Monday, 11 March 2013

Plato's cave, reality, and stuff

Today was my first day back in the classroom (hooray!), and despite feeling about as unprepared and disorganised as I ever have on a first week, it is certainly good to be doing 'real work' again.  Today, I was introducing a module on the philosphy of language.  This tends to be rather a fun module, because it focuses more on the ideas of a few key philosophers (Socrates, Locke, Humboldt, Russell, Davidson, Austin), and the classroom experience of thrashing ideas about is much more at the heart of both the learning and assessment process.

The assessment itself for this module takes the form of a learning journal, in which students are required to effectively 'blog' each week about what they have learned.  This will hopefully mean that their work will demonstrate on-going reading, thinking and (perhaps more importantly than all) observing language at work.

Since I am demanding that my students write each week about the experience, I would feel a little guilty if I did not do the same myself - so here goes...

Actually today we did not talk too much about language at all.  We spent the beginning of the class discussing the module itself and the assessment - about which the group asked some excellent questions which really suggests to me that they understand how to go about establishing a clear focus for their assessment from the beginning.

The rest of the class was essentially establishing the contexts for next weeks discussion of Plato's Cratylus Disalogues.  These dialogues are really the central classical text for the discussion of language philosophy, but today I wanted to talk more generally about classical philosophy in the hope that it would help students get the 'feel' for debating philosophical questions.

After a little bit of history, we started to discuss the ways in which philosophical discussion can be seen to relate to a desire for 'effective' and pragmatic governance.  Using the word 'reputation' we explored the disparity of value placed on abstract concepts as opposed to concrete, and how we might begin to defne those abstract concepts more securely.  'Reputation', we concluded, was indeed more valuable than something more tangible such as food, because the effect of reputation can have a more extensive impact over the long terms on food and a number of other concrete material necessities.

How do we know 'reputation' is real then?  Because we can see its effects.

This idea led neatly into a consideration of Plato's cave analogy.  The flickering shadow on the cave wall is like the effects of something real which we cannot know directly and concretely.  More than that though, those flickering shadows not only represent things which are generally accepted to be abstract anyway ('love', 'reputation', 'justice', etc.), they represent other things which we might believe are more concrete in themselves.

The illustration used for this was the word 'chair'.  Fortuately the classroom had some good props to illustrate this point: if we try to define something as seemingly simple as a 'chair', we start to encounter some discomforting problems. 

We could, for example, say that a chair is something that you sit on.  However, we can sit on all sorts of things that are not a chair - a table, a beanbag, a sofa, or the floor.  We might define a chair then, as something we sit on that has four legs - but then a table has four legs, and curiously none of the chairs in the classroom had four legs.  Something with a back then?  But a sofa has a back.

The point is, we all know what a chair is.  However, ask somebody to identify the universal characteristics which connect all chairs and most of the time they will struggle to do so.  What is interesting is that we all share an understanding of the universality of 'chairness', and can identify a chair based on that shared understanding.  This shared understanding though is inevitably an abstraction.  It is not connected to just one kind of chair - it is a metaphysical construct which links chairs together and defines them.

By exploring this idea, we began to see that it is not just abstract ideas like 'reputation' that are bound to an abstract reality which we cannot see, but everything concrete is bound to an abstract universality (what Derrida referred to as the 'transcendental signified').

So it appears not only are we not in Kansas any more.  We never were.

How does this relate to language?  Well, the question we ended with was about the origins of words.  If words refer to anything, do they refer to the concrete and specific realities we see in front of us, or to the abstract 'universality' we don't?  In either case, how does the word become attached to the universal in the first place?

These are the issues which concern Socrates, Hermogenes and Cratylus in The Cratylus Dialogues, which we will be discussing next week - but overall, not a bad start to the new term.