Philosophy and conversion

One of the chief teachings of Plato is that the aim of philosophical pedagogy is periogage, i.e. conversion. In Book VII of the Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon:

“Education is not the sort of thing certain people who claim to be professors claim that it is. Surely they claim they put knowledge into a soul it wasn’t present in, as though they were putting sight in blind eyes…

But the current discussion indicates…that this power is present in the soul of each person, and the instrument by which each ones learns, as if were an eye that’s not able to turn away from darkness toward the light in any other way than along with the whole body, needs to be turned around along with the whole soul, away from what’s fleeting, until it becomes able to endure gazing at what is and at the brightest of what is, and this, we’re claiming, is the good…

Then there would be an art to this very thing…this turning around, having to do with the way the soul would be most easily and effectively redirected, not an art of implanting sight into it, but of how to contrive that from someone who who has sight, but doesn’t have it turned the right way or looking at what it needs to.   — Republic, translated by Joe Sachs, 518b – d.

One of the frustrations of teaching philosophy in a university setting is the narrowly circumscribed way that the learning situation is arranged. There is a time limitation: in my current case, an hour and a quarter twice a week for fifteen weeks. There is a spacial limitation: blackboard in front, teacher in focal position before neat rows of desk — I write on the board and my students dutifully record what I write in case it ends up on the test. There is the limitation of my class being one among many for my students. But most restrictively is the fact that philosophy is just a subject, a body of teaching, that the students can “learn” without appropriating it into their life or characters. In fact, philosophy can be learned this way. Becoming philosophical would perhaps require them to change their habits of eating and sleeping and exercising, such they would be at the highest state of mental alertness when they approach the subject. It would require them to give up the diversions that comprise most of what they live for — perhaps unplugging the iPhones and untuning from video-on-demand. They would certainly have to give up so much of the thought and effort they put into the the doxa of “identity” or “individuality” — they would have to confront these as false selves, as shadows on the wall of their cave. They would have to understand that philosophy requires a change of life preparatory to a confrontation with reality. Without this change it is something other than philosophy.

I don’t blame my students. What is sad to me is that philosophy as a profession has failed mostly to recognize this defect in conventional praxis. Just as students are shaped by the practices in which they engage, philosophy professors too have been shaped by their practices. I myself drift quite easily into the lecture-and-test mode of teaching just like my comrades. I too accept that my students “have lives” outside my classroom. I too have trouble wriggling my body out of the Overton’s window that frames what is possible in philosophical teaching. But this is to sleepwalk through the subject, to fail to take it seriously, to turn into a sophist without even knowing it. It is not that philosophy has no subject matter — it most certainly does. But the peculiar subject matter of philosophy cannot be understood in abstraction from a way of being human toward which it tends. A philosophy that can be handed over and held loosely like a coin is just a sophistry, however well intended.

I have found that my greatest impact as an interpreter of Plato is not in the classroom at all, but in the informal setting in which a student (or a few students) can discuss in depth and informally some small point of philosophy. In such settings, life is back on the table so to speak. This is the condition of leisure and philia without which philosophy has little chance of sprouting. The circumscription of philosophy-as-a-subject is loosened a bit. The university can at least function like a gymnasium did for Socrates, as a place to be introduced to those who may be interested in being deliberate about how to live.

Let me conclude with a quote from Robert Cushman:

Philosophy, whose best helper is dialectic, is not in Plato’s view — and contrary to Aristotle’s occasional indication — simply knowledge of the truth. On the contrary, for Plato philosophy is a way and a life, a way to the moment of existence in which there is a direct confrontation with reality. Correspondingly, Plato’s conception of Wisdom resists propositional status and cannot be corralled and contained. Truth about reality is subordinated to truth as reality. Where man’s relation to ultimate being in involved, truth and reality are inseparable, for reality is embraced in immediate apprehension. Manifestly, then, truth as reality is not something admissible of transference by some men to others. Accordingly, the function of philosophy is that of rightly disposing men toward truth.” — Robert Earl Cushman, Therapeia: Plato’s Conception of Philosophy. p. xviii.

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