There already exists a very well-defined discipline of engineering or archaeology or management or kinesiology, and each such subject studied thus presents itself as an already complete, independently defined object. The existence of the discipline, in other words, suggests to us that the subject-matter is “real,” and we then turn to the already well-developed disciplinary norms, methods and already-established results to comprehend that object. What is concealed in this process, and what we often forget, is that all these established domains of inquiry have their root in the human practices of investigation that initially gave rise to them. Those “sciences” exist, in other words, because their subject-matters mattered to people.
We take up our studies in a circumscribed way, in that we cut them away from their existential context: we do not understood how our subject-matter arose in response to the specific concerns that specific people had. To study well will not simply be to learn the “objective features” of our subject-matters, but to learn–and to grapple with–the human purpose behind (and in) their study.
Here, as in so many places, the ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates remains one of our most insightful guides–and one of our most unrelenting critics. In Book VI of Plato’s Republic, (509d-513e), Socrates proposes to Plato’s brother Glaucon that we imagine knowledge to be like a divided line. As we move upwards along the line in our developing knowledge, the object of our study becomes clearer and we understand better what we are doing in that study. It is a significant advance to move from noticing a dark spot on the ground to recognizing that it is a shadow, that is, recognizing that the dark appearance is caused by the body whose shadow it is. It is a significant further advance to move from noticing that body to recognizing that it is itself a phenomenon–a reality dependent for its existence on the deeper, causal forces that shape reality as such, and that reveal themselves through such bodies. 2000 years later (in the first of his Meditations on First Philosophy of 1641) René Descartes made the same point: “what is in front of us” is recognized more clearly when we recognize things appearing, rather than just sensations, and more clearly again when we recognize universal principles of nature appearing, rather than just things. Both Socrates and Descartes thus defend the importance of science–the importance of understanding reality in terms of its causes. Both Socrates and Descartes, however, push us one step further.
According to Socrates, there is a fourth, highest step as we make our way up the line. This final step comes when we realize that our sciences argue from assumptions. Point, line and plane, for example, are presumed in geometry, not proved; similarly, time, earth, and humanity are presumed in history, not proved. The final step on the line is the study of these “hypothesis,” that is, it is the recognition of these presuppositions as presuppositions, and thus the practice of putting these presuppositions in question.
Here in North America, the university school year has recently started, and many thousands of students are settling into the process of storing up new information while remaining unchanged personally; this process is facilitated by teachers who present their own teaching as a simple matter of transferring information, with no sense of existential engagement. In fact, though, there is no “neutral” object and no “neutral” process of study. Through every mode of study we are in fact taking a stance on shaping our human world, whether we notice this or not.
Thousands of students of psychology learn the “facts” of “mental illness,” content to believe that these terms properly map onto the definitive features of reality, rather than asking what it means to interpret human existence in terms of the opposition of mind and body or asking what it means to understand forms of psychological coping on the model of physiological disease. Thousands of students of economics learn the “facts” of efficient “fiscal management,” rather than asking why it the case or whether it is right that we have a “free market” economy or especially asking what money is. Again, students learn the “facts” of “gravity,” “bosons” and “experimental method” without first asking what it is to interpret the world as the result of the impersonal laws of matter and motion. There were reasons why Copernicus, Galileo and Newton took up the study of reality in these terms: are their reasons still our own? Should they be?
When we study these subjects and accept their orientation to the world, we are actually taking up a stance on reality–we are interpreting the world. But other stances–other interpretations–are possible. The interpretations we adopt may well be fine–they may be–but when we have not understood how the stance we are taking up is one possibility within a field of other (often conflicting) possibilities, we don’t know what we’re doing.
According to Descartes, the fourth step (beyond the recognition of sensations, things and forces) is the recognition that I am always there in whatever I experience. To truly know “what is there,” we must ask “who I am,” “who is the subject who knows?” I believe it is similarly incumbent upon us, personally and culturally, to ask ourselves, what are we doing in embracing the terms of this or that science, who are we when we think in these terms. Our true education comes, in other words, when we ask–and ask critically–who is the “subject” of this study.