Friday, March 28, 2008

Whether Knowledge is Relative

A quote from Aquinas Commentary on Aristotle's De Anima (sorry, it is long, but it bears on something I've been thinking about. I wrote some thoughts at the end so you can skip if you want OR of course, skip altogether : ))

On the relative value of different kinds of knowledge:

While all knowledge is good and even honorable, one science can surpass another in this respect. All knowledge is obviously good because the good of anything is that which belongs to the fullness of being which all thingss seek after and desire; and man as man reaches fullness of being through knowledge.

Now of good things some are just valuable, namely, those which are useful in view of some end -- as we value a good horse because it runs well; whilst other good things are also honorable, namely, those that exist for their own sake; for we give honor to ends, not means.

Of the sciences some are practical, others speculative; the difference being that the former are for the sake of some work to be done, while the latter are for their own sake. The speculative sciences are therefore honorable as well as good, but the practical ones are only valuable. Every speculative science is both good and honorable.

Yet even among the speculative sciences there are degrees of goodness and honorableness. Every science is valued first of all as a kind of activity, and the worth of any activity is reckoned in two ways: from its object and from its mode or quality.

Thus building is a better activity than bed-making because its object is better. But where the activities are the same in kind, and result in the same thing, the quality alone makes a difference; if a building is better built it will be a better building.

Considering then science, or its activity, from the point of view of the object, that science is nobler which is concerned with better and nobler things; but from the point of view of mode or quality, the nobler science is that which is more certain. One science, then, is reckoned nobler than another, either because it concerns better and nobler objects or because it is more certain.

Now, why this comes up:

In Is Knowledge Relative? Melissa wrote:

But I don’t see how it could be moral relativism to say “this bit of knowledge is just as valuable as that bit of knowledge.” Valuable for what purpose? In what context?

That is so precisely why education is an art rather than a science, and indeed LIFE is an art rather than a science (it's called prudence, or phronesis if the word prudence sounds like a spinster looking under her bed to you). Aquinas says above that one type of knowledge is (in abstract) better (in goodness and honor) than another, depending on that knowledge's objective and quality.

BUT: What is the profit if you gain the whole world and lose your soul? To say it another way, "if you speak with the tongues of men and angels, but without love, your voice is like the clanging of cymbals". We all know the adult who got years and years of rigorous piano lessons and now never touches the piano; contrarily, we know the motivated teenager who got interested in? football? violin? snowboarding? at a relatively older age and excelled quickly because internal motivation was present. Pavarotti is an example of the latter sort, and so is an athlete from our area, Andy Finch, who apparently didn't start snowboarding until he was about 12 and is now an Olympian winter sports star.

The subjectively best path is not always the one that "seems" higher objectively. A child reading Star Wars novels, as Melissa points out, may be getting something out of it that he will later, or even in the same day, also be getting out of Church's Stories from the Aeneid or Pyle's Tales of King Arthur. Often there are many paths that lead to good things. An expansive open view of the value of ALL kinds of knowledge and delight might be a better tactic than an exclusionary, purist approach that narrows the world unnecessarily.

Stephanie at Recollected Life makes this point in Melissa's comment box and also on her blog about Why it Worked and what it couldn't do

Plus, there's another thing... the mode or quality that Aquinas talked about. He would say that discovery (inventio) is better than instruction (disciplina), that self-directed learning is better than imposed. I have talked about that before quite a bit, but here just wanted to point out that Aquinas held that even the more artificial instructional "teaching" should imitate as much as possible the natural mode by which people learn. He compared it to the job of a doctor -- stand back when you're not needed; supportive and minimal care when your offices ARE needed; and as the Hippocratic Oath has it "first do no harm".

As Melissa writes:

Another way to think about it is: who is learning more—the kid who is passionately interested in Boxcar Children, or the one who is patiently enduring Great Expectations?

(That same child might, however, find herself captivated by Great Expectations a few years later—her appreciation of suspense fiction having been honed by dozens of Boxcar Children books.)

Here you have one of my ongoing struggles with the balance between the unschooling ideal (honestly, radical unschooling IS my ideal since I am sure that this was exactly what Cain and Abel's upbringing would have been if the serpent hadn't intervened) and my classical ideal (which would have been exactly identical to the RU one, it seems to me, if not for that original intervention).

In a perfect world, everyone would naturally seek out the objectively higher things.
We don't live in a perfect world. It's possible to get distracted, as Amy points out in Melissa's comment box.

YET, and this is a huge yet, subjective perception is extremely important. The shortest distance isn't always the most easily travelled or the most meaningful route. Think Concorde jet on a business trip to Jerusalem vs pilgrimage on foot to the Holy Land. Here I think about my conversion -- it took several years. Would I have one step otherwise? I regret any sinful backwardness on my part but yet, every step was gilded with God's grace. One of my children studied statistics in his high school book but didn't GET statistics until he starting crunching football percentages for his fantasy football game. Now he gets it. The examples could be multiplied.

The other YET (I keep wanting to write YETI because of the Tintins I am constantly reading to Paddy): this is one that Melissa pointed out in the comments:

I can see that how it gets sticky if it’s translated as “all knowledge is equally valuable,” which would seem to open the door to absurdities like ‘the knowledge of how to pull taffy is just as important as the knowledge of how to cure leukemia’ or ‘the text on a cereal box is as valuable as the Summa Theologica.’ But even in reaching for absurdities I find myself arguing the point: if I have a peanut allergy, the text on the cereal box might be more immediately important to me than the Summa. I come back to the value being relative to circumstance and need. If I had to make a choice, I’d choose the Summa…but do we ever have to make that choice?
This is true, and Aquinas would agree. In particulars, sometimes "highers" are properly subordinated to "lowers". At a taffy-pulling party, the person who can pull taffy will have valuable knowledge proper to the occasion, and the person who proses on about the cure for leukemia might perhaps be better off lightening up a bit and practicing his taffy-pulling skills. If you want to see this in action, read Pride and Prejudice. Mary Bennet's speeches aren't so much foolish as they are foolishly situated, not suitable to the occasion.

I think I intellectualize too much. Surprise!

My spring break is ending; in spite of my resolves, I've been spending lots of time on the computer while life swirls and eddies around me. "Oh, my goodness, my (playdough) brownies are ready! " "Mom, could I have some hot cocoa? Mom, did you forget my cocoa?" "Will you please pick me up Mama?" "Look at what I made!" "Mama, do the beep!" (That is not a swear word, but means that Aidan wants to use the timer function on my camera!)

On the bright side, it's been a bit like a retreat, made more memorable and practical with all the domestic swirls and eddies. Thanks, Melissa and everyone who commented at her site. I think I will now resolve during this bright and shiny Easter season to try to make a few changes one step at a time. First, I think it's time to present my face to my kids, maybe with a smile and a friendly voice and gaze; Aidan has been taking way too many pictures of the back of my head with my hair lit by the glow of the laptop screen).


Us! said...

Another pithy post Willa. I too have been so blessed by the great comments on Melissa's blog. It has lots of thoughts whirlwinding through my head- however, I appreciate your comment of 'trying to add things one by one!'.

BTW my son Caleb is really into the Tintins right now as well- he had his head buried in one most of the day!

Have a wonderful end to your Spring break 'retreat'...

Melissa Wiley said...

Oh, so helpful! Thank you! Valuable vs. valuable and honorable. I will be pondering this for years to come.

But I'm feeling selfishly jealous of the people who'll get to enjoy the 'front of your head' while you withdraw from the computer. :) You bring so much depth to a conversation, Willa.

Rachel said...


You wrote this in the comments at Melissa's blog:

"... To me what you describe seems closer to the “children obey your parents” and “parents, do not exasperate your children” than the mechanical obedience sometimes proposed in parenting books. Listen to your children and try to nurture their natural desire to listen to you...."

I just wanted to say 'Just Beautiful'. Thank you. I really love reading what you have to say.