American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Why the defenders of the liberal arts are wrong. (Or how Frederick Wilhelmsen gets it almost right.)
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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.

Tags: Philosophy, Education

8 Comments
Anonymous on Jun 20, 2009 at 3:42 pm

An empirical epistemology that "allows for the polymorphism of consciousness and the almost infinite possibilities of emergent probability" and Frederick Wilhelmsen almost gets it right because he almost provides a "virtue epistemology"?

No logos, only "the infinite possibilities of emergent probability" and praxis ("a certain kind of life that grounds our access to the real").

Aristotle's account of the human person as knower, Aristotle's epistemology simply dismissed as "quaint"? Or just "possibly perceived as quaint"?

RJ Snell on Jun 21, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Obviously my respondent is unconvinced, although I do not perceive any counterargument of theirs to which I could reply.

Would anyone disagree that the traditional model of the liberal arts is in serious decline in mainstream colleges and universities? I doubt it.

Would anyone disagree that the normal defenses of the liberal arts, made by very capable persons making very capable arguments, have found very little traction and in fact are largely ignored by mainstream colleges and universities? I doubt it.

We know that one reason is a ground-shifting alteration of epistemology-- the new organon. We know too that the old organon is thought hopelessly quaint. I'm trying to imagine a mainstream physics or mathematics or chemistry department which rejected the new organon in favor of the old. That simply won't happen. (and that's also why asserting "logos" or "praxis" is non-responsive. Which logos? Which praxis?)

In the humanities and social sciences as well we see the rejection of Aristotle. Much of what is studied here is the sort of thing Aristotle would find unintelligible. Nonetheless, is there any reasonable expectation to think the humanities or social sciences at mainstream colleges and universities would reject their empirical culture and return to the old organon. This simply won't happen.

I shudder to think what happens if we suggest the old organon to a business school.

And while Aristotle has had a resurgence (MacIntyre, Anscombe, Heidegger, Gadamer, virtue epistemology, etc.), this is not a recovery of his model of episteme--more often than not it's an embrace of phronesis as a rejection of episteme. Are we really to await the revival of belief in the intellectual powers outlined in the Ethics, Analytics, or De Anima? That just isn't happening, despite the cultured defenders of the liberal arts.

The metaphysics of knowledge (a la Wilhelmsen or Gilson) is simply not going to persuade an empirically formed culture--it's thought passe, quaint. Epistemologists do not talk in terms of sensible and intelligible species, active and passive intellects, the identity theory of knowledge, middle terms as causally explanatory, the intellect's capacity to become all things.

The old organon is perceived as quaint. The old organon is the grounding of an older conception of the liberal arts. And the older conception of the liberal arts is thought quaint.

Is that a valid syllogism? No one cares, and that's my point. Until the liberal arts are grounded in an epistemology acceptable to the post-Aristotelian mind, the liberal arts and their defense are likely to fail in mainstream education.

Sometimes one needs the new to maintain the old.

David Kidd on Jun 22, 2009 at 2:10 pm

A provocative thesis, vigorously defended, and worthy of serious consideration. I think the first comment is right to challenge your suggestion that the new organon as completely won the day, however: true, there may be many who reject the "old organon" as discredited, as quaint, but is the epistemology assumed by Wilhelmson et alium really dead? I don't think so; certainly not at the schools I attended (and I think they're taken seriously).

But even if it were the case that the new empirical culture is as dominant as you suggest, what then? A liberal arts education has always been meant to draw students away from their inherited, common-sense relation to knowledge. That most students don't think like Aristotle is nothing new; after all, Aristotle was not just documenting what everyone believed. I'm sure the business students of his day were just as dismissive of his epistemology as they are today.

Have I missed your point?

Anonymous on Jun 22, 2009 at 6:43 pm

"Until the liberal arts are grounded in an epistemology acceptable to the post-Aristotelian mind, the liberal arts and their defense are likely to fail in mainstream education."

Such defeatism my friend! Or such insane optimism! The liberal arts will not fail, mainstream education will fail. The later is more demonstrable than the first. Aristotle has not been tried and found wanting, he has been tried and found gloriously successful by those thus enabled to see success...our business majors at the University of Dallas don't snigger at his account of the good life, nor do our physics/philosophy majors disdain talk of logos or a universe. What is success as a businessman for anyway? What is it that a physicist studies? Here is a nice snippet about the public prosecutor in the trial of Marie Antoinette: "He was a hired politician covered with the politician's mask of firmness. Within he as full of the politician's hesitation and nervous inconstancy. A genuine poverty and a politician's hunger for a salary had been satisfied by the post of Public Prosecutor. He earned that salary with zeal and with litle discernment, and therefore, when the time came, he also was condemned to die." Rather good that. Thus, ignominiously die those who refuse to stand firm at the root, in either ethics or metaphyscs.

You don't find any argument in my previous post that you can refute? Neither do I find one in your post: experience of failure to implement a liberal arts program against the powers that be in the modern university is not a philosophical vitiation of the basis for the liberal arts. Here is an argument: “Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought - to philosophy and theology.”

Do you think that empirical science on its own can provide us with a "new episteme" or is that not beyond the province of empirical science to provide?

RJ Snell on Jun 22, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Thank you to the respondents.

It seems to me, however, that my point is neither tried nor found wanting. I am told that business students need to know about the good life, and chemists wish to know the universe. Of course that's correct and in fact I've indicated the neo-Aristotelian resurgence in ethics with approval in an earlier post.

But my claim is that Aristotle's EPISTEMOLOGY is largely rejected. My claim is particular: the one respondent is defending Aristotle's ethics and even the broad outlines of his metaphysics (the universe, logos) but I'm requesting a defense of the epistemology. As I said in the second post: "Epistemologists do not talk in terms of sensible and intelligible species, active and passive intellects, the identity theory of knowledge, middle terms as causally explanatory, the intellect's capacity to become all things."

I don't see this as denied or responded to because business students want a good life or chemists want the world to make sense--do those same business students eschew statistics since the individual cannot be defined? Doubtful. Do the chemists use the four causes to explain why water wants to seek the lowest place around. I hope not, and I suspect not at any of the schools David attended either, which is why they are well-respected. And, in response to David's generous comment, it is precisely the "common sense" nature of Aristotle's epistemology which is thought so suspect in a post-critical world.

So do we all want a good life. Yes. Must the scientist assume a logos, sure. But which logos? Appealing to the logos is not Aristotle's four causes or the posterior analytics.

My claim is about the mechanisms of knowing. Is anyone really taking seriously the notion of impressed form and the abstraction theory of concept formation? And since they do not, the older liberal arts cannot but languish should they be grounded in this epistemology. But if we had an epistemology which was conducive to explain empirical culture (note, this is not to encourage EMPRIRICISM--empirical culture is not empiricism).

Also I'm not denying the liberal arts in defense of modern education: should the liberal arts succeed they do so because they are true, so we should be able to construct an organon which allows the traditional liberal arts to flourish, which has been my request.

Susan Hanssen on Jun 25, 2009 at 1:04 pm

"But my claim is that Aristotle's EPISTEMOLOGY is largely rejected."

Yes, we caught that. But my contention that the demand for a new epistemology, to the extent that it capitulates to modernity's prioritization of epistemology is a kind of anti-Aristotelian, anti-philosophical stop-the-press action that destroys education at its very root. We do not study how we know; we study how We know X. Knowing x comes first or else all our pretty little epistemology is vacant of any object. Henry Adams saw the obstructionist character of this prioritizing of epistemology long ago.

Epistemology has become the be-all and end-all of philosophy, just as pedagogy has become the be-all and end-all of education.

This "cultured defender of the liberal arts" does not find "since Aristotle's four causes have been rejected" argument compelling. As a historian I amsurprised to find a philosopher reduced to such a historicist argument, but I guess we historians have been infecting every discipline with our bug. The greatest historicists of all are university administrators. We all know that university administrators, like adminsitrators of any government bureaucracy, like to present fait accompli as definitive answers to questions of value. But is seems our duty to resist such argument.

Thaddeus Kozinski on Jul 7, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Perhaps a deeper problem than epistemological error is the lack of understanding of education as a "craft" and the liberal-arts as necessary skills to becoming fully human, skills the learning of which requires apprenticeship in a "guild."

For the typical modern, knowledge—and especially the kind of “soft” and "leisurely" knowledge associated with the liberal arts—is seen to be acquirable on one’s own, without the need of a teacher or classroom or institution, and without the participation of both teacher and student in a communal tradition of which a liberal-arts college is the primary institutional embodiment.

Now, of course not all knowledge is seen to be acquirable through an autodidactic approach, in the comfort of one’s home, with a book in hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Would the typical modern student attempt to master the science of, say, nuclear physics, by such an approach? By no means, for, as nuclear physics is a “hard science,” the learning of it obviously requires the resources that only participation in a scientific community and institution of learning can afford: labs for experimental research, a proficient scientist or science professor to show one the complex scientific ropes, as it were, and a classroom environment in which to ask and answer questions to make the discipline one’s own.

However, when it comes to the liberal arts, the student avers, things are quite different: “Who needs a lab, mentor, or classroom to read a poem?” But this question misses the true nature of not only a liberal arts education, but of education in general. Education is essentially a craft, and as the acquisition of any craft requires a guild-like community of masters and apprentices, so to the acquisition of the craft of knowledge requires initiation and participation in a communal tradition of enquiry and learning, a “knowledge guild,” as it were, complete with master-craftsmen, the professors, and apprentices, the students. Active participation in such a community is indispensable for acquiring and acquainting one with the “tools of the trade”: in the case of the trade of the liberal arts, the tools of vocabulary, concepts, intellectual habits and skills, great texts and authors, and the distinct modes of thought and argument that are essential for the mastery of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, not to mention their derivative disciplines of philosophy, history, literature, fine art, natural science, and theology.

Moreover, the guild communities are necessarily part of a larger community that orients and integrates them, informing them with more fundamental truths and values, what we call a tradition. Tradition encompasses the concrete, contingent, particular, and historically embodied realities of our daily lives, and unifies them together into a coherent and living body of thought and practice. Tradition is any group of practices, customs, rituals, texts, arguments, authorities, institutions, and artifacts that are unified and understood through an authoritative story, one the community regards as indisputably true and which affords the participant in the tradition cultivated habits of knowing, judging, and feeling and thus privileged access to accurate and profound knowledge of the world, man, and God.

What the typical student does not see it that only through active participation in a tradition and the institutions that embody it are men rendered capable of discovering and achieving truth, for it is through a particular tradition that we ascend to universal truth. Indeed, without such communal participation, we are unable to make any sense of reality at all; our bodies, minds, and souls are themselves “products” of tradition, in a certain sense. As body-and-soul composites, our encounters with reality are always mediated by our bodies, which are themselves mediated by history and culture—we are born in such and such a place at such and such a time, etc. Even the words and concepts are given to us through what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “traditions of rationality.” We are all, “apprentices of tradition,” whether we realize it or not.

And so, without the master craftsman we call the professor to initiate the apprentice into the tradition we call western civilization, the guild we call the liberal-arts college, and the craft we call the liberal arts, the liberal-arts simply can not be acquired:

"Now, in general, the student is possessed neither of the experience, wide reading, nor the intellectual whole that is the privilege of the teacher. The student, then, if left to himself, even with ample time, to decipher the works of great authors, presuming he happened to know who they were, would languish, more often than not, in a desultory mix of error and insight dictated by the vagaries of an untutored taste. . . . Truly, the seeds and tendrils of knowledge are within the student by nature; but they are in need of experience and educational soulcraft in order to mature into the good fruit of learning, as the young vine is in need of the vinedresser. Art and nature work together to achieve the ends to which nature is ordered, but which nature has difficulty in attaining without the human person who is, in respect of nature, both apprentice and master."

Thus, unless a student uncritically adopts the peculiarly modern and highly dubitable notion that men are essentially “autonomous individuals,” the idea of acquiring mastery of any discipline of knowledge by oneself, let alone the highly difficult and complex artes liberals, he is more than half the way there to seeing the necessity of the liberal arts.

Of course, what still must be addressed is this question: “Why should I, who not only love the liberal arts but also recognize the necessity of acquiring them by participating in a craft-tradition of learning embodied in an integral liberal arts college choose to participate in one that is solely dedicated to the liberal arts, perhaps without majors (TAC, Thomas More, Wyoming Catholic), without electives, and without any deliberate practical orientation that would assure me that I would not only master the liberal arts, but also eventually master one of the many “servile” arts and sciences by which I could earn a living?” This is the tougher question.

A provisional answer from Sister Miriam Joseph:

"The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant—of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business—and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth."

Mary Ann Parks on Apr 10, 2012 at 11:18 pm

As Wilhelmsen said to me once, "Mary Ann, are you going to believe ME, or some BOOK!!!

about the author

R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell

Associate Professor and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University outside of Philadelphia. Ph.D. from Marquette, MA from Boston College and BSc. from Liberty University.

I work broadly in the history of philosophy, but especially Thomism in conjunction with contemporary thought. My first book argues for a Thomist, Bernard Lonergan, against the skepticism of Richard Rorty.

Starting to do more work on the natural law and especially the epistemology of apprehending the good.