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American Philosophy

Peirce, Thirdness and Pedagogy:
Reforming the Paideia

Richard A. Beauchamp
Christopher Newport University

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ABSTRACT: This paper shows how my introductory courses in philosophy were "reformed" by adopting the Peircean notion, as interpreted by Royce, of "community of interpretation." The paper has three main parts. The first sets forth the Peircean/Roycean notion of personhood as active membership in a community of interpretation. T he second spells out the implications of this idea for a theory of pedagogy, one that gives precedence to activities that promote "induction into" the community of interpretation over "introduction to" the subject matter. The third enumerates the specific technique that I adopted to implement the new pedagogical understanding. As a guiding principle for a philosophy of education, the community of interpretation offers specific criteria by which to judge the adequacy of the way a course is structured and presented in the syllabus, how classes are conducted, and how students are tested. The paper tells how the guiding concept is shared with the students in the syllabus to create a common understanding of what a philosophy class should be, and what is expected of them. The community of interpretation implies that lectures be minimized and that dialogue be maximized, requiring a constant discipline of exploring the intersection of concerns between students and major philosophers in the tradition. Finally, testing must become occasions for interpretation rather than mere recall of information about philosophers and their ideas. The pedagogical discipline entailed by the notion of a community of interpretation is judged to be the best way for students to discover and nurture their own autonomous philosophical voices.

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It is well known that the word pedagogy comes from the Greek paidagogos (teacher, pedagogue) which has the same root as paideia, usually translated "culture." The theme of this congress highlights the hope of many teachers of philosophy, that their teaching and writing has some impact on the culture. In this paper I want to show a connection between a Peircean understanding of persons (as interpreted by Royce) and its implications for how we go about conducting classes in philosophy. This connection is very recent with me, and it has changed my approach to teaching, especially at the "introductory" level. Our line of thought will have three major phases: 1) the Peircean understanding of persons as members of a community of interpretation; 2) its implications for a theory of pedagogy which emphasizes "induction into" more than "introduction to" the subject; and 3) the specific techniques that I have adopted in introductory classes to enact this theory of pedagogy.

At the outset I should say that at least half of my teaching is at the introductory level, with classes ranging from 30 to 50 students each. It is these students, most of whom will not take any more philosophy, that I am most concerned about in this paper. How can their one exposure to academic philosophy convince them that it is a vital part of their heritage and a cultural resource that is absolutely necessary to a healthy society? Especially if a course is historically oriented, as ours is by catalogue description, it is easy for students to feel that philosophy is the irrelevant meanderings of dead white males! Good teaching can overcome this in some measure, but I believe that a Peircean understanding of persons can lead us to a theory of pedagogy that directs us towards the kind of classroom practices that will make the experience of philosophy more vital and significant for our students.

I. Peirce, Thirdness, and Personhood

Every philosophy of education in informed, at least implicitly, by a notion of personhood. Peirce focused more explicitly on epistemological understandings than personhood, but his epistemological writings supplied perspectives which were used by Josiah Royce in his last major work, The Problem of Christianity, to formulate a notion of the self as a member of a "community of interpretation." In his discussion of this concept, Royce was explicit about his debt to Peirce, especially Peirce’s notion of "thirdness." Peirce insisted that any relation between two entities, be they persons, ideas, or natural forces, could not be understood in simple dyadic terms, but always required a third element, the framework or structure of meanings, truths, laws, assumptions and expectations within which the relationship occurs. Broadly speaking, the "third" is the structural framework that governs the relation, and, importantly, that may be an emergent structure that is called out by the exigencies of the relation. Peirce felt that "logical evolutionism" was quite consistent with his notion of "thirdness." Royce translated this idea into the "community of interpretation," in which persons share a framework of meanings, laws, beliefs, customs, practices, memories, and hopes, to which they refer and/or aspire in all their communications with one another. The view of the person implicit in this understanding is that of a member of the community of interpretation, one whose distinctive humanity is a function of participation in the paideia. Personhood requires mindfulness, because understanding and interpretation take the influence of the paideia beyond mechanistic determinism, a concept that presupposes a dyadic structure, and places it in the context of self-conscious thought, which requires a relation to a world of meanings, including possible participation in the emergence of new meanings. By way of Royce, then, Peirce’s notion of thirdness gives us a view of the person as a member of a community of interpretation, which, in turn, sets the stage for an understanding of education.

The view of education that follows from the Peirce/Royce perspective avoids two notorious errors that have plagued modernity. It avoids the notion of the person as a metaphysical subject whose selfhood is essentially complete in its subjective cocoon, apart from its engagement with the meanings that are available only through commerce with the paideia. The subject-object dyad is shown to be an inadequate account of the person’s being in the world. The second error that our perspective avoids is the belief that the distinction between personal and impersonal knowledge of first-order importance in understanding what knowledge is. This view has marginalized the "humanities" in modern education, associating it with opinion, subjectivity, and the emotions, as opposed to the hard knowledge of science, thought of as factual, objective, and value-free. But in reality, the sciences are part of the humanities, deriving their value from the culture that respects the regularities of nature and the ability of humans to discover, and use them. Science is no less an activity of the community of interpretation, as Kuhn and others have made clear, than the humanities. With the suppression of these two fallacies, the role of the paideia rises to new importance, for all knowledge is seen to arise within a community of interpretation, be it legal, scientific, religious, or whatever.

II. Beyond Introduction to Induction

During the summer when I was working on the Peirce/Royce connection for another research project, I received evaluations for the spring courses just completed. One student commented that the amount of material in a modern philosophy course (Descartes to the Wittgenstein and Heidegger) had simply been overwhelming, and that I had wanted them to know too much "about" the philosophers and their ideas. His comment was on target, and it helped me realize that I had fallen into the "introduction trap," i.e., I had wanted them to be knowledgeable about modern philosophy on the assumption that their appreciation of its import for them would follow from simply learning the information. But if philosophy itself is participation in a community of interpretation, then mere "knowledge about" the tradition is only a first step, a preparation for the more important second step. "Cultural literacy" is a legitimate part of the story, but it is not the whole story. The second step involves induction into the community of interpretation. This gave me the conceptual tool I needed to restructure the course. Specific assignments were needed to encourage active participation in the community of interpretation.

A brief caveat is in order here. I have known for a long time that student participation in philosophical discussion is desirable for a number of reasons. I, like all other professors, have often been party to the perennial discussions of "how to get the students more involved," and realize that active involvement enhances learning. Like all other professors, I have devised exercises that force students into dialogue with the material. These realizations and efforts might be characterized as "pedagogical experiments that follow from pedagogical instincts." My caveat is that I am not talking about the discovery of any of these pedagogical instincts that all conscientious professors have, but rather the appropriate philosophical justification for them. When I began to think about philosophy as participation in a community of interpretation, it became imperative that I reform my courses in the light of that concept. The idea was not to jazz the course up or make it more interesting, though hopefully those benefits might follow. The idea was to structure and conduct the course in a manner consistent with its goal. To paraphrase Jacques Barzun who once said that sentimentalism consists in the failure to associate a feeling with its appropriate idea, I now believe that pedagogical bungling consists in the failure to understand the philosophical principles that inform one’s pedagogical instincts and experiments. In my case this meant scaling back on the "introductory" activities to make room for the "induction" activities. All my introductory courses needed be reconceived and restructured around assignments that lead to the students’ induction into a community of interpretation.

III. Practical Consequences

The new perspective required that I change a) the way I represent the course to students in the syllabus, b) the way I conduct classes on a daily basis, and c) the way I test and evaluate student performance. While these changes are still very new, the Fall semester having just begun, here is a brief "work in progress" report on each.

I decided to use the use the notion of a community of interpretation in the syllabus so that the governing conception of the class could be shared with the students, and that they would know "where I am coming from." Further, it allows me to suggest that membership in a community of interpretation is a valuable way to think about what it means to be a person and to live well. Here are the two paragraphs that begin my syllabus for the course on Ancient Philosophy.

This course is designed to be an introduction to philosophy through a study of the thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome. But philosophy of any sort, ancient or modern, is really a kind of activity, so an introduction to it must include an induction into the activity of philosophizing. What kind of activity is that? It is joining an ongoing conversation, participating in a dialogue about some very big questions like whether or not there is such a thing as truth, whether we have any way of knowing it, and what is the difference between a good life and a bad or mediocre one, among many others as well.

Some philosophers would claim that their activity of constituting a "community of interpretation" is merely an explicit example of what all living is about, the business of understanding and communicating meanings through words and actions Homo Sapiens is necessarily homo interpretans (man the interpreter). In other words, to be human is to be a member of a community of interpretation, and all education is a kind of induction into that community at ever wider and deeper levels. So we will think about our work as not only introducing you to some of the major thinkers and ideas that arose in the formative centuries of western civilization, but also as an induction into the activity of philosophizing. The "introduction" part of our work will be learning "about" the thinkers and their major ideas; the "induction" part will be thinking with them about those ideas from our own point of view in the present.

In capsule form, these paragraphs contain the philosophy of education that informs the course. In addition, it signals to the students that the pattern of passive absorption of information will not pay off in the course. They must be actively engaged, not just because "participation" is generally desirable, which it is, but because one cannot be an active member of a community of interpretation without it. In short, students are given a clearer reason that I have heretofore been able to give for the desirability of their active engagement with large philosophical questions.

A major challenge this approach gives me is to conduct the classes in such a way that the doorway into the community of interpretation is flung open and students are invited in. Rather than retreating into exposition of the material, however clearly, eloquently, and even movingly I might be able to accomplish it, I now have another goal for each class session: to bring into focus those points of intersection between Socrates (for instance), my students, and myself on questions and interpretations of knowledge, truth, and goodness that, in one form or another, engage all interpreters. Once the commonality of our vital questions is discovered, we are in a position to discuss the answers that have been posed, and to evaluate their persuasiveness and relevance for us, or lack thereof. No doubt some "mini-lectures" will still be appropriate, but the predominant pedagogical practice will be much more Socratic than has been my custom in the past. I suspect that changing my "fall-back" pedagogical style will be the most demanding requirement of my new understanding of teaching philosophy.

In order for tests and exams to cohere with the guiding concept, they must be occasions for interpretive thought in dialogue with the philosopher(s) under discussion. On the syllabus I have substituted the term "induction exercise" for "test," to signal to the students that regurgitation of information about the philosopher is not what is called for. In the past I have devised exercises such as writing a letter to Socrates explaining to him why you do or do not think that he was judged fairly to be subversive to Athens’ vital welfare, or a letter to Epicurus telling him why you agree or disagree with his advice to simplify one’s desires to achieve peace of mind. These exercises were prompted by a strong intuition in the direction of the community of interpretation, but now they are more than a constructive intuition: they are a requirement of a definite philosophy of education and pedagogy.

The discipline implicit in the notion of education as induction into a community of interpretation governs both the structure (syllabus, tests) and process (class sessions) of courses to which the discipline applies. The most difficult part of the discipline is the process part, because that is the daily work of dialogue. In the past I have been impressed with the "collaborative learning " movement, but have not gotten far with it because the fall-back style of lecturing was so congenial, "ready-to-hand," and seemingly appropriate for a course heavy with content. But I now think that part of the reason for not sticking with it was also that collaborative learning was not couched in a philosophically compelling framework. While the community of interpretation is not identical with the notion of collaborative learning, it does provide a philosophical framework which calls for a particular kind of collaboration. I am suggesting that what is valuable about collaborative learning for me may be rescued by the discipline imposed by the community of interpretation.

Finally, I suspect that the most difficult part of the discipline, the shift from lecture to dialogue, will also be the most valuable part, for there we have the opportunity to discover whether and how our questions and concerns intersect with the philosophical giants, and also in what ways they diverge. In the process of that exploration students may become aware of their own autonomous philosophical stance and voice. If Socrates wanted nothing more than to give birth to the discovery of the wisdom that one has uniquely in one’s own purview, who am I to want more? I am beginning this year in the hope that the discipline implicit in the community of interpretation will enable some of my students to discover their own philosophical voice, and to be gladdened by the community of interpretation that celebrates their discovery and needs their voice.

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