Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course

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Introductory Epistemological Discussion(s)

afraid of knowledge

Image courtesy of Flickr user Olya Afonina

We are embarking on our discussions of epistemology this weekend, having been briefly introduced to foundational concepts such as:

  • rationalism
  • empiricism
  • a priori knowledge
  • a posteriori knowledge
  • justified true belief
  • indirect knowledge
  • direct knowledge
  • knowledge by acquaintance
  • knowledge by description

I am curious to see where our cohort’s interests are shaping up against these introductory thoughts and ideas on the nature of knowledge, though. Because each of us is the owner of a uniquely personal theory of our own knowledge, which supplies us with answers to questions like What do I know? How do I know that I know it? Where does my opinion overlap with what is considered a fact? Where do they diverge? 

How these personal conceptions come together in the present digital age is of special concern to regular open onliner Stephen Downes:

What we ‘know’ is, if you will, a natural development that occurs in the mind, other things being equal, when presented with certain sets of phenomena; present the learner with different phenomena and they will learn different things. Like the Portugese word for ‘snow’, for example. And whether something counts as ‘knowledge’ rather than, say, ‘belief’ or ‘speculation’, depends less on the state of the world, and more on the strength or degree of connectedness between the entities. To ‘know’ something is to not be able to not know. It’s like finding Waldo, or looking at an abstract image. There may be a time when we don’t know where Waldo is, or what the image represents, but once we have an interpretation, it is not possible to look without seeing Waldo, without seeing the image.

So let us begin at the beginning, by relating our own theories of knowledge to what we have encountered in our initial reading.

We brainstormed several questions related to Epistemology in class this morning:

  • How do we know what we know? 
  • What is true? 
  • How we know was is factual? What is opinion? What is belief? 
  • How are senses and reasons different? How are they complimentary? 
  • What is knowledge? How do we acquire it? 
  • Are there things that we’ll never know? 

But now we are looking to continue to the discussion…

There are, naturally, more where that came from, and we might begin our discussion by continuing to list the essential questions of epistemology below in the comments to this post, or on the Twitter hashtag for #philosophy12.

Other items for consideration and discussion may include…

Sensory, Rational, and Objective knowledge

In terms of classifying these questions, which of them would you file under Sensory knowledge?

Which would you deem most closely related to Reason, or rational knowledge?

Which do you feel deal with certainty? 

Rationalism and Empiricism 

Of these two schools of epistemology, which do you feel corresponds to your own approach to learning and knowledge?

Who is considered to be a notable proponent of either of these disciplines? Who has made convincing arguments to introduce a combined process of the two? Or a third (or fourth) new way altogether?

Where do we see examples of rational or empirical perspectives on knowledge in competition (or dominance) in our contemporary society?

Different Types of Knowledge?

How do you distinguish between the various levels and descriptions of knowledge?

How might these distinctions be limited in their scope to a particular perspective on knowledge? How could we fix this bias, if it in fact exists?

By no means exhaustive, the above questions will hopefully serve as an opening salvo in an ongoing exploration of knowledge this weekend. So respond to one of the above, or a few, or pass along these questions to someone who might wish to offer an opinion or refer us to a significant piece of the conversation we may be missing. Don’t hesitate to pose new questions to the community as well!

 

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Learning and Metaphysics

Metaphysical Constructivism

#philosodoodles

Now making my third pass at the philosophy 12 course, I have approached this year’s unit on Metaphysics as an opportunity to crystalize the course methods as an expression of the values underpinning it. I’ve learned in the past two years that to embrace a constructivist view of epistemology presents the idea of course design as a confrontation with the paradox at the heart of institutional learning: that schools ought provide learning experiences which students ‘own’ and direct with increasing autonomy and agency as they move through school.

But I’ve also learned that this is no straightforward thing.

Emergence presents a rigorous test:

“…if educators wish to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

Osberg and Biesta

On one hand, we must consider the traditional obligations of school: to evaluate and assess its own performance in properly equipping young people with the skills, proficiencies and base knowledges deemed of value to society. But we must also reckon with the contradiction to emergence that is involved in then deciding beforehand what those skills, proficiencies and base knowledges are to be in the first place.

Notably, this contradiction is addressed in part by the critical praxis presented by Paulo Freire, who says that

“…the program content of the problem-posing method – dialogical par excellence – is constituted and organized by the students’ view of the world, where their own generative themes are found. The content thus constantly expands and renews itself. The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” is not as a lecture, but as a problem.”

The necessity to pursue an emergent view of knowledge becomes especially important in our present times in multicultural Canada (and in the broader sense, in the course’s online sphere). Osberg and Biesta write that

“In contemporary multicultural societies, the difficulty with education as planned enculturation lies in the question of who decides what or whose culture should be promoted through education. The problem of ‘educational enculturation’ is therefore of considerable concern to theorists grappling with the issues raised by multiculturalism.

“If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived.”

And so we must conceive of education differently, perhaps no place moreso than in a class like Philosophy 12 during a unit on Metaphysics, which in a certain sense must be approached as a cultivation and aggregation of diverse subjectivities. While it is apparent in the breadth of the course material, such a focus lends itself admirably to the pursuit of metaphysics.

So in one arc of the class’ discourse, Angela begs the question of endless subjectivity in her post, Whoa, Slow Down

“One fixed answer that is true to everything and everyone is way too easy, but some people can’t seem to accept that there is no answer. At the same time, we also tend to deny that every answer is different for everyone. Why is it that we just can’t accept that?”

While Liam retraces Descartes footsteps:

“…perhaps all of ‘reality’ is simply our minds composing things for us to see, smell, taste, hear, and touch, even though they don’t exist. Perhaps nothing exists, but how could that be? We are here, I am typing this, aren’t I? If I am not, and I do not exist, and nothing exists, then what is allowing me to experience things?”

This search for meaning is arising across a few other posts this week as well, with ventures into solipsism, animal consciousness, and the almighty void of nothingness itself. These questions, as with those posed by Avery with respect to the existence of numbers “Five fingers are material objects and so are five sheep, but does five itself exist materially in the same manner?” – are those surrounding the various subjectivities at the heart of metaphysics: “What is…” and “What is it like…”  And so we find ourselves this week asking ourselves whether what we have gained in knowledge and experience during our study thus far “exists materially in the same manner.”

And if it does, how might we understand its existence? What is it, in other words? And what is it like?

Last year, our encounter with metaphysics was guided by Osberg and Biesta’s suggestion of the “learning object,” who contend that:

“for the process of knowledge production to occur it is necessary to assume that the meaning of a particular ‘knowledge object’ exists in a stable form such that the ‘knowledge object’ can be used like a ‘building block’ in the production of new abstract knowledge objects. This idea, however, is precisely what an emergentist epistemology denies. Because the meaning of any new knowledge ‘emerges’ would be highly specific to the complex system from which is emerged, it follows that no ‘knowledge object’ can retain its meaning in a different situation.”

The creation of such ‘objects of learning’ provides a worthwhile otherwise in the pursuit of an education which lives up to our multicultural ideals, as their construction demands that learners confront the dual questions which drive societal reinvention and human progress, where we ask ourselves, Who am I? and Who are we? Building on the ideas of Michel Foucault, who defined Enlightenment as “a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them,” school should aspire to such a notion of learning.

 

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Generative Themes, Emerging Subjectivity and the Discussable Object

The Map Evolves

Image courtesy of Andy Forgrave

“To investigate the generative theme is to investigate the people’s thinking about reality an people’s action upon reality, which is their praxis. For precisely this reason, the methodology proposed requires that the investigators and the people (who would normally be considered objects of that investigation) should act as co-investigators. The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

Paulo Freire

It has seemed particularly fitting to be developing Philosophy 12‘s Metaphysics unit alongside my recent reading about critical pedagogy, epistemological emergence, and how they are each influencing my existing fascination with Gregory Bateson’s framework for transformative learning. As members of the class each go about discovering the ideas of a prominent metaphysician, I have waited to see how the group might approach the creation of a Discussable Object that will enable an authentic collective reflection of the group’s individual learning.

To Freire, this process of mutual engagement and reflection is central to the social construction of reality, showing a clear instance of the course’s own constructivist philosophy interacting with the course content to point to our emerging task(s):

“…the program content of the problem-posing method – dialogical par excellence – is constituted and organized by the students’ view of the world, where their own generative themes are found. The content thus constantly expands and renews itself. The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” is not as a lecture, but as a problem.”

For my part, I believe that much of this has been set in motion by virtue of the course environment and the unit assignment(s) thus far: to share initial findings on a metaphysical thinker’s life and ideas, isolate and reflect upon what can be interpreted of their “major” questions concerning reality, the self, and points in between, and to engage with peers’ ideas.

In the discussions following from last week’s blog posts, we see Dylan and Aman driving at the heart of one of Freire’s “limit situations:”

“I really like that example that you use, because I think that’s such a great way of thinking of the Will as more of a positive thing. Instead of something that suffocates us, as Schopenhauer would believe, we can view it as something that brings us more joy with the new experiences it could bring us, and just taking the unfulfilled desires as things to learn by. Or maybe we could see it somewhere in between the two?”

“It is with [this] apprehension of the complex of contradictions,” Freire says, “that the second stage of the investigation begins.”

“Always acting as a team, the investigators will select some of these contradictions to develop the codifications to be used in the thematic investigation. Since the codifications (sketches or photographs [or oral descriptions of an existential problem]) are the objects which mediate the decoders in their critical analysis, the preparation of these codifications must be guided by certain principles other than the usual ones for making visual aids.

[…]

“Since they represent existential situations, the codifications should be simple in their complexity and offer various decoding possibilities in order to avoid the brainwashing tendencies of propaganda. Codifications are not slogans; they are cognizable objects, challenges towards which the critical reflection of the decoders should be directed.”

In the coming days, the class will strive to represent these codifications as ‘cognizable objects’ that extend in a “thematic fan” from the contraries at the nucleus of each’s journey into metaphysics. Following from discussions on the blog, as well as the fruits of #PhilsDayOff, the week’s dialogue leading up to the creation of the Discussable Object will seek to employ the concept of emergence on two levels:

“We need emergence on the level of meaning itself, but because meaning is attached to human subjectivity we also (at the same time) need it at the level of human subjectivity. In other words, we need the concept of emergence in a double sense.”

This double sense of emergence is something I feel might be possible within the context of the Discussable Object, as the group’s individual revellations will inform the development of a collective awareness. “Nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word,” says Hannah Arendt, adding (by way of Osberg & Biesta):

“Because human subjectivity emerges only when one acts with others who are different (Arendt 1958, Biesta 2006), this means education only takes place where ‘otherness’ – being with others who are different from us – creates such a space. In this sense it is the plurality of the ‘space of emergence’ that educates, not the teacher (Biesta 2006).

Here it feels as though we might be on the verge of a learning opportunity that organically binds the teaching of subject material with an acknowledgement and integration with an ongoing search for the self that “stimulates the appearance of a new perception and the development of new knowledge (Freire).”

 

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Metaphysical Emergence and the Discussable Object

Unplug'd 2012 Map Prep

Photo courtesy of Alan Levine

“It is to the reality which mediates [people], and to the perception of that reality held by educators and people, that we must go to find the program content of education.”

Paulo Freire

As we set out to encounter Metaphysics, my ambition as teacher is to help frame the creation of a learning object as an attempt at authentic social constructivism. Today we began with a conversation based on another Freire quote (about education being a ‘with’ transaction between teachers and students much more than a ‘to’ or ‘for’), and came away with a loose timeline and list of objectives and ambitions for the unit in the coming week.

“The investigation of […] people’s ‘thematic universe’ – the complex of their ‘generative themes’ – inaugurates the dialogue of education as the practice of freedom.”

Freire

Our task, in general terms, will be to encounter the lives and ideas of metaphysicians. And, in asking of ourselves what we can interpret of their essential guiding questions, to engage in the study of our own metaphysical thoughts and conceptions. This will happen in exposition on the class blog, connections made through comments and conversation, and inquiry through reflection and dialogue.

My hope is that these activities can be engaged in with the following in mind:

“…knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next. Knowledge is understood, rather, to ’emerge’ as we, as human beings, participate in the world. Knowledge, in other words, does not exist except in participatory actions.”

Osberg and Biesta

Thus far the group has agreed to the following objectives:

    • Delve into a metaphysical thinker’s life and ideas
    • Put their ideas into the context of larger theory, culture and critique
    • Evaluate one of your philosopher’s questions, ideas, or arguments with your own ideas about validity, truth and soundness
    • Narrate and participate in the creation of a collective representation of our learning about Metaphysics, and metaphysicians

This will begin with a blog post, wherein participants will demonstrate research and introduction to a philosopher of Metaphysics, and strive to respond to the following questions:

    • How did the philosopher’s life or biography influence their philosophical development?
    • What ideas or concepts are they credited with, or notable for?
    • How have these ideas been built on or incorporated into our modern zeitgeist or mindset?
    • What personal response do you have to the topics your philosopher explored?
    • What do you find confusing or difficult to conceive of, in your philosopher’s thinking?

And from there work through individual reflections and assessments of our own ideas contrasted against those of notable metaphysicians, as well as one another. Over the course of the following week, these experiences, discussions, reflections and activities will culminate in the creation of what for now we will call the Discussable Object. The logic here is derived from Osberg and Biesta again:

“…if educators wish to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

At present, the idea of the creation of the Discussable Object as an authentic constructivist summative assessment is unrefined; but the general intention is this: to create a collective representation of our individual journeys of understanding metaphysics.

This raises an interesting contradiction within emergentist epistemology that we will likely spend time in the coming week discussing, that:

“for the process of knowledge production to occur it is necessary to assume that the meaning of a particular ‘knowledge object’ exists in a stable form such that the ‘knowledge object’ can be used like a ‘building block’ in the production of new abstract knowledge objects. This idea, however, is precisely what an emergentist epistemology denies. Because the meaning of any new knowledge ’emerges’ would be highly specific to the complex system from which is emerged, it follows that no ‘knowledge object’ can retain its meaning in a different situation.”

This marks I think a necessary crossroads in the creation of the blended open-online course, as 24 of our participants will engaged in something that may only create significance between themselves; I wonder about our ability – or the validity of the attempt – to share this process beyond the constructivism of our physical classroom. Here I am left thinking about Jesse Stommel‘s post on Hybrid Pedagogy, How to Build an Ethical Online Course, and the idea that:

“We must consider how we’ll create pathways between the learning that happens in a room and the learning that happens on the web.”

Indeed.

 
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