Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Forgetting Marx.

June 4, 2009

Here’s a question about great works of philosophy.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the title character was educated in a library of obsolete books. And yes, I understand that there’s something going on there, a critique of fashion, the power of the occult, but discoveries in physics and physiology can make assertions that came before those discoveries obsolete (in a practical, functional, creative sense).

Marx recognized Darwin’s discovery as revolutionary. Nietzsche also saw a totally physical existence. At one point he tells us that if we want to write great books to make a cluster map, wherever the greatest books have been written go there, like the environment was instrumental in the creation of the works. I don’t have a sentence that gets to where I’m going with this, but after Darwin, Marx and Nietzsche, when the food we eat becomes more relevant to our existence than talk of souls, don’t the books that precede this change become obsolete?

Wittgenstein with his work on certainty is relevant to today’s questions. Foucault and Deleuze have a huge body of relevant work. A Thousand Plateaus covers a lot of ground using an understanding of the authors’ contemporary physiological concepts.

Whenever someone says they’re Aristotelian…, I like to jab that I’m cro-magnonian.

This is from the Washington Post’s review of The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists:

The work of other artists didn’t often reduce Pablo Picasso to a state of utter humility, but that’s exactly what happened just after World War II, when he was mucking about in a cave in southwestern France. This wasn’t just any cave, however — its walls were festooned with striking pictures of horses and bulls that date from the Ice Age, all rendered with exquisite sophistication and symbolic force. Upon exiting the cave, an awed Picasso declared, “We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years.”

He wasn’t kidding. The art in this cave — called Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel of cave art — and in many others that dot parts of France and Spain deservedly ranks with the greatest masterworks of Western art.

I get it, and I’m not at all suggesting we ban, burn or otherwise limit the flow of philosophical works that deal with the soul as anything other than a human mental construction, but we have learned something. And since Marx and Nietzsche, who are without a doubt great philosophers, I’d suggest Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, Bataille, Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida as more important, more contemporary, more in line with what we have learned, than those who lived before the revolutions.

The question was in there somewhere, but here again: Does Marx and materialism render everything prior obsolete, in the same sense Frankenstein’s library had been rendered obsolete by new medical discoveries?

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On Urgency

April 3, 2009

It’s part of our Heritage, some guy, an extra on a movie set, wearing a sandwich board proclaiming “The End Is Nigh!” Am I wrong to imagine I’ve seen him in a lot of movies? That guy, or at least the message he carries is all over the internet. This is our final moment, we’ve got to act now!!

It’s never a good idea to argue, I was going to write, with these maniacs, but unless you enjoy the sport, I mean you get a kick out of the hilarity of a fixed mental position, most argument is pointless. If someone thinks it is ‘over’, you are not going to convince them otherwise. And to complicate things, this sense of urgency, this need to act now, this feeling that the time is now or never is part of our heritage, it’s a social condition.

It’s not just the lunatics who suffer the delusion of now. In Digitize This Book!: The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now, Gary Hall on the issues of new media and open access argues that “this is a chance that very much has to be taken now.” He goes on to say that if corporations figure out a profit model “then the opportunity to set the policy agenda for open-access archiving will very likely be lost.” (I’m currently working on a review of this book. I mention this because the point I’m criticizing here is a very small point in a pretty good attempt at thinking a situation through.) Can you hear Eminem “You only got one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, ’cause opportunity comes once in a lifetime…”? I’m not talking shit, whistling Dixie, this sense of urgency is well documented, but not in a way that makes us aware, these documents are all telling us to “do it” to “just do it” and do it now.

This reactionary thinking, (I just mentioned something similar to this to my four year old daughter today, “You’re not really thinking, you’re just wanting.”), this thinking in, about and for the moment, is socially conditioned. It’s the way of thinking within a capitalist society. We are always capitalizing on moments, trends, the way things are. For revolutionaries, this thinking is a problem. The Communist Manifesto, suffered from this problem. Propaganda tries to quickly, and sloganeeringly, drive the masses to action. Many of the radical ideas Marx and Engels tried to get down before and after the Manifesto was written, were simplified, and dodged to produce a pamphlet for consumption by the masses. And where did this get us! The revolution will be a slow burn, the deep restructuring of a new consciousness. The revolution will not happen overnight. (there you go, I’m a sucker for slogans) A long process of developing a revolutionary consciousness, which is the revolutionary process itself, is not something one can do to an other, and I don’t think it’s something that can be done alone.

In Workers of the World Relax, Conrad Schmidt answers the democratic revolutionary’s question.

How do we lose an election proudly?
Don’t try to win at all. Discuss issues you believe in.

Chapter 1. Education as a Necessity of Life

July 29, 2007

Before I go on about Chapter One of Dewey‘s Democracy and Education, I should say a few things. First, I’m reading this book because I’m under the impression that it’s a founding text for “progressive education.” I say “under the impression,” because I haven’t actually read it yet. I finished a program in education and reading Dewey wasn’t necessary. Very little “source” reading, actually no source reading was necessary. Perhaps my Faculty of Education subscribed too strictly to Dewey’s doctrine of learn by doing and feared that including source readings would render its program “remote and dead — abstract and bookish.” And secondly after reading the first chapter I see a need for a rewrite of this book. Maybe someone has already done it, if so let me know, but if not, now’s the time.

Calling for the remake of a classic is dangerous ground. There are unsuccessful remakes for sure, and choosing a classic in any form is a risky move, But a chapter for chapter, subsection for subsection rewrite, would change the course of progressive education.

Dewey sees in evolutionary ideas a metaphor for life and education . He writes “As some species die out, forms better adapted to utilize the obstacles against which they struggled in vain come into being.” But the idea of progressive improvement isn’t with us today. Today when a polar bear loses her struggle to survive, no more adapted creature is waiting in the DNA of her offspring to survive in the new environment. The concepts Dewey uses to base his philosophy are false. That’s not to say his philosophy, in this sense and ideal education for creating an improved society, is without merit, but that as an articulation it fails.

The other major problem in this chapter, other than the debatability of the title, is the confusion of socialization as a broad educational process and schooling as a more formal kind of education. Education in these terms, or with this definition becomes unworkable. The meaning of “education” is culturally broad. In the title “The Education of Little Tree“, education refers to much more than the bits of formal schooling in the book. Education is synonymous with “experience” in this sense. When Dewey writes “What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life.” He may be over-emphasizing the importance of education in the formal sense by leaving the distinction between social rearing and formal tuition unclear. We can live without formal tuition, it isn’t necessary for life.

“The young of human beings compare so poorly in original efficiency with the young of many of the lower animals, that even the powers needed for physical sustentation have to be acquired under tuition. How much more, then, is the case with respect to all the technological, artistic, scientific, and moral achievements of humanity!”

Here again Dewey confuses child rearing and socialization, with more formal tuition. The lower animals who seem to live just fine, and as an example, the raccoon, which could be here long after our animal form has been extinguished, does just fine without technological, artistic, scientific, and moral achievements. Formal tuition is superfluous to life. Not that it’s superfluidity reduces its cultural importance, but Dewey seems to be basing the urgency and importance of education on a claim of necessity.

“As formal teaching and training grow in extent, there is a danger of creating an undesirable split between the experience gained in more direct associations and what is acquired in school. This danger was never greater than at the present time, on account of the rapid growth in the last few centuries of knowledge and technical modes of skill.”

Dewey ends Chapter One with a warning. This split is “one of the weightiest problems with which the philosophy of education has to cope.” Am I wrong to think Dewey is equating conscious learning with direct associations and unconscious learning with what is acquired in school? This too is a problem.

Computers in the classroom or literacy and GUIs

July 27, 2007

What follows is a response to Chris Sessums blog so it might read a little out of context. I put it here because I wanted to add some links to it. ::

Here are a few people in opposition to computers in the classroom.

A back-to-nature movement to reconnect children with the outdoors is burgeoning nationwide. Programs, public and private, are starting or expanding as research shows kids suffer health problems, including obesity, from too much sedentary time indoors with TV and computers. The post could use some formatting, or maybe that’s just part of the anti-computer ethos.

Theodore Roszak The Cult of Information “...the best approach to computer literacy might be to stress the limitations and abuses of the machine, showing the students how little they need it to develop their autonomous powers of thought.” (p.242) The first edition 1986 the second edition 1994

Neil Postman Technopoly…technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology – from the IQ test to the automobile to a television set to a computer – is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control.” (p.185) 1992

I’m not quoting these “progressive” “left” or “ultra-left” critics/activists out of complete agreement, more out of respect for the diversity of the back-to-basics movement(s). The neo-luddites are more than neo-conservatives (who can also have us nodding our heads in agreement to their arguments here and there) they’re also ultra-progressives. Dewey didn’t use a computer. Like Roszak says, we don’t need it.

I disagree almost completely with Roszak and Postman, while I strive towards their end goals with my work, I wonder also about the possibilities of these machines.

To your question What can computers really do for kids in the classroom? Stephen Downes answers They can teach them how to use computers.

Downes is completely correct that the computers themselves could teach children how to use them. GUIs are so intuitive, that computers are easier to use than the timer on the oven in your kitchen, not to mention older technology like the 8-track tape (who ever got the hang of those things?). This freaks teachers out that a machine can replace them so easily. Why is it that kids learn more, easier, faster, better in the glow of a GUI? Another question is “do they?” but what we hear is that kids are learning slaves to the machine, and unteachable by humans.

So the question is literacy. Most teachers are politically illiterate, at least in Canada where the governments and media squash them at will and with frequency. Most teachers are computer illiterate, and as such are unable to teach through the machines. If teachers are being replaced (not today, but maybe a not-so-distant tomorrow) it won’t be the machines, but coders who are their replacements. In this day to be politically and technologically illiterate is to be philosophically illiterate, and that’s a whole lot of illiteracy in those claiming to teach literacy to our children.

So yes, the computer itself will teach children how to use it. The fear is that the coders are unaccountable. What are the values they code into the machine? And really how does this differ from Dewey’s constructed environments? Did Dewey propose a system in which those being educated were unconscious of the preferred result? With the computer interface are the graphics using or being used? This interface could be a very powerful metaphor for teaching, but students need to learn to use a computer beyond using programs. And of course the problem with this is a person with the knowledge to code/script/program a computer has an earning potential and interest area that excludes public school teaching as an option.

This is the second time I’ve typed this out and I’m still meandering, but if I’m trying to say something it’s that computers are tools for communication, but the form of that communication is dictated by code. Knowledge of the code allows the users to infuse the form of communication with a personal set of values. This understanding is key for promoting the tool in the “progressive” sphere. All the players in education should be critical of the tools, programs and their uses; they should also have the knowledge to alter those programs to create forms more consistent with their values.

Preface to Democracy and Education

July 10, 2007

The Preface is incredibly brief and straightforward, but the problems in it can only grow throughout the book. I question Dewey’s “endeavour to detect and state the ideas implied in a democratic society and to apply these ideas to the problems and enterprises of education.” What ideas does a democratic society imply? Would those implications have changes since 1915? (Not that this matters.) The idea that an actual democratic society has ideas implicit in it and that one can go about detecting and stating those ideas is not an idea at all but misconception based on an idealization of democratic society. This misconception can only lead to a polemical argument. What ideas are actually in play in our specific democratic society? To be of any practical use to the problems and enterprises of education any ideas applied should not be implied but in play.

Dewey clearly explains that “the philosophy stated in this book connects the growth of democracy with the development of the experimental method in the sciences, evolutionary ideas in the biological sciences, and the industrial reorganization, and is concerned to point out the changes in subject matter and method of education indicated by these developments.” I wonder if his philosophy and purposes are a problem? I am not an expert on Dewey, but wouldn’t be stretching it to say he launched the progressive education movement in the States. The progressive movement is today stalled. Could it be that the simplistic philosophical foundation of the movement is it’s problem? Dewey confuses possibility with progression. He sees implicit in growth, development, evolution and reorganization a progressive improvement. We now know (and Dewey could have known then) that the possibility of improvement will not necessarily actualize. What does this mean for the philosophy stated in this book?

Chapter 4: The Limits of Technical Rationality

March 14, 2007

I had a short conversation with a couple academics a few weeks ago. Questioning Technology came up, and they wondered what I thought of it. It’s hard to talk about books like this with guys like this, but I had to confess that I’d never read any of the philosophers Feenberg uses to get his concepts together. Weber, Heidegger (only an article on Nietzsche), Marcuse, Habermas, I hadn’t read a single word of them. That’s pretty much why the pulled quotes I call “notes” are all I type out. But in philosophy I have read, the concepts of autonomy and human creative force were forged long ago.

So I ask a question, why read some monster tome of god-smothered thinking? I’ve tried Kant. Once you’ve read his name being dragged through the mud of Nietzsche’s anger it’s hard to put in the effort to read Kant. I picked up a slim hardcover copy of his Introduction to Logic, and I’ve tried to start it several times but can’t get past the first line, maybe I get a little into the second line, then I’m done. The book goes back on the shelf. I was told by one of the academics to hold off my judgement and read Kant. No reason, just read Kant.

Like I said this was weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about that. My philosophical reading has been limited to the sons of Nietzsche. So I decided to read the Critique of Pure Reason. I thought it would be interesting to read it with the Critique of Cynical Reason. Plus, there’s something mystical about this.

Anyway, these are some quotes that I pulled:

“Democratic” rationalism is a contradiction in Weberian terms. On those terms, once tradition has been defeated by modernity, radical struggle for freedom and individuality degenerates into an affirmation of irrational life forces against the routine and drab predictability of a bureaucratic order. This is not a democratic program but a romantic anti-dystopian one, the sort of thing that is already foreshadowed in Dostoievsky’s Notes From Underground and various back to nature ideologies. (p.75)

We need not go underground or native to escape the iron cage… this is in fact the meaning of the emerging social movements to change technology in a variety of areas such as computers, medicine and the environment. (p.76)

Two principles of technology’s ambivalence:
1. Conservation of hierarchy: social hierarchy and the continuation of power are generally unaffected by the introduction of new technologies.
2. Democratic rationalization: technical initiatives often follow structural reforms pursued by social movements.(p.76)

Technological development is not unilinear but branches in many directions, and could reach generally higher levels along several different tracks. (p.83)

A critical theory of technology can “demystify the illusion of technical necessity, and expose the relativity of the prevailing technical choices.”(p.87)

Social groups excluded from the original design network articulate their unrepresented interests politically. New values the outsiders believe would enhance their welfare appear as mere ideology to insiders who are adequately represented by the existing designs. (p.94)

Design is not a zero sum economic game but an ambivalent cultural process that serves a multiplicity of values and social groups without necessarily sacrificing efficiency. (p.95)

We will someday mock those who object to cleaner air and water as a “false principle of humanity” that violates technological imperatives. (p.97)

Chapter 1: Technology, Philosophy, Politics (notes)

February 8, 2007

This might be a trick I use to move on. I’ll simply pull quotes from a chapter. They may or may not become useful to me later on…

“If human significance of technology is largely unmapped territory, this is mainly due to the idealism of Western higher culture.”

“Technological development transforms what it is to be human.”

Essentialism holds that there is one and only one “essence” of technology and it is responsible for the chief problems of modern civilization. I will offer both a critique of essentialism, which continues to set the terms of most philosophy of technology, and an alternative to it, in the concluding chapters of this book.”

“It is not easy to explain the dramatic shift in attitudes toward technology that occurred in the 1960s. By the end of the decade early enthusiasm for nuclear energy and the space program gave way to technophobic reaction. But it was not so much technology itself as the rising technocracy that provided public hostility.”

“Part I of this book therefore includes two chapters on particularly revealing events and debates of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I have chosen subjects which seemed important to me at the time and which shape the philosophy of technology presented in this book. I do not claim that these examples are typical, but I do believe that close attention to them opens a window on the revolution in the thinking about technology that continues to this day.”

“[Marcuse and Foucault] relate technical domination to social organization and argue that technology has no singular essence but is socially contingent and could therefore be reconstructed to play different roles in different social systems.”

“The debate between Habermas and Marcuse is the subject of Chapter 7.”

“In part II I attempt to develop and apply this new democratic conception of technology in the light of what social constructivism has taught us in the intervening years.”

“Whatever the ultimate status of scientific-technical knowledge, it is what we use for truth in making policy.”

“Must we choose between universal rationality and culturally or politically particularized values?”

“In the third part of the book, I will attempt to preserve these thinkers’ advance toward the critical integration of technical themes to philosophy without losing the conceptual space for imagining a radical reconstruction of modernity.”

“Its political implications appear where it interferes with human communication in essential lifeworld domains such as family or education.”