Philosophy and Reading Widely

There are two blogs I have read recently which make the good point that reading “classics” is important . At the New York Times, Philosopher Gary Gutting makes the point that a college education is not so much about “the content,” (or presumably the major) but about the habits of reading and inquiry developed. Or as he writes: “We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates.”

The fact of the matter is that we cannot remember what we learned on a test a year or less after the final is given.  So what do we take away? Gutting’s answer is that it is habits of thinking, reading and approaches to knowledge that we “teach” at the university, not “the content.”  He seems to recommend that the “evaluation of teaching” or whatever it is we our teaching is assessed on at the college level, we should look at readership rates for popularly written magazines like The Economist, Scientific American, New York Times Book Review, and The Atlantic, presumably 5, 10, 20 years after our students graduate.  As he points out, the capacity to enjoy reading such journals is an indicator that students (and their employers) “reap the benefits of their education.”  Perhaps readers from other countries can point to similar magazines that the educated public enjoys (Der Spiegel in Germany comes to mind).

Along these same lines, Razib Khan at the Gene Expressions blog is urging his science readers to return to the classics now and then to do a little “cognitive tail chasing.”  He throws out Plato, Confucius, and Nietzsche by name, and points out that the reason to read them is not to find answers to contemporary issues, but to revisit the type of reasoning and argument underpinning modern thought.

Or in Razib’s own words, “smart opinions from people whose world views are fundamentally alien toward our own allow us to consider what dogmas and orthodoxies we hold as self-evident truths.”

In my view, natural scientists tend to hold to dogmas and orthodoxies a little too tightly.  Sometimes they seem to be more concerned with what is “cutting edge,” and as a result tend to see themselves as what Nietzsche called “new humans” untethered to the past when their analytical categories were first defined.  Sometimes tail chasing is just tail-chasing.  But other times it can challenge us to sharpen our own views—or even change them.

6 thoughts on “Philosophy and Reading Widely

  1. scientists focus on the future because science has a history of making awesome progress (e.g. the computer i am typing on now). but when scientists move outside of their domain they don’t always realize that not everything is so simple and whiggish as science.

  2. Tony

    For the uninitiated, here is a definition of Whiggish, which as Razib suggest is quite apropos when applied to modern science:

    Whiggish: “of, relating to, or characterized by a view which holds that history follows a path of inevitable progression and improvement and which judges the past in light of the present”

    Such views are indeed helpful when using reason (as well as modern economy, science, society, and culture) to create the device I am typing on. But Whiggish views also lead to hubris, and an untenable assumption that that things will always get better.

  3. vijay

    “whiggish views also lead to hubris”

    How so?

    What is wrong with Hubris?

    or do the contra “Non-whiggish” views lead to no hubris is true.

  4. Tony

    Hubris has led to some catastrophes as a result of “whigishness” with its belief in everlasting progress. Some things in the US that come to mind in the technical world include the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, The Challenger caatastrophe, Thalidomide, DDT, Los Angeles air pollution of ht e1960s, and the burning of Lake Erie at that time. And d so forth. Hubris and belief in self led to the Vietnam War policies, as well as a certain cockiness in the prosecution of more recent wars.

    What is wrong with Hubris? Besides the practical dangers mentioned above, I have some moral problems with a quality defined as

    “Hubris /ˈhjuːbrɪs/, also hybris, from ancient Greek ὕβρις, means extreme pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.”

    The opposite of Hubris of course is despair, which is also a pretty poor quality. I guess a good thing about Whiggish types is that they tend not to sink into despair, which is reserved for the overly prudent classical conservative (i.e. the political opposite of our classical Whigs!)

  5. vijay

    I looked at the above response late; but I am stunned by the response.

    Any designed engineering system is going to fail at some time. Challenger is one such, and has nothing to do with whiggishness, and Hubris.

    The rest of the examples are natural outcomes of growth and we need to learn from them. I doubt whiggishness or Hubris has anything to do with them. Of course you will constantly get examples from every car crash, nuclear reactor incident and satellite failure. Fukushima-> whiggish hubris. BP in Gulf -> whiggish Hubris. You have limitless examples.

  6. Tony

    Certainly. Just as you have endless examples of the overly prudent classical conservatives who suggested that it is better to wait prudently for change rather than push ahead.

    Any designed engineering system is going fail sometimes–certainly. But they can fail with more or less catastrophic results, or more or less frequently. Hubris resulting from an “overestimation of ones’ own competence of capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power” seems to me to raise the risk for such failures.

    Not sure why you are stunned by this rather mundane definition. Perhaps you could elaborate? Is there really a world in which those in power do not tend to over-estimate their own capabilities?

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