Justifying Philosophy and Paideia in the Modern World
If Paideia means education in the classical sense, that is, education of the whole person, then authentically justifying such education in the modern world is extremely problematic. We are first drawn to practical defenses of a liberal education, that it is in itself of service and useful, both to society and to the individual. However, a practical defense of Paideia in the classical sense simply comes across as feeble and even a bit desperate (that is, if it escapes sounding pompous) and every savvy student knows it. Far better, it seems, to take courses aimed at general problem solving, or at honing critical thinking skills, or at developing socio-political sophistication, than to read Shakespeare and Plato.
A similar problem plagues the justification of the pursuit of philosophy itself, and this is where the fundamental motivations behind both Paideia and philosophy converge. What is in fact the purpose of philosophy? One basic function of philosophy appears to be a kind of service of clarification and justification. Yet this cannot be philosophy's only purpose, any more than the mere development of skills and professional acumen are the primary goals of a liberal education. Yet similar notions of service to the state are given as primary justifications for becoming educated, beyond simple material gain. Surely this does not justify even very much of what we put students through in humanities classes around the world. Why, then, philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom, and why, then, Paideia?
The answer, I think, is that the justification for both philosophy and Paideia has an ethical grounding, and can only really be articulated, if indeed it still can be, in virtue-based terms. Unfolding such an ethic would involve reexamining the intrinsic virtue of learning and the personal freedom and power that result from it. But what does this mean exactly? To improve the soul, to actualize human potential, to become better humans, or so we say. And indeed this is what we tell our students, and ourselves. And yet, speaking in this way has the distinct feel of whistling in the dark. Assessing Paideia in virtue-based terms rather than practical ones would involve bringing into view some picture of Human Being at its best, and holding this picture up as the goal of being educated. It is the idea that Paideia, like philosophy, does not make us better citizens or better professionals, but rather makes us better human beings. However, we lack the ethical language to authentically provide such a justification. Indeed, I submit that we really do not even believe any of these justifications. We say the words that would accompany a conception of human nature that can make itself better, more excellent in every sense, but the picture these words conjure up for us is cartoonish to the point of amounting not even to wishful thinking, but rather to non-belief. This puts us in the deeply ambiguous position of dedicating our lives as teachers and philosophers to something we do not really believe in, to passionately defending a picture of humanity that is in fact affectatious and embarrassing to all but the most intellectually naive. Let me try to explain why I think this is the case.
With the Protestant Reformation and its elevation of the primacy of individual experience and its limitation of the scope of speculative reasoning, there comes to the West a fundamental change in the way human nature is conceived, both in terms of how this nature manifests itself interpersonally in social and political contexts, and in terms of what it literally means to broach the issue of consciousness itself. It is a movement of the beginning point of reflection from an intersubjective dependence of meaning and the reasoning process to the isolated subject and its confrontation with individual experience. It is a change in western culture's orientation toward what is involved in correct and disciplined thinking, transforming the act of reasoning into, as Alasdair MacIntyre has written, something primarily calculative, capable of assessing "truths of fact and mathematical relations but no more." At the heart of this transformation lies a conception of humanity as fundamentally limited in terms of what its reason can potentially encompass, "corrupted," so to speak, by its own particularity and embodiment, and made essentially "depraved" by original sin.
In the various strains of philosophical thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this change does not necessarily take the form of overtly accepting or proclaiming a Lutheran doctrine of human depravity and original sin; Kant and Rousseau, for example, both resolutely deny that humanity is in any way fundamentally corrupt. However, it does show itself as permanently undermining the philosophical status of practical reason, thus undermining a critical aspect of humanity's ability to translate much of its experience into what can be called knowledge. It has been well argued elsewhere that this new conception of reason drastically curtailed moral philosophy's ability to justify what had for centuries been a basic set of moral injunctions.
For ancient and medieval philosophers, up until the Protestant Reformation, the conception of the human soul was an essentially classical tripartite faculty psychology consisting of a high level faculty of understanding and reason, which may be considered intellective; a low level faculty of appetition and motion, which may be considered sensitive; and a third, mid-range faculty in between which partakes of both of these, and which may be called deliberative, or practical reason. This faculty of practical reason was once seen to function as a guarantor of the proper interaction of the intellect and sensory experience, and thus of the world's accessibility to the mind. The difficulty that modern philosophy, particularly modern moral theory, has had accounting for the interaction of the intellect and subjective sensory experience is largely the result of this faculty dropping out of our picture of human nature. If it is true that the ultimate court of appeal for a justification of Paideia and philosophy is some conception of human virtue, then the effect of this new picture is the undermining of our very belief in such a justification.
Practical reason, which governs the appetitive soul and obeys the intellective, is, in classical thought, the seat of basic judgement, of language, of social life, of the "sensus communis," of the moral virtues. It is, in short, that faculty that allows us to act in the world and interact with other human beings. However, practical reason, as a kind of bridge between the intellective and appetitive souls, with it roots in community and nature, drops away with a post-Reformation conception of the individual as autonomous with regard to both nature and society. The result is a modern philosophical tradition that is not only plagued by subjectivism and skepticism, but divided against itself in the terms of pure reason on the one hand and natural, individual experience on the other.
Philosophical schools have thus inclined in two directions: one rational and the other empirical. For moral philosophy, the idea of practical reason, since it no longer retains the status it once had, falls either to pure reason (as it does in Kant), or to the emotive nature of human experience (as it does in Hume). The difficulties arising from this dichotomy range from the seeming incompatibility of reason and empirical intuition, as in the mind-body dualism of Descartes, to ingenious though often tortured attempts to show their interaction.
But the problem becomes most acute in attempts at moral reasoning, which prior to the Reformation was the province of the faculty of practical reason. Regarding on the one hand humanity in a state of nature, guided primarily by sensation, and on the other the dictates of moral reasoning, guided primarily by intellect, MacIntyre has described the project of ethics as "the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former to the latter." The Enlightenment project failed because without the classical confidence in the intercession of the practical reason, there was no good way to bridge the two faculties.
Of central importance to us here is that this subjectivization of philosophical reflection and its consequent re-conception of the nature of practical reason also has, by necessity, built into it the lowering of the status of language in thought so that language, as a philosophical instrument, becomes but a tool of logic and a bearer of the facts of perception. The analogical and metaphorical powers of language through which, in ancient and medieval thought, human beings were permitted access to principles thought to govern nature lose their significance. The centrality of the intersubjective world of the human community to the very nature of thought itself is largely lost. The effects of this lowering of the status of language-which is essentially a limitation of the reach of humanity's mental and spiritual power-are not restricted to the shift from virtue-based moral thinking to principle-based ethics; at the heart of this reduction lies a re-conception of the individual and its very relationship to the world, the question of Being itself, as well its relationship to other individuals. That this new conception of reason cannot, as MacIntyre says, comprehend essences or transitions from potentiality to act is rooted in the idea that human beings are limited in a fundamental way, and this is a limitation of what language-the literal effluence of a human being's life as a social creature-can comprehend.
Since what distinguishes modern thought as modern is in many ways just this perception of the individual as limited in its capacity to grasp the essence of other minds or of nature-its alienation from its surroundings-it is difficult for us to think about language and its place in philosophy without feeling some self-assurance that we have happily left behind a time when it was naively thought that words were the key to the ultimate nature of the world and that philosophic reflection could transform the soul. However, the fact that we have had so much difficulty justifying, even defining, moral behavior in the modern world is our clue to how much we have lost that is essential to fulfilling the injunctions of our own intellectual history, and this should temper our self-assurance.
We can broadly repaint, in the form of an argument, a kind of original picture of philosophy prior to the Reformation. With this picture we can better position ourselves to see how the influence of Lutheran and Calvinist theology on the philosophy of the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries-namely the subjectivization of philosophy through the secular appropriation of the doctrine of depravity-is rooted in the re-conception and consequent curtailment of the power of language, its role in philosophical thought, and its central place in the assessment of the purpose of philosophy and Paideia in general. It should be noted that this curtailment of the power of language is not an overt part of Reformation thought, but rather is a consequence of the conception of humanity as depraved. It is this conception that is appropriated by the modern world and utilized as a basic assumption in philosophical thought. What Luther claimed as being beyond the grasp of mortal man because of original sin is in fact part of an older conception of the role of language in humanity's own moral self-justification.
First, in pre-Reformation philosophy, morality is the basis for philosophy in general in that it entails a basic conception of the essential character and capacity of humanity that determines the character of the various disciplines of philosophy, metaphysical, epistemological and political. Prior to the Reformation, the ethical conception of humanity was essentially teleological, that is, the individual possessed a "rational soul" defined by certain faculties whose potentials, when actualized, could bring it to a best state. As the soul of the human being possessed the likeness or essence of the formal principles of nature (at least potentially), the realization of the possibility of the development and fulfillment of that soul through dialectic, or rational discourse, was in fact the purpose of philosophy. The development and actualization of the good in human beings was concomitant with the rational apprehension of the good (either immanent or transcendent) as a formal operating principle in nature.
It follows from this that the primary objective of philosophy, its purpose, if you will, is the justification of a certain conception of humanity, or the laying out of how humanity might come to be, in its institutions and in the context of nature, right, complete, balanced, just. Put another way, if we say that the moral conception of humanity is the basis for all philosophizing because it entails a fundamental conception of humanity that binds together all other disciplines of thought, then it follows that pre-Reformation philosophy is essentially the justification of humanity in every way. The word "justification" is a re-expression of the fundamental relationship of morality to the rest of philosophy. It is broader than what might be called axiology, in that it necessarily invokes a description of humanity against the backdrop of the natural world, what its role is in that world insofar as nature is distinct from its own productions, and how its coming to understand the world is a fulfillment of his own nature. Justification, then, entails not only moral reasoning, but carries the dynamics of the conception of humanity at the heart of moral reasoning to the systematic investigation of the nature of first principles, the problems of knowledge and education, and political theory.
Now language plays a uniquely fundamental role in the ancient and medieval understanding of the relationship between humanity and the cosmos. The teleologically conceived rational soul of pre-Reformation thought is a reflection of the principles of creation insofar as it possesses, in its own degree, the power of the creative word. What allows humanity to achieve its own good by seeking out the good in nature is in fact the very thing that both joins humanity and nature together and yet makes them distinct: language and the ability to wield it. It is in this that the real correspondence between mind and Being begins and the purpose and promise of philosophy arises. The possibility of a coherent justification of a teleological conception of humanity is warranted or insured by humanity's possession of the word, its access to the logoi, through which Being is made possible and in which the meaning and ideality of things is revealed. In unlocking the secrets of language humanity unlocks the secrets of its soul and the world. Gadamer's enigmatic comment in Philosophical Hermeneutics about the priority of language to both mind and thing is helpful here, albeit in an ancient context:
The correspondence that is prior to both the human mind and the manifestation of that order in particular things, is the order revealed in the fundamental structure of language to which human beings have access, and this is prior also to the particular arbitrary conventions of a given language. Human speech conventionally expresses this order, and it is within this expression that humanity may discover the ideality of Being. To the ancient and medieval mind, the guarantee that humanity could justify itself through dialectic was the ontological commitment that arose out of the mere existence of language: the unquestioned (and thus seldom expressed) assumption that language structure functions as a natural ordering principle, like a metaphysical grammar. Its absolute priority, together with humanity's possession of its own speech, stand as the ground of the possibility of right thinking.
Moreover, it is out of the structure of language as the ground for the possibility of a correspondence between intellect and things that the whole notion of virtue arises in ancient and medieval thought: right action is taken as movement toward a form or ideal that acts as a direction for action. Yet this ideal is only a true ideal if it has been derived or intuited through some medium whose essential structure reflects the essential structure of the world. Virtue as a theory of formal excellence, like the hylomorphism that pervades pre-Reformation thought, is a result of the way in which the structure of language separates formal meanings from particular instances (e.g., categories, definitions, hypotheses, universals, even names). There is, in other words, a necessary ideality in language, and if this essential feature of language is accepted as a reflection of an absolutely prior correspondence of mind and world, whatever particular shape the ethical system takes, there is at its root a conception of humanity as a high level participant in a "linguistic ontology" that is prior both to human beings and the world they live in. Humanity becomes virtuous by its willful participation in that logos, a task its speech allows it, just as its speech, as a reflection of that logos, makes its success a possibility. Humanity thus sees itself, its culture, its history, its community as an interdependent whole, for these comprise the world of language out of which its own being arises. It is in this sense that the grounds for the possibility of a coherent justification of a teleological conception of humanity in pre-Reformation thought is a conception of humanity as language.
The conclusion we can draw from all of this is that philosophy prior to the Reformation, indeed its very purpose, is rooted in a conception of humanity that is inseparable from a belief in the pre-eminence of language, in short that philosophy and Paideia is the justification of humanity as language. This is just the conception that the Reformation changes, and in so doing it undermines our own belief in the non-practical justification of education itself.