Why the defenders of the liberal arts are wrong. (Or how Frederick Wilhelmsen gets it almost right.)Print
By RJ Snell, June 20, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching
Education is governed, if only implicitly, by epistemology. Since things are known according to the mode of the knower, then education which is not fantasy is goverened by what can be known and how.
Consequently, a change in epistemology would result in a change in education. So when Aristotle's Organon gives way to Bacon's New Organon there is a concomitant change in education.
The notion of empirical culture goes some distance in explaining the variety and extent of disciplines and sub-disciplines. In classical culture only the universal and necessary admits of episteme, whereas in empirical culture anything which can fit into experiment and statistical probability can be known. And so in empirical culture there is a corresponding disregard for the universal, unchanging, normative.
Any attempt to formulate an adequate grounds for the liberal arts cannot hope to persuade should it be, or be perceived, quaint. Aristotle’s Prior and Posterior Analytics cannot ground a new liberal arts defense. The syllogism is replaced by Ramus and Boole, episteme by experiment—and should the liberal arts be viable they need governance by an adequate epistemology, one which admits a place for empirical culture, one which allows for the polymorphism of consciousness and the almost infinite possibilities of emergent probability.
Do defenders of the liberal arts have such an epistemology? If so, what is it.? If not, how can we expect to be taken seriously.
Wilhelmsen almost gets this right in his essay "The Great Books: Enemies of Wisdom." Philosophy, he says, especially for a non-book culture, must be talked into existence, largely because philosophy exists to inculcate personal habits by which the philosopher is able to be open to receiving reality. If he's right, then a defense of the liberal arts requires a virtue epistemology, ie, an account of how formation of a certain kind of life and the characteristics of that life are the grounds of our access to the real, and then how the liberal arts form such virtues.
It isn't enough to defend the liberal arts or the great books, that’s closing the door after the horse escaped. What is needed is an account of the human person and their knowing, then an account and defense of the liberal arts.