Stanley Rosen as Philosopher of Education.

Author:Fischel, Joshua


The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again. Its priority before any other requirement is such that I believe I need not and should not justify it. I cannot understand why it has been given so little concern until now. To justify it would be monstrous in the face of the monstrosity that took place. Yet the fact that one is so barely conscious of this demand and the questions it raises shows that the monstrosity has not penetrated people's minds deeply, itself a symptom of the continuing potential for its recurrence as far as peoples' conscious and unconscious is concerned. (Adorno, 1966, p. 191)

Michael Oakeshott (1962) has written that the history of human civilization can be thought of as an ongoing conversation of which those living in the present are its inheritors. This conversation expresses itself over a range of different voices. Education, moreover, is necessary as "an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation" (Oakeshott, 1962, pp. 491-92). Unfortunately, Oakeshott laments, each voice of this conversation "tends to superbia, that is, an exclusive concern with its own utterance, which may result in its identifying the conversation with itself" (Oakeshott, 1962, p. 492). The result of superbia is "barbarism," or the privileging of one voice to the exclusion of others, leading to the recasting and merging of the entire sea of voices in terms of the privileged one, thereby stripping all other voices of their distinctive contribution to the conversation (Oakeshott, 1962, p. 492). Oakeshott concludes that this is what has, in fact, happened over the last few centuries with the ascendency of the voices of practical activity and science (Oakeshott, 1962).

While Oakeshott's claims are plausible, to make sense of them they must be understood in light of the particular form that practical activity and science have taken in the Modern age. In the Ancient world, both practical activity (praxis), which had to do with the cultivation of habits of sound judgment (or phronesis) that would end in a life well-lived in the polis, and science (episteme), or natural philosophy, dealt with entirely different domains of being (McCarthy, 1978 p. 3). With the parallel developments of Hobbes' science of society and Descartes' science of nature, both practical action and science eventually came to be thought about in terms that rejected the conceptions they were given in the ancient world. Ancient science morphed into the "modern conception of scientific theory" that was linked intimately to a "theoretically grounded technology" (McCarthy, 1978, p. 4). Practical action "was absorbed into the sphere of the technical" (McCarthy, 1978, p. 4). While the voices of practical activity and science have become the predominant voices, as Oakeshott notes, these voices themselves have collapsed into another, the voice of technology.

If this is correct, then education, as the voice that introduces and habituates students and society into the sea of other voices, has also collapsed under the weight of the voice of technology. Yet, on Oakeshott's description, education is a form of praxis, a kind of practical action understood in its classical sense. It's not a technology, nor is it a science. If Oakeshott is right and education is best thought of as praxis, a number of questions immediately present themselves. What implications follow when educational problems are thought about as if they were questions to be solved technologically? What follows when education is understood first and foremost as a technology rather than as a praxis? And how is it possible to rethink the relationship between education and the voice of science and technology in such a way that it preserves our understanding of education as a form of praxis?

To answers these and other related questions, I will take up the work of the philosopher Stanley Rosen. Alasdair MacIntyre has written that "it is an undeniable truth that Stanley Rosen's philosophical work has not received the attention it deserves" (MacIntyre, 2006, p. 13). While Rosen has addressed educational problems, he nowhere explicitly developed a philosophy of education. That is unfortunate. I will argue that in Stanley Rosen's work in the history of philosophy is an important contribution to the philosophy of education. Rosen's philosophy of education accomplishes two general but important things: firstly, it draws out the implications of a philosophy of education that is conceived primarily as a technology. It presents the case that any attempt to understand education as if it were a kind of technological science that results in nihilism. Secondly, Rosen provides a suggestive philosophy of education of his own that reinstates the integrity of education as a praxis. In doing so, Rosen steers the Oakeshottian "conversation of mankind" away from the shores of nihilism to which it has devolved under the superbia of the voice of technology.

Modernity as Mathesis Universalis

In his lecture Science as a Vocation (1919), Max Weber writes the following: Science further presupposes that what is yielded by scientific work is important in the sense that it is 'worth being known.' In this, obviously, are contained all our problems. For this presupposition cannot be proved by scientific means. It can only be interpreted with reference to its ultimate meaning, which we must reject or accept according to our ultimate position towards life. (Mills & Gerth, 1958, p. 143)

Science presupposes the horizon opened up through ordinary experience and out of which human beings interpret the significance of their world. In leaving behind, bracketing, and otherwise ignoring this setting, science runs the risk of losing its anchor in the human world that it emerges from. In science's effort and drive to cleanse everyday life of complexity, to render the ambiguous transparent, the chaotic stable and predictable, it has erased the everyday horizon in which science itself gains significance.

Rosen traces this precarious situation back to the origins of philosophical Modernity. As he sees it, "an important change takes place at the beginning of the modern age. The life of reason, and so too philosophy, is redefined in accord with the model of the mathematical and experimental sciences" (Rosen, 1999, p. 127). The mathematization of life expresses itself most pointedly in the distinction made by Galileo and Descartes (and others) between primary and secondary qualities of a substance. The result is that "the distinction between primary and secondary attributes in effect equates wakefulness with mathematics and human experience with a dream" (Rosen, 1999, p. 134). Accordingly, the context which provides the significance of the mathematization of the world becomes divorced from the sober realization of the nature of nature. The view from nowhere distorts and turns into a dream the view from somewhere. Rosen concludes that "Galileo and his followers created a reality that transforms the human world into an illusion" (Rosen, 1999, p. 134).

Yet, the turn to the mathematization of the world was never meant to undo the bonds that connected everyday experience to this new scientific enterprise. In fact, the new science presented itself as a breakthrough in human culture that would lead to civilizational happiness. Rosen (1999) puts it this way:

What I am suggesting is that the modern epoch begins, at least in its full theoretical manifestation, as a dream of universal happiness, and so precisely as the promise that sadness will be abolished from the face of the earth. In this dream, wakefulness is to be obtained by replacing poetry, metaphysics, and religion with mathematics and experimental science as the correct instruments for the analysis and vindication of human life. (p. 137) The result has been something quite different. And as "[t]he life of reason, and so too philosophy, is redefined in accord with the model of the mathematical and experimental sciences," so too does reason turn ordinary experience (1) into an illusion (Rosen, 1999, p. 127). To the extent that the universal project for civilizational happiness turns on the mathematical model of rationality, it saddens us. It saddens us because it lends its "authority to the presentiment that life is a dream" (Rosen, 1999, p. 138). This is troubling because it empties human existence of meaning and undermines the very scientific and technological project that is itself the cause of this condition.

To flush out Rosen's position further, it would be helpful to look at what he takes to be the importance of Socrates' 'Second Sailing' in Plato's dialogue Phaedo. The Phaedo presents Socrates in prison in conversation with his close associates on the day he will be put to death by the state of Athens. At one point in the conversation, Socrates provides an explanation for why he turned away from his studies of the natural world and came to adopt the practice of philosophy. Rosen (2002) draws the following lesson:

These are the historical consequences of Socrates' second sailing. "He turns away from ta onta in the following precise sense: the study of the alterations, changes, and motions of natural beings does not explain human life. Attribution of the aitia of generation and destruction to phusis in this sense forces us to j ettison our understanding of ourselves as beings who act in accord with what they think is best. Natural motions, considered in themselves, are neither good nor bad, better or worse; they merely are. Of course, they may be beautiful to human...

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