre). Students do seem to like this approach, and it does make out of class discussions interesting. I had profs like this as a student and thought it was best. That is probably much of the reason for why I do it myself.


    I did not mean to (if I did) equate the “contingent holding of beliefs” to “hating reasonable discourse”. I was pushing Plato, and Plato seems to think that the “contingent” holding of beliefs about the power of reason is insufficient.


  23. The question I don’t have a good answer for is “what sort of truth was ‘truth before Descartes’ according to Hadot/Foucault?” Hadot goes on from the page I quoted (from What is Ancient Philosophy) to disagree with Foucault about Descartes himself but he doesn’t get into the pre-Descartes conception of truth he’s referring to. At a different point he gets into the conceptions of truth of the philosophical schools but that doesn’t seem clear cut.

    Your interpretation of Plato sounds reasonable to me given your quotes and even how Nz characterizes things in the problem of Socrates but Hadot has a different emphasis. He has a lot to say about Socrates. He starts his discussion with this quote from the Apology: “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is,– for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. -Socrates (Plato’s Apology – Jowett)” I haven’t spent any time trying to reconcile different aspects of Plato’s thought in various works but it seems Plato’s Socrates contains enough that he, like Jesus, has been worn as a mask by all kinds.


  24. You can tell a lot about how someone is interpreting Plato by where they begin, so it is interesting that Hadot begins with the Apology.
    I like this line about Socrates from Hadot: “[He] is the portrait of a mediator between the transcendent ideal of wisdom and concrete human reality.” Socrates’ life is one of “tension”, because he is strung between two poles.

    It is because of the “mediate” position of the philosopher that orientation is so important. This becomes one of the chief concerns for Plato in the Phaedo, Republic, and other dialogues. But I can’t imagine Foucault ever saying such a thing. This because Foucault does not share the sense of truth alive in Plato – an understanding of truth that is irrevocably connected to reality and the transcendent (that is, a sense of truth that is no reductionist). For Foucault, what we experience as “real’ is just a matrix of interpretations shaped by language and power. The transcendent is cut away in Foucault. It is for that reason that I don’t think Foucault is a great thinker. I think the thought that all great thinkers need to think is the lived tension between immanence and transcendence. (This is why my Cont Euro course focuses on Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida and not Foucault and Deleuze).

    But you are quite right about Socrates’ being used by many. I posted on this some time ago – how Socrates is a hero to all no matter how different our hats are. I suspect those that read Socrates as a more thoroughgoing skeptic will tend to avoid the passages I have pushed above and focus more on the early dialogues. People like me, who want to read in Socrates in a different way will emphasize those passages, and move on from the early dialogue Socrates a little faster. In some ways I think the Apology, Phaedo and the Republic are the best starting points. This because it is here more than anywhere else that you see the synthesis of these tensions. This because Socrates is the ‘most personal’ in these dialogues, and the tension that is philosophy is hard to synthesize in mind and is best done in living (as Socrates himself shows us!).


  25. I’m guessing that the relevant sense of “truth” here is largely subjective — something like the feeling of authenticity or finding one’s true self. And I don’t belittle that at all — I think phil is better at encouraging that sort of truth than any other! Hence my question to Kleiner about whether wise people would agree. I think of wisdom as being authentic or true to oneself, so I have no problem imaging wise guys in wild disagreement with the content of one another’s beliefs.


  26. I do NOT want to reduce truth to “authenticity”. In fact, I think “authenticity” is a pretty bogus concept to begin with. Those that peddle authenticity are working with an inadequate philosophical anthropology. Authenticity is all you have when you reduce everything to the subject and trade in a philosophy of absolute autonomy. I take Levinas’ critique of this concept to be totally damning. Contra Nz/Foucault, truth has something to do with reality (whatever commitment you make on your view of truth – correspondence, coherence, aletheia/disclosure, etc). When I read Foucault’s “Care of the Self” I read something that is tragically thin and self-absorbed.

    Now I don’t want to be too static about this, I think this is dynamic and lived (the subject and his lived experience matters!). But the only adequate ontology of man is an ontology of relations. Nz can’t handle this because he is indeed the last metaphysician, the final philosopher of autonomy. But this only means that he maximized the error of most metaphysics. The “finding of one’s true self” comes only in the lived relation with others (the gift) and in the lived tension between transcendence and immanence. But this is always provisional, because the tension remains a task to be chosen and lived.

    I think Aristotle’s Nico Ethics are instructive here. Most readers ignore the late books. The business about contemplation and the “divine in us” seems, to many, to be an unnecessary appendage on the end of a book on ethics. But it is not. Aristotle is on to the truth of man – that his life is a tension (between the ethical and the contemplative, between the immanent and the divine). It is in our nature to be oriented to the Other, both in the ethical sense (world) but also in the contemplative sense (divine). There is always a trace of both in the other activity (a trace of the divine in ethics and a trace of ethics in the divine). Thought and action are not radically divided, traces of each mark out our lives.

    The category of “authenticity” makes little sense in this view. “Proximally and for the most part we reside in everydayness” (Heidegger), and this is not a judgment. The reality of man is that we are strung between two poles. The denial of either pole is an error (extreme Platonism that denies the immanent or the opposite, Nz/Foucault, who denies the transcendent).


  27. Two things. First, I certainly don’t want to say every sort of “truth” comes down to some subjective fact. I’m only saying that *sometimes* the word is used to capture what’s essentially a subjective feeling of being authentic, “true” to one’s self, etc. (I guess I also want to claim that having this feeling results in one kind of wisdom, too.)

    Secondly, I’ll agree that it is some sort of fiction to think that this authenticity is metaphysically genuine (whatever that means). But, for all that, sometimes we feel like we have worked our beliefs out for ourselves, or made some deep decision about how to view things. There’s a deeper psychological story to be given about what’s really going on, but even so, there is a pragmatic importance to the phenomenon.

    (I think I would be rendered speechless without the phrases “in a way,” “some sense in which,” and “sometimes.” There’s some sense in which I am, in some ways, an anti-absolutist, sometimes. Or, as Paul Valery once said, “sometimes I think, and sometimes I am.”)


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