Philosophical Education and Constructive Imagination

Philosophical Education and Constructive Imagination


As we’ve discussed before, most of our students are not heading off to become philosophers. Increasingly, students already have jobs and are saddled with time-consuming responsibilities, and are coming from a broader range of socio-economic backgrounds. What good is a philosophical education for them? Jennifer Morton (City College of New York) takes up the question in an essay in The Philosopher’s Magazine.

Here’s the set-up:

Picture yourself as a young mother with two children. You enroll in university to obtain a bachelor’s degree, hoping to give yourself a better chance at a job that pays a living wage. Maybe you receive government loans to pay for tuition, and rely on your family’s help, but you still don’t have enough to pay for living expenses and childcare. So, you continue working at a job that pays slightly above minimum wage while taking a full load of courses. Every day you wake up early to get the children ready for school and commute an hour or more to university. After class, you pick up your children from school. If you’re lucky, you can drop them off with a relative while you go to work. By the time you return home in the evening, you are tired, but still have many pages to read and assignments to complete. This is your grueling daily routine. Now, ask yourself: what could philosophy do for you?

Morton acknowledges some common answers, from the development of critical thinking skills to the discovery of fundamental truths, yet argues that a different kind of answer is worthy of attention:

philosophy is the antidote to the uncritical acceptance of the world and ourselves as we are. This answer falls squarely within the classical tradition of philosophy as an ethical and political enterprise. And if it is right, it is students like the one imagined above, with little time and few resources, who have the most to gain from philosophy, because it is they who stand to lose the most if the world stays as it is….

The way injustice often undermines our agency is by shrinking the horizons of what we think is possible. We simply accept that things cannot be any other way than they are. The kind of critical thinking central to philosophical education allows us to question how things are and, often, to realize that how things are is not how they have or ought to be… Philosophy, far from being an intellectual diversion for the elite, can be central to the empowerment of those who are so often disempowered outside of the classroom. 

How can philosophy do this? According to Morton,

if this is the role that philosophy can play then we cannot understand it as merely a critical enterprise. Philosophy must also aim at a remedy—it must be constructive. This requires that it be both critical and imaginative. In order to do this, a philosophical education should go beyond showing students how to be critical thinkers: it must also teach students to imagine how the world could be different than it is and, in so doing, to consider better ways for them and the world to be.

She gives some examples of how to teach with an emphasis on constructive imagination. Further suggestions and discussion welcome.

(image: installation of “Golden Connection” by Grimanesa Amorós)

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