Ethical education and philosophy

A little while back, N.N. of Methods of Projection posted a link to some papers by P.M.S. Hacker. I tend not to find Hacker very illuminating, especially as a reader of Wittgenstein, since I think he tends to underestimate the radical shift in philosophical methodology that Wittgenstein tries to effect. Hacker’s own conception of the tasks and methods of philosophy are outlined in his paper, ‘Philosophy: A contribution, not to human knowledge, but to human understanding.’ As a slogan, this is quite attractive, although the way Hacker spells it out, assigning philosophy the job of untangling conceptual confusions, strikes me as too rigid a view of what philosophy can and should achieve, even if I agree with its opposition to a conception of philosophy as in the business of providing explanations with a scientific form. Here, I shall just point to one analogy in the paper that did strike me as very useful:

Precisely because philosophy is not a quest for knowledge but for understanding, what it achieves can no more be transmitted from generation to generation than virtue. Philosophical education can show the way to philosophical clarity, just as parents can endeavour to inculcate virtue in their children. But the temptations, both old and new, of illusion, mystification, arid scholasticism, scientism, and bogus precision fostered by logical technology may prove too great, and philosophical insight and overview may wane. Each generation has to achieve philosophical understanding for itself, and the insights and clarifications of previous generations have to be gained afresh.

The analogy with ethical education is very apt, and is especially helpful when we think about philosophy’s relation to its own history. It’s no accident that the best philosophy is always in dialogue with the wider tradition and that the insights of that tradition have to be reclaimed again and again, unlike, for example, those of mathematical knowledge, which can be transmitted from one generation to the next with relative ease. I think this observation sits well with my recent post on ‘Philosophy as Bildung.

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