Two questions on learning

Here are two questions (both from Plato’s Euthydemus dialogue) that can provoke much thought:

1. Which sort of human beings are those who learn, the wise or the ignorant?

2. Do learners learn what they know or what they don’t know?

I will leave you to ponder those for a day before commenting myself. Try to think about what those questions open up concerning the nature of learning.

Two types of problems

In E. F. Schumacher’s book, A Guide for the Perplexed (a short book that I often recommend to people who want to dip into philosophy for the first time), there is a final chapter called “Two Types of Problems.”  In it, Schumacher contrasts what he calls “convergent problems” from “divergent problems.” I am convinced of the vital importance of the distinction for the governance of our lives and politics, so let me give you a thumbnail version: (more…)

A Few Quotes on the Issue of Questions

Here are some supplementary quotes related to my last post on the Phenomenon of Questioning for you to chew on:

The Cleitophon is the shortest of the Platonic dialogues and is often assumed to be spurious due to its defects, that it is not worthy of the pen of Plato. I disagree. I think the defects are just the “cracks to let the light in” (Leonard Cohen). The dialogue suggests that it is an antechamber to the Grand Mansion of the Republic. Cleitophon is a young student of Socrates who has just left his master to become the student of Thrasymachus. (Both obviously make appearances in the Republic itself.) The reason for his frustration with Socrates is stated in the following question: (more…)

The Phenomenon of Questioning

I am obsessed with the phenomenology of questions. What is a question? What does it mean to have a question? The answers to these questions are intimately bound up with what it means to be human. Aristotle observes in the Metaphysics that all human beings by nature desire to know and this desire to know is manifested most obviously in questioning.  Questioning is properly an existential concern, a keystone to philosophical anthropology, and the source of vitality in a mind alive.

As a way at getting at the importance of questions, I want to begin with a couple of quotations from R. G. Collingwood’s (more…)

The Question as Commitment

Class starts for me today — a class in Ancient Greek Philosophy. My reading list includes the Platonic dialogues Republic and Phaedrus, Presocratic fragments (with an emphasis on Heraclitus and Parmenides), selections from Aristotle’s Physics, De Anima, Ethics and Politics. University policy dictates that I begin with a preassessment exercise. Mine consists of a pair of questions to which I have students jot down brief impressionistic answers:

1. Socrates preferred to teach by means of questions — why do you think he may have had this preference?
2. Which is easier — to attain knowledge or self-knowledge? Why?

Clearly these questions don’t admit of tidy or even correct answers. Although I think them answerable, I do not think they are *finally* answerable. My hope is that my students (and I) can hold these questions in the background of our thinking throughout the course and beyond. I think there is great value in sustained attention to such questions, even if the answers never improve. Questions shape our subjectivity more than answers, both our attentiveness and our reflectiveness. A thinker without a question is like a body without a soul. Something in us must *commit* to particular questions if we are ever to advance as thinkers and knowers.