education philosopher

William James and Libertarianism

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on November 8, 2015

I came to William James about 10 years after I came to a libertarian understanding of politics and the world. Thus, I know that the work of James did not lead me to libertarianism and doubt that libertarianism affected my subsequent appreciation of the works of William James. But since I’ve been a libertarian in political outlook for about the last 20 years, and I consistently fin William James to be one of the most edifying philosophers, I sometimes wonder if the two are congruent with each other.

On its face, it seems like there wouldn’t be. Libertarianism is a political ideology that puts human liberty at its core, and the William Jamestype of libertarianism I subscribe to believes that political/social arrangements achieve liberty best when there is minimal government and the rest is left to voluntary arrangements (by markets or other means). William James was a philosopher/psychologist with a wide range of concerns, none overtly political; he spawned a (variation on) a pragmatic theory of truth, crafted a theory of experience called radical empiricism, and wrote on other topics. But never, from what I can tell, politics.

But there are at least two ways I can see the works of William James being congruent and fitting quite nicely with a libertarian worldview. First, as wide-ranging as James’s work was, his philosophic projects always placed individuality at its core. (more…)

A Jamesian Reason for Loving the Philosophy of William James

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on November 2, 2015

There are a few philosophers whose work I find myself rereading every year or so. John Stuart Mill is on that list. Friedrich Hayek is on that list. But William James, the American pragmatist, is at the very top of that list. More than any other philosopher, I think that William James really got and conveyed the complexities of life and human experience. At the heart of his pragmatic thought is the idea that humans struggle with tasks like ascertaining truth and navigating the external world without the ability to access the outside world independently of our subjective experience of it. We can imagine what the world is objectively like, and we can find out new things about that world, but we can never quite get beyond subjective experience.

Because that is roughly James’s starting point, James also puts a lot of weight on the idea that when we see the world, we are doing more than seeing the data – we are interpreting the data almost while we see it. When I see my office, I don’t just experience sense data, but interpret that data such that I see it as my office (an interpretation) with my computer (an interpretation), the chair I sit in while using the computer (an interpretation), etc. Interpretation and subjective experience is a part of the way reality is presented to me; I can’t see the world “as it is” because subjective experience is always part of, well, my experience.

What does this have to do with anything? Last night, I was reading a beautiful essay by William James called The Sentiment of Rationality. Here, he explores the emotional side of philosophy. Yes, we may accept a philosophy more or less because we think it explains what it seeks to explain well, but there seems an unavoidably emotional side to why we gravitate toward one philosophy over others.  (more…)

Mortimer Smith and the Diminished Mind (book review)

Posted in Book reviews, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on February 3, 2010

One common retort to those who criticize the historical ascendancy and stranglehold of “progressivism” in education is to simply deny the charge. Diane Ravitch, for instance, met just this type of denial when she published Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform. Critics, generally with an affinity for “progressive” pedagogy, told us that Ravitch’s history was hopelessly biased and a bunch of spin. Progressive ideals, they say, did not fail: they were never really tried.

It is too bad for these critics that books like The Diminished Mind by Mortimer Smith, were published. TDM was written in 1954 as a way to chronicle the educational landscape as it looked at the time. Smith’s verdict?

I do not think anyone will challenge the statement that pragmatism has become the official philosophy of the public education; there may be an occasional maverick scattered her and there but the great majority of the professors of education are committed to this philosophy and they transmit it to the future teachers and administrators whom they train to run the American public school system (Smith 1954, PG78-79).

By “pragmatism,” Smith is referring to “the pedagogical principles which formed the basis of what came to be known as progressive education and is now more commonly referred to as modern education.” (PG78)  The educational pragmatism Smith judged to be the dominant philosophic force in education (ushered in by Dewey; perverted by followers) included the idea that education is to center around the child’s immediate needs and should serve not to convey knowledge but to “reconstruct experience” (which, of course, Dewey was never really clear on what was meant). These ideas manifested themselves in various curricular theories, two of which Smith examines in some detail: education for life adjustment and education for social reconstruction.

Chapters II and III (Adjustment Replaces Education and Adjustment Replaces Education Continued) discuss and thoroughly document the rise of the “life adjustment” theory of curriculum through the public schools. (more…)