A Primer for Philosophy & Education

Sam Rocha is a phenomenologist teaching at the University of North Dakota, and I have the pleasure of writing for Dear Patheos at his side. This Mexican guitar player is responsible for a revolution in my personal love-affair with philosophy, one that freed me to recognize the limits of argument and the necessity for, well, show-and-tell – to see art, poetry, music and story-telling as equally valid conduits for truth as essays and syllogisms. (Also, he kicked my ass for relying on etymology to determine the meaning of words.)

He’s written a book for his students and anyone willing to be taught. It’s called “A Primer for Philosophy & Education,” but I recommend it not so much for his clear instructions regarding the mode to take for learning, and learning well, but for his admonishments on how not to learn:

Do not be fooled into thinking that knowing a lot of trivia or data — such as bits and pieces of information about philosophers — amounts to a serious familiarity with philosophy. Erudition is not necessary for original philosophy.

Education cannot be institutionalized or corralled…Beautiful teaching requires an explicit, philosophical interest in education–in the widest sense. A gifted teacher always sees more to things than the institution or the profession dictates. Any teacher worthy of the name sees the person.

Rocha develops an introduction to a thick, warm, intensely human way of approaching philosophy, in which we should “try to understand the difference between information-knowledge and wisdom-knowledge, between knowing about something and knowing something, the limits of knowledge and the excess of understanding.” He takes up Husserl’s cry – “back to the things themselves” — and places an immense value on description:

Do not mistake words for things…Always ask what thing any given word is attempting to describe.

 Good philosophy and education both show things. Mediocre philosophy and education only say things. Bad philosophy and education accomplish neither.

Philosophy should ultimately show something that matters. I think the book is far too short, but maybe that’s the point — it forced me into my own conclusions. For instance, Rocha makes the incredible argument that “understanding is beyond the scope of knowledge because it requires more than knowing, it requires being–being in love,” and then all but leaves me to wrestle with the immense implications. I think this primer is perfect for those who want to enter into philosophy, but find themselves intimidated by the overwhelming vocabularies, the huge scope of philosophical history, or the sneaking suspicion that philosophy has nothing to do with life. Rocha confirms what every ennobling philosopher confirms, that philosophy is ultimately a human project, a fulfillment of the person and a road to growth and personal blossoming. His book is available on Amazon.

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  • Brian

    ” (Also, he kicked my ass for relying on etymology to determine the meaning of words.)”
    I have been looking for a good critique of people who rely too heavily on etymology. How’d he do it? Was there a good book or article?

  • Daniel Maldonado

    I just bought it upon reading your recommendation and I did so because I do not study philosophy academically and can only flirt with it on quiet nights or on a weekend morning.

    When I do flirt, it borders on going “all the way” and I always have a strong urge to pick up some academic books on philosophy to dive right in.

    After reading the description, I feel like this is where I need to start before embarking on such a journey.

    Thanks Marc!

    • Timothy Rothhaar

      I think it depends on what you consider to be an academic book. Being a philosophy graduate student, I would recommend you dive right into the primary material you are interested in (e.g. if you like Kierkegaard, read “Fear and Trembling” and not a commentary about it). Don’t let the opinions of others’ influence your reading of a text. There is always something new to be found!

  • JL

    My concern with what little I know of phenomenology is that it takes human experiences as its starting point, and can therefore lead very easily and naturally to subjectivism. On the other hand, Scholasticism/Thomism takes what is as its starting point and proceeds from there, and therefore avoids these dangers.

    • Timothy Rothhaar

      Phenomenology looks at how experiences produce certain ways of theorizing. Theories are not just solving sets of problems, but are rooted in an experience of the philosopher–something happened to this person that causes him/her to theorize in a certain way.

      We do not look to a dictionary because language is confusing; we look at experience. Phenomenology studies personal spirit and its relationship to the world.

  • strict observance thomist

    I am confused as to how art, music, etc. could be nearly as effective in truth-telling as, for example, a metaphysical argument. Neither art nor music can prove, for example, the existence of God, and attempting to do so will necessitate recourse to an argument based on gradation of transcendentals like Aquinas’ argument, and then we have the metaphysical argument subsuming the art and music anyway. But a metaphysical argument can indeed prove things like the existence of God. The philosophical sections of Aquinas’ Summa elucidate truths that, it seems, can only be obtained by a rigorous syllogistic-type reasoning, as opposed to artistic expression. This is, of course, not considering cases where the music itself contains a metaphysical argument, since there it is the metaphysical argument that contains the truth rather than the music itself.

    Now it might be said that an artistic or musical expression can display certain aspects of truth, such as, for example, the transcendence of God as portrayed in a particular piece of music or a painting. This is true, but here the artistic and musical expressions have a dependence on the logical argumentation involved to understand those realities. It is the task of the music and art to portray certain things, whereas it is the task of logic and argumentation to know and to justify these things. One can make art and music about a variety of things that are not true like paganism or mythology. The truth value of artistic expressions comes from the fact that the art coincides with the truth as known by logic and argument.

    One could object here that even if one did not have a particular, for example, metaphysical argument to justify some truth, and one did have an artistic portrayal of that truth, then the artistic portrayal’s truth value would not depend on the priority of some metaphysical argument. This is true, but it is true in the same sense that a fantastical writing like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings might be discovered to have actually happened on some far away planet. It is utterly devoid of justification without reference to some argument or form of logical reasoning. A painting can tell us something about a past event because we see it and recognize, this is a painting; this is a painting of human beings; the human beings are participating in some event; the event has the character of being in the past, and so on. Music can tell us something about our connection to God because we hear it and recognize, this is beautiful; there are beautiful things in the world; nothing can give what it does not have; therefore the cause of the world must have beauty. But depictions of other things purely by themselves do not contain any information which could justify truth, except basic propositions about the depictions like “this painting exists,” which is really a metaphysical claim anyway since it depends on a notion of existence. Even the claim that a human painted it would depend on some sort of reference to the human intellect and ability to do such things, and to causality which is only properly described by a logical treatment of it.

    Still, I do not particularly like that line of argument that I gave above (nothing can give what it does not have, etc.) since it seems more easily disputable and less easily explainable than, for example, an argument based on a per se causal series of the conjoining of essence and actus essendi in contingent things in the world. It seems that attempts to eliminate argumentation in considerations of art and music, for example, end up (although I am open to a further attempt that does not fall into this problem) being appeals to feeling, like “this is so beautiful that it makes me feel connected to God,” which is good for spirituality but not good enough for demonstrating truth, except the limited truths that something makes me feel a certain way (and even then that depends on causality which is a logical issue). This is because a feeling of connectedness to God, if one has not established that God does in fact exist and does make us feel connected to Him (which requires an argument), could be explained by other things. The feeling by itself does not, I think, tell us that God does exist. Or, if it does, it could only do so by going through a logical argument.

    • SamRocha

      Thanks to all, Marc most especially, for their remarks here. I am very happy to correspond and field questions about my book and other things, too. (My e-mail is samuel.d.rocha [at] gmail [dot] com.) I feel moved to reply to this comment with a very simple, and surely unsatisfactory, phrase: Everything that shows itself, offers. (My variation on Jean-Luc Marion’s notion of giveness: “Everything that shows itself, gives itself.”) This is to say that what is, is shown (even if it is “shown” through mystery or concealment), and that showing offers something, a gift — the offering that precedes the gift. In this way of speaking and thinking, there are many things that show and offer and there is something we may call true (or at least real) about them in their sheer showing and offering. This is how, I think, God reveals and conceals and offers us life through love — not the simple sentiment of love, but the (forgive the jargon) ontological condition for the possibility of showing. (Something like Augustine phrase “Nemo est qui non amet.”) My little, modest book is open to the use of the analogical, but it also leaves room for the allegorical. Plato, of course, wrote plays and told stories and Jesus told us very tricky parables. They surely have something to offer us, too, alongside the brilliant arguments and disputations of The Philosopher and the Angelic Doctor. In the end, I think I am interested in trying to find ways to practice philosophy, or perhaps to overcome the very limits of philosophy, by trying to show more than we say.

  • Beth Turner

    Sounds a lot like what Dr. Montessori was also trying to get at – treating even the smallest children as free persons.