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Education in a world of forgetting

How does one conceptualise the contemporary educational terrain regarding the challenges it faces in the new century, especially in so far as it is inescapably situated within the broader cultural landscape of 21st-century globalised society?

The first thing one should note is that what the Frankfurt School called “technical rationality” is still being given priority in (post-) modern societies, at the cost of what students could learn from the humanities, if equal emphasis were placed on them.

In fact, I would argue in favour of a healthy complementarities (in education) between the natural sciences, guided (according to Habermas) by the “interest of technical control” and the humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, guided by the interests of “mutual understanding” and “emancipation”. Without complementing natural-scientific education with humanities-education, people — in this case the youth — are at risk of forgetting what is arguably indispensably valuable for human civilisation.

The reason for this is that — as both Habermas and Lyotard have argued in different ways — the natural sciences generate “constative” statements about the nature of the world, unlike the humanities and the social sciences (together comprising “human sciences”: literature, philosophy, theology, anthropology, mythology, the study of music and cinema, sociology, psychology, political science, etc.) where one finds statements that are embedded in experience shot through with narrative, cultural and moral values.

It is precisely for this reason that I am always amused by the reference to the natural sciences as the “hard sciences” while the human sciences are dubbed the “soft sciences”, implying that the latter are somehow less scientific and easier to practice.

This is not the case, of course. There was a good reason why Auguste Comte, the “father” of sociology, put sociology at the apex of his hierarchy of historically developed sciences, because it represented, for him, the stage of scientific development that marked the greatest complexity in the relevant field of investigation. Put differently, the human condition is a more complex phenomenon to unravel scientifically than that of the natural world, partly because humans are rooted in nature but have added other layers of behaviour and action that cannot be reduced to nature, inviting different scientific lenses for scrutiny instead.

Moreover, one gathers from Lyotard (in The Postmodern Condition) that what he calls the “social bond” between people has a narrative structure — the most fundamental genre for understanding each person is her or his “life-story” — something that natural science just cannot provide because it does not have such a structure (although its history does). And this is where the importance of the human sciences for education comes into the picture: it does not matter how sophisticated one’s natural scientific knowledge (of physics, chemistry, or of computer science, for that matter) is, by itself it does not provide any direction regarding the use of such knowledge in a humanly acceptable manner. This is the province of the human sciences.

A study of the world’s literatures, for example, affords students access to repositories of linguistically mediated experience — whether based in (auto-) biography or entirely fictional — that is pervaded by tensions between good and evil (Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels), the cultivation of character (Great Expectations), the value of perseverance, the evils of colonialism and racism (Heart of Darkness), classism (The God of Small Things), war (War and Peace), ambition (MacBeth), the constitutive role of time (Remembrance of Things Past), the redemptive character of love (Romeo and Juliet), the inescapable matrix of history (even for lovers: Ondaatje’s The English Patient), the personality-transforming effect of trauma (Josephine Hart’s The Reconstructionist and Douglas Kennedy’s Leaving the World) and so on, across all the literatures of the world.

A specific example: Athol Fugard’s 1980s drama, Master Harold and the Boys, set at a tea room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, presented the dilemma facing two black men who worked there, and a young boy (the eponymous Harold), who is their friend, but also unavoidably influenced by the discourse of apartheid which construes the two men as “boys”. This leads to some difficult situations, where one of the two men (Sam, if I recall) has the humanity and the vision to salvage the friendship, the possibility of which is captured beautifully by Fugard in the metaphors of “flying a kite” and doing ballroom dancing together (both the men are ballroom fans).

These metaphors, introduced into a situation perverted by an abominable racist ideology, achieve something that no natural science such as physics can do by itself: it presents readers and audience with inviting images of what Habermas calls “undistorted communication”. Even if it is difficult to actualise such communication in concrete form, these metaphors function as communicational ideals to be emulated (the best ballroom dancers communicate near-perfectly), and therefore have a truly “educational” effect, in as far as they transcend racial, cultural and gender differences, beckoning people to recognize a common humanity in one another. Students who have teachers capable of using literature in this “edifying” way (in Richard Rorty’s sense of the term), are truly fortunate.

One can, of course, use natural sciences such as biology to instill the same kind of values mediated by literature in students but that presupposes that teachers and lecturers place a prior value on the life-phenomena studied and this value is not self-evident in the life forms themselves. If they were, the very fact of their existence should have prevented humans from engaging in practices, economic and otherwise, that destroy the habitat of thousands of animal and plant species across the world.

“Life” as a supreme value is something learned in relation to living things, but on the basis of cultural adherence to its irreplaceable value.

From this perspective films such as Avatar and The Road are invaluable sources of educating students in the etymological sense of “leading them out of” ignorance towards being civilized in a life- and other-respecting manner. In this manner the humanities contribute towards the warding off of what could be a new kind of barbarism, where people are equipped with all kinds of technical skills, but lack the insight to use them in the interest of maintaining a truly human civilisation.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Andrew Andrew 2 October 2011

    Extremely interesting article. My 14 year old daughter has just gone through the process of choosing optional subjects for her matric and has, with just a little help, chosen Maths core & Physics/Chemistry alongside History and French. Her requirement at this stage is simply to keep lost of options open in terms of careers, which is obviosuly a good idea.

    Your article is making me think a bit more about the kinds of options she may have in the loger term. Thank you …..

  2. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 2 October 2011

    That a balance in education between the humanities and sciences is required seems very obvious and has been taken for granted for centuries in Europe, though no doubt there were pockets of resistance or prejudice one way or the other at all times. That does not change the broad direction thinking took.

    What the ends of education are will always be argued and, I believe, should be, for the ends are culturally determined and cultures live and learn. It is when the ends are politically determined that the troubles begin.

    As you know, I was not a fan of the film ‘Avatar’ or its simplistic premise – that ‘science’ and ‘civiliation’ are wholly destructive of a fundamental humanity.

  3. Bert Bert 2 October 2011

    Paul – I would urge you to think again about Avatar. Remember that the ‘science’ it indicts is the kind which, in combination with a certain kind of technology, is destructive of nature (in fact, all life), while it actually promotes the idea of the kind of science (and technology) that Dr Grace Augustine represents in the film – a science that recognizes the interconnectedness of all things, and construes this kind of science as one that, in the end, promotes a new kind of cilivilization which (unlike that which flourishes on earth at present), is consonant with the integrity of ecosystems.

  4. OneFlew OneFlew 3 October 2011

    Thanks Bert – interesting as always.

  5. David D Yun David D Yun 3 October 2011

    Before I make comment on this piece of the aritcle written by Prof. Bert Oliveir I need know the principal of his investment in the risky world, i.,e., in terms of understanding and judgement in one’s own intellectual context of the thesis and the argument, if you like. His first paragraph put the question, which remains vague and abstract, because I don’t have the slightest idea of “conceptualizing” what? Oh, yes, Bert mentions about “challenges one faces” in our new century, but still not every challenge is a conceptual object,as I am aware of, however so far the biggest task for thinkers like Olivier is the fact that the thesis he set as that of our era is not the “technical rationality” versus humnaity, the former of which has been dominated by the public thirst for knowledge giving us the reason why we call “the age of machine”, which is precisely meant the suspension of conceptual thinking that we live as normalcy as an effect.The true thesis of our time is human prejudice as Bert’s argument for his misunderstanding of “Frankfurt school” shows; rather the techical rationality is the veneer of Reason if humanity he means freedom as its quintessential essence of humanity, and now, Horkheimer and Adorno begin the dialectic as their arumgnt for the thesis ‘Reason and humanity’ in theri “Dialectic of Enlightenment” of which J. Habermas gave a philosophical critique… Please see my Website.

  6. X Cepting X Cepting 3 October 2011

    I quite agree with you that a more holistic approach to studies should be adopted in education, to a large extent they already are, presumably why I had to do Psychology of Society for a Environmental Science study. Your choices I find a bit strange:
    Literature – Sure, the best place to explore the possible effects of science
    Philosophy? – Absolutely, as long as Reason and Logic forms a large part
    Theology? Ah, no. Most of the wrong paths taken in history were with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, Ethics can be taught more succesfully in other ways, like making Aesop required reading in nursery school.
    Anthropology? – I plead the Heisenberg principle here. Would the tribe in Columbia still be alive if anthropologists did not “discover” them? It seem to foster notions of supremacy.
    Mythology? – I do not see the relevance, magic (pre-science) would be more appropriate in a historical “this is where science began” context.
    The study of music and cinema – Totally, same comment as for literature.
    Sociology? – Definitely, especially the whys of society and why it is a bad idea to destroy through uncivilised behaviour.
    Psychology? – I would be hesitant to include this subject in its present form, its best achievement to date seems to be the creation of free criminal states and manipulative children in control.
    Political science? I just could not capitalise the second word. I would include a study on “The Art of War” and “The Prince” though:…

  7. X Cepting X Cepting 3 October 2011

    Prof your comment to Paul re Avatar also bother me in that you say “the ‘science’ it indicts is the kind which…” Science is a tool that can be used by anyone that understand the underlying scientific principes. Avatar’s protagonists were conquering strip-miners who employed scientists for their own profit. There is no “this kind” or “that kind” of science, just science, the same the world over and in any language. Perhaps soft scientists should be given and education in what science is, or is not.

  8. Maria Maria 3 October 2011

    David, if one (or Bert) could decipher what you are trying to say, one could perhaps answer you!
    XCepting, I suggest you read the two recent papers Bert published on Avatar and The Road, where your qualms are addressed – one appeared in South African Journal of Art History (last year, I believe), and the other in the recent edition of Communicare. It does not seem as if you know Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), or Foucault’s The Order of Things (or Canguilhem’s work in this regard) – if you did, you would know that there are indeed different “kinds” of science. Aristotelian/Ptolemaic science differs from Newtonian science, which differs from 20th-century theoretical physics (quantum mechanics, special relativity and general relativity theory, field theory). And Lovelock’s work on what started as the falsifiable Gaia hypothesis, but has now graduated to fully fledged Gaia theory (through the work of other scientists, too) has demonstrated that what is grasped by Newtonian science as a mechanistic universe – or at least a planet that can be understood in those terms – is better understood as a macro-organism (the earth as Gaia). What Bert shows in the second of the articles I mentioned above, is that Avatar is predicated on the understanding of Pandora (as a metonymy of organic nature as such) in terms of Gaia theory. Similarly, there are different kinds of technology – modern, which “assaults” nature, and nature-friendly or -compatible…

  9. X Cepting X Cepting 3 October 2011

    Maria – no I do not know Foucalt’s or Kuhn’s work much or frequently read journals to do with Art History or Communicare, preferring actual science journals. There is only kind of science, the kind that can be proved and applied in real life situations. This includes what was the Gaia theory. Science is evolving all the time. What was myth become fact the scientific process proves it. This does not mean the older science are wrong or replaced by different sciencer. The
    3 laws still works for most simple situations. The problems in applying science begins with isolating parts as being “different” from the rest, somehow. Reality is, indiviual perception of it differs. If you wish to have a house built who would you approach Foucalt? Kuhn? Or someone with a solid grasp of forces, materials and the Law of Gravity? Of course, aesthetics and a grasp of building laws would not come amiss but is not essential for the house to work and keep working. Ptolemy and Euclid started a process that is not complete. Every new breakthrough isn’t a different science, just a better approximation of reality as we learn more about our world. Philosophy should be similar and its main purpose should perhaps be to guard against the inapropriate use of science and how to teach it.

  10. X Cepting X Cepting 3 October 2011

    Of course that should read: “What was myth become fact if and only if the scientific process proves it. The scientific method and its peer review process is probably the greatest contribution to knowledge ever. It stopped scientists from haggling over what science is. If it can be proved, scientifically, it is.

  11. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 3 October 2011

    This would make more sense if most people did not already avoid sciences at school and continue to do so on tertiary level. We’re already at the mercy of people who are completely ignorant of science.

    I think it would be more beneficial to focus more on science, but to balance the impersonal equations with the very personal stories of where they originated. Most of high school literature is aimed at passing matric, so it is not uncommon to do the same plays for 2 or 3 years in a row. Most high school maths and science is rote, and they rarely teach the underlying idea of what science is about, or the struggles those who came up with the squiggly equations had to endure.

    More importantly, education should equip one with critical thinking skills – not what to think about colonialism and other sore points, but how to evaluate these in an objective manner.

  12. X Cepting X Cepting 4 October 2011

    Actually, after deliberating this question for a while, I think that Douglas Adams was right and so is Hawkins. It all makes sense now. We’ve been bad to Gaia and she is going to send the space goat to get us. It has nothing to do with the fact that we have too many monkey genes and love to tamper with things we don’t fully understand yet which we turn into religion when they overawe us, or blow up in our face. So it would not maybe be a bad idea to follow Hawkins’ advise and build ships that will take the bulk of humanity to safety, say that new planet they found at the other side of the milky way. I will risk the sacrifice to myself and stay to study what Gaia does and if she says its ok I will send message its ok to come back.

  13. David D Yun David D Yun 4 October 2011

    To Maria;ol

    The point I was making was Prof. Oliver’s understanding of the Frankfurt School may reflect the manner he put the question in the first paragraph of his article, that I took as a subject of philosophy, although I am a theoretical physicist,my interest recently has changed to that of philosophy, and I like subjects such as conceptual knowledge and intuition, especially when these two are set as a dialectical antithesis, which is in fact to characterise the present era of our struggle, somehow related to the global phenomenon of the rich and the poor, as I see it, etc. May I offer you my book “Tender years” which will be coming in the town in a month or so? And also my URL http;//

  14. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 4 October 2011

    Bert, Maria, Xcepting –

    It is not that I disagree with the aspiration in Avatar’s message. It is benign enough – though perhaps more relevant in the context of the US.

    But, relying on Maria’s/Xcepting’s exchange to explain myself, I do not believe science has been different at different times taking an historical perspective. Magic led to sophisticated theologies, alchemy to the scientific method. History is a continuum and the question at the heart of it is not which of our changing theories is correct, but who we are who argue them.

    The English writer, Peter Ackroyd, who has a strong feel for the numinous, for the mystery of time and the contiunity of life, is of the view that we today do not know more than the past: we know different things. I go along with that – but without then supposing we can go back, or that it would be desirable to do so. Thinking it over again, it is that which makes Avatar repugnant to me. Whatever points are made for ‘good’ science, they are muted. The solution offered is Rousseau-an, reactionary.

    Instead of the old fallacy of the present being ‘better’, it presents the much older fallacy that the past was.

  15. X Cepting X Cepting 4 October 2011

    @Paul Whelan – In defending science from heresy, I perhaps did not make myself sufficiently clear on exactly that point and what so irks me about being told what science is by, as far as I’m concerned non-scientists who can prove much of what they say. The humanities are dabbling in science when they are not quoting dead philosophers, instead of making as much progress as scientists are, in their respective fields. We have become very sophisticated kids with technologically extremely advanced toys but ethically and therefore socially, we are back in the middle ages. The fault lies not with scientists, who are doing their jobs, exceedingly well, but with the humanities that need to wake up and catch up.

  16. OneFlew OneFlew 4 October 2011

    On the contrary, XCepting, it is not that the scientists are doing well and the humanists badly. It is that we are all not doing well enough at the difficult stuff.

    The really difficult stuff is how to conduct ourselves around each other and what the appropriate moral codes are that we should live by. These are political questions that affect all of us. And they cannot be hidden from by scientists on the pretext that solving such questions isn’t their ‘day’ job.

  17. HD HD 4 October 2011

    @ X Cepting

    You are fighting an uphill battle if you think you can convince the post-modernist/post-structuralist (broadly speaking continental philosophy) camp of the merits of the type of science you talk about. Even among the analytical camp the philosophy of science has cast a fair amount of scepticism on the positivist science paradigm (perhaps reaching its peak in Carnap and the Vienna circle) starting with Dewey, Popper, Hayek to Kuhn and other pragmatist like Rorty.

    But I agree, as I often point out with economics, there is an awful lot of humanities scholars and social scientists, especially of the post-modern ilk that venture into territories they themselves poorly understand. The Sokal affair perhaps being one of the best recent examples but you can do the same to Klein’s economics or that of most French philosophers (it is pretty bad).

    I recommend Stephen Hicks book (not without flaws but broadly accurate) if you really want to understand where this view originates (all the way back to Kant’s response to Hume) and also how the “left” has adopted is epistemology to fit the politics. (he spends a whole chapter on the crisis in the analytical tradition too)

    This recent post cast about economics and if it can be called a science might also interest you (generally speaking awesome podcasts):

  18. HD HD 4 October 2011


    Again this view is not at all surprising coming from Bert being a post-structuralist and I would assume broadly speaking sympathetic to the continental camp. Very Rousseau-an indeed. In fact much of the political side of the whole continental/post-modernist (being crude with categories I know) school draws heavily on Rousseau, then Marx and eventually Marcuse/Habermas for political inspiration. See Hicks’ chapter 4:

    The epistemological scepticism that has it roots in German idealism and Nietzsche’s nihilism and the phenomenological and existentialist responses (solutions) is even more interesting. For a good short overview:

    I am sympathetic to many of the criticism of “scientism” especially along the lines of Hayek, Popper and Wittgenstein and broadly speaking your view of science to me sounds very Hayekian. See especially last three paragraphs:

    “Like Kuhn, Hayek came to see that we don’t make sense of science by looking at completed formal constructs in a textbook, we make sense of science by re-calling to mind the problem raising patterns that generate inquiry, and by looking at what the embodies elements of the inquirer bring to table in perceiving those patterns and in providing solutions to…

  19. X Cepting X Cepting 5 October 2011

    @Oneflew – “On the contrary, XCepting, it is not that the scientists are doing well and the humanists badly. It is that we are all not doing well enough at the difficult stuff.”

    Are you deliberately misunderstanding me or is it an honest misread? We are all doing badly not because scientist are not doing their jobs, which is to discover how the world works and how we can make it work for us but because the people who’s job it is to discover “how to conduct ourselves around each other and what the appropriate moral codes are that we should live by.”, aka the Humanists, are not doing their jobs and blaming the resulting flailing/failing society on scientists, rather than give themself a good hard look in the mirror.

    I never claimed that the Humanities were easier or less important than Hard Science, on the contrary, which is why philosophers usually get the same respect as nuclear physicists, sometimes undeservedly. It is more difficult for Physicists to fake since their results are rather hard-core.

  20. X Cepting X Cepting 5 October 2011

    @HD – Ah Kant! If I had the opportunity to go back in time and visit someone, I would have a difficult choice between the self-sacrificing, miserable failure Marcus Aurelius, the idealistic Rousseau, who were definitely away with the fairies, the self-defeating Nietzsche, not to forget Freud, who had rather debilitating psychological problems himself or the inflexible Kant with his bloated ego, all people who’s dogma has infected our entire society like a cancer. A baseball bat would accompany me. Stephen Hicks, from a quick visit to his site, looks worhthy the time and effort to read, thanks.

    I believe the humanities need to spend more time in the present, amongst the general population, developing their tools of trade and less time trying to get inspiration in history. The old philosophers were all a product of their particular circumstance and society, the new philosophers seem to be a product of the old philosophers, cultivated in an academic hothouse.

    Rousseau’s natural environment that he dreamed of contained no malaria carrying mosquitos, AIDS or any other of a cornocopia of natural dangers to people, rather like the fancy-full pictures in fairy tales, full of toadstools, green grass and flowers. I call it Ivory Tower Syndrome. Anyone actually giving credence to such philosophies should spend some time in the uncomfortable, smelly trenches of real life, for their own good and those who might them serious.

  21. X Cepting X Cepting 5 October 2011

    Sokal rocks! I am often similarly tempted to learn to use the obfuscated language of the humanities flawlessly and conduct a similar farce instead of continously translating such obfuscation into ordinary language that mere mortals can understand and benefit from.

  22. OneFlew OneFlew 5 October 2011

    No, Xcepting, you are missing a key point.

    Some tasks in society go relatively better. Such as agriculture, medicine, business (some of the time) and so on.

    But we are collectively bad at knowing how to conduct ourselves.

    Your notional division of labour whereby some are tasked with sorting out how to conduct ourselves while others are tasked with finding the Higgs Boson is wrong – headed. It doesn’t work that way.

    Some task are tasks for all.

    Exculpating scientists by saying ‘they’ are doing ‘their’ job well while other are not doing ‘their’ jobs properly is nonsense.

    Scientists, businessmen and the like all behave in a particular fashion towards other people and all participate in our democratic processes. They don’t do so on instruction from a philosopher nor can they wait for a philosopher to provide the answer.

    So all, including the scientists, are failing at the hard tasks.

  23. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 5 October 2011

    I agree in general that most are failing hard at our task. I think it can be traced back to schooling, which is conversely decidedly free of ‘hard science’ and filled to the brim with patent nonsense (terrible burden of colonialism and cult of personality continental rock stars teaching us what to think instead of how to think).

    If some segments are doing better, presumably there is a philosophical outlook (values, even) we can learn from those in these fields?

    It is a misnomer to suggest those in hard sciences have no deeper understanding of social issues. I’m not familiar with the Frankfurt School, but the wikipedia page suggests that it’s hardly a foundation for science (perhaps not the vogue mode of Marxism, though?). Whether it’s red or a shade of pink is merely splitting hairs over a philosophy that is yet to agree on what capitalism, its favourite whipping boy, is, and there’s enough of that in schools and in the media.

    Hard science proponents frequently have social insight o contribute, which is neglected because of prejudice. This too may be taught , and if you must include a mundane class struggle, what about the story of Faraday?

    Soft science courses are compulsory, but most hard science courses are optional. Let’s critique education as it stands?

  24. HD HD 5 October 2011


    Yes, I don’t disagree that a large part of philosophy is about telling “the good life”. But a lot of it often bogs down when it comes to the details – economics or science to name but two examples. Unless you can offer alternative systems for understanding some of these phenomena, you have to address these problem and idealism must at one stage come down to the ground. I find it difficult for instance to take the view that you can do good political philosophy without understanding basic economics. How many philosophers at South African universities can claim this? Perhaps it was easier when most of the social science disciplines were all seen as philosophy – these days there is a scary tendency to dismiss whole fields along relativist lines…

  25. X Cepting X Cepting 6 October 2011

    @Oneflew – You are still missing the point too. While I agree that it is everyone’s responsibilty to practice better ways of living and that social conduct is everyone’s business since everyone suffer or benefit from said conduct, the research into better ways of living is the domain of philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and I would include Economists. At present, they are mostly reactionary and do not much change, mostly dealing with effects in retrospect. What major changes have been brought about by said group in the last 100 years and with what consequences? Now weigh that up against changes and consequences brought about by “hard” scientists. I think that after doing such you might agree with me that the former group is falling really far behind and can even be seen in some cases to be detrimental in effect.

  26. X Cepting X Cepting 6 October 2011

    I do agree with you though that as things are at the present, society will go to hell in a hand basket if we have to wait for humanitarians to provide answers to even some of societies problems. For instances, why has there been no revision of the Dr Spock school of child rearing? Most of the sociatal problems I face on a daily basis that is not bad governance related is bad parenting related. People often forget that the root of all bad behaviour can be found in early childhood. One of the misconceptions: that children are inherently good and well-behaved and need not be taught good conduct or have any adult involvement in their daily lives, is probably responsible for 90% of the crime I have been subjected to in the past. Another would be the misinterpretation of the “rights” in the Bill of Rights, i.e. that it implies no responsibilities. No wonder the legal system cannot cope. if the Humanities are not responsible for the development of humanity, then what is their role? Entertainment?

  27. X Cepting X Cepting 6 October 2011

    Oops, make that: “responsible for the metaphysical development of humanity” before the coaches string me up.

  28. X Cepting X Cepting 6 October 2011

    @Garg – One of my biggest criticisms of education as it stands is that it no longer teaches thinking or reasoning.

    A grade 9 pupil came to me a while back for help with maths. It took me 15 min of probing to realise that he had never been taught to “think” maths or science. A minor adjustment, i.e. throwing away his OBE handbook and teaching him from a pre-OBE handbook made an incredible difference. It was beautiful to watch the lights go on upstairs, one by one. It took us 6 months to work throught the entire ciriculum to the level he was supposed to be at. Then he spotted some comp sci books and borrowed those…. Has anyone noticed how the people who contributed most to our knowledge were mostly self-taught?

    Less spoon feeding and more challenges will definitely make a difference. Don’t tell kids what to do, give them problems and ask them to find the answers, tell them their (success in) life depends on it and watch them take off. Oh, and recycle the OBE handbooks with their pretty distracting pictures and graphics.

  29. OneFlew OneFlew 6 October 2011

    GargUnzola and HD,

    On the point of looking to how science does things in order to enrich philosophy: the methodology of science, which is, after all, essentially one kind of philosophical enquiry, isn’t necessarily itself suitable for all questions. Empiricism doesn’t necessarily answer moral questions well. Should I sacrifice the one for the benefit of the many if it is pareto optimal to do so? (As some utilitarians do.) How should we divide the spoils of our collective efforts?

    This takes us to your point HD. I think anyone who wants to write well on political philosophy would be well advised to be a well rounded person. And so should know some economics. But the arguments of the great political philsophers of the late 20th century – John Rawls and Robert Nozick – are philosophical works rather than economic works. And Rawls is explicit (under his difference principle) that inequality may be permissible if it improves the lot of the poor: an outcome that is a concession to the possible effect of the pareto principle without concluding which economic arrangements would best yield such pareto optimality.

    And Nozick’s insistence on an entitlement-based rather than a patterned solution (refer the WIlt Chamberlain experiment) is again founded on a philosophical position – in this case essentially an interpretation of the Lockean proviso (‘..enough and as good…’) which differs significantly from what more egalitarian philosophers might prefer. Philosophy, not…

  30. OneFlew OneFlew 6 October 2011

    X Cepting, forgive me if this seems like a caricature but you appear to be following a model in which you see society as a bit of a factory with accompanying division of labour. Widget A plus widget B equals widget happiness. And we all have our jobs to do and scientists have now produced tons of A widgets while the rest (notably philosophers and assorted nefarious ‘humanists’) have failed to produce B widgets.

    Now some lines of intellectual enquiry frequently yield satisfyingly precise answers. Mathematics. And some science.

    Some lines of enquiry don’t. They yield answers that are either controversial. Or conceptually indeterminate (read, for instance, about Theseus’s ship). And if conceptually indeterminate, answers are often provided by convention. But convention is again not a ‘scientific’ answer.

    The great problems of philosophy have challenged humanity for millennia. Responding to the recent success of scientists by in effect saying to the philosophers “hurry up already, we need those widgets” really doesn’t recognise intellectual history or the kind of questions which each line of enquiry confronts.

    This does not necessarily mean that that the questions are futile or irrelevant. But it does mean that one needs to be clear about the purpose of the pursuit and probably about the conception of the purposes of life that may underpin such a pursuit.

    It’s worth occasionally re-reading Bertrand Russell’s (1912) comments on this…

  31. HD HD 6 October 2011

    @ X Cepting

    I think Bert and co. will point out that part of their job is to be critical of science, capitalism and progress. A few of his posts have been along these lines. I understand that role – but like you I also cannot help but ask what post-modernism, post-structuralism and most of the continental school has really contributed in the last 100 years. At least analytic philosophy tries to apply itself to modern problems and science whilst the impression (overstated yes) I get with many continental school stuff is that they are forever stuck in historical debates, narratives and hermeneutical interpretations. Even Critchley in his little book dwells on this and his is by no means unsympathetic to the Continental /PM schools.

    On children and parenting interestingly a lot of research show that it is mostly genetics and as longs as you are no a terrible parent your kid will mostly turn out ok…in fact you should relax and enjoy the whole experience more. See:

  32. HD HD 6 October 2011

    @ Garg

    The Frankfurt school and many social science theories being taught at South African Universities are broadly post-positivist and are critical of positivism in the social sciences specifically. My political science stuff was most certainly along those lines in terms of the critical theory of Robert Cox.

    But, I agree that we can do with more hard sciences in South Africa and that there is by no means a shortage of contributions on the political and philosophical front when it comes to these deeper debates. In fact I think in SA our system is oversupplying social scientist and under-supplying hard scientists. (I will also add that the quality of our social scientists are bad compared with other developed nations where most at least have some harder science backgrounds in stats, maths, economics etc).

    Add to that, that many of our social scientist go straight into government, NGO’s and think tanks – where they have real influence in terms of power and voice.

    Many of our political debates are marked by political narratives and political commentary and very little by actual policy analysis. Big on rhetoric, small on the nitty gritty analysis of facts and counter-examples…There is a difference between a commentator and an analyst.

    This for me is the real concern!

  33. HD HD 6 October 2011

    @ X Cepting

    I think Bert and co. will point out that part of their job is to be critical of science, capitalism and progress. A few of his posts have been along these lines. I understand that role – but like you I also cannot help but ask what post-modernism, post-structuralism and most of the continental school has really contributed in the last 100 years. At least analytic philosophy tries to apply itself to modern problems and science whilst the impression (overstated yes) I get with many continental school stuff is that they are forever stuck in historical debates, narratives and hermeneutical interpretations. Even Critchley in his little book dwells on this and his is by no means unsympathetic to the Continental /PM schools.

  34. X Cepting X Cepting 6 October 2011

    @Oneflew – I do not see Theseus ship as a paradox at all but as a wonderful illustration of what is wrong with our (collective) way of thinking. If that ship was not considered a constant but and entity that improves or deteriorates with each addition or subtraction of material, the reality would emerge, i.e. that nothing is constant, not even people. Five-minutes-ago-Oneflew is not the same as now-Oneflew. Substituting appearances and ideas for reality has always caused problems for humanity. The Sokal hoax that HD mentioned is a good example.

    Take your analogy of a factory. You assume that happiness is the desirable product or that conventional labour is the only way to make Widgets and that Widgets is the only product that can come from labour. When a psychologist tries to discover the cause of mental illness, is he not labouring, is the end result (product) not a healthy person?

    Are you postulating that their is an entire group of people who are expending vast amounts of energy with no logical purpose? That philosophy simply have value because it is pretty thinking, not for the changes that it brings in the way people think? Even in Mathematics there are equations that no-one has been able to solve yet. That has not stopped generations of mathematicians from trying. I sometimes think the humanities, when realising just how complex their subject, the human mind, is, gave up altogether and now simply play word games to satisfy us they are doing…

  35. X Cepting X Cepting 6 October 2011

    @HD – “your kid will mostly turn out ok…” Not on your life. I also do not agree that genetics is the cause of most aberations, that seems like a cop-out. I will go and look into that research but the group of kids that I have been studying for the last 3 years because they hang out outside my study window indicates, no, parental guidance or lack of, peer pressure and environment plays a huge role in how a kid turns out. Has anyone done any work on the evolution of a gang? I am watching the birth of one from what was a group of fairly normal children at present. I do not see how I can relax and enjoy that.

  36. HD HD 6 October 2011

    Oops, apologies for the double post – not sure what happened there…


    Rawls and Nozick are not bad in that respect, but there are many others that are guilty of building castle in the sky and not bringing them down to earth. I am anyway far more concerned with political philosophers that make policy recommendation without taking into consideration the economics.

    I am not a big fan of Rawls – I think his difference principle is rather flawed…

    You might find these two short little posts interesting:

    Ties in nicely with this discussion:

    Essential what I was saying just way better put – I am still not convinced many political philosophers really grasp the implications of not paying attention to economics:

  37. HD HD 6 October 2011


    Rawls and Nozick are not bad in that respect, but there are many others that are guilty of building castle in the sky and not bringing them down to earth. I am anyway far more concerned with political philosophers that make policy recommendation without taking into consideration the economics.

    I am not a big fan of Rawls – I think his difference principle is rather flawed…

    You might find these two short little posts interesting:

    Ties in nicely with this discussion:

    Essential what I was saying just way better put – I am still not convinced many political philosophers really grasp the implications of not paying attention to economics:

  38. X Cepting X Cepting 6 October 2011

    @HD – I don’t see how philosophers being critical of science is going to improve science any if at all. If, instead, they were to change the way people think about life, the universe and everything, that would have a profound effect on how science is applied, not so? Radiation research was initially done for its medical applications and ended up being used as a weapon of mass destruction that everyone is too scared to use. I believe, for lack of proof, that humanity is becoming increasingly perverse the more we believe the lies about ourselves, i.e. We should become “good” people that should strive for happiness. Our very natures are rebelling against the false premises by aberational behaviour. What is aberational behaviour? The kind that lands you in hell? No, the kind that makes your species or any other species extinct.

  39. X Cepting X Cepting 6 October 2011

    Ewww, that last sentence sucks! let me rephrase: “the kind that causes your species or any other species to become extinct.

  40. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 7 October 2011

    Add to that, that many of our social scientist go straight into government, NGO’s and think tanks – where they have real influence in terms of power and voice.

    Exactly the problem for me. I have no qualms with a critical analysis of any ism, but so far there’s only been empty rhetoric and a bit lacking on the critical side.

    I think we both would like balanced views. I don’t mind learning about Derrida and Žižek, but the proper context of their views should be given – as well as opposing views. I became familiar with John Searle through computer science studies and not through studies in semiotics, even though he had a spat with Derrida. I can’t think of a single opposing or alternative economic view (humour me and consider Marxism an economic view) that was discussed.

  41. X Cepting X Cepting 7 October 2011

    @HD – Bryan Caplan, the ehhh economist, tells us how to raise our kids. It is not illogical advise from an economist though, in order for markets to grow, so should the population, never mind the increased misery this causes. I think that is exactly why we have violent crime from children as young as 6 these days. Serious dude, WTF. No wonder the Cornucopians find the world’s problems such a mystery to solve.

  42. HD HD 8 October 2011

    @ X Cepting

    Read the book – he likes provocative titles. In fact just scroll down to the Amazon reviews. He relies heavily on twin and adoption studies and other forms of research. He is also not saying no parenting is necessary just that it is less important and significant than people think. His previous book on public choice theory is also a great read and one of the best in the field. (Myth of the rational voter)

  43. Deirdre Kohler Deirdre Kohler 11 October 2011

    Excuse me for perhaps stating the obvious – what education? I have personally gone to schools to drop off books and the teachers are sitting around all day eating chicken (no I am NOT joking) Has anyone actually looked at the ‘pass’ marks allowed to get into university? Yes, certainly, bring in the humanities into schools. They are vital to bring a balance into the individual, I agree with Bert on that point. BUT “hello” kids aren’t actually learning stuff in public schools! So we have a bunch of dummies floating around looking for jobs but can’t add value to the social, working or natural environments. Hell they don’t even know how to plant a seedling. If you want to have inclusive education, bring back some basics and let the kids choose their own fields of interest once they reach high school. Someone with half a mind is better than one with a blank slate. (Unless of course you are a politician and rely on numerous youthful “blank slates”) Perhaps if we stopped killing chickens the teachers would have to work? Food for thought – maybe… :)

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