Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


#Philosophy12 in 2016: Introductory Readings, Documents of Learning, What is Philosophy?

Shuttleworth Bight

Just over a week into our course, Philosophy 12 moves into the digital today, with almost sixty new authors joining the site authorship and two new assignments beginning to take shape over the next few days. By the end of the week, our philosophers will be publishing their first Documents of Learning; as we look ahead at next week, the first signposts in our journeys toward developing personal definitions of “philosophy” itself in presentations to be delivered in class as well as posted to the blog.

In the meantime, I encourage new students to get to know this space: explore the subject categories, tags, and what past philosophy 12’ers have shared here. The site’s content runs from reflections, presentations, and critical analysis, to interesting videos people have made or found, archives of class discussions, and commentary offered by inquisitive minds beyond our school community.

To the first readings we have encountered this semester, I will add these past articles and essays with the hope that they help you further your thinking toward our first two assignments:

“Philosophy matters, simply, because the answers to philosophical questions matter. Not only is it a matter of life and death, but a matter of, to name a few examples, the nature of law, the role of language, where morality comes from, whether there is a God, whether there is a self and what constitutes our identity, and what beauty is. What makes these questions important is not only that they help societies to function (although they certainly do), but that they reflect something deeply fundamental about human beings: that we are physical creatures, but our consciousness is not restricted to physical matters. Indeed, philosophy is both reflective and perfective of human nature.”

“In most cases, obscurity is a defect, not a virtue, and undue concern with interpretation puts the focus on people rather than problems. It is not easy to write clearly, especially on philosophical topics, and it is risky. Clear writers stand naked before their critics, with all their argumentative blemishes visible; but they are braver, more honest and more respectful of the true aims of intellectual enquiry than ones who shroud themselves in obscurity.”

“The examined life does not need to be the life of the sage, removed from society in order to evaluate it impartially. In fact, in order for it to serve in guiding the lived experience of individuals, it is actually a deeply practical enterprise. Another Greek philosopher, Epicurus, believed that a philosophy that did not assist a person in living a flourishing life was akin to medicine that did not heal the body: it was pointless. This is a little extreme: in some fields such as metaphysics the practical implications may not be immediately evident and it would be foolish to expect them to be, but even in these cases, the knowledge obtained by such reflections can be, and should be, shared because knowledge itself can be a constitutive element of the good life.”



Stephen Downes’ Theory of Epistemology

Blog well...
We are greatly fortunate to have a mind like Stephen Downes‘ join us from time to time in Philosophy 12 to offer comments, feedback and dialogue with our for-credit participants. Occasionally, he offers responses to assignments, as in the case of this semester’s mid-term assignment, where he proposes the following theory of epistemology:

Most theories of knowledge depict knowledge as a type of belief. The idea, for example, of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’ dates back to Plato, who in Theaetetus argued that having a ‘true opinion’ about something is insufficient to say that we know about something.

In my view, knowledge isn’t a type of belief or opinion at all, and knowledge isn’t the sort of thing that needs to be justified at all. Instead, knowledge is a type of perception, which we call ‘recognition’, and knowledge serves as the justification for other things, including opinions and beliefs.

You can read the rest of Stephen’s theory of epistemology here. But other philosophers writing their own Theories of Knowledge midterms this week may also find useful reading from an older piece of his writing, How to Write Articles Quickly and Expertly

From time to time people express amazement at how I can get so much done. I, of course, aware of the many hours I have idled away doing nothing, demur. It feels like nothing special; I don’t work harder, really, than most people. Nonetheless, these people do have a point. I am, in fact, a fairly prolific writer.

Part of it is tenacity. For example, I am writing this item as I wait for the internet to start working again in the Joburg airport departures area. But part of it is a simple strategy for writing you essays and articles quickly and expertly, a strategy that allows you to plan your entire essay as you write it, and thus to allow you to make your first draft your final draft. This article describes that strategy.

Begin by writing – in your head, at least – your second paragraph (that would be the one you just read, above). Your second paragraph will tell people what your essay says. Some people write abstracts or executive summaries in order to accomplish this task. But you don’t need to do this. You are stating your entire essay or article in one paragraph. If you were writing a news article, you would call this paragraph the ‘lede’. A person could read just the one paragraph and know what you had to say.

But how do you write this paragraph? Reporters will tell you that writing the lede is the hardest part of writing an article. Because if you don’t know what the story is, you cannot write it in a single paragraph. A reporter will sift through the different ways of writing the story – the different angles – and find a way to tell it. You, because you are writing an article or essay, have more options.




“Every philosopher is a child of his time…”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

While the balance of this article might come more clearly into focus as we approach social-political philosophy and ethics, the opening paragraph offers an interesting perspective for our epistemological consideration:

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Hegel wrote that every philosopher is a child of his time and none can jump over his own shadow: every philosophy, then, is “its time grasped in a concept.” In the twentieth century Adorno took up this idea again when he spoke of the irreducible “kernel of time” embedded in the center of any philosophical view, and of the “temporal index” of truth. Whatever these rather difficult doctrines mean, they clearly are not intended to imply that at any given time all opinions are equally true.

Here are Hegel’s own words translated to English, from the preface to Elements of the Philosophy of Right:

To apprehend what is is the task of philosophy, because what is is reason. As for the individual, every one is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes. If a theory transgresses its time, and builds up a world as it ought to be, it has an existence merely in the unstable element of opinion, which gives room to every wandering fancy.

How do you interpret Hegel’s thinking above? Do you agree that “every one is a son of his time”? Of that “it is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world”?



Introductory Readings: What is Philosophy?

Susan Sontag’s copy of Finnegan’s Wake

Introductory readings this week in #Philosophy12:

Talk with Me by Nigel Warburton 

The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society. As Plato’s Socrates tells us, ‘These are not trivial questions we are discussing here, we are discussing how to live.’

Philosophy and its History by Graham Priest 

So why are we still reading the great dead philosophers? Part of the answer is that the history of philosophy is interesting in its own right. It is fascinating, for example, to see how the early Christian philosophers molded the ideas of Plato and Aristotle to the service of their new religion. But that is equally true of the history of mathematics, physics, and economics. There has to be more to it than that—and of course there is. 

Why not just weigh the fish? by Robert Pasnau 

If even philosophy is dismissed as a waste of time for being insufficiently scientific, where does that leave those other modes of humanistic inquiry? Reading Plato or Chekhov may not stop the planet from warming or cure a disease – or help build more accurate missiles – and it may not point the way toward a new science of ethics or will. Yet what of it? Does such inquiry not have a value of its own? That is of course itself a philosophical question.



A Solely Human Aspect of Existence: The Experience of Beauty

Image from Wikipedia.org

Another reading on Aesthetics for those looking into Kant, and the nature of beauty:

In the history of thought there is probably no philosophy that has posited the question about man with the intensity, extensiveness and centrality equal to those present in Kant’s philosophy. It is well-known that in his last work, Logik, which appeared as edited by his student Jaesche, but reviewed by Kant himself, he sums up the three fundamental questions which guided him throughout the elaboration of his own thought (‘What can I know?’, ‘What ought I do?’, ‘What can I hope for?’), in the one, fundamental question, into which every other question flows: ‘What is man?’. In each of his works there come to light aspects of the humanity in man which circumscribe to man, in an ever more precise and essential way, a proper and irreducible character. In this way of approximation to the being of man, the experience of beauty comes to have a singular place.



Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Thanks to eternal #Philosophy12 participant and friend GNA Garcia for sharing this Harvard University course on Justice. Covering topics from murder, to cannibalism, and ethical conundrums well-beyond, the popular Harvard class (billed as “the most popular class in Harvard history”) is available freely on the Youtube. Embedded above is the first episode, which tackles the Moral Side of Murder:

If you had to choose between (1) killing one person to save the lives of five others and (2) doing nothing even though you knew that five people would die right before your eyes if you did nothing—what would you do? What would be the right thing to do? Thats the hypothetical scenario Professor Michael Sandel uses to launch his course on moral reasoning. After the majority of students votes for killing the one person in order to save the lives of five others, Sandel presents three similar moral conundrums—each one artfully designed to make the decision more difficult. As students stand up to defend their conflicting choices, it becomes clear that the assumptions behind our moral reasoning are often contradictory, and the question of what is right and what is wrong is not always black and white.

You can explore the world of justice on their interactive and multi-media website.