Thursday, November 16, 2006

Liberal education and philosophical sympathy

Well, I've now read Stephen Law's The war for children's minds and I'm quite impressed. On the other hand, I'm predisposed to agree with the general thrust of his call to avoid authoritarian teaching methods and encouraged independent consideration of, in particular, moral, political and religious questions. Some of the writing is a bit of a blunt instrument, but it is intended to be read by a wide audience and it is time that someone got a bit polemical on this side of the debate. In particular, Law does a good job of demolishing some of the weak but popular conservative arguments such as: 'In the absence of religious faith there can be no ethical rules or truths' and 'Liberalism leads inevitably to relativism'.
One of the most important virtues worth cultivating, I think, is a willingness to engage sympathetically with a point of view which is not, at least initially, one's own. It is too easy, often, simply to reject as misguided and pointless a view because of an initial distaste or a failure to see why anyone would ever come to hold such an opinion. I've been thinking about this recently because the failure to engage sympathetically is a mistake often seen in promising philosophy students. They acquire the notion that dismissing a view swiftly and by rejecting its foundations is by far the most impressive way of winning an argument. If that were true, then there would indeed be little of interest in studying most ancient philosophy since it is generally built on foundations and overarching conceptions of the world we would not share. Of course, we do not have to agree with any point of view simply because someone august or clever thought or wrote it. But the ability to engage with a view we happen to disagree with, by uncovering its assumptions and asking why it might have appealed is often a route not only to enlarging one's own view, but also for encouraging an appreciation for the intellectual abilities and sincere effort expended by others in developing a view, whether or not we care to agree with its conclusions. That, it seems to me, is an essential aspect of thinking philosophically and of thinking about philosophy as a humanity. And I would hope that it would be a virtue inspired by a generally liberal educational outlook.

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