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)
I’m not sure how you could do political or moral philosophy without asking how the world could and should be different.Report
My main comment is: yes! I really hope everyone reads this, it’s a really great piece of philosophy/pedagogy. I was in this sort of situation as an undergrad at an institution similar to Jen’s, working 35+ hours a week, caring for a child, but, most relevant to Jen’s point here, also bearing witness to the excruciating injustices my partner was subjected to as an undocumented immigrant. It was precisely the kind of thing Jen describes that drew me to philosophy, I think: my first philosophy courses were a deeply inspirational feminist philosophy course, and a deeply inspirational logic course, both of which (believe it or not) were effective in all the ways that Jen outlines here. I was very privileged in very many ways compared to many of my peers who were in superficially similar positions to me, and one of those ways was that I already had some of these tools (because of previous educational experiences), in some sense, even though I never knew that I was doing philosophy when I used them. But the constructive and imaginative aspects of philosophy were precisely what drew me to it. I’d only like to add that while Jen points out that these ways of thinking about philosophy are especially critical for oppressed people, it’s also true that this way of thinking about things can also be transformative for people who are structurally privileged, (I am at an institution with a high percentage of these students) students who have been completely sheltered from anything that would help them get started in the imaginative-constructive project–life experience, basic communication and experience with people not like themselves, but also, my students’ creativity/drive to think or do things for any reason other than grades has often been *so* suppressed by years and years of “being a good student” in non-pedagogically-thoughtful prep schools–even when they play an instrument or something, it’s all about drills and skills and never about improvisation). And while they might not *personally* benefit as much from pushing back against dogmatism–in fact, in many cases, they might have something to lose by doing so (though I think they gain more than they lose)–it benefits us all to get privileged people, as well as people who are dealing with day-to-day injustices, to engage in philosophy in these ways. But I agree with everything Jen says! Just wanted to add/emphasize that I think this is pedagogy for everyone, not just pedagogy (for) the oppressed. I ended up becoming a philosopher, but I very strongly feel that my undergrad degree in philosophy would have completely changed how I thought about and interacted with and imagined the world even if I hadn’t. Though I will add that dealing with immigration officials, police, courts, etc. becomes increasingly frustrating when you start learning about reasoning/logic/critical thinking/the imaginative/constructive process. In some ways being able to imagine a better world and start pushing back against injustice just ends up showing you how deeply that injustice runs.Report
Oh, one more thing: maybe, if we focus on thinking about philosophy this way, we can start to think harder about using sanitized thought experiments to deduce general moral principles, about whether “humorous” examples of people killing and raping and doing all sorts of things to one another, and, more generally, about what we have to gain from thinking about things in the framework we so often do in moral philosophy. I suspect most of the status quo is harmful to the imaginative/constructive project, and hence I disagree with the first comment: the status quo in most of meta, normative, and applied ethics has always struck me as precisely denying that we need to ask how the world could and should be different. One of the things that makes me not want to work in those areas (though I have recent hope that things could and should be different, and that people are making them so) is that the project is so often treated as a purely descriptive one, just a descriptive one *about* the normative realm.Report