Philosophy and Liberal Learning

Murray Miles. Queen’s Quarterly. Volume 104, Issue 1. Spring 1997.

The subject of this essay is philosophy, its place in the university, and the role of philosophy and university studies within what the late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott has called “the conversation of mankind.” But we are not going to begin, as it may seem we should, with a definition of “philosophy.” The immediate task is rather to say something about the issues with which philosophers concern themselves and to discuss certain misconceptions which are very widespread and which most of those who embark on a study of philosophy will either share at the outset or very soon encounter. In saying what philosophy is not we shall have entered into the discussion of what philosophy is, but only in a very preliminary and indirect way. Nevertheless, this will suffice for our present purpose, which is to offer a reflection upon the goals of university education.

First, as to issues: there is a very wide range of problems that may properly be termed “philosophical.” It may be useful, therefore, to introduce a distinction between those issues which are largely contemporary, like abortion or feminism, for example, and those which are traditional. Some of the traditional ones are outmoded and no longer much discussed. For example, the old “argument from design” which deists employed to infer from the striking signs of order and adaptation in the world around us the existence of a wise and benevolent creator, though it exercised a philosopher of Hume’s stature greatly, would no longer be given the time of day by an intelligent layman even casually familiar with the modern theory of evolution. Philosophers concur and are silent on the subject. But some traditional issues continue to crop up among the contemporary ones—for example, civil disobedience and the morality of warfare. The former has been around at least since Plato’s Crito. But despite its longevity, it is not a perennial issue of philosophy in this sense: it is not the sort of issue that arises out of the universal human condition and which every reflective human being must face at some point in life, sooner or later. There are a few issues of this kind which may be regarded as central to philosophy proper—as opposed, say, to political philosophy or some other branch of the discipline. Such are, for example: the existence of God; death and life after death; human freedom; the good life for man. We turn now to a consideration of some very widely shared misconceptions about philosophy.

What is common to them can be formulated in some such way as this: Different people give, always have given, and probably will always give different and often incompatible answers to the perennial questions of philosophy. For the answers to such questions are speculative, going well beyond ascertainable matters of fact. Except for the self-contradictory among them, they cannot be shown to be false, and their denials true, by any reliable means whatever. From here it is possible to strike out in at least two directions. One is scepticism: Though certain philosophical views or theories may be true, none can be adequately shown to be so. If what we seek from philosophy is knowledge of something more than our own irremediable ignorance concerning philosophical subjects, philosophers might as well close up shop. The other is historical or cultural relativism: Some, perhaps even all, of those philosophical outlooks which are internally consistent are, though mutually incompatible, nevertheless true and demonstrable, though only in a sense that is relative to the factors which shape the dominant standards of truth and demonstration in some specific cultural domain, at some particular time and place. If what we seek from philosophy are theories that decide issues once and for all, one way or the other, we again expect too much. Philosophy, however, retains its significance as one of a variety of forms of (individual or group) expression and as a means of understanding the cultural specificity of the time and place of an individual’s or a people’s insertion in history.

These misconceptions about philosophy would presumably not be so perennially hardy were they not based, as they are, on a reasonable assumption: that philosophical inquiry is by nature interminable. Of course, it is an obvious mistake to argue: “Some people don’t or won’t accept that, therefore it isn’t or can’t be proved.” Whether something has been proved or not depends upon its being true and satisfying appropriate standards of evidence. Whether or not anyone else in fact believes it, it may still be the sort of thing everyone ought to believe and would believe if completely rational—as no one is. There are, after all, and probably always will be, many people so unreasonable as to doubt things that have been demonstrated in a manner that satisfies even the most scrupulous specialist. Thus although there are still today creationists who deny the truth of evolutionary theory, no scientist doubts that there are right and wrong answers to questions about the history of the earth and the origins of animal species; or that the answers to these questions have in fact been discovered, at least in part; or that these discoveries have been adequately proved, so as to be both known and known to be known with that degree of certainty that befits the object in question.

Even granting this much, however, the case of philosophy would appear to be different. In the absence of empirical or theoretical considerations capable of deciding clearly between competing theories, there is no prospect of settling philosophical issues even in that manner in which certain scientific questions may be brought by degrees nearer the point at which they are tentatively regarded as settled by the members of the scientific community. Short of this, however, there may be considerations of both kinds that allow us to choose rationally between conflicting philosophical viewpoints and to argue that one has much more to recommend it to the rational inquirer than another. Though this sifting and weighing of evidence and arguments may claim to show it to be much more reasonable to affirm than deny a certain proposition, given what we agree upon as known or at least as very highly probable, this still falls far short of the type of support that scientifically testable hypotheses can sometimes claim. And this in itself ensures such conclusions will not go uncontested long, or become the object of a very wide consensus. Besides, not all parties agree on what sorts of considerations have the weight of reason on their side; nor therefore on what makes certain conclusions more reasonable than others; nor, for that matter, that we ought to embrace only those conclusions which reason endorses. In other words, the debate concerning the perennial issues of philosophy is interminable in a rather special sense which makes scepticism and relativism tempting in their regard, even for those who reject the cruder, more encompassing forms of both. This is true of the very issue under discussion at present, what philosophy is. As there have been in the past and still are today philosophical theists and atheists, so there have been and are both relativists and anti-relativists, sceptics and anti-sceptics. Though we branded both “misconceptions” about philosophy, it must be owned that certain forms of scepticism and relativism are anything but crude and very difficult if not impossible to refute.

The reason why scepticism and relativism are nevertheless misconceptions, even in their more sophisticated forms, is that they misconstrue the peculiar interminability of philosophy. Recognizing rightly that in philosophy teaching or learning does not, as in most other disciplines, include as a component any body of universally accepted doctrine, they infer from this that philosophy therefore fails in the most important aim of human knowledge. In the second part of this paper we shall propose something quite different from this as the aim of philosophy and university studies generally. However, it is worth noting at this point that other branches of university studies, including science, are not so vastly different from philosophy as is sometimes supposed. And we must now try to say wherein some of the more salient similarities and differences consist.

The first has been alluded to already. The modern natural and social sciences begin from an established or agreed upon body of doctrine and data, proceeding toward a margin at which the experimental and observational data together with theoretical considerations simply fall silent and are no longer able to answer the questions the scientist wishes to put. These are the frontiers at which properly scientific research ends and the conversation of the scientists with one another—and with certain philosophers—begins. Philosophy, on the other hand, actually starts at the margins. That is, the issues which are central to it are, from the standpoint of most other knowledge, “marginal.” Hence learning about philosophy is unlike learning the principles of accounting, the laws of classical physics, or the theorems of geometry or calculus in this important respect: after some basic concepts have been learned and some basic positions grasped, the whole is dialogue. Whereas in other forms of inquiry, research proper ends at the point at which the conversation begins, in philosophy only the routine preliminaries come before the margins; philosophical inquiry is conversation throughout. A second important difference is this. The conversation of philosophy is not just a dialogue in the present but also with the past. Science in its remoter theoretical reaches is undoubtedly a conversation involving viewpoints represented in the present, but not with the past. In the conversation of science the voice of Newton, for example, belongs to that generally accepted framework of presuppositions subscribed to by all parties to the discussion.

Newton is not an interlocutor in the same sense as the living participants in the conversation. So that even if the conversation of science (as opposed to empirical scientific research) were just as interminable as that of philosophy, it would still be unhistorical in a way in which the conversation of philosophy is not. Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant are not a jot less relevant to the contemporary debate concerning the perennial issues of philosophy than was each to the philosophical discussions of his own day. And at least some of them are usually relevant to the less central issues, traditional and contemporary, which philosophers discuss within the sub-disciplines of their field. Only the decay into which historical philosophical scholarship can sometimes fall can obscure this fact, turning the history of philosophy into a pantheon or a shooting gallery. A further difference, the last to be considered here, is found in the great range of voices participating in the conversation of philosophy at any given time. In other domains of knowledge much more is taken for granted by the parties to the conversation, both in terms of shared presuppositions and in respect of the ground rules by which the debate is to be conducted. But in the conversation that is philosophy there is not even agreement on what standards a theory or argument ought to satisfy in order to be worthy of acceptance. The range of opinion extends from those who believe that philosophical positions ought ideally to satisfy the same rigorous standards as scientific theories, at the one extreme, to those, at the other, who hold that the choice between competing philosophical doctrines is one that cannot be made in any rational manner at all. Which view we ought to embrace is considered by some of the latter to be a matter of the traditions we have been brought up in and feel allegiance to; for others, it is a matter of consciously making a (blind) commitment; while the sceptics among them hold that we ought to suspend judgement indefinitely.

All of these are significant voices in the conversation of philosophy, though some of them would scarcely be given a hearing in any other branch of learning. Although they may find themselves in the peculiar situation of being unable to plead their cause by rational argument without thereby abandoning their position, neither can they be defeated by rational argument without begging the question. Between these extreme positions we find a variety of attempts to articulate standards of coherence, rigour, completeness, etc. which ought to govern rational choice and help us to distinguish good from bad philosophical thinking. So apart from the fact that there is no uncontested doctrine to teach or learn, and that the conversation is not confined to the present, the very ground rules of the discussion are themselves the subject of vigorous debate within philosophy. And this distinguishes it from other domains of inquiry and accounts for its peculiar interminability. WE come next to the relationship of philosophy to liberal learning. Like the talk of “the conversation of mankind,” introduced earlier, “liberal learning” is a phrase of Michael Oakeshott. It is more felicitous than the familiar jargon which includes designations like “liberal arts” and “liberal studies.” In the same vein, we note the valuable service rendered by Oakeshott in naturalizing the very foreign idea of the nineteenth-century German poet Holderlin that mankind is a conversation. To this Oakeshott adds a subtle differentiation of the voices in this conversation, of which the voice of practical affairs, the voice of science, and the voice of poetry are the chief ones. For Oakeshott, “painting, sculpting, acting, dancing, singing, literary and musical composition” are just “different kinds of poetic activity.” “Poetry,” as he uses the term, is closer to the original Greek sense of poesis than its now customary sense (roughly: verse-making). To each voice belongs its own proper “universe of discourse,” and all these universes are found cheek by jowl in the great conversation of mankind. What is debatable in Oakeshott’s account of the matter is the particular conception of conversation he propounds and the role he assigns philosophy in it. On the nature of the conversation, Oakeshott has this to say: In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no “truth” to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend on all speaking the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing.

Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument … In conversation “facts” appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; “certainties” are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other “certainties” or with doubt, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between notions normally remote from one another. Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions. Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part. There is no symposiarch or arbiter; not even a doorkeeper to examine credentials. Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation. And voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy. Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering. Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another. This … is the appropriate image of human intercourse—appropriate because it recognizes the qualities, the diversities, and the proper relationships of human utterances. As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries.

It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each one of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian. Indeed, it seems not improbable that it was the engagement in this conversation (where talk is without a conclusion) that gave us our present appearance, man being descended from a race of apes who sat in talk so long and so late that they wore out their tails. Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance. In this there seems to be much more to admire than disagree with, at least until we take the full measure of the sceptical or relativistic consequences that seem to flow from it. (Oakeshott himself acknowledges that the “image of human activity and intercourse as a conversation will, perhaps, appear both frivolous and unduly sceptical.” The other thing that gives pause is Oakeshott’s estimate of the role of philosophy in the conversation of mankind. “Philosophy,” he writes, is “the impulse to study the quality and style of each voice, and to reflect upon the relationship of one voice to another … it must be counted a parasitic activity; it springs from the conversation, because this is what the philosopher reflects upon, but it makes no specific contribution to it.” This surely cannot be the whole story. It may do some measure of justice to political philosophy, to the philosophy of science, or to aesthetics, understood as meta-disciplines parasitic upon politics, science, and art; but this conception of philosophy as a parasite hardly squares with the idea of philosophy and its perennial concerns set out at the beginning of this essay.

There is no need to quibble over this point, however, for it seems obvious that philosophy is parasitic upon itself, among other things, and that to be parasitic on itself it must be a voice like the others. After all, the question “what is philosophy?” is no less central to the concerns of philosophers than “what is poetry?” or “what is science?” The reason for this is obviously that philosophy is itself a voice in the conversation on which it is at times parasitic. There is even less need to quibble over the detail of Oakeshott’s characterization of the conversation itself, given what has been said already about scepticism and relativism. For Oakeshott’s is a singularly illuminating way of thinking about our relationship to each other and to our cultural traditions. Whatever its deficiencies in detail, it is no less illuminating a way in which to think about the purpose and nature of university education, as we have set out to do. There is one further preliminary before we consider the goal of liberal learning and the role of philosophy within it. As the term “liberal learning” is used here, it covers everything studied in our arts, science, and social science faculties , though perhaps not in the professional schools. Nevertheless, those trained in the professional schools are, as a matter of university policy, also educated elsewhere in the university, and their teachers are generally men and women who have been educated rather than merely trained, so there is no need to introduce a sharp division between those faculties mentioned first and these later accretions to the traditional academy. “Liberal learning” and “university education” can, for our purposes, be treated as equivalent.

The goal of liberal learning can be described in this way. The individuals entering university have already acquired a certain amount of knowledge along with some basic skills. They are to be transformed by university studies into participants in a conversation. This will require further information- and skills-acquisition. But that is only a means. Becoming a participant in the conversation of mankind is the intrinsically valuable goal, and not just an instrumental value, of university studies. Of course, it has instrumental value too. Needless to say, society requires something other than scholars; and scholars, in any case, do not seek only to produce other scholars through their teaching. Society requires managers, teachers, and bureaucrats, for example; and the university will continue to train and perhaps (though this seems less certain) educate them. But the needs of society will be best met if graduates of centres of liberal learning are, in their own way, participants in a conversation. This need not mean engaging in the public conversation sustained by institutions created for the purpose, of which the university is perhaps the most important. This only a few will do. But those who do not ought at least to be capable of understanding certain of the universes of discourse and of carrying on within and amongst themselves their own dialogue with their political, social, scientific, religious, artistic, and philosophical heritage. As Oakeshott aptly says, the conversation “goes on in public and within each of ourselves” (emphasis added). Without this the needs of society may be met without meeting those of civilization. When this is so, we lose sight of one of the main raisons d’etre of civil association, one that is to the others (the enjoyment of security and prosperity, for example) roughly as fulfilment is to satiety. What, finally, of the role of philosophy in university studies? A participant in any conversation must not only have something to say and know how to speak; he must also hear others’ voices and know how to listen. In narrowly academic terms, he must understand the “idiom” (as Oakeshott calls it) of his own discipline and its conversation. But to participate in the larger conversation of which that conversation is a part he must also understand other idioms. And unless he also understands the nature of the larger conversation in which all are engaged, he is apt to break in at times in a manner that is wholly inappropriate. Since it is philosophy that distinguishes the voices and reflects upon the conversation itself and its rules, the participant will require some knowledge of philosophy, even if he has no intention of speaking in the idiom peculiar to philosophy. Nevertheless, some “tincture of philosophy” (Hume) will be, as it always has been, the mark of an educated man. Those without it will be liable to receive some such epithet as the Greeks applied to their craftsmen: a “mere mechanic” (banausos).

This is, of course, not the only way of looking at university studies and the role of philosophy in liberal learning. Its articulation is no more than a contribution to the conversation, perpetually renewed within the university, about its purpose or mission. Like the conversation of philosophy, the conversation regarding liberal learning is not just a conversation in the present. Even a participant whose views are not widely shared in today’s academy may therefore give voice to those traditions of higher learning most worthy of preservation. Oakeshott is such a participant, even though the traditions that speak through him undergo a certain distortion in the process. That we are the inheritors of a conversation as opposed to “an inquiry about ourselves and our world” would seem to be mistaken. There is no need to posit a relationship of exclusion between conversation, on the one hand, and, on the other, an inquiry in which what is sought is truth and that kind of proof which is appropriate to the subject matter. To treat the latter as “passages,” and “not the most captivating of passages” at that, seems arbitrary. To admit them only grudgingly is hardly better than excluding them from the conversation altogether. Some conversations may indeed be as Oakeshott describes his preferred passages; but “conversation” is also an apt designation for any inquiry which is in principle interminable. For while it is obvious that if there is no truth to be found, the search after truth must be interminable, the converse, as we have seen, is not true: interminability strictly entails neither that there is no truth to be found, nor that (though there may be such truth) we are incapable of finding it, but only that, even having discovered such truth as we can, we must remain always unable to be certain that we have discovered it and so to “close the book” and cut short debate. This is an apt description of the search for philosophical truth; and it applies, to a greater or lesser extent, to all the disciplines pursued within the university.

When we today listen to the voice that ,speaks through Oakeshott s reflections, it begins to appear that the university is in danger of straying from its purpose, failing its students, and breaking faith with its own traditions. While teaching and research remain central and indissolubly united, there is mounting pressure to reduce university teaching to the transfer of information and skills, and to limit those opportunities for study, thought, and expression without which university teachers become incapable of fulfilling their traditional role in the intellectual lives of civilized nations. Those who do not themselves participate in the conversation cannot empower others to do so. At the same time as these pressures make themselves felt from above, the wave of political correctness currently sweeping the rank and file of the teaching profession threatens to compromise from below the universities’ commitment to intellectual excellence. Of course, that the conversation of mankind will cease entirely is not to be feared. It is interminable in a further sense. But that it may some day be conducted only among very few, and outside the universities, as it was in the not so distant past when the theological faculty controlled university teaching, seems an ever greater probability as the university is co-opted for other ends, remote from those Oakeshott suggests are the goals of liberal learning.