Sunday, July 30, 2006


What is it that prevents education from providing learning to its students?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Politically Correct Language

There are two sides to politically correct language. First, it provides the majority a way to show respect and recognition to formerly marginalized members of society. In the last few years we have changed how we talk about people with disabilities - instead of saying ‘that deaf guy’ we now say, ‘the person who is deaf’. Likewise, we now call Indians, Native Americans (or in Canada, First Nations). (it is curious to note at this point that there are still several tribes within driving distance of my house who resent being called First Nations, and instead choose to call themselves Indian – It is also curios to note that not so long ago, the term First Nations referred to the 6 Nations. But let us leave the latter is for another day.)

Although I can no longer remember my exact source, I read in the introduction to a dictionary that the Spanish monarchy commissioned the first European dictionary between 1492 and 1494, after the Moors were driven from Spain. The decision to standardize the language was justified by the idea that: Political unrest is caused by passionate thought; passionate thought can be limited by limiting the vocabulary of the people; therefore, by altering and limiting the vocabulary of the people we can prevent political instability.

It is popular these days for the ‘White’ majority to show ‘respect’ for marginalized individuals by referring to them in politically correct terms. Yet, this only strengthens the divide between the two groups of people and disallows any self labelling that these groups may desire.

Politicians in this country divide and conquer. It works well in the short term, but does not create a stable base for social structures. It divides humanity from the world we live in and from each other.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Do I look like a people person?

Perhaps it is true that I expect too much from people.

Despite all that I have seen in this world, I still harbour the belief that people want to be good. That given the right conditions, they will do the honest thing. They will want to act with respect and integrity. And in return, they will believe that they will be respected. Now, I believe this of people; why I do, I cannot say. The Everyday shows me evidence to the contrary.

I keep a garden allotment. It is a small bit of land, not more than two hundred square feet, where I can grow vegetables. It is rented from the city and I share this place with over a dozen other gardeners who likewise have less than two hundred square feet in which they can garden. Some of these gardeners (like myself) are there at least once a day, others come less than once a fortnight. The latter, for their own reasons, take very little interest in their plots and the aria that surrounds it. Their allotments are full of weeds and their pathways full of brambles which encroach on the more diligent gardeners.

I understand that people are busy and often fail to meet their commitments. But I did not believe that they would resist someone else cleaning their pathways (as is required by the rental agreement).A politician formed a committee, decisions were made, notice was given, and we cleaned the brambles and the weeds from the pathways so that a fence can be placed on the property line. Apparently, this was wrong of us. Two days in a row, vandals have devastated my garden. They have torn up tomato plants, and destroyed my beans. The majority of my summer harvest is gone. Not only do I take pride in my work, but also I supplement my groceries with the food I grow. It coasts less to grow a garden than to buy lower quality vegetables in the supermarket. But now I will be lucky to have a harvest. I am truly heart broken.

I wonder if I should take the moral high road and continue to replant in hope of something growing through the damage. Perhaps they will give up and with a little time their fury will diminish. Yet, I also wonder if I should give in to my urge to damage their plots in such a way as not to be traced back to me. I could allow nature to do the work, with a little incentive from me. But that damage would not be so bad as my own. I do not believe that they feel as strong a connection to their plots as I do; although, they would not have vandalized my garden (twice) if they did not feel wronged by the cleansing of their pathways.

I wonder what the basic nature of a human being is. How would we be without society? How would we act? What is the essential quality of being human? What is it we have that makes us different from the rest of nature? Why is our morality so worthless when put to the test? Is our behaviour really any different from the wild?

Is it so wrong to want to believe that people are basically good?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Badmouthing the University Administration Cannot Be Good For Your Health

I picked up this book yesterday and have not been able to put it down since.

Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University

M’Gonigle, Michael and Justine Starke
2006 Planet U: sustaining the world, reinventing the university. New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island, Canada.

Although a little more on the environmental side than I had hoped, it does raise some interesting questions.


Also, for those of you interested in Education and the problems with modern day knowledge in general, have a gander at this article: Do Philosophers Love Wisdom?

Monday, July 17, 2006

What is the existential status of an idea?

Each of the Greats (that is philosophers with an attempt at a complete ontology like Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Kant, &c.) have some place in the universe for ideas. Ideas exist, but to what degree they exist? Can we rank existence? Philosophers often try.

A woman looks as a page of a book. Perhaps it is written in the language of the observer. These marks on the page are nothing but ink on paper. They have no intrinsic meaning, yet when combined with the observer, somehow the observer converts them into ideas. This is a very strange process. Where does the idea reside?

The idea no longer resides in the author; our hypothetical author is dead two thousand years.

Can the idea reside in the ink? Surely not in the ink alone; the ink can take on almost any number of forms, yet only when placed in a specific structure will it be comprehensible to a particular reader. It must reside somehow in the page and the ink together. Yet, it is not that either. The page can burn to ashes and still be all there, yet no longer comprehensible. There is something in the structure of ink and paper combined in a specific way which makes the idea comprehensible. But it is not an active idea. The page cannot act on its own, and the idea is unrealized if the page remains unread. So, the idea cannot reside in the page alone.

Can the idea reside in the observer? Surely not! What does the observer know before reading the page? She knows how to read, how to interoperate the scribbles on the page. She knows the common meanings of these scribbles. But she does not yet contain the idea that is written on the page. She acquires that by viewing the page in a particular way. So, the idea cannot reside in her until after she reads the page.

It is something in the process that makes the inert idea on the page become the active idea in the mind. But in what way does the idea exist before it is read?

Can thought exist without a thinker? Descartes said no! In fact, in my studies thus far, only Spinoza appears to have thought existing independent of thinker, and sharing the same existential status of physical objects. Descartes starting point is that he knows he exists because he has doubts and to doubt requires a doubter. I doubt that. Or should I say; there doubt that exists which contains within it the idea of myself doubting.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Principle of Charity

or: I am forever stuck in the middle class

In Canada, the class system is invisible. People here will tell you that there is no class system. Yet, they tell you this as you pass by the millionaire politician giving a two dollar hand out to the beggar on the street. In fact, if you care to look around, you can see that the class structure is as plain as my mug holds coffee. We simply do not acknowledge it; but not only that, we co-exist with members of the other classes. The difference of people among the different classes is often one of attitude. This difference governs behaviour as much as it governs what possessions one might own.

An individual on Welfare makes more money than the average minimum wage worker. Minimum wage is at (more or less) $9per hour and most companies will not hire a worker for more than 30 hour per week (it saves them money on taxes &c by not hiring full time employees). Yet they say, in this city a family must have a total of 60 hours a week at, at least $15per hour to make the basics: food, rent, clothing, and transportation. The basics do not include things like car maintenance or television. On Welfare one can make a bit more than that, depending on ones situation.

Given these conditions, one might wonder why one should work at all. People do work, despite the fact that they must beg for donations of food from charity just to get from pay check to pay check.

I have been homeless and hungry in two countries – neither of them Canada. Unlike here, neither country had food banks or sleep shelters or any social structure in place to care for the less fortunate. Somehow, because of my experience, I have lost my sympathy for the down-and-out who live here.

The Principle of Charity is an academic’s tool where one considers the authors intent in the context that the author wrote it – giving the author the benefit of the doubt when the meaning of the text is unclear or ambiguous. This is very seldom practiced in philosophy classes these days, and even less in my daily life.

I know I am critical of others (I have been told this on many occasions). But, I am more critical of myself. At different times, I have lived the life styles of all but the most upper class. I know which one I prefer to live. I doubt I’ll ever get there.

It is hard to remember sometimes, that the dirty faced individual putting a needle full of drugs in his arm in the doorway of an abandoned building that I pass every morning on my way to work – it is hard for me to remember that he is just a person. As a person, he has made and must make his own choices. But how much freedom does he really have? How much of his life is damaged by the invisible social structure that surrounds us?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

One Stitch Cannot Stand Alone (or, Knitting Ontology 101)

I was considering getting a counter for my blog. I’m curious how many people out there surfing cyber space, stumble on my blog each day. Are there four? Fourteen? Forty? How many people are there?

Counters count things. They enumerate concrete particulars; they take individuals and convert them into numbers. It is a magical process, like knitting. One stitch cannot stand alone. It depends on other stitches for its existence. One must begin with a foundation: a cast on stitch will do nicely. That foundation must be solid so as not to unravel, but flexible as well. From there, each individual stitch is created from the one below, the one before and the one next to it. It quickly becomes part of the one above it until each individual stitch is indiscernible from the fabric. Only the keenest eyes can tell one stitch from the next. Even still, the stitches are not safe. Without a strong but flexible bind off, the whole fabric risks unravelling. Only as a complete whole, do the individual knitted stitches fulfill their function. They flourish as fabric, but alone, they perish. They are incomplete without the other stitches to support them.

An idea cannot stand without strong foundations. Without historical antecedents, it unravels and breaks down in time. Yet, it also requires future generations to carry its essence onwards. An idea exists as an indiscernible stitch of fabric, reliant and relied on by the stitches that surround it. An idea that does not contribute to this fabric fails to fulfill its potential; and thus, falls into obscurity.

Somehow the idea of converting individual people into abstract statistics revolts me. It is a perfectly acceptable way of collecting and converting data, yet by doing so, we loose the value of the individual.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Here is a Little Monday Morning Treat

From a mock interview with Kant:

Kant: ...You may think that philosophy is an esoteric discipline practiced by a bunch of old men sitting around wondering whether the world exists and inventing some exotic language in which to disguise their nonsense, but that isn’t it at all....Philosophy is concerned with nothing less than the ruling ideas of human life what we can know, what we should believe, what we ought to do, what we can hope (Solomon 1981:12).

Solomon, Robert C
1981 Introducing the German Idealists. Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Art of Equivocation

In a discipline where words are everything, I am amazed by the casual way some words are tossed about. The art of equivocation, where one misguides the reader by alternating between two or more meanings of a particular word without the readers’ knowledge, is the legacy of the Sophists. When used correctly, equivocation changes the entire outcome of history. Thoughts become muddled and social control as easy as eating pie.

Yet, one should note that it is not always the author’s fault. The author’s intentions can be very clear upon writing, but when the reader interprets the words, he mistakes the meaning, confusing the issue at hand. If this confused fellow writes a paper whilst unaware of his confusion, the equivocation strengthens, and continues to the next reader.

I am worried about the word, ‘Dialectic’.

It is a multipurpose word applied with equal vigour to the methodologies of Plato, Hegel, and many other philosophers.

The Oxford English Dictionary says:
Dialectic n.
1. a. The art of critical examination into the truth of an opinion; the investigation of truth by discussion: in earlier English use, a synonym of LOGIC as applied to formal rhetorical reasoning; logical argumentation or disputation.
Originally, the art of reasoning or disputation by question and answer, ‘invented’, according to Aristotle, by Zeno of Elea, and scientifically developed by Plato, by whom the term was used in two senses, (a) the art of definition or discrimination of ‘ideas’, (b) the science which views the inter-relation of the ideas in the light of a single principle ‘the good’; corresponding broadly to logic and metaphysic. By Aristotle the term was confined to the method of probable reasoning, as opposed to the demonstrative method of science. With the Stoics, rhetoric and dialectic formed the two branches of , logic, in their application of the term; and down through the Middle Ages dialectica was the regular name of what is now called ‘logic’, in which sense accordingly dialectic and dialectics were first used in English.

2. In modern Philosophy: Specifically applied by Kant to the criticism which shows the mutually contradictory character of the principles of science, when they are employed to determine objects beyond the limits of experience (i.e. the soul, the world, God); by Hegel (who denies that such contradictions are ultimately irreconcilable) the term is applied (a) to the process of thought by which such contradictions are seen to merge themselves in a higher truth that comprehends them; and (b) to the world-process, which, being in his view but the thought-process on its objective side, develops similarly by a continuous unification of opposites.

The only solid commonality of usage when it comes to Dialectic is that Dialectic is a methodology for arriving at a conclusion. It other words, it’s just a way from getting from idea A to idea B – where B is already decided before the discussion has begun.

As usual, I am not being very charitable to the idea of Dialectic. The Principle of Charity (that is that any dubious nature of the ideas presented must be found in favour of the author presenting them – or something along those lines.) is all well and good, but if one were to apply it too liberally, then the only conclusion possible is that everyone is right and we should all gather round my house for tea and crumpets next Sunday where we can discuss how infallible we all are.

In the Plato classroom, Dialectic means the method of conversation where Plato pretends to be ignorant and through subtle manipulation of the conversation, convinces the interlocutor of how little truth is actually known on the subject at hand. In a Hegel classroom, if indeed there is such a thing, Dialectic would describe a method where two seemingly irreconcilable concepts are evaluated and developed in such a way to find a synthesis between the two. These two instantiations of Dialectic are not exactly identical. In fact, if I wanted to be cheeky, I would say that they are irreconcilable with each other

So, when a professor says that So-And-So is using Dialectic or a Dialectical methodology (because they really do talk that way in the classroom), and I ask said professor, “What do you mean by Dialectic?” They answer “By Dialectic, I mean Dialectic.” I ask again for clarification, this time specifying which kind of Dialectic – the answer is the same. The class moves on to the next topic while I sit there grumpy and confused, because I really do want to know which definition of Dialectic is being expressed in this particular context.

Perhaps the solution is to ban all ambiguous language in philosophy. Yet, that would mean the end to a great deal of philosophers and philosophies. Perhaps we should make a law requiring the specification of ambiguous words – Dialectic would no longer be used on its own, it would always be Platonic Dialectic, Hegelian Dialectic, &c. But then, because so many people were not trained in the difference, many instructors would be forced into retirement. Perhaps, we must do what we have done for the last few hundred years – leave it up to the student to figure it out. Students are smart, right? And we do, after all, have So Much free time on our hands. I’m certain we can muddle through somehow.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Frustrating Dr. Fun-Guy

Sometime between Kant and Russell a dense fog descended on all philosophical thought. We are taught in the class room, that nothing of interest happened for over a hundred and fifty years. All the names in the mist - Hegel, Schelling, Kierkegaard, &c. - well they are simply voices to be ridiculed. I have been told time and again that Nothing of philosophical interest happened during this time. And yet, the more I am told to the look the other way, the more I am desire to know of these mysterious No-Bodies.

I attended part of the Summer Lecture series put together by the Philosnobs (our philosophical student group – Let us call them PS for short). Dr. Fun-Guy presented the lecture. He is one of the few professors that I respect in our department and a staunch ignorer of Hegel. In the hour and a half there were over ten insults directed to Continental European philosophers (mostly post Kant) in favour of the Analytic tradition of philosophical thought. For some reason, it is an Us-Against-Them battle – there is a great sense of fear among the faculty that someone might come along and tell them that their style of philosophy is flawed, therefore they attack every other style of philosophical exploration. By staying on the offensive they somehow manage to feel secure that their beliefs will not be challenged.

It is interesting to note that every paper I have read by Dr. Fun-Guy follows more or less the same format. He has two concepts; for example, yesterday’s paper involved Work and Play. These two concepts are usually considered incompatible – that is, each is traditionally defined by the negation of the other. The example would be that Work is often defined by the absence of Play and Play as an activity that does not involve Work. Something that I admire in Dr. Fun-Guy’s work is that he does not resort to this traditional way of defining concepts. He instead examines each one individually and offers a definition based on its own merit. For example, his definition of Work involves the concept that you have to force yourself to do it or that it is defined by an internal struggle.

Dr. Fun-Guy then presents the two paradoxes of these two concepts, examining each one in turn, displaying the apparent contradiction within each of them, and then attempting to find a satisfactory middle ground where the contradiction and the paradoxes disappear. It is his standard format, and it is a very good one I might add. He is well written and has an excellent use of narration in his writing which helps to make the paper relevant to the individual rather than a bit of incomprehensible academic mumble jumble. Yet, I wonder how he would react if I told him that his methodology is an excellent example of Hegel’s Dialectic.

Perhaps he simply does not take the conclusion far enough, or perhaps it is because I observe him to frequently declare the uselessness of studying Hegel; but for some reason, I find Dr. Fun-Guy’s papers to be a poor reflection of the knowledge and insight I have seen him display in class and in conversation. Could it be true what they say about history? Are those who ignore it bound to repeat it?

Perhaps it is I who am mistaken. I have been told that it is wrong of me to evaluate my ‘betters’. Perhaps I should take heed and give up my endeavours to learn that which I desire to know. Even the library is against me – the books I desire are unavailable to me. There is so much beauty in Philosophy, but I am tired of fighting to learn it. These people know so much more than I could ever dream of knowing – who am I to think I know what I want to learn?


This Blog is Changing!

It is time to take this blog to the next level. Stay tuned, in the next few days this blog will become something a little better.

My aim is to take this blog from simply a sometimes updated hodgepodge of my life to a twice weekly narrative of my academic career. It will be a place where I can tell stories of my experiences and practice expressing my ideas prior to publishing them. Don't worry, there will still be knitting and stories of my annoying cat, just less of it than before.

See you soon!