20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy of Education

For Public Responsibility for Spaceship Earth

Joseph Agassi
Tel-Aviv University and York University, Toronto

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: The present global political situation is serious and desperately invites public awareness and concern. Global problems cannot be solved locally; they must be studied locally with an eye towards a mass-movement that would raise awareness of the severity of the problems as well as the absence of viable solutions. A comprehensive view should evolve through critical discussions regarding both problems and possible solutions. The movement must seek to create minimal scientific literacy (that is, attention to factual reports plus a critical attitude toward them). The movement must be educational and democratic; it must encourage individual autonomy. It must freely confess ignorance and slowly develop ideas in a combination of broad propaganda and proper research. Philosophy can contribute by developing a comprehensive view of the situation. Academic research should attend to practical problems. Ideally, the movement will offer grassroots education that will enable graduates to compel appropriate institutions to enact legislation directed toward the alleviation of global problems.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

We are living now in a permanent, major global political crisis. The problems of global politics are serious and sorely need sane solutions. Thus far no possible reasonable solution for them has been offered. No one has any clue as to any solution. It is better to discuss the problem-situation in general than to wait for someone to come up with a possible solution. How, then, can we contribute towards a relieving the current major global political crisis? This paper makes two rather obvious presupposition. First, survival is always on the top of any political agenda. Second, there is a grave danger to human survival today. This danger will be mentioned here once and will not be discussed. It is the danger of the destruction of human life on earth, due to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the pollution of the environment at large, the increased economic gulf due to the increased poverty of the poor nations, and the population explosion. (These are the four P's.) These dangers reinforce each other and there is no saying how much time we have before the threat of extinction becomes irreversible.

The survival of humanity should be on top of every political agenda, global, international, national and party-political. Clearly, it is not. Some brave, concerned and dedicated intellectuals, such as the philosopher Arne Naess, have relinquished their ordinary interests and activities, in order to devote the little they can do to face the central problems of human survival. They have my profound admiration, but not my consent: there is no good reason to follow their footsteps. Even though the concern of these brave and dedicated individuals is correct, their abandonment of all other aspects of their work may be too radical. My reasons for suggesting this is simple: the service of intellectuals as intellectuals, especially of philosophers as philosophers, may be more useful then their service as mere political activists and propagandists.

Here is the place to mention the general educational value of intellectual discipline, including certain valuable traits of philosophy. Though regrettably they are not sufficiently generally practiced even by leading philosophers, they still contribute to intellectual hygiene in our society. They are, mainly, the development of some sense of proportion through the search for a comprehensive view, the clarity and precision that were repeatedly introduced by thinkers through the ages, the training to examine problems and get them as much in focus as possible prior to studying them, and the readiness to examine critically even doctrines that look self-evident. Other, similar valuable traits, will not be discussed here for want of space. The traits mentioned here are extremely valuable in all cases, no less in the case of the discussion of the grave matter of human survival. Yet they will not be discussed here. Little can be said about them that will excite discussion. Those who preach irrationalism and who say that there is no time for niceties like precision and fine criticism, they are too irresponsible to care and they will not reconsider their positions. The same goes for those narrow specialists who are convinced that nothing good will come of efforts at a comprehensive view of the current crisis. So this discussion will be limited to an audience of those who value intellectual discipline and who are willing to develop some better sense of proportion by a search for a comprehensive view. Not willing to preach to converts, however, let me go on without discussing these matters.

The tasks of philosophy are traditionally divided to the analytic and the synthetic; I will now leave the analytic aspect of the situation: we need now some new solutions rather than analyze extant ones: the extant ones are not good enough for that. So let me discuss briefly the synthetic side of philosophy and the great service it can render to any complex task, such as the one at hand, mainly by supplying us with some sense of proportion and of purpose.

Not long ago there was an unbridgeable gulf between the philosophers who cared for the analytic and called themselves analytic philosophers or analysts and the rest of the philosophers. The analysts made light of synthetic philosophy and vice versa. The hostility of the analytic philosophers towards synthetic philosophy in general has recently been abated, and this is to the good, even though regrettably it was often achieved at the cost of sacrificing precision and clarity. The other philosophers have not reciprocated and only few of them have taken to heart the demand for some intellectual discipline. Let us ignore all this now.

It should be acknowledged that many of the philosophers who have little patience for intellectual discipline do care for humanity, and as if in an excuse for their sloppiness they may draw attention to the fact that many highly disciplined thinkers are cold fish. We need not go into that. Suffice it to observe that discipline is essential for efficiency, even though some efficient people waste their abilities and do not use them for good causes. And at times they have an excuse too: they find the task too vast. Of course, they are right: even if we all dedicate all of our energies to effort to save humanity, and even if we all act most efficiently, success is still far from assured.

As to the need for synthesis, analytic philosophers have never opposed it. The hostility to them is often based on the assertion that they do, but this assertion rests on confusion and prejudice. No analytic philosopher has ever expressed the frivolous view that there is no need for a comprehensive view of the world and of our place in it. Their hostility was never directed against synthesis but only against poor synthesis, especially the synthesis offered as philosophy rather than as science or as common sense. At times analytic philosophers were hostile to syntheses that were presented as theology or as substitutes for theology. At times analytic philosophers were hostile to syntheses because they were hostile to theology, and at times because they defended theology from the attacks directed against it by philosophers and/or scientists. All this hatred is immaterial; all hatred is.

The traditional synthetic side of philosophy included more than some care about comprehensive matters. Some traditional philosophers supposed that things require a broad synoptic vision of the kind that science lacks, due to its understandable but still regrettable specialization, perhaps, or due to the caution that may be proper in science but that may all the same stifle reasonable approaches to global problems. These philosophers sought bold speculations and they tried very hard. Few individuals can see themselves qualified for such tasks without being rightly suspected of megalomania. In the 20th century at least two individuals clearly qualified, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, who both cared very much about global politics. We should still try to absorb as much from their teachings as is still relevant and useful today. Yet, clearly, they did not have sufficient answers. Moreover, our problems keep changing, as times move so fast. New problems accumulate and old ones deepen, and so it is unreasonable to hope that their teachings should suffice. Still, since the cold war is over, a new air of optimism has spread. Optimism is as lovely as the fresh wind of the spring, and it may hopefully encourage new thinking; it may also regrettably lead to lethargy. Here we see how important it is to acquire an ever-newer synoptic view of the situation: how serious is our situation after the cold war? Is the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons bigger or smaller now that the Soviet Union is no longer and its nuclear arsenal is under much less centralized control? This paper is not directed at such problems; the aim of this paragraph is only to illustrate the great need for a synoptic view of our problems, not to air any specific one.

Science is not sufficient for the development of a comprehensive view or a synoptic view. This assertion angers many scientists and many analytic philosophers. Attempts at sweeping overviews are naturally speculative, and speculations are often not serious. At times they are not responsible. Speculative philosophers are often ignorant of details of contemporary science and at times they are even contemptuous of the details that they are ignorant of, perhaps in efforts to suppress a sense of inadequacy that may stifle efforts to do anything. So they ignore the details of relevant scientific information or, worse, they carelessly advocate outdated scientific information and theories. Without defending them one may appreciate their courage, as well as their feeling that synoptic ideas are needed and are not offered by science. Their opponents do not deny this, at least if they are courteous: every reasonable thinker will readily admit that there is always a dearth of ideas, especially of synoptic ideas. Ever since the rise of the scientific tradition, empiricist philosophy was popular within science precisely because speculations were suspected of frivolity and because it was suggested very strongly that the safe ways to comprehensive ideas pass through small, serious researches devoid of megalomania. But the question remains, what should we do in the meantime to meet our quest for comprehensive views of the world and of our place in it?

Ernst mach repeatedly denied that he had any philosophy. When he was asked what his comprehensive view of the world was, he said, the totality of science. His answer is popular. Today W. V. Quine advocates it. Unlike Mach, however, Quine does not boast universal scientific knowledge. He simply says, much more humbly, he is willing to be instructed about the world at large by people more familiar with science than he is, and he prefers to be instructed by them than by philosophers. Unfortunately, most scientists can instruct us only on details, hardly ever on comprehensive ideas. (The exceptions are scientists who are also philosophers and those who offer scientific ideas that are comprehensive. Einstein excelled both as a philosopher and as a scientist who wanted his scientific ideas to be as comprehensive as possible.) In particular, when it comes to questions of global politics, every decent researcher will admit tremendous ignorance: there is little knowledge about the most basic general facts, and little agreement about the way to proceed with the study of the broad outline of the situation. The situation within science is still worse: the classical hostility to speculations rests on empiricism, which was traditionally viewed as a tremendous success despite all doubts and all criticism. Today the picture is different. Whether due to Hume's critique, to modern logic, or to modern physics, things have changed. Empiricism is not that popular these days, and even though most philosophers of science are analytic and try to appear empiricists, it is clear their stance is less ebullient than it was but a century ago. (Empiricism is one theory that explains how certainty is achieved. Today, as we doubt that certainty is ever achieved, no one is an empiricists in the strict, classical sense of the word, even though we all still take for granted the generally admitted fact that the acquisition of empirical information is often the most valuable way to increase our stock of information.)

This puts in a quandary those who feel the pressure of the urgent global problems and who therefore urgently seek a comprehensive outlook: hardly anyone can claim even minimal credentials for the task of developing good comprehensive ideas, yet someone has to try or else the task will remain unattended. It might be claimed that things are not too urgent, and perhaps one may hope that this is true, though it is becoming increasingly difficult to be sanguine about the near future, let alone about the distant future. Even were it possible to be sanguine, we still should face the uncertainties of the future as a matter of responsibility: if responsible people neglect the task of caring for the future, and the ancillary task of developing some comprehensive ideas about it, then this task will be left to irresponsible people. And then, if and when action will be demanded, they will lead: in emergency, when drastic action is called for, if only one plan of action exists, it wins regardless of all objections to it. And we can never be sure that even in the near future all will go well and no drastic action will be called for.

What then is required of the responsible but not qualified? Clearly, such people should present as best and as clearly as they can the problems they wish to see publicly discussed and the backgrounds to these problems, in efforts to engage in them as many people as possible. What this demands most is to be as critically minded as possible.

Education plays a central role in every major political matter. Russell has noted that leading political ideas are those that philosophers had developed decades or even centuries earlier - often not responsibly. Facing serious global problems that demand urgent attention, with no criteria for the right way to go about them, we must at lest be truthful so as to be able to pull our resources together. Those who wish to do something may have to settle for doing the best they can even if it greatly falls short of their targets. They should present their best ideas as best they can, and try to examine the way they fail to solve the problems at hand and to outline policies for attacking them afresh. There is no other way, and in particular we must discourage the idea that some great thinker will emerge and solve our problems for us. At least on this we have some idea: great solutions come in the wake of small ones.

All this calls for policies, both educational and procedural. They should grow locally, on small scales and large. After all, this is anyway what the dedicated followers of Arne Neass are doing. In their view it is better to fight for a better environment in the academy than in political parties or in some amorphous public institutions or in the street. It remains to discuss this idea critically and publicly. Theirs is an answer to an important question: what should the general framework be within which debate and other actions should take place? All that can be said now is that the framework should not make us ignore the great importance of science and of attitudes towards it, as well as of democracy and individual autonomy and of attitudes towards them. These are far from sufficient, but they are obviously essential.

Science can easily be a substitute religion, and as such it is not as harmful, even if upheld somewhat dogmatically. Nevertheless, for the movement to succeed it must shun science worship, at least at the beginning, as it must appeal to the good will of all, including the goof will of the vast populations of the poor parts of the world which are not prone to consider science as a religion though they may be tempted to worship the materialism and cynicism that regrettably all too often come in its wake: what we deem commonsense is often extremely hard to spread.

The proper attitude to science is not to impose unanimity in its name, especially on publics not too well versed in its ideas. Only the observational basis of science commands some measure of unanimity: scientific information is information well examined, and it is there as a challenge to theoretical researchers to explain and to responsible practical people to apply. Except that, to be useful, applied science needs coordination badly. This is wanting, nowadays more than ever, since nowadays we cannot do without global coordination. One cannot practice population control in one country, for example. And shipping toxic waste from rich countries to poor ones, for another example, is going to hurt us all. So the task is to comprehend the facts and to see to the movement towards global coordination to control them.

This is a matter of scientific literacy. As facts are always easier to comprehend than theories, presenting them is easier, even if not always easy. Also, the discussion is more accessible of the question, how well examined is this or that item of information. Unfortunately, people with much good will have for decades made bad propaganda for good causes: they exaggerated the reliability of information and even fabricated scary information so as to mobilize the public to increase their interest in important issues. This is irresponsible on many counts that will not be discussed here, except to say that the importance of the causes for which bad propaganda is made does not justify the bad propaganda. The propaganda causes damage to the good causes it is supposed to promote. Perpetrators of bad propaganda assume that the public is too ignorant to see through it; but it is easy to expose the dishonesty of bad propaganda to the general public, notably if its scientific literacy grows.

The academy is the best place for training for minimal scientific literacy, especially since this has to be done while constantly offering different ideas about what exactly should be done and how. This way a wide public may be reached. Also, scientific literacy must be imparted together with some proper scientific attitude, with some idea as to the autonomy of the researcher.

A proper discussion of democracy is too extensive to be undertaken here. Suffice it here to discuss one simple fact: whenever a huge and urgent task is at hand, the proper democratic procedure seems exceptionally frustrating and so an increasing number of individuals are fooled into the hope that other ways and means are more efficient. It is then repeatedly suggested that experts will do things more quickly an efficiently if they are exempt from the democratic process, especially if they comprise an amalgamated team of scientific and managerial experts. There is some reason to this idea: already the ancient Roman Republic practiced it. A number of guarantees were instituted there to prevent the temporarily strong leader from becoming permanent, Julius Caesar, we remember, broke them and rendered the democracy into an empire. In modern times Churchill was the strongest leader ever, yet after the war he was defeated in elections. Despite the fact that there is reason in this idea, it is deadly. Only active democratic education can defeat it. Active democratic education includes training for coordination. This training is best achieved in practice, like swimming, so that the best democratic education is in the democratic movement, and it should begin from the start. The recognition of this should lead to the democratization of schools, and on all levels. Some experts, especially in science education, will scream blue murder. This is to be expected: it should be known that standing in the way of aspirants to power is part and parcel of the assignment of seeking democratic solutions. The solution to the urgent global crisis is no exception to this.

What can be briefly said of autonomy is too obvious or too obscure; it is not clear what it is, except that it is self-reliance of the sort that does not preclude cooperation.

What is needed most, then, are scientific literacy, of grass-root democracy and of individual autonomy. Putting these on top of the public agenda brings about a forceful synoptic view. One small item may illustrate this. Today a new social philosophy is afoot: communalism. Like many buzzwords, it is not clear what it is. Some people who speak in its name oppose individual autonomy; others only play it down. It is important to confront them all and ask them, is their communalism for autonomy or against it? Or is it indifferent to autonomy? We must know.

The task of putting global politics on the map, it seems obvious, requires mobilizing local politicians. They will not necessarily be thrilled with the idea, so they have to be won over or replaced in the political arena by democratic means. Yet it is very important to notice that cynicism is easily misplaced here: cynics will say that it is too idealistic to expect local power seekers to give in for the sake of global politics. This need not be so. After all, the same story occurred when nationalism evolved, when local feudal potentates gave way to central authority, and often voluntarily, understanding that it was also in their own interest to give in a little. World security is in everyone's interest. This is not such a difficult idea to comprehend.

Why then is it so difficult to mobilize people for this great cause? Evidently because no one wants to be the only volunteer for the cause that can be profitable only if it gains momentum. This is true of all mass movements, yet some of these did succeed. The analysis of their success may be crucial. The success need not happen at random: it can be engineered. For example, we can ask, why do people participate in harmful activities like the transfer of toxic waste from rich countries to poor ones? This conduct depends on the understanding an important and dangerous fact. If the persons involved in the act will desist others will take their place and have their cut in the profit. The situation will drastically alter were such conduct illegal. Why is it not? This must be investigated and dealt with.

To conclude, this discussion is on the trite side, as it should be if it is to summarize what everyone concerned with the future of humanity must agree upon, until someone comes up with a smashing revolutionary idea. Not having one, my aim is to offer a mere hint at of a sketch of a comprehensive view that may stand behind some future solutions to severe current problems. These problems present a tremendous intellectual and practical challenge to us all. The challenge is not new. After all, to meet this challenge a number of new departments have already been instituted in many universities in many countries. These departments are devoted mainly to ecology and to new global political affairs. It is the putting of all this together without exaggerating its force and while stressing the great need that may give the movement its push towards a grass-roots democratic-scientific movement.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Agassi, J., 1985. Technology: Philosophical and Social Aspects. Dordrecht: Kluwer

- 1990. "Global Responsibility", J. Applied Phil., 7, 217-221.

Popper, Karl R., 1945. The Open Society and Its Enemies.

-, 1961. Conjectures and Refutations, Chapters 4, 17 and 19.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage