Saturday, March 21, 2009

2009.03.21 - MP Election by Lot - Secondary Rumination Part 3.

Philosophical Issues Around Learning and Teaching

I hesitate, sitting here, facing this e.tabula rasa. When first I thought of writing this piece, I remember having felt a clear sense that this would be an easy and interesting elaboration. But tonight I find myself unsure about how to begin or where I want it to go. My feeling of clarity muddied and hesitant, my ideas wispy and muddled.

Why? By now it would seem evident that I am not wanting for words. Perhaps I am concerned that further elaboration on whether or not the loquaciousness of my argument for MP Election by Lot is counter productive verbiage, and that any more words would be piling futility on top of pedantry. Yikes — that would never do!

And yet … is it wrong to question and explore the nature of ideas, especially contrarian ones, and their dissemination into a thinking-circumscribed society? I think not, although historically many have died and/or been imprisoned for doing just that. Not that my idea warrants a rub-out!

But I hesitate, none-the-less. I hesitate in part because I've read Lao-Tzu aver that

But I think I know enough, maybe, maybe just enough, to make an argument. But if I think that that is so, then maybe I don't. Know enough, I mean. Yet, I can't help feeling that if I cannot argue ideas, then how will I sit or walk or breathe without exploding? Is Lao-Tzu's argument true? It certainly has a ring of philosophical wisdom, but perhaps this idea is one that simply sounds good when, in reality, it lacks significant veracity or sagacity?

If those who 'know' do not speak, how does knowledge get disseminated?

After sitting here off and on over several days, reading, re-reading and wrestling with how to proceed, the locus — or perhaps the strange attractor — bending my thoughts has to do with the nature of societal or, perhaps, civilizing learning. Does a civilization learn from the bleated preachings of the wise or from first person experiences with scammers shilling shams? Neither? A tertium quid melange of both? For now I'll cherish the thought that with time and experience civilizations that do not collapse under the weight of their own corruption evolve wisdom enough to be saddened by war in both victory and defeat; to have heart enough to argue, over shared bread and wine, ultimate truths with the enemy rather than killing them on behalf of any of them.

And still so esoteric! Take a deep breath. Wrestle my ideas back to an acceptable perception of my so-called 'real' world. And so I wonder, in the 'real' world, have there been any civilizations that have risen above their ignorance, that have avoided collapsing under the weight of their corruption? My knowledge of history is too weak to think of any.

Perhaps the thing for me to do is remember that this, this ... thing I am writing began at the inner promptings I felt around electoral systems and democratizing them. I elaborated why 'my' little (s)electioneering by lot idea makes more sense, i.e. is more truly democratic, than re-clothing electioneering politics with one that is, at its very best, only superficially distinctive from it. I even argued that our current system is not, in pragmatic functionality, a democracy at all and that moving to an STV system will not change that.

Did I make this argument because I am too ignorant to know not to speak? Well, I think I made it because I felt compelled to convince the people of my society of the verity of my argument. I rationalized that I did not want to be just a purveyor of just another nonsensical idea to a people I knew would mostly perceive the idea as perverse at best, and ludicrously insane, at worst. And even as I write that I know that perhaps if I'd read Aristotle enough before I wrote anything I could have spieled less stridently because I'd have the backing of a respected authority. 'Aristotle said...' sounds so much more weighty and meaningful than 'e.gajd wrote.'

Of course philosophers have warned against the reliance on the words of dead philosophers, especially the esteemed ones. For example, Linji (or Lin Chi), founder of Rinzai Zen, wrote that 'If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.' Of course, if he actually knew that then, following Lao-Tzu, he would not have expressed it! Furthermore, if the 'killing the Buddha' metaphor holds weight, then the knowers who do not speak are aware that a misplaced word from the adulated sage has the power to kill an individual's proper path to their own individuality and enlightenment.


And now another sigh! I just realized that if Aristotle was actually respected, then I would not have been ignorant of his ideas. If Aristotle was actually respected his arguments, both right and wrong, would have been a part of my schooling more substantively than they were, given my six years of university across ten departments (although not philosophy). As I pondered why that is, I had an odd thought: is this an example of what Lao-Tzu may have meant when he wrote about knowers remaining mute? What I mean is that expressing the truth may be irrelevant because those who know it do not need to hear it, while those who do not cannot hear it anyway.

Curious. Thought of in this light, Lao-Tzu's adage has direct correspondence with the myths of Cassandra who was cursed with the ability to see and speak the truth, but to have that truth disbelieved and ignored by her society.

This whole train of thought is very grim! It infers that people cannot really learn unless they already know. This would mean that society is always doomed to death and decay, as those who know get ignored or, in many cases, persecuted, shunned or otherwise extirpated by the grasping ignorant who compulsively carve their way into positions of societal importance and influence. Sadly, this does somewhat correspond with both my perception of the nature of personal development, especially as influenced by formal post-secondary education, and the rise and fall of societal organizations and civilizations. C.P. Snow enunciated this 'truth' most eloquently:
More often than I like, I am saddened by a historical myth.... I can't help thinking of the Venetian Republic in their last half-century. Like us, they had once been fabulously lucky. The had become rich, as we did, by accident.... They knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. Many of them gave their minds to working out ways to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern into which they had crystallized. They were fond of the pattern, just as we are fond of ours. They never found the will to break it.

More grimness! I must say, this rumination has plodded in a direction I had not anticipated. At least not consciously. Although it is quite likely my unconscious knew something of the flavour my thoughts were taking me, given the protracted time it has taken me to get my ideas up into my word processor. Also, I quite likely have had trouble finishing this peregrination because it undermines my ostensible goal of getting people to believe my words that advocate the adoption of a democratic idea likely as old as agricultural city-states.

Even Chuang Tzu, my favourite writer, suggests that you take my words and toss them into the heap of over elaborated 'good intentioned' ideas:
Besides, do you know how virtue degenerates and
how learning arises? Virtue is consumed by fame.
Learning is born of contention. Fame causes men to
fight with one another. Learning is the weapon for
both. Both can be evil instruments. They are not
the means to perfection. Though you are highly
virtuous and trustworthy, if you do not understand
the spirit of men, and though you are famous and do
not compete, if you do not understand the minds of
men, but instead go to a tyrant and lecture him on
goodness, ethical behaviour, measures and
standards, you are just using the failings of
others to demonstrate your own superiority. This
is deliberately hurting other people. One who
hurts others will in turn be hurt.
You have too many plans.
These preconceived ideas probably won't get you
into trouble, but that is as far as they go. How
could you possibly influence him? You are still
too rigid in your thinking.
Or, in the words of a couple of westerners:
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you (Matthew 7:6).
None of the institutions, measures, and means of education established for the masses and the needs of men in the aggregate, whatever shape of form they may take, serve to advance human culture. In the vast majority of cases they are completely worthless for that purpose and are directly opposed to it. Our race develops its human qualities in essence only from face to face, from heart to heart. Essentially it develops only in little intimate circles which gradually grow in graciousness and love, in confidence and trust.
... The great decisions in human life usually have far more to do with the instincts and other mysterious unconscious factors than with conscious will and well-meaning reasonableness. The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no universal recipe for living. Each of us carries his own life form within him — an irrational form which no other can outbid.
Well, then, is there no hope that formal learning can do anything but produce 'mass' men fueled with irrational puffery and petulant ignorance? And that elaborated knowledge produces mass confusion and drifts of snarling swine? Is there any value in reading the ideas of others or of expressing my ideas?

The answer to that likely moves and shifts like
Sigh! I did not mean to be so dark and gloomy, here. And I must counter that, on my bright days, I say and even shout 'Yes!' Expressed ideas do bring about change beyond simply creating a weapon to trump all weapons, such as the abolition of slavery, an end to child chimney sweeps, the suffrage and emancipation of women. But other times I am dubious. I certainly don't expect my tiny little argument in the nether-worlds of society to effect broad societal change. But to pretend with the world that the naked emperors are clothed when they are clearly hanging free goes against the nature of my nature, and I will certainly describe the lay of the genitalia, even if no one believes me and the act of doing so marks me ignorant or, worse, a dismissible, cantankerous contrarian.

And we never know what may come from an expressed idea, what friendships may be struck and from them the exchange of ideas and culture. From there it is a tiny leap to see the possibility of the expansion of wisdom, the rejection of oligarchy, and the smallest most personally profound victories against vasty ignorance.
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that other made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home
we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug, that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other,
we should consider —
lest the parade of our mutual life
gets lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them
back to sleep;
the signals we give —
yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear:
the darkness around us is deep.

And is that what teaching/learning is? An 'appeal to something shadowy,' with the hope that we are moving away from the darkness?

Well, I hope my argument is a move away from the darkness, but if not that perhaps from oligarchy.

Good night.