Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Philosophic Idealism, or Jacob's Ladder

This is part three of this series

Previous Post in this series
1. Educational Philosophy
2. Before We Begin

Philosophic Idealism; Jacob's Ladder

I'm not really satisfied with this post yet and it will be edited as time goes by.

It needs to be understood that when we speak of Philosophic Idealism we are speaking of a very broad collection of thinkers. They encompass Theist, atheist, Agnostic, Monist, Dualist and Existentialist from many cultures and time periods.

In order to be a Philosophical Idealist you must only believe one thing. That what is true descends from the general to the specific and is not built up from the specific to the general. Idealist ground reality in something thought to be higher, nobler, more rational or in some way more real than what we immediately experience.

At least in a metaphorical sense, most Idealist believe that truth is spelled with a capital "T" and comes from Heaven, that it is discovered or revealed not invented. Just as Jacob saw a ladder stretching to Heaven and heard God making promises to him from the top of the ladder; Idealist believe that by following their philosophic ladder they can see, find or discover a higher truth. If you think that this sounds strange to you then you probably should not consider yourself an Idealist. (Though you might be surprised if you really thought about it.)

Perhaps the most well known of the Philosophic Idealist is one of the earliest; Plato. While there were philosophers in Asia that wrote about similar ideas at the same time as Plato, or even earlier, nobody put it all together like he did. Plato is one of the most important people of all time. You really cannot over estimate his influence on civilization. To paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead, you have Plato and everyone else is a footnote (1).

So what is it that makes Plato so important? The answer is, at least as far as we are concerned, the theory of forms. Perhaps the clearest illustration of what Plato means is through the well known cave allegory that is found in book 7 of the Republic. The picture of prisoners in a cave naming shadows and believing them to be real things because they have never seen anything else is a powerful one. We can imagine the predicament they are in and understand their misconception. We can also see how it would enlighten them if they were able to turn around and see the actual thing that cast the shadows.

Plato is saying that what we see is often times a distorted picture or shadow of reality. We should look for the true "Form" rather than simply name shadows.

When we make an argument from natural law, or a universal principle we are thinking and reasoning like Plato. We should look for the truth behind the everyday occurrence. This does not necessarily imply an appeal to any kind of deity (Though others did and have used Plato to make such an appeal as Plato himself did.)

Besides the Theory of Forms, Plato has exerted tremendous influence upon education through his use of what has become known as the "Socratic Method." Socrates was Plato's mentor and is the main character in much of Plato's work. Socrates was a teacher who stood in the market and discussed issues of philosophy with his pupils. He developed an inductive, question and answer pedagogy that has continued to influence education to this day. Jesus used this method when dealing with both His disciples and opponents and I believe you can see its influence in the works John Dewey and Maria Montesori as well as the psychology of Henry James and in classrooms in many places today.

The Socratic method uses a series of leading questions to enable students to discover a truth or idea that the teacher is trying to convey.

Here is an example of Platonic thought using a Soratic method as it might appear in a classroom.

Teacher: Do you know what gravity is?
Student: Yes, I do
Teacher: Tell me, what do you know about it?
Student: Gravity is a force in the Universe. It is the law of attraction that holds things together.
Teacher: Is it everywhere?
Student: Yes, it is everywhere.
Teacher: And does it affect all things?
Student: Yes, it affects all things
Teacher: So you would call gravity a universal or absolute law of the universe?
Student: Yes, I suppose you could say that.
Teacher: So there is at least one law that applies to everyone in the universe. Are there others you can name?
Student: Yes, there are several, the speed of light, entropy, perhaps chemical bonds and the way that elements are organized to name some. There may be more.
Teacher: If there are universal physical laws that govern the universe might there not also be some universal laws that govern our behavior?

At this point the true object of the lesson has become obvious. The student is going to have to either show that moral laws are in some fundamental way unlike physical laws or to find out how a universal moral or behavioral law would work. There doesn't have to even be a cut and dried answer.

This is a powerful teaching tool. These type of arguments and this pedagogy can really help students to clarify issues and come to grips with difficult issues. But, it is first and foremost a type of philosophy.

Next: Philosophic Realism or the Aristotelian tower of Babel

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