A Philosopher’s Diary, #6–Enlightenment, Education, and Inspiration.
The descriptive sub-title of this blog — Against Professional Philosophy — originally created and rolled out in 2013, is “A Co-Authored Anarcho-Philosophical Diary.”
Now, nine years later, after more than 300,000 views of the site, this new series, A Philosopher’s Diary, finally literally instantiates that description by featuring short monthly entries by one or another of the members of the APP circle, in order to create an ongoing collective philosophical diary that records the creative results of critical, synoptic, systematic rational reflection on any philosophical topic or topics under the sun, without any special restrictions as to content, format, or length.
In this sixth installment, Boethius critically reflects on enlightenment and education, with an eye to what Plato, Kant, Buddhism, and Audre Lorde have had to say about those.
Enlightenment, Education, and Inspiration
My students have read several pieces on enlightenment during the last few weeks: Plato on the allegory of the cave, Kant (1784), Lorde (1978), and an article) on Buddhist ideas about enlightenment (Bartok et al. 2018. Kant’s title question “What is enlightenment?” runs through them all, and unpacking the question hits secondary themes on why enlightenment might matter, how to gain it or be on a path to it, and what we might do for each other to help. The last hits a conflict I want to address here. I’m teaching, supposedly, and yet more and more in what I think philosophy is and what it’s good for, the concept of teaching seems not to fit. Can you teach people to be enlightened? Can you teach people to seek enlightenment? Can you teach people to think for themselves? Teaching seems too one-sided a concept for intellectual virtues and personal development. One needs a different model or scheme for helping, facilitating, guiding, or otherwise creating the conditions for enlightenment.
Perhaps this issue is why such epistemic goals like enlightenment, wisdom, and so on get praised in education, but either ignored in reality or left as a by-product of “normal” teaching modes like lecturing, testing, “covering” content, and so on. Lecturing on enlightenment won’t make people enlightened, or at least not many. I’m tempted by another explanation too, and that more nefarious one is that really, there’s less interest in facilitating real enlightenment in education and more in something that’s at best a “lite” version: free thinking but within considerable constraints.[i] The lite version fits the factory model of education and the accompanying thought of education as a commodity gained with an economic transaction.
Yet there are other models. I have no magic bullets here. But by way of example, I’ve moved more and more over time toward a discussion model for classes. I prepare the ground, by choosing readings and formulating questions to help guide pair-, group-, and whole-class analysis, discussion, and Q&A. We then see what that ground produces. I assume people are authentically trying to learn. I assume they’re authentically trying to help themselves and others learn. That applies whether that has to do with “What does Kant mean by ‘immaturity’ in ‘What is enlightenment?’,” or something more provoking and open-ended like “Why is it really better to leave the cave?” I can explain the answer to the first question. Kant answers it himself. For the second question, on Plato’s cave, I can’t give anyone the answer. Yet it’s crucial to one’s own coming to terms with the good that Plato says is there to gain. A communal effort also seems called for, not just to get at the richness of possible answers, but to maximize the chances of actually getting on a path to more independent-mindedness, more self-directed learning, more control over one’s intellectual development.
An interesting thing here is that if one really has broad goals like thinking better, being more intellectually virtuous, and being more enlightened (or more firmly on the path to it), exploring the ‘What is enlightenment?’ question just reinforces all the value those broad goals really have. It also forces people in my position to self-analyze and self-criticize everything I’m doing to see if we’re really in a position to pull some of these things off, to actually move toward independent-mindedness or the courage to use one’s understanding. And like I ask my students to formulate their own account of enlightenment, what they themselves can add to Plato et al. to make an account of enlightenment their own, I force the same question on myself.
Readers probably want my answer at this point. I have no comprehensive answer to defend here, but from the ground prepared for the class, what grew for me was at least this. Plato’s metaphor for what’s outside the cave is knowledge, and philosophical knowledge at that, with the path to enlightenment being a path of gaining knowledge. One frees oneself from the illusions of everyday life by coming to know the foundational truths about reality, goodness, and so on. Some Buddhists disagree in part, not about awareness of foundational truths, but in virtue of their view that such truths can be found by attending properly to everyday life and its aspects. In some sense one could just stay in the cave and still become enlightened, or (depending on the Buddhist tradition) become aware of one’s own naturally enlightened state. But Plato omits, at least in the cave allegory, what has to happen on that path out, and also what else accompanies that philosophical knowledge to really count as enlightenment. The details of the path itself seems the crucial bit for education. Someone drags you out, that’s in the allegory, but what’s involved? What has to happen in the chained prisoner to get free in the first place? Or what kind of person does the chained prisoner have to be to get free? Kant and Lorde offer an answer. For Kant, of course, it’s to have intellectual courage — an intellectual virtue — and specifically the courage to think independently — independent-mindedness being another intellectual virtue. To get free, you have to dare to know, to dare to think on your own. Lorde offers a kind of courage too, not necessarily to know, but to break one’s silence on what one knows of oppression, of injustice, of inequality, and to speak up, to ask questions, to criticize. Kant and Lorde both aim at targets of oppression. Kant aims specifically at sources of power in the 18th century as affects him and those like him: religious and political authorities, for instance, where what’s to be resisted is “Argue as much as you like about whatever you like, but obey.” This would need to be overcome to move from an Age of Enlightenment to an Enlightened Age. Lorde aims at oppressive sources of power too, those specifically directed at injustice re: race, gender, and sexuality. The points of focus differ, but both figures treat the path to enlightenment as that of independent-minded resistance to power and injustice. As for Buddhism, there’s no monolithic account, but commonly we get a recommendation again on intellectual virtue, and again on independent-mindedness, but with compassionate help for each other on the path. The path is to being ‘awake’, but awake to presumably much the same foundational truths as Plato would recommend, and independent-minded in much the same ways Kant and Lorde would recommend. It requires courage, it requires freedom of thought, it requires compassionate, collaborative effort.
But after all this weaving of the different ideas on enlightenment, we still have the education-related question of how to cultivate it. “Have the courage to think for yourself” gives a means to the end, to enlightenment, but what of the means to gain the courage? What of the means to be independent-minded? Those following an Aristotelian model of intellectual virtue (e.g., Behr 2011) would say to practice, and interesting techniques exist for effective practice in this area (e.g., Behr 2015, Behr 2016). But to push further, what are the means to the practice? This somewhat odd question actually raises questions about how education is really to be authentic and simultaneously consistent with the very ideals of enlightenment. We could coerce the practice: “You will come to your own view of enlightenment, and in a paper of no fewer than 5 pp., due next Tuesday, or else.” We could make the coercion minimal, and it may fall into a realm of coercive practice where there’s a compelling moral interest behind the coercion, an interest that outweighs the moral harm of the coercion. I would agree with this. One certainly can minimize the coercion too. For instance, I fail to see how coercive, punitive, transactional, commodified grading is either necessary or warranted or effective in the area of intellectual development. Feedback and guidance and offering revisions to one’s “work,” yes. Flunking your argument about enlightenment, no.
But go one more level deeper and I reach a point where the concept of teaching fails to reach. For suppose a coercive element of one’s own task of improving one’s own independent-mindedness, courage, thinking skills, and so on is minimized. What motivates here? What “gets” the prisoner to stand up? What gets the oppressed to speak up, to translate that speech to action, and in turn to living? One answer is to see the value in it. That can’t be taught per se. That intrinsic motivation, from the care for whatever that good is, can’t just be put on a test or something similar. But it does motivate the practice, practicing being intellectually courageous, intellectually tenacious, intellectually patient, and open-minded, fair-minded, and independent-minded.
Can we do anything beyond this? One answer runs still deeper, even more beyond “teaching,” and that is inspiration. I find the idea difficult to articulate, but the starting point for improvement, and indeed what maintains it, is some inspiring case or role model or a whole range of them. The Socrates of the Apology famously denies he’s a teacher, though he admits that others might imitate his style. Do we learn by imitation? Yes. Is teaching per se the right concept to apply? I’m not sure. True, we teach with examples often enough, and some of those might be inspiring in addition to being illustrative. But teaching by inspiring seems to me to be something other than teaching per se.
If imitating from inspiring cases is foundational to learning, at least for learning or gaining important intellectual goods like enlightenment, what then? True, we can make such cases far more apparent and visible in our compassionate help for others. I had my own inspiring teachers in this regard, from elementary school through graduate school. I was fortunate. But I also had occasion to reflect on this recently, and I’ll even admit here I was somewhat shocked to discover a relevant example here about my own intellectual development. We had a death in the family not long ago. She was over 80 but in good health before a fairly rapid decline. She was probably the intellectual heart of the family group. She was an exemplar of an independent-minded, freethinking, well-read, infectiously curious, and intellectually tenacious person. (I hope most families have a similar example.) But until I thought through some remarks for a eulogy, I’d never considered this influence, this inspiration for me. She never once “taught” me anything in the normal sense. But inspiration by role-modeling the enlightenment ideals? Absolutely. Could it be that in my own case, the inspiration was present, maybe lying dormant for other influences from philosophy to come along, and then trigger my own intellectual development toward a life in philosophy? And then help sustain it afterward? I’m no capital-E Enlightened being for sure. But my own progress toward it, and whatever degree of it I possess, could very well be grounded in this one other human being’s example.
Now if this sort of feature of enlightenment is fundamental, and if education should be about seeking a very strong, “heavy-duty” sense of enlightenment, then what should educational practice look like? Certainly my own obligations in that regard look very different now. For it becomes centrally important to make inspiring cases visible, and as oneself is an especially perspicuous case, to be absolutely the best role model one can be for whatever virtues one hopes to help students develop. We’ll inevitably exhibit the flaws and vices too. Yet the central maxim here seems of profound importance as a lesson from Plato, through Kant, through Lorde, and through Eastern and Western traditions’ thought on the nature of enlightenment.
[i] See, e.g., Hanna 2022a and 2022b. I hadn’t read the very recent 2022b article until after I’d prepared the remarks here. See that text not only for excerpts from Kant’s texts other than the 1784 piece on enlightenment, for much more on the heavy-duty vs. lite versions of enlightenment, and also for one version of a discussion-oriented model for learning.
Baehr, J. 2011. The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology. New York: Oxford.
Baehr, J. 2015. Cultivating Good Minds: A Philosophical and Practical Guide to Educating for Intellectual Virtues. Intellectualvirtues.org. Accessed September 22, 2022. https://intellectualvirtues.org/cultivating-good-minds/.
Baehr, J. 2016. Intellectual Virtues and Education: Essays in Applied Virtue Epistemology. New York: Routledge.
Bartok, J., Rinpoche, D. P., Godwin, S. G., Matsumoto, D. and Tathaaloka, A. 2018. Forum: What is enlightenment? Lion’s Roar, April 13, 2018. Accessed September 18, 2022. https://www.lionsroar.com/what-is-enlightenment-2/.
Hanna, R. 2018. Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise. The Rational Human Condition, Vol. 4. New York: Nova Science.
Hanna, R. 2022a. The death of the humanities and what should be done about it. Accessed September 18, 2022. Available online HERE.
Hanna, R. 2022b. What can Kantian philosophy do for humanity? From Leonard Nelson to phildialogues. Accessed September 18, 2022. Available online HERE.
Kant, I. 1784. An answer to the question: “what is enlightenment?” Trans. M. Gregor. In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996. Pp. 17–22. [Ak 8: 33–42]
Lorde, A. 1978/2007. The transformation of silence into language and action. In A. Lorde, Sister Outsider (pp. 40–44). Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 719
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