Philosophy for Everyone

Brazil has apparently hit upon a piece of wisdom.
The official rationale for the 2008 law is that philosophy “is necessary for the exercise of citizenship.” The law—the world’s largest-scale attempt to bring philosophy into the public sphere—thus represents an experiment in democracy. Among teachers at least, many share Ribeiro’s hope that philosophy will provide a path to greater civic participation and equality.... 
"[I]f you want to build a just and democratic society, isn’t it useful to get as clear as possible on what you mean by justice and democracy and to examine if you have good reasons to pursue these?” I asked. “And aren’t your intuitions about knowledge, goodness and beauty worth investigating?” 
Well, perhaps. But first the students had more questions for me. Is it true that Canadian bacon is the best in the world? What do people abroad think about Brazil? How did I get into philosophy? And—still more personally—do I believe in God, a question I encountered almost every time. I tried to get out of it by mentioning Spinoza’s impersonal God. That didn’t mean much to the students and, truth be told, I don’t even believe in the God of Spinoza. “We knew it—all philosophers are atheists!” they would say. When I asked who was a Catholic, who was an evangelical, and who practiced the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé (Salvador alone has more than 2000 terreiros, Candomblé’s houses of worship), all students raised their hand at least once. 
I assured the students that until the nineteenth century hardly any philosopher was an atheist.  Plato’s Euthyphro—with its argument about the relationship between ethics and the will of the gods—gets us into a lively discussion. 
I asked them, “Do moral norms depend on God’s will? Would it be fine to murder an innocent child if God says so?” The students found the idea outrageous. 
“But doesn’t God order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?” I asked. There was a moment of confusion. 
“But Abraham also holds God responsible when he wants to destroy Sodom and Gomorra,” one student replied. That can be interpreted as an independent norm of justice, I admitted.
He goes on to ask whether God can be held to account to an "objective" standard of justice; but the kind of God who is posterior rather than prior to justice is a different kind of God than most believe in.  It's a holdover from the earlier period, when the God of Abraham was one of very many Gods, and not yet the God who is responsible for existence.  Justice is posterior to existence -- that is, its structure of 'what is just?' arises from the nature of that which exists.  If nothing existed, nothing would be just or unjust; and if the world was substantially different, our ideas about justice might be as well.

Since God is the source of existence in Christian, Jewish and Islamic metaphysics, God would have to be prior to justice.  He may very well choose to submit to the standard, but it is not an "objective" standard -- it is God's own standard.

Still, there are other metaphysics, and the important thing is that these kids are wrestling with the big questions.  The article goes on to cite some professional philosophers who mock the effort to teach kids who can barely read and write to think about these things; but that is foolish in the extreme.  Reading and writing are technical skills, and one learns a technique in order to achieve some higher end.  Thus, if you cannot show them a higher end to justify the effort, they will not bother to master the technique.  If you inspire them to pursue a higher end, they'll find their way to mastery of whatever technology they need.


Joseph W. said...

Damn straight!

Now, I have a lot of gripes about public education in general, and U.S. public education in particular. Places that have it normally use it to teach the national myth, and the national religion if there is one -- which at least has the positive effect of binding the community together, and encouraging people to their civic duties. Some U.S. public schools disdain that, preferring to teach Green myths...which at their worst are not only anti-industrial and anti-American, but practically anti-human. This also teaches a notion of social responsibility, but a pernicious one.

If you're looking for a "third way" to do some "social engineering" in public schools - this may be that way.

(Mrs. W. is taking her nap right now - I think she went to parochial schools in Brazil - if she tells me anything of interest about how they approached the matter I'll add a comment. Some of my own family went to Catholic high school and Jesuit undergrad - they got philosophy courses, but with a heavy-handed bias.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The question of whether God is prior or posterior to justice leads to fun confusing people who haven't looked into it, but it is essentially an unclear question, rather like asking "is red better than blue if yellow says so?"

I suppose teaching philosophy can't hurt, but these clever ideas to make people do things that are good for them often end up being too clever by half.

douglas said...

Grim, when were you ready for truly meaningful education in philosophy? I don't think young children are ready, they're still in the state of being instructed in the norms we decide are best, and just beginning to learn about questioning that. Come the teens all they want to do is the questioning part. Later, perhaps in college, they can be ready to start. In the meantime, logic and reasoning are better exercises, and tools useful in understanding philosophy later.

"...and the important thing is that these kids are wrestling with the big questions."
Despite the tone of the article, I remember being young and grabbing onto ideas freshly presented that sounded good on their face, and years later realizing why my father looked at me that way when I parroted that nonsense. The initial 'Socratic questioning' in too many cases is just the rope-a-dope to set you up to take in the new view being presented, and not really helping you learn how to be philosophical. I prefer indoctrination to happen at home and amongst social groups (like churches) chosen through free will. I certainly don't want the government making that decision here, and I can tell from the article I don't really want those pushing the program to decide it there either (note the continual attachment of "justice" to philosophy as needing to be taught).

I realize in Brazil, too many homes can't teach philosophy in a formal sense, but changes like this take time. Revolutionary changes are problematic, because someone has to decide the 'correct' philosophy to teach.

douglas said...

Let me add to that- once you achieve a literate society, and you combine that with the kind of freedom of information we have here today, you can really start to think about how to get more people interested in philosophy and have them see the relevance to their lives and the connection to citizenship. Brazil just isn't there yet.

Joseph W. said...

...[O]nce you achieve a literate society, and you combine that with the kind of freedom of information we have here today, you can really start to think about how to get more people interested in philosophy...Brazil just isn't there yet.

Huh? Are you saying that Brazil isn't literate? They are.. Are you saying they don't have freedom of expression? They do - though the UN complains that they don't regulate it enough. (Things were different under the military government, but that's a generation back.)

Grim said...


It's not clear to me that literacy is necessary to philosophy -- Socrates famously didn't write anything down, which is why we chiefly rely on Plato and Xenophon for our understanding of him. He taught (insofar as he can be said to have "taught," since he claimed to have nothing to teach) entirely by discussion.

I had the good fortune of being seriously introduced to Socrates at about seventeen. The first of the dialogues we read (and which might have been read to us) was the Laches, which I found gripping at that age -- it begins with a discussion of martial arts exhibitions, and involves veterans of famous battles questioning how you learn courage (and eventually what courage even means). It was one of the best experiences of my life, as part of an education that went on to discuss military history and Just War theory, and we read Clausewitz and many writings from Vietnam (at that time, the last serious war we had fought as a nation).

I don't think seventeen was too early, and I'm not at all sure that a judicious introduction couldn't begin much sooner.

Grim said...


The question of whether God is prior or posterior to justice leads to fun confusing people who haven't looked into it, but it is essentially an unclear question, rather like asking "is red better than blue if yellow says so?"

Well, red, yellow and blue are of the same order; there's no question of priority. What might be a parallel question is, "Given that human beings have a demonstrable preference for the color blue, is blue better than other colors?"

You might object that the human being isn't making "blue," but in fact to a large degree we are: what we call "blue" does not exist in the world, but only in our minds. So, to a real degree we are making the thing we are judging: so is it right to say that blue is better? And if it is better, shall we also say that a blue violet is better than a red rose?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am with Douglas on this. There are 17 y/o's who are capable, but they are unusual. Remember that abstract thought begins only around age 13 at best, and many never reach it even as adults. Much mischief can be done to those who are in school without much other life experience.

RonF said...

I've long held that somewhere around Sophomore year high school students should take at least one semester of formal logic. My objective was to enable students to be able to evaluate advertising claims and politicians' speeches. But it would further the intelligent discussion of philosophy as well. The inability to read or write does not mean that one cannot think. It just makes it harder to access others' thoughts and express one's own.

douglas said...

Joseph, I don't know much about Brazil, but I was mainly going on what was in the article, and the implication from the internal Brazilian critiques of the program was that literacy might be a problem- not in a functional sense (knowing how to read, write and compose at some level of competency), but in the sense of having the ability to synthesize complex concepts.

But the question of literacy is almost tangential- the real issue in my mind is that state run education that takes on philosophy becomes too great a temptation to a President like the one we have and his supporters to turn into an indoctrination tool. I'd prefer we left indoctrination to parents and their selected churches or civic organizations, and as far from government hands as possible.

Grim, I suppose I've always felt a little bit of an 'old soul' in my interests- although I still made more than my share of youthful indiscretions- and I think I too was interested in the big questions early. I didn't get into heavy philosophical reading until college, but I was interested in reading non-fiction a great deal, and fiction that was adult and dealt with serious issues, and I remember listening to Dennis Prager on the radio here in L.A. when he was doing his "Religion on the Line" show on Sunday nights- not the usual listening habits of a teenager who wasn't overly pious or zealous. I agree that you can start addressing the big issues early- perhaps even at 7 or 8, but at that age (and up into the twenties) I think the physical level of brain development and the scope of life experience to that point limit ones ability to go too deep. For however thoughtful I believed myself to be as a youth, I still go back to what I said earlier about recalling the look on my father's face as I'd regurgitate something I'd recently learned, and he'd question it, and leave it alone. Later I'd realize how ridiculous some of those ideas were, but when I was younger, I was still gullible. Imagine a system run by the left for the left, taking advantage of the system to instill just enough 'knowledge' to be dangerous into the general public- they've been working on it through dominating the press and universities, and something like this would be their holy grail, I'd think.