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A teaching confession

Date:04 December 2020
Author:Andrea Sangiacomo
White Mirror
White Mirror

A teahcing confession: or an important but neglected side of philosophy that needs to be practiced and taught, now presented in some lengthy reflections (but also concise in their own way) that touch upon potential drawbacks of current teaching practices, particularly occasioned by the need of rethinking our way of relating to teaching and learning philosophy during the time of a world pandemic, which engender experiments with using new pedagogic tools, and during which the writer himself of these reflections had plenty of time to enjoy some solitude, reconsider several assumptions behind his own teaching practices, and begin to enjoy the pleasure of writing very long sentences, which he would have otherwise censured and made much shorter, especially in titles and sub-titles.

You want to understand a text, say, Descartes’s first meditation. Usually, you begin by reading it, one or more times. Then you analyze it, make sure you understand the terminology used, the main goal(s) of the text, the arguments used to support that goal, and perhaps reflect on whether, and to what extent, those arguments are sound, whether they miss something, or whether something more remains to be proved. This is all part and parcel of the technique of textual analysis. Here, the text itself is the focal object of attention. Textual analysis involves a good deal of semantic manipulation: you take a certain text as input, you work with it, and you produce another semantic structure (a written piece, or just sentences in your thought) that represents the first, mirrors it, explains it, like a map. All good and sound. But something remains unexplained. What does this semantic analysis have to do with understanding? How do you know that you have understood something?

A common way of answering these questions is just to check how good the semantic analysis is. Did you miss something? Was there anything that was difficult to put in order? Any bit that was untreatable? Most often, these are good questions in order to check whether the semantic analysis is sufficiently thorough. And yet, above a certain threshold of ‘good enough’, it would be hard to tell, based on a pure semantic analysis, to what extent the one who performed it genuinely understood what that text is about. This issue has not just to do with whether more remain to be said about a certain text. Of course, more will always remain to be said, just because semantic analysis is open-ended. You can always further manipulate semantic phenomena and (surprise!) get new semantic phenomena. No, the issue is that in order to understand whether one has fully understood, one needs to understand what it means (what does it take) to actually understand something. It sounds like a semantic trick, but it isn’t, it’s just the trick behind all semantics. That trick needs to be understood.

As a rough working definition, one might say that understanding is a way of relating to something. In this way of relating to something, the object we’re relating to does play a role, but this role is that of a touchstone, a point of reference. What we’re really doing is the relation itself, the ‘relating-to-that-object’ is where understanding occurs. Hence, when (and while) we understand something, this way of relating to the object also involves the one who relates to it, and how they are both affected by this relation. Those who are fond of jargon, might call this meta-cognitive awareness (awareness of the quality, texture, savor of your awareness when you’re aware of something else). The label doesn’t matter, the experience does. When you read how Descartes is trying to get rid of all sorts of assumptions, to the point of doubting that he might have a body, or that there might be a malicious demon deceiving him, how do you (the reader) feel about this? How do you relate to it? While you’re processing sentences, arguments, claims, and so on, how is that processing affecting you? Also, if you are in a certain mood, say, boredom or fatigue, how is the relation taking place? And what happens when the mood is different? Does the relation (the understanding) change your mood? If yes, how? If no, why? Can you keep track of the interplay between your background condition and your way of looking at your object while you’re in the process of understanding it?

These questions indicate that in order to understand something, we need to understand what understanding means. In order to understand what understanding means, we cannot just focus on the object in front of us, forgetting that the object does not care for being understood, it is us who look at it– those who care. Forgetting that we (I, you, whoever) are doing something while understanding, and that this ‘something’ is more than just playing semantics, prevents a genuine, deeper understanding to unfold, simply because it neglects at least half (but likely more) of what is going on in the phenomenon of understanding.

There are many circumstances and ways of relating to objects and experiences in which the standard attitude (and also the one that is more or less explicitly fostered and encouraged) is rather quick and superficial. See something. Like or not? React with a couple of words, or just add emoticon. This or that? Coffee or tea? Coffee, thanks. Here you go. Bad argument, that inference doesn’t work. Dam. Play some music, it’s getting boring. That might be fine in some cases. But if this is the only way we have to relate to our own experience, it might become a prison we fear to escape. It is a commonplace to say that philosophy is some sort of love for knowledge or wisdom. Let’s take it seriously for a moment. It is hard to imagine how one could cultivate this love without a deep care for the depth of one’s understanding and then for including one’s own relationship to it. After all, the experience of love teaches that this is most often a plural relationship (dual, trial, n-al), it involves not just a beloved object you stare at, it also involves you, the lover, doesn’t it? Maybe there are moments, circumstances, or worldly businesses in which quick-and-superficial is appropriate. Philosophy can hardly be one of these.

However, it would be unfair to call for depth in philosophical understanding while assuming that this is a natural attitude, something everybody is born with. In the same way in which philosophy is a human construction (very much like anything else in human culture, including writing, reading, riding bikes, playing music, going to school), also understanding is a construction, and like any other construction is something that needs building, a.k.a. learning. One cannot expect philosophers to be skillful in understanding if those philosophers are not explicitly trained in it. Sure, you might have some natural talents, but that is not more helpful that having a good hear from music and thus be left alone in front of a piano, trying to figuring out some Chopin. Nobody can be trained in understanding if one’s own attitude towards the contents of understanding are never fully taken into account, investigated, developed, made object of attention as much as the purported object itself.

There is a tendency in today’s Academia in presenting philosophy (as many other fields) as a quasi-science, insofar as it deals with certain special objects (some call them ‘ideas’), manipulates them, publishes peer-reviewed papers about them, and so forth. On some positivist account (which are ironically not very trendy these days among epistemologist themselves) science is concerned with an observer-neutral way of looking at phenomena, seeking objective truth in the real world out there. Thankfully, anybody understanding (!) Descartes’ Meditations might realize that the story has to be more complex than that. And yet, when philosophy itself is concerned as an academic practice, it is not uncommon to find oneself trapped in the ideal of ‘be objective’ about what one does, as if there was an objective reality out there, somehow accessible through certain means (most often, logical reasoning), which we ought to witness and defend from frauds and misinterpretations (if you want to learn more on this, ask Martin Lenz).

Even if there was such an external objective reality, plying this sort of game would still misconstrue the main task of philosophical investigation. If there is an objective external reality (call or define it as you like), then, by definition, it does not care, nor does it need any of us to look at or witness it. That reality is most probably already quite fine without philosophers asking her questions and wanting to write a good report of her in their journal papers. She might even think that philosophers are just this weird sort of intellectual paparazzi, why talking to them?

Way more relevant and urgent is how philosophers themselves relate to the objects they study, and any object might really do, since that relation itself is more important than the object. Indeed, good and suitable philosophical objects are those that somehow let the one who relates to them emerge through the reflection. That is why philosophers are quite passionate about either very abstract ideas, or very powerful intuitions about how to live and act: these are the most glaring cases in which (either because of the relative transparency of the object itself, or because of its existential pull), the one who deals with them is most directly questioned or visible.

However, to come back to the earlier point, it is unfair to ask philosophers (especially young philosophers) to understand these objects, without having extensively helped them cultivating how to best develop that understanding. Understanding is an artificial construction, it needs to be learned, it does not grow by its own, nor anybody has the right of assuming that it will develop by its own. Hence, the urgent question becomes: how do we develop this understanding? How do we learn it? Is our current curriculum providing enough room, space, and resources for this philosophical skill? Do we have sufficiently good conditions? And if not, what can we do to improve on this front?

Most surely there is no ultimate recipe.  However, here a few points of attention that might be integrated in different ways in different frameworks:

  1. Make your relationship with the main object of study an explicit object of study. This entails devoting some time to explicitly discussing and dealing with how one is dealing with the object of study. Several strategies can be used for this purpose. For instance: once you think you understood, how does your understanding change if you zoom in trying to discern more details and nuances? Can you account for them? Is your understanding shaken by them? Or does it improve? Or rather, how does it change if you zoom out, loose some details but integrate more background context. What does happen then? How can you best construe your ‘distance’ from the object (the balance between zooming in and out) in order to achieve an understanding that feels better, that feels just right?
  2. Pay attention to the interplay between (i) understanding the object, and (ii) feeling about it and about the whole process. Feelings are not just something different from reason. They contribute in essential ways to shaping our understanding. Doubt is surrounded by feelings, certainty too, adversarial attitudes against certain claims are lively felt, enthusiasm for other claims are also felt, as well as eureka moments, or boredom and fatigue, to mention just a few. Interest and curiosity are pleasant, excitement for new materials might be addictive, criticism is often perceived as eliciting feelings of sadness or even revenge. It is because we feel in certain ways about certain things that we then decide to explicitly argue pro or contra them in the way we end up doing. Behind our intuitions there are always feelings. And yet, feelings are not in the objects we experience, they are in us who experience those objects. Learning how to explore and relate to these feelings is key. Can you discern patterns in the way in which certain feelings systematically influence your understanding in certain ways?
  3. Present information as something inseparable from interpretation. Information is not a flow of bits that needs to be absorbed, stored, manipulated, reproduced. Information without interpretation is meaningless. It is thus more interesting and more skillful to use information as an occasion to build interpretation, as a playground to see how that information can be constructed in different ways, and in which way it might make more or less sense. This is not just about being actively engaged, instead of being passively receiving (why do you prefer one over the other?). More importantly, it’s vital to see how constructed our experience is and learn how to construct it in more effective and meaningful ways.


About the author

Andrea Sangiacomo


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