Why we think and how we can do it better

Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thoma...

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We think to determine three things: whether something is true, whether something should be done, and whether something commands our appreciation. In other words, we think to know truth, goodness, and beauty.

In each case, a judgment is made. A judgment is embodied in a decision and expressed in a proposition.

When we know the truth, we don’t need to think about it so much as to enjoy it. When we know what is good, we need to act, which will arouse a thousand more questions, few of which will reach the conscious mind. When we know what is beautiful, we need to adore.

Thinking begins when we feel a contradiction. This is because thinking, as we generally experience it, is the quest for harmony, that is, a mind without contradictions. Thus Socrates: “Great is the power of contradiction.” It makes us think.

How then does The Lost Tools of Writing teach thinking? Mainly by pushing the responsibility for making decisions back to the students. Every essay involves making a decision – whether so and so should have done such and such, whether X should do Y, etc.

But if you want to undercut thinking in a hurry, give someone a responsibility without the tools to fulfill it. In my view, this is the cause of over 95% of students’ laziness. Therefore, LTW does not drop the task on the student, telling him to bear a burden that his teachers won’t bother carrying, and then walk away. It provides the tools to make decisions.

First, it provides the topics of invention. These are the categories of thought, without which one cannot possibly think about any issue adequately. It provides practice using these categories (topics) in real world issues, but not issues that concern them directly. They have not yet learned how to think based on principles, so I don’t want them getting emotionally involved in issues they cannot understand yet.

Because thinking takes practice.

It also takes order, and that’s what the canon of arrangement teaches. I’m not sure people generally appreciate how important order is to sound thinking. After all, the object of thought is a harmonious solution to a question, and the only way we can know if our solutions are harmonious (i.e. lacking contradictions) is if we see the parts in relation to each other.

Thought also requires judgment or assessment. The thinker needs to know if the form of his thought is sound, if the proportions and emphases match the reality about which he is thinking, if the more important parts are given their due emphasis.

This tends not to come under the Progressive reduction of thought to “critical thinking” but it is an essential element of clear and honest thinking.

In the canon of Elocution, LTW teachers yet another mode of thinking: the quest for the fitting expression, which requires a subtlety of judgment that cannot be gainsaid.

Here’s the thing: we can only appreciate what we can perceive. What we perceive depends on two things: the thing we are perceiving and the eyes with which we perceive it.

Now by “the eyes with which we perceive it” I do not mean only the eyes of the body, but also what Shakespeare called “the mind’s eye.” The mind’s eye perceives what it perceives as it perceives it because of the concepts it possesses while it perceives it.

When I listen to music, I cannot hear what my good friend John Hodges can hear. He is a composer with a tremendous and informed gift for music. But notice that he has an informed gift. He knows music. As a result, his experience of music is very different than mine.

In fact, he once converted me about a piece of music. When first I saw Les Miserables, I thought of it mostly in political terms and judged it to be sentimental claptrap. But when John explained the musical qualities, how characters had their own tunes, how the story put melodies out in one place, then withdrew them, the reinserted them in other places to tell the story through the music, I came to understand why it is regarded by those who can perceive these things as a masterpiece.

I was informed. My mind’s eye could see better. My appreciation grew.

Even so, modern readers (and that means most of us) struggle to read great poetry, while we can watch movies with incredible complexity. Why? Because since we were very little we have gone to the theatres and learned how to watch movies. We understand the art form without even having to think about it very much.

Poetry is not what it used to be, at least not in the classroom. The conventions are regarded as evil, the forms as tyrannical. Consequently, nobody reads Longfellow anymore.

But LTW is a classical curriculum. If that means anything it means that we respect the conventions. 2500 years of artistry gave us quite a remarkable treasure trove of riches. In elocution,  we teach students schemes and tropes so they are capable of appreciating Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Spenser, and by appreciating their artistry, they can enter into the astounding insights that lie between their paradoxes and dilemmas.

Through LTW students begin or continue to grow toward a perceptive, insightful, and refined mind. Standardized testing and critical thinking become fleas they snap off their shoulders because they are on to important things, like making decisions and acting on them, adoring the beautiful, and knowing truth.

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The Place of Logic and the Place of Philosophy

My pocket Aristotle includes these words in the introduction by Justin Kaplan:

[Aristotle] devoted his life to codifying and rationalizing what was then the sum of human knowledge.

Kaplan goes on to list some of Aristotle’s accomplishments and the obstacles he had to overcome to achieve them. Then this:

And underlying all these achievements was this: he was a logician of subtlety and strength, and a searcher after the knowledge that transcends and exists independent of all other knowledge. He called this knowledge “first philosophy” or “wisdom.”

May I draw your attention to two words in the quotations above? First, quotation one: the word “rationalization.” Then in quotation two, the word “and.”

I hope the word rationalization continues to maintain the meaning it expresses in Kaplan’s sentence in the days to come, because it is a hint to an ancient meaning that is more authentic than the modern meaning. To “rationalize the sum of… human knowledge,” is an impressive goal, but it does actually mean something.

Aristotle was attempting to bring all the knowledge he had access to into a harmony, a whole in which every part had its place and in which the place of every part served for the flourishing of every other part. His vision of reality was musical. Discord argued for error. How different from what we think of as “cold rationalism” today.

Aristotle saw truth as flames of fire enlightening the soul.

Thus my highlighting the word “and” in the second quotation. I was afraid, when I read the first clause, that it would be followed by a period, that Kaplan would suggest that the underlying force of Aristotle’s thought was his logical power.

And indeed, Aristotle was a logical genius of the first rank. His development of the syllogism (which Kaplan argues “now has little real function”) and his Organon make up the earliest sustainable handbooks for thinking the world ever saw. They remain unmatched in their breadth and depth.

But Aristotle was not a mere logician. He was a seeker after wisdom, a philosopher. The difference is significant.

Here is how I would seek to express the difference between a logician and a philosopher:

The philosopher seeks to PERCEIVE the essence of things, to know them according to their natures, and to treat them appropriately. He seeks, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, to rightly order and to appropriately judge. For the philosopher everything turns on what Plotinus, at least, and I think Plato and Aristotle as well, called “intelligible form.”

The form of a thing is its essence, the fishness of fish, the redness of red, the justice of justice, etc.. “Intelligible” means understandable, but much more than that in Aristotle. It means that the form or essence of the thing is perceivable by what came to be called “the mind’s eye.”

But the logician, inasmuch as he is a logician and not a philosopher, only has the tools of logic to work with. These tools support philosophy and assist the philosopher, but logic is not philosophy and can only deal with what it is given. Logic, in this sense, is not the same as reason either.

Logic looks for consistency in the statements or propositions with which it is dealing. It is valuable only insofar as the statements carry truth. Logic seeks validity in an argument, not truth itself.

In a way, logic is like a game. Or maybe it would be better to say, logic is the rules of the game. But then, a game is defined by its rules, so to say it is a game, is to say it is the rules of the game. Even so, baseball is a game defined by its rules.

But logic is not about perception. Sensory perception (what we see with our eyes, touch with our hands, etc.) is a starting point for logic, but by no means all it has to work with. Intellectual perception can also provide material to the logician, but this comes from an experience higher than the rules of the game of logic.

In short, logic is not the highest authority on reality, just a tool to help us think about it consistently.

That is why I can constuct logical nonsense, such as:

All Puddleglums are blue things
All blue things are foxtrots
Therefore all puddleglums are fox trots

Logical, yes, but meaningless except as the form itself carries meaning.

So while the philosopher’s foundational concept is intelligible form, for the logician that foundational concept is the universal.

While the form is perceived by the mind’s eye, the universal is more like a chess piece or a counter in a game. “All Puddleglums” is merely a thought. So is “all Rhinoscopes.” In fact, you could even say that “all foxes” is merely a concept in the head of the thinker.

But this is precisely where the great historical argument between the philosopher and the logician breaks out. The philosopher says, “Yes, all foxes may be merely a concept in the head of the thinker, but foxness itself is not. “Fox” is the form of every fox and is what makes the fox a fox.”

The logician, since as logician he cannot perceive forms or essences of things, says, “No, there is no essence of fox. Fox is a name we give to all the things that share the same characteristics because it is convenient and helpful for us to do so.”

This argument is often described as the argument over universals. I would suggest that that is a misnomer, almost certainly coined by someone who takes the side of the logician. It isn’t the argument over universals, but over form vs. logic.

And it only becomes an argument when logic attempts to do more than it is able to do, that is, to do philosophy or theology. Logic is a vice-regent with vast power. But it cannot be the emperor for the simple reason that it cannot see far enough.

Ironic things arise from the uprising of logic (which took place in the middle ages, especially under Peter Abelard and William of Ockham (Occam if you prefer)) including the rise of nominalism, the obsession with the particular that gave rise to empiricism and the scientific revolt, the breakdown of thought into disparate specialized subjects, and the neglect of philosophy and theology.

It’s strange, because the philosopher is a formalist who believes in a knowable reality within which men can be free and powers can be limited, but the logician rapidly bows to the empiricist or the rationalist who always ends up believing that reality is not knowable, there is no law above the state, and freedom is an illusion that they are unable to see.

This distinction between philosophy and logic is very difficult and precise, but very important. Had the logician never exalted himself so far, we wouldn’t have to climb up to remind him of his place. We could rejoice in the ability of the common man to see truth (the essence of things) because his soul is attuned to it (he usually calls it common sense) and he knows what freedom and justice are before his teacher comes and clouds his perceptions.

Teach logic and teach it well. Enable your students to learn its powers and its limitations. Just remember that it doesn’t see forms, it analyzes universals. It may well be the child who sees forms the best, so the philosopher is always trying to become like a little child.

Darwinian Parenting

My desires define me, and my group, and my people.

From Dr. Tingley’s lecture on Postmodernism

I flew from San Francisco to Orange County airport, seated in 6B. Across the aisle in 6C was a mother, and beside her, in 6D, was her child, a four or five year old boy with big brown eyes, a friendly face, and a pleasant personality.

Nothing unusual there. Moms often fly with their children on airplanes and children at that age are generally cute. What was unusual was this: in 7C was another mother and beside her, in 7D, was her child, a four or five year old boy with big blue eyes, a friendly face, and a pleasant personality.

Have you ever flown with two little kids that close to you? I was mildly worried about how it would go, but much more interested than worried. I had, I felt, a self-created laboratory. So I listened.

To understand the point of this post, you must know that the mothers were basically the same in their approach to their children. My wife has a little plaque she keeps in the kitchen that I always felt a little uneasy about. It says,

Raising children is like being pecked to death by chickens

Both of these mothers had mastered the survival technique that all mothers master to endure the pecking.

They tune out.

This is one of the great mysteries of motherhood to the young father (next to our wonderment at our wives lack of fervently expressed gratitude when we clean up after their morning sickness). We come home from a long day of brutal, back-breaking work (do you know how uncomfortable an office chair is?) to our wives and children, expecting large smiles and fervent 50’s-TV doses of affection.

Instead we see mommy half-seated, half-lying on the couch, legs extended, the free arm hanging limply off the couch, a vacant gaze filling the inch or two in front of her eyes – not unlike the look of St. Theresa in Ecstacy. Next to her is little Johnny (or David or Matthew or Katie) saying, over and over, “mom, mom, mom.” Just like that. Staccato.

Mom.

Mom.

Mom.

And here’s dad, exhausted from a day’s labor, incomprehensibly looking at mommy, thinking, and sometimes foolishly saying, “Why don’t you answer the child!?”

Karen has described this condition to me. She tells me that she’ll sit for a while not hearing anything, then after a few moments a distant sound will rise in the deep cavities of her mind, a sound that gradually works its way toward consciousness, staccato, not quite an echo, not even insistent, though certainly persistant, until finally it touches on the conscious mind and just a little light enters mommy’s eyes.

Calmly, as though David had only said “Mom” once, she looks at him for a moment and says, “Yes.”

“Katie cut off her foot at the neck.”

“OK, tell her to go back to bed.”

This is a womanly gift we men don’t have and thus fail to appreciate.

Part of the gift is the female capacity to contextualize the unconscious. The children in this my account, remember, were on an airplane. The mothers knew this.

Another trait of parenting, and this one is shared by fathers, though from what I can tell, not generally as fully developed, is the feeling of deep shame over every public manifestation of childishness by a child. Everybody else on the plane thinks the kids are adorable, but the parent usually seems ashamed, so they shush their child and get angry at them for not acting like adults, which is peculiar since it means that we parents are acting like children by being angry at our children for not acting like adults.

The combination of these two paternal gifts led these mothers to an interesting challenge with a simple solution. They didn’t want to their children to embarrass them, but they didn’t want to be pecked to death by the chickens. What to do?

Solution: bring the pecking to consciousness a little more quickly.

It was fun to watch.

Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom.

Yes?

And this is where the paths diverge. These pleasant little, good-natured children were clearly brought up on different assumptions about what a human, and therefore a child, is. I could tell because of what followed when mom was brought back to herself and to her child.

From 6D: I want some water. I want to play so and so. I want to… I want…

Don’t get me wrong. This child was not particularly demanding or at all bratty, though he did let out three loud, manipulative wails. He was just a normal kid who had been brought up on the assumption that the appetites merit an awful lot of attention.

From 7D: I spy with my little eye… Look mom, the airplanes are playing follow the leader… We’re following the leader, the leader, the leader. We’re following the leader wherever he may go.

I’ve stood by while my wife raised five children (gave her advice on those rare occasions when I had something to contribute and she was willing to pay for it) and I have to tell you one thing I learned a long, long time ago. Most of what you do consciously and purposely as a parent has very little affect on your children.

What affects them is the things you aren’t aware of, the kind of person you really are (regardless of what you want to be, which they don’t take the trouble to figure out), the beliefs you hold in your subconscious and that express themselves in attitudes and tones and environment and games and pastimes and commitments.

But most parents are looking for clear parenting methodology, so they read books with the latest techniques for potty-training and watch videos explaining how to prepare your little girl for kindergarten or listen to lectures that show you how to make your child love reading or sports or cooking or single-sex parents or whatever.

There is no parenting methodology. There’s just struggling parents, hearts yearning toward their children, lacking in confidence to act on their principles and concentrate on character.

What matters most in a parent is who you are. And what matters second to who you are is what you believe your child is. I mean believe in your soul, not your conscious mind, believe in your heart of hearts, not by logical or empirical persuasion.

You might have worked out that he is the image of God, fallen and depraved. Or you might have resolved intellectually that she is as innocent as the spring flowers.

But what do you believe in your soul of souls? What do you think in your heart?

Do you raise them with fear and trembling. Probably not. The meaning of parenting doesn’t really sink in until it’s too late, because if it sank in while you were doing it you’d be so overwhelmed you’d be unable to parent.

But just a little fear and trembling is a good thing.

The child in 6D was brought up by a parent whose soul-belief was that her child was a cute animal, driven by appetites. The child in 7D was brought up by a parent whose soul-belief was that her child was something more, something with rational faculties worth cultivating, something that gained happiness from careful observation, intellectual activity, and gameful expression of his awareness to those around.

The first mother was a type for the practicing naturalistic materialist, internalizing the doctrines of Darwin. Most mothers today are – even, frankly, most Christian mothers.      

The second mother was a type for the practicing Christian classical supernaturalist. Her child did not begin intellectualizing the world that day. His rational faculties (the quest for pattern, for harmony, the delight taken in unity and surprise) had been cultivated, clearly, since he was very young.

One might well argue that he was not morally better. Just more human.

He might have been the best answer to post-modernism. He was not defined by his desires, or those of his people, but by his uniquely delightful and human faculty to reason. If you want to overcome the deadening impact of our culture on your children, if you want to push back all the arguments for the post-human world, remember what your child is: the image of God, a reasoning person with a will to cultivate.

Play follow-the-leader.

The Distinction Between Productive and Contemplative Knowledge – Part I.

Aristotle distinguishes between productive and contemplative knowledge in The Metaphysics (Book XI:7).

In productive knowledge, the source of motion is in the one who makes, rather than in the thing being made.  For example, when one exercises one’s productive knowledge by making a bookshelf, the source of motion is in the carpenter, not the bookshelf. The  source of motion is in the carpenter, because he is the cause of the bookshelf coming into being. If the source of motion were  in the bookshelf, then it could come about without a carpenter.

Productive knowledge, therefore, is characterized by more than reflection. Productive knowledge is characterized by imposing one’s will on materials such as wood or stone.

In contemplative knowledge, the source of motion resides in the thing being thought about.  When one studies a tree, the source of motion remains in the tree. Unlike the bookshelf example, if one were to not take any action toward the tree, it would still be a tree. A tree needs no carpenter. The source of motion — whatever it is that makes the seed become a full-grown tree — is in the tree itself.

The nature of a natural thing (such as a tree) is not imposed on the tree from outside, but is within the tree itself. Whereas the material of the bookshelf (wood) does not strive to be a bookshelf, the material of a tree does strive to be a tree.

In this way Aristotle distinguishes what comes to be by nature and what comes to be by craft. What comes to be by nature has an internal principle of motion, and what comes to be by craft has an external principle of motion. Productive knowledge is the kind of knowledge embodied in craftsmanship. Contemplative knowledge is the kind of knowledge that belongs to the study of nature.

In the next two parts, I will explain the importance of this distinction in the Christian doctrine of creation and in the Classical theory of education.

The Anxiety of Truth

{Editor’s Note: Quiddity has a new author! Beginning with the following post, CiRCE journeyman and Magnet School English Teacher, David Wright, will make regular contributions to Quiddity, enriching our conversation. You’ll see why I asked him to join us in the next minute:}

The Anxiety of Truth

David M. Wright

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

– Emily Dickinson

I spent most of the third week of February at the CiRCE Institute. Our time together consisted of rigorous contemplation, discussion, and reflection. The experience was immensely enriching, and, I must admit, somewhat unsettling. Throughout the week, I became metacognitively aware that I was in a state of mental, psychic, and emotional unrest. Why did I feel this way? Why was I slightly nervous at dinner when each twelve-hour day was finished?

My conclusion and thesis for this essay:  truth (aletheia) can be unsettling. Ok. So that might sound a little trite, like saying “the sky is blue.” But in fact, the nature of truth is paradoxical and multi-layered. Similarly, upon reflection, we know the sky really isn’t blue. The phrase belies its depth.

The central paradox with aletheia is that it is at once simple, yet also universal, indelible, ineffable, and eternal. Maybe then, I felt unsettled during the week because truth is simply too radiant and too superb for my feeble, darkened apprehension. It is “too bright for our infirm delight.” Here, the insecurity stems from the relationship between the perceiver and the perceived. As one who continually desires to understand, I sometimes ask, Why me? I am too imperfect. Bearing the torch for truth is a task too large for my capabilities.

Yet, as Aristotle says, “All men by nature desire to know.” Our nature, then, demands that we quest, so we might as well honor her, take up the knapsack of books, and continue to walk this rather frightening road. Or simply, as Socrates might suggest, take up the knapsack of ideas, the realm where the true philosopher lives. Deeply ambivalent about the written word, he believed books offer pale reflections of the truth.[1] But in either case, the point here: adhere and seek.

And then of course there is the fact that we wrestled for hours with truthful ideas. The ideas are grandiose, full, and expansive. They, in many ways, transport. In short, tangle with them and it can feel like you’re wearing a parachute in a hurricane—feet on the ground no more. Here are some of the ideas we discussed: Propriety. The cultivation of human faculties. Attentive perception. Conceptualization. Re-presenting nature back to God. Rightly ordering the soul. Language. Reason. Will. The self. Freedom. Education as the seat of the soul—to name a few gusts from the eye.

Since this essay is a reflection on truth, I shall briefly present some of the uses and perceptions of aletheia in history.

In the Homeric texts, the term aletheia appears primarily in verbs of expression. This concerns the authenticity of what is said between people. Additionally, the Homeric notion of aletheia involves giving a full, complete, and accurate account. For example, in the Iliad Book 10, the Trojan Dolon attempts to sneak into the Achaean camp and is caught by Odysseus and Diomedes. Odysseus calls him to account, “Come, tell me the truth now, point by point.”[2] Similarly, we see this in the nineteenth book of the Odyssey, “Shall lay the clear truth naked to your view.”[3] Again, in the fourteenth book of the Iliad, “What, thou has vow’d; that with all / truth thou wilt bestow on me.”[4] As is evident, the primary context for aletheia appears in that of stories and speeches. The essential notion that I wish to emphasize here is that in Homer truth involves fullness in communication, an inclusion of all realities that pertain to accurately conveying the truth. In short, it is a candid verbal account which leaves nothing out.

Continuing with a look at the Pre-Socratic understanding, Thucydides’ idea of truth encompasses the accurate connection of language to the world. This means matching words to reality, logos to kosmos. Additionally, for Thucidydides, aletheia contains a strong connotation of visual imagery, or unconcealedness. We see here that truth involves a right correspondence and also visual metaphors.

Viewed as such, truth has everything to do with words matching nature, words representing objects faithfully. And what is fundamental to this representation? What ensures that this correspondence results in truth? The essence of truthful correspondence is propriety—which means to know a thing and to treat it according to its nature. The purpose of propriety is to honor the nature of a thing.[5] It is the suitability of the name to the named. “Propriety is a matter of imitation… To imitate rightly I must know (see or perceive) the nature of the thing I wish to imitate.”[6]

Of course this construct of truth expands concentrically through nature from the center point of perfect, pure Truth: the Logos, the Word; the Archetype of propriety; the unity and fullness of all things; the perfect concord of matter and spirit; the divine expression of the Father. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). As well: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Plato’s perspective on aletheia is expressed most vividly in his Theaetetus dialogue.[7] Here Socrates concludes that knowledge is true belief that has been given an account of. In other words, truth involves two fundamental components: belief and support. Hence, one must truly believe the proposition by holding to a belief that adheres to one’s conscience and reason, and then possess good support, justification, and logic for that belief. Additionally of course, throughout many of his dialogues, Plato viewed truth as that which belonged to the timeless and immaterial realm.

Aristotl, in his Metaphysics, arrived at a similar definition of truth to that of Thucydides. His oft-quoted definition: “To say of something which is that it is not, or to say of something which is not that it is, is false. However, to say of something which is that it is, or of something which is not that it is not, is true.”

Again, we see that truth involves what we say corresponding to the facts of reality. I appreciate the Philosopher Mom’s way of saying this, “Aristotle’s account of truth… is that reality imprints itself on the human mind, revealing intelligible truths. Because his mind corresponds directly to reality, man is capable of knowing its essence.[8]

So, the classical idea of truth contains three aspects. One, words must correspond to nature, but nature has priority over language and culture. Two, truth is a unity between language and nature, while falsehood is a discrepancy between them. And three, words and language are signs that symbolize truth. Therefore, they must suitably and appropriately represent the truth. In addition, because words are signs, they are subordinate to the objects of nature which they symbolize.

The Medieval understanding of truth (veritas) derived primarily from St. Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas and retains this perspective: Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus—“truth is the adequation of the intellect to the thing.” A continuity in perception of truth existed between the classical world and the Middle Ages, in large part from Aquinas’s incorporation of Aristotle. Unfortunately, this continuity was radically altered with the Enlightenment and Kant. But for the medievals, truth involved not only the adequation of the intellect to the thing, but a rightness or rectitude (rectitudo) that something is as it ought to be, that it does that for which it was made.[9]

For the purposes of this essay, we shall hop over the “Enlightenment”—which in regard to truth and several other regressions may be more accurately termed the Dark Ages—and land at Kierkegaard. For truth is his starting point. “Can the truth be learned?” is the opening line of his Philosophical Fragments. After working through Plato’s Meno, Kierkegaard reflects on Socrates’ notion of inner truth and recollection: a person cannot seek what he knows, but also cannot seek what he does not know because he wouldn’t know what he is supposed to seek.[10] Consequently, for Socrates, learning and seeking are actually recollecting. And the teacher guides this process. “Thus the ignorant person needs to be reminded in order, by himself, to call to mind what he knows. The truth is not introduced into him, but was in him.”[11] This is an appropriate beginning for Kierkegaard in his Fragments, but far from the end. He builds upon this to the Christian experience of acquiring truth through grace.

Kierkegaard constructs this in complex, precise fashion, but I will relay it simply. For Socrates, the teacher leads the student to realize his own ignorance (untruth) and to then discover the truth or light which is in him. The teacher is the occasion, but the student must discover his own untruth himself. For Kierkegaard, the teacher is actually God, who acts as the occasion and prompts the learner to realize that he is untruth, and that he is untruth through his own fault (sin); and then God gives him the truth.[12] Kierkegaard puts it this way, “…a new presupposition: the consciousness of sin, and a new decision: the moment; and a new teacher: the god in time.”[13]

Finally, even though Pilate and the post-moderns are fond of asking, “What is truth?”—we see that it is quite easy to define:  asserting what is when it is, and asserting what is not when it is not. However, determining whether a statement is true or false can be the hard part. And to this question, there are generally three kinds of answers: one, some statements are self-evidently true, such as “The whole is greater than the part”[14]; two, some statements are true because they can be tested by experience and observations; and three, some statements, while neither self-evidently true nor empirically verifiable, are probably true based on reason, authority, or consensus, etc. So, defining truth is easy, knowing whether a statement is true or false is harder, and pursuing the truth is the most difficult.[15] This brings us back, full circle, to the anxiety of truth.

In conclusion, the aforementioned provide fruitful landing pads for a reflection on truth. And at the center of all things we find the Trinity, for God is Truth. The contact point is the Logos, Truth made flesh, guided by the Holy Spirit “…when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). From Socrates and Kierkegaard, the understanding of fallen humans as untruth resonates with Emily Dickinson’s poem and my anxiety with truth. Yes, I believe that the truth shall make us free (John 8:32), but I also suspect that the anxiety lies therein. We don’t always wish to be free; the prison of the flesh is what we are used to. (The title of Doris Lessing’s book The Prisons We Choose to Live Inside comes to mind here.) As untruth, our contact with Truth will inevitably contain some strain. And that contact will encompasses a process. After all, we remain in a degree of untruth in this life even while we are aware of it, and even while we pursue and acquire the truth. According to Kierkegaard, God reveals our untruth to us then gives us the truth. Yes, the revelation of our untruth is a radical point in our lives—“the Truth’s superb surprise”—but our acquisition of the truth happens by a process of sanctification through grace and by the perilous pursuit of truth, working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), for, as Dickinson ends her poem, “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—”


[1] Erich Segal, The Dialogues of Plato. (New York: Bantam, 1986) xiv-xv.

[2] Homer, The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. (London: Penguin, 1990) 289.

[3] Chapman, George. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Translated by George Chapman. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1903) 484.

[4] Ibid, 172.

[5] Poignantly expressed by Buck Holler in an e-mail 2/23/10.

[6] Buck Holler, same e-mail 2/23/10.

[7] http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/theatu.html Dialogue translated by Benjamin Jowett.

[8] http://philosophermoms.blogspot.com/ “Nietzsche vs. Aristotle: What is Truth?” June 28, 2007.

[9] http://formalontology.it

[10] Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments. Ed. And Trans. by Howard V. Hong and Enda H. Hong. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985) 10.

[11] Ibid, 10.

[12] Ibid, 15.

[13] Ibid. 111.

[14] Mortimer J. Adler, Great Ideas from the Great Books. (New York: Washington Square Press, 1961) 4.

[15] Ibid, 5.

Inside, Outside, Upside Down

You can live from the inside, or you can live from the outside.

You can think from the inside, or you can think from the outside.

You can read from the inside, or you can read from the outside.

You can teach from the inside – but only if you live, think, and read from the inside.

To live, think, and read from the inside you must enter into the thing you live with, the thought you are thinking about, the text you are reading.

To live, think, and read from the outside, you only need to look at it.

Most living, thinking, reading, and teaching are done from the outside.

The greatness of the great teacher is the ability to get inside and lead his students there.

Things can only be loved on the inside, where they cannot be measured.

Things can only be measured on the outside, where they cannot be known.

By living on the outside, we have turned education and our civilization upside down.

The Difference Between Information and Knowledge

Martin Heidegger once instructed his students that “[i]t is advisable, therefore, that you postpone reading Nietzsche for the time being, and first study Aristotle for ten to fifteen years.”

To one uninitiated in the field of ancient philosophy (and probably even to some in that field) this demand might seem absurd. Why devote so much time in studying a writer who lived thousands ago in order to understand someone who lived thousands of years later? Even if one did consider a thinker worthwhile, would it really take ten years to understand what he said?

There are many causes for reflection here, but in grasping one distinction, we might understand both why Heidegger’s demand is eminently reasonable and why it seems so incredible. That distinction may be formulated as the difference between knowledge and information.

The difference here should not be understood primarily in terms of the content of information on the one hand and the content of knowledge on the other; information about Aristotle and knowledge of Aristotle might be similar in terms of what they reference (e.g., both could address Aristotle’s concept of nature, but would not do so in the same way).

However, information and knowledge both should be understood as products of different sorts of reflection, as products that cannot be understood without grasping their form of production.

Information lies most conspicuously within the bounds of modern experience, and so we begin there.

What do we do when we gather information? Most simply and most often, we look up the information on the internet. Before that, we searched for information in file folders and dossiers. Some great differences stand out between a library filing system and the Google search engine, but they are similar enough in that the information lies ready to hand, uncovered and understood in the cursory act of viewing.

What of the information gained by such devices? Most obviously, information is that which the search process yields (we can almost add: “and nothing else”).

The information, while it keeps its referential character, is itself a tool, a means to an end. The information yielded by the search has its own use-value, the use-value being completely circumscribed by the intent of the inquirer.

Information has a discrete, finite, and — most importantly — objective character. The information is “out there” to be found; it exists and has its existence in full apart from the one who seeks it.

Words on a page, numbers in an Excel file; their character as information is not changed when someone reads it. One finds information much as one finds a natural resource.

The search for information determines both what information shows up and the significance of that information. Like a natural resource, information is mined, processed, and consumed.

Information, therefore, is easily come by; once one has found it, one has understood it. One then moves on to the next question; in this way, information is gathered progressively.

Information cannot be distinguished from the process of finding and using information.

At all points the “informational intent” delimits what shows up; and whatever shows up as useful is information. The question asked is always fully understood in the asking; the answer given is always readily digested. Information belongs to an inquiry that is inherently technological.

Knowledge, by comparison, is enigmatic.

It too is tied to a process. One comes across knowledge of, say, Aristotle, by reading him and reading about him, by hearing lectures on him, and by discussing his ideas with others.

However, even when one has heard an answer to a question, one has not necessarily understood it. One can ask “does Aristotle believe in the existence of God?”, and receive an affirmative answer; but although one has asked the question and listened to the answer one has not necessarily understood, because one has not fully understood the question.

After all, when Aristotle argues for the existence of God, what does he mean by God? And what would it mean for God to exist? And, what would existence itself mean in light of the question?

The informational impulse here immediately understands the question and the answer, already understanding what “God” means (and blithely indifferent to what Aristotle thinks the word means), and by not returning to the question, the informational impulse blocks off the possibility of knowledge.

One of my best philosophy professors once said that philosophy was the perpetual asking the question of what philosophy is.

Philosophy does not fit the model of a progressive science, which begins from a definite starting point, and, gathering information by stages, corrects itself and proceeds ever upward in both the quantity of information gathered and its accuracy.

Instead, philosophy constantly returns to its basic questions. An answer might be given, and it may be correct, but this does not make it a good answer. A good answer directs the philosopher to previously unnoticed folds of the question. The dialectic of knowledge follows a cycle: from question to answer, then back to the question.

Unlike the information yielded by a search, an answer cannot be divorced from its referential character; an answer has in itself no use-value.

The answer serves only to plunge one back into the perplexity of the question, and often its use is only to return one squarely to where one started. The lack of a use-value, to return to our example of natural resources, cannot be processed and consumed, it must be cared for and cultivated, and it exhibits a cyclical character.

Knowledge cannot be characterized as objective in the sense that information can be, as the sort of thing that anyone could find and, in the finding, immediately understand. Rather, knowledge confounds the means by which it may be obtained, inspiring perplexity in the seeker (as Plato argues in the Phaedo).

The difference between information and knowledge may be analogized to Aquinas’ distinction between ordinary physical food and the spiritual food of the Eucharist.

Taking the Aristotelian account of eating as that activity which destroys the formal integrity of the food, turning the material of the food instead toward the activity of the body, and forcing upon the material the form of the body (incompletely though, for the material gradually reasserts its own nature, resulting in the death of the person and the disintegration of his body), Aquinas inverts the formula.

Spiritual food, rather than having its sort of being destroyed and the material turned towards the activity of the soul that consumes it, retains its own form and turns the soul of him who consumes it towards the activity of what is consumed–the body of Jesus Christ.

In eating the body of Christ, one does not consume but is rather himself consumed.

Likewise, whereas the intent of the information-gathering process delimits in advance the nature of the information that shows up, the intent of the knowledge seeker, in the process of gaining knowledge, does not determine the object of its search, but is rather determined by it.

In finding out what one seeks to know, one must learn to surpass the form of the question posed, and one must go beyond oneself.

The process of learning involves necessarily being at the mercy of what one seeks; we can think of Aristotle’s image of the soul as being potentially all possible forms. The seeker of information consumes the information he finds. The seeker of knowledge is himself consumed by the knowledge that he seeks. Where information is technological, knowledge is contemplative.

The process of learning, therefore, requires the student to change and develop not only what he knows, but how he knows and how he goes about knowing more.

Knowledge isn’t so much acquired as it is lived, and this explains why, for the Greek philosophers, virtue is a prerequisite for knowing.

The student is wholly involved in the process of learning; he is, as it were, within the question itself. In order to know the answer, the student must realize the insufficiency of the way he asked the question. This task cannot be performed in a short period of time; it is a task for a lifetime.

This explains in part why Heidegger instructs his students to spend so much time studying Aristotle. Coming to any true knowledge of Aristotle (or anyone worth understanding) does not consist in simply sketching out his positions, as one would sketch out the positions of a politician running for office, nor does it consist in placing Aristotle in predetermined categories (e.g., materialist, empiricist, and so on); it requires getting at the heart of Aristotle’s philosophy by fully entering the cycle in which one’s previous intent is confounded and altered by the object of knowledge, and one is placed at the mercy of the dialectic of philosophy.