Reflections on SOPHIA & ICPIC part III

In this final post by Pieter Mostert he reflects on taxonomies, on pedagogy and on ‘philosophical experience’ and the aesthetic eye. 

What happens to notes taken during a conference? Usually very little, at least in my case. This time I decided to do it differently – after the ICPIC conference in Madrid and the Sophia Network meeting in Aveiro – and pushed myself to structure and unfold my notes into short essays, representing my ‘inner dialogues’ on a number of topics. Here is the third of 3 blogs on my reflections. You can read the first one here and the second one here.

You can find some of the presentations that were given at SOPHIA on our resources page for members.

On taxonomies

There are not many taxonomies. But there are very many lists / graphs / tables which divide a complex ‘thing’ in a number of subcategories and so on. When, for example, one looks at the structure developed by the editors of ‘Philpapers’ [https://philpapers.org/] for the more than 5,000 categories, one notices some kind of hierarchical order of areas of philosophy, themes and topics. It’s a practical tool and if the editors decide it’s time for some kind of adaptation, they implement it. The hierarchy does not pretend to tell us how philosophy ‘hangs together’.

A taxonomy, however, is only a ‘taxonomy’ if it can state the ‘nomos’, the law behind the division in ‘taxon’, roughly speaking: the categories. This I learned when I studied theoretical biology (which fortunately was still possible in the Netherlands in the seventies; soon after that it ‘died’). The perfect example of a taxonomy is Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements: within the theoretical framework of what an ‘atom’ is, it shows exactly why each element is designated a specific place. This theoretical framework is not undisputed in current science, but that’s not a reason for terminating the use of the periodic table. Linnaeus, however, made a similar attempt to design a taxonomy for all the plants and animals, a very lucid attempt, but the theoretical framework of genetics (model of DNA) has recently moved into such revolutionary technologies and applications, that a whole new perspective is emerging on the origin of and similarities among the animals and plants. In biology we are on the verge of a total revamp of Linnaeus’ taxonomy and start the design of a DNA-based taxonomy.

I’ve participated in several educational projects for designing ‘rubrics’ for assessment. I’m glad I’ve given up on that. The unsolvable problem was not the ‘breaking up’ of what teachers aimed at into categories and levels; that’s just a matter of combining sound expertise with creativity. The unsolvable problem was that there was no theoretical mode, or ‘justification’ behind the divisions we made, neither horizontal nor vertical. It all remained at a very ‘accidental’ level: accidently we arrived at certain divisions, we might as well have come to different ones. The same difficulty, I think, is endemic in lists of critical thinking skills / 21st century skills: they lack a ‘nomos’.

And how about Bloom? Indeed, Bloom’s taxonomy does not meet the main criterion of theoretical biology for a ‘thing’ to be called a taxonomy: it is uncertain and at least very implicit about the theoretical framework. In modern cognitive psychology there is a continuous stream of new attempts to come up with such a theoretical framework, all very interesting and challenging, but we’re not there yet. Bloom must wait, before we can decide whether his division deserves to be called a ‘taxonomy’.

On pedagogy

It was a surprise to me noticing during the ICPIC conference how loosely the term ‘pedagogy’ is used. In many instances I was not sure to what it referred. In Gert Biesta’s keynote address I spotted the word just a couple times, loosely used, without much emphasis. Is pedagogy the discipline that studies education? If so, does that include or exclude the study of learning? Are pedagogues the ones who promote the language of education, in contrast to those promoting the language of learning? Or does ‘pedagogy’ refer to what happens in the classroom? I did not invent these questions, I just wrote them down, having observed how the term was used (like “well, my colleague has a different pedagogy”).

We call them ‘Faculties of Education’ and some, but not all of the departments of such faculties focus on schools, teaching and learning. In Dutch, Afrikaans and German there are two words: onderwijs / Unterricht [education; focusing on what happens in and around schools] and opvoeding / Erziehung [‘raising’, like in “It takes a village to raise a child”]. Or from my own life: my boys go to school, but I ‘raise’ them; who’s doing the education?

I would say that ‘pedagogy’ is about ‘leading the young to adulthood’; there is not a big reason to divert from the original Greek word. Whether education in the stricter sense (what is done / what happens within the setting of schools) is seen as a part of pedagogy or rather as a counter part, I think is debatable (and is not of great interest to me). And whether the newspeak ‘educationalist’ is worth being used I don’t know either. A pedagogue who argues that (s)he isn’t one but rather is an educationalist, because schools are not taking their task to ‘educate’ seriously anymore – I do not think this adds much to clarify the picture.

So what is it about? I think it is about the role of the state / government in the education / pedagogy of the young ones to adulthood. Those who are inclined to radically separate the “learning done in schools” and the “education so needed”, have to answer the question how much or how little intervention / control by the state they want in schools once they have become ‘institutions of education’. Personally I must say that I am very happy that the focus of the state in all its mechanisms of control is on the learning of very specific things, in primary education mainly the competence in reading and arithmetic. I do not look forward to the day that the state decides to embrace ‘education’ in its full span and starts dictating very specific contents, approaches and assessments for the full spectrum of ‘being led into the world of adulthood’. So those who are in favour of ‘bringing back education into the schools’, should tell me what their views are on the role of the state. My facial expression is one of deep pessimism and worry.

On ‘philosophical experiences’ and the aesthetic eye

In philosophy for children we often assume that students have had certain experiences and that it is enough to refer to them in order to enable students to reflect on such experiences. Example: students can enquire what the problem is in bullying, what the relevance is of friendship, when a test is ‘fair’ or a person ‘honest’. We do not need to start with a setting in which they experience this, before the reflection takes off.

In other cases, however, it is recommended to start with ‘experiencing’ before the reflection can start. One of the areas where this is commonly done is aesthetics / reflections on art and beauty. I thought about this while spending most of my Wednesday in the Prado museum. I imagined being there with my class and how I would give them the following assignment (as I have actually done at several occasions): make small groups and go and look for beauty. Be back in half an hour and then we’ll decide to which place all of us will go to encounter beauty and start our reflection.

It is about more than just ‘having the experience’ – it is about having a common experience, common not in the sense that we all have the same experience, but that we experience the same: we were all there and witnessed what happened. As witnesses of this ‘event’ we enter the enquiry.

Such common experiences are important, maybe even crucial, when the enquiry is about a topic / issue about which opinions / world views differ strongly and maybe even in conflict with one another. I remind myself of the students who wanted to share their objections to what for them was ‘public nakedness on display’, but they only encountered criticism and unwillingness to listen and enquire. The teacher thought the topic was too sensitive and choose for something else.

I would take the class to Albrecht Dűrer’s paintings of Adam and Eve, sit on the floor and look at them. And then I would take them to a small circular space with beautiful light from the top. Against the pink coloured wall a female torso stands and nothing is there to veil her shame. From the text on the wall I learned that from the positioning of the upper arms the historians have concluded that her underarm and hands both covered her breasts and pubis, as the text says. She’s awkwardly naked, uncomfortable, and I as a viewer felt uncomfortable. I was glad nobody else was there while I ‘studied’ the torso and took a couple of pictures. Witnesses too have feelings of shame. Should the torso be on display? Or should it be ‘reconstructed’ with two prostheses first? In another case, a couple rooms further, this had been done, but that had happened a couple centuries ago, for reasons unknown. The class will have a look at that one as well. And we would talk about ‘puberty’ and how that term does not so much refer to growing up / coming of age, as to the awakening of our moral sentiments about the nakedness of our bodies.

There, in that setting, I / the facilitator believe, I have the confidence that we can make happen what will not happen in a classroom: an enquiry about nakedness, shame, pride and beauty. There, just there, because our shared experiences will lead us and help us to maintain our willingness of self-examination, as Socrates advocated.

About Emma Worley

I am the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of The Philosophy Foundation, a UK charity that trains philosophy graduates to do philosophy in schools, and then places them in schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged children. I am the SOPHIA Network Meeting co-ordinator. My life is one big organising trip.