Philosophizing in senior year?

I met an interesting professor in Aix earlier this spring, Joëlle Zask, who has worked on Dewey and early 20th century culture theory (she suggested the Sapir article I mentioned earlier this spring). Here I want to translate a short interview she did in 2007 with a monthly culture magazine in Marseille called Zibeline. Philosophy, as foreign readers may or may not know, is taught to all French high school (lycée) seniors, has a long political history in French education, and periodically causes controversy. Some of these stakes are apparent here.

Philosophizing in senior year???

1) The 2003 “official instructions” for the philosophy teaching program in senior year say: “Philosophy teaching in senior year… contributes to forming autonomous minds, warned of reality’s complexities and capable of putting to work a critical consciousness of the contemporary world.” What do you think of this?

These formulations pose two major problems.

First, it strikes me as shocking that a philosophy textbook should begin with a series of “official instructions.” An instruction, in the sense of a directive, is entirely contrary to the “autonomous minds” that we are told to “form.” Are we told to “force our students to be free”? Moreover, in the context of schools, “instruction” has a second dimension: we still talk about “public, obligatory, civic instruction” [in connection with public education]. But instructing is not educating. Instructing basically means shaping someone’s mind to fit the competences that the institution judges socially useful. Educating on the other hand means communicating a potential to a mind which, one day, will allow it to help define what is or isn’t valuable for its society. Yet according to the “official” declarations, we’re still on the model of instructing, in both senses of the term.

Second, the goal proclaimed for high school philosophy teaching is completely exorbitant. I know that many people subscribe to it. But we should be astonished by the excessive disproportion between the end and the means: they have groups of thirty pupils, a very limited range of practical exercises, lecture courses, etc. And above all, it’s impossible for philosophy teachers to “form autonomous and critical minds” if the pupils haven’t been invited to be autonomous or critical since the day they arrived in the schoolhouse. Not to mention that the art of thinking isn’t reserved for philosophy. Would one be exempted from “thinking for oneself” in history, literature or physics? It must be said that the goal [of our philosophy teaching] is, in our present circumstances, pretty disconnected from these realities; and we might therefore give up on grading students’ homework against an ideal that very few people can claim to have attained. We could, at least for starters, propose simpler exercises that would be better adapted to our students’ competences (the ones “formed” by our instruction) and to our own. At the university we do all this readily enough.

2) What should be at stake in philosophy teaching? What should be its goals?

Well, I don’t want to say that there’s nothing special to expect from philosophy teaching. To my eyes, philosophy is in essence a critique of our values and an effort to demonstrate, by one method or another, the legitimacy or pertinence of the values we hold. The philosophers who we’ve read and reread over the centuries have all undertaken an examination of the values of their times. That said, these philosophers don’t play the moral purity card [la carte de bonne conscience]. They direct their critical examination at themselves, working with their own keen perceptions of the possibilities and blockages of their epoch. Today, as in the past, many people, including our official instructors, defend some values without examination and try to impose them on others. Wondering where our values come from, going over them with a fine-toothed comb and sorting them out, creating new ones, scrutinizing the motives for our adherence to them and the mechanisms that inculcate them — that’s what a reading of the philosophers can invite us to do. And that’s a truly priceless service.

Like Zask, I’ve been struck by the official rhetoric in France about teaching people to have free and critical minds, which always seems to entail, as Zask points out, the contradictory project of “making” people free, and to presuppose the unlikely premise that educational institutions know what freedom or criticality are. But I’m most interested, here, in the part of the interview that proposes a definition of what’s essential about philosophy: a critique of values.

It’s not an easy exercise, at present, to come up with a well-defined area of inquiry that’s essentially philosophical. Many areas of inquiry that formerly “belonged” to philosophy — physics, society, politics, the nature of “man” or of language, the structure of thinking — have over time (and not without struggle) developed autonomous disciplines of their own, which contest and quite often dominate the intellectual terrain formerly occupied by philosophers. There are plenty of philosophers who still write about all this stuff, of course, but these objects are no longer exclusively philosophical, and as André Pessel has put it, “if this link with constituted knowledges [in other domains] disappears, philosophy sees its field extraordinarily limited and reduced to an exclusive study of subjectivity.”

Without going into great detail about competing conceptions of philosophy (see some American examples), it seems to me that some of the more obvious options aren’t terribly thrilling. Consider some of the most well-known: there’s philosophy as the conceptual foundation of all the other sciences, or (in an alternative version) philosophy as the conceptual handmaiden of the sciences (ie, the philosophers show up to help scientists “clarify” their theoretical ideas); there’s philosophy as a specialized conceptual inquiry into fairly narrow but autonomously philosophical domains; there’s philosophy as the history of ideas; in a more instrumental version, there’s philosophy as a place for building “skills” in critical thinking (as in the lycées).

It seems to me that there’s something to be said for most of these fairly academic projects, though I’m especially skeptical of the first one. But most of them (leaving aside the first and last) don’t afford a particularly exciting public role to the field. Of course, in France we also see more politicized conceptions of philosophy: philosophy as (in effect) the training ground for public intellectuals (always a small group), philosophy as “class struggle at the level of ideas” (via Althusser), philosophy as an emancipatory project (often cited at Paris-8). Here again, however, the latter two are extremely marginal and the first, ultimately, is fairly elitist.

Zask’s proposal for philosophy as a critique of values, in this light, has the advantage of being potentially open to all, sociopolitically interesting, and not necessarily a buttress of the status quo — without, however, necessarily becoming self-marginalizing (as so much marxist philosophy tends to). As an ethnographer of philosophers, obviously my relationship to philosophy is a bit strange, but let me just say that while I’m ambivalent about some of the field’s more grandiose claims, the idea of a field that does critique of values seems pretty compelling. A lot of anthropologists want to do work like this, but disciplinary norms of empiricism and relativism tend to prevent us from producing very well-theorized normative work.

3 thoughts on “Philosophizing in senior year?

  1. I sincerely hope that intelligent academic and non-academic people are engaging in a critique of values. But, personally, I object to being forced to heavily subsidize normative work.

    (In truth, I think the distinction between positive and normative, objective and subjective, is problematic. But those words suffice for giving a sense of what scholarship I feel the state can justify subsidizing.)

  2. I’m not sure that “subjective” and “normative” really go together in your provisional distinctions — aren’t norms inherently collective? Anyway, leaving that aside, of course there are questions about what kinds of academic work are worth public money. However, my guess is that the vast majority of (American) humanities funding comes from individual universities who employ humanists, in part, to do research – there aren’t a lot of research costs in philosophy. So if you wanted to push your point further, you’d have to say if you are in favor of universities firing their philosophers, if you support indirect (not direct) state subsidies to philosophy departments, how you’d distinguish between “heavy” subsidies and “light” subsidies (these are not well-funded fields in the first place), and so on.

    It comes to mind too that there’s a sort of paradox in your view — in essence, your *norm* is that non-normative research is more publicly worthwhile. Isn’t it a bit strange to primarily value research which makes no claims about value? It seems like a way to avoid having the prior values of the funding agents ever be put in question by what they fund — which, I suppose, is probably completely normal…

  3. I guess one problem is that I trust chemists to be the wisest about chemistry, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) economists to be the wisest about economics, but I don’t trust that philosophers are the wisest about values.

    Though I acknowledge that it is difficult to make a clean distinction, I strongly favor positive research with normative implications. For example, I’d love to find out whether young people who are taught _____ are more reflective, happier, wealthier, less criminal, more political, etc.
    Or, for another example, I hope people are researching how funding decisions are made.

Comments are closed.