I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. -- Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Should Homeschooled Kids Study Philosophy?

Should homeschooled kids study philosophy and, more specifically, should homeschooled kids of grade-school age study philosophy?

The answer to both questions is “Yes, but…”

Educated people know something about the history of philosophy, just as they know something about the history of literature, music, architecture, etc. Ideas created or elaborated by philosophers hundreds of years ago are still floating around today, and kids need to learn about those ideas because they affect us all today. Kids need especially to learn about those ideas that happen to be utter nonsense, so that they are not sucked into believing in the nonsense themselves.

Furthermore, philosophy is, in fact, less complicated than most people imagine, and even grade-school kids can seriously learn some things about the history of philosophy.

When my kids were in third-grade, we read together, out loud, Jeremy Weate’s A Young Person’s Guide to Philosophy: like all DK books, it is engaging and nicely illustrated. It is of course necessarily superficial, but it does give kids a thumbnail sketch of some of the major figures in the history of philosophy, and it offers a good basis for further discussion.

When our kids were fourth-graders we read together Lloyd Spencer’s Introducing the Enlightenment, which, in the format of a graphic novel, does a nice job of introducing the leading characters and ideas of the Enlightenment. I found especially interesting his emphasis on the importance of Locke as a key figure behind the Enlightenment, and also his contrasting of Rousseau vs. Voltaire.

So, yes, even grade-school kids should learn something about the history of philosophy, if nothing else to be immunized against philosophical nonsense.

But… many introductory books on philosophy take the tack that “philosophy is not so much a set of answers as a way of asking questions: the important thing about philosophy is not specific answers, but rather the philosophical way of thinking”

Yeah – that is because the answers that philosophers have come up with over the centuries have been almost uniformly bad!

I have in mind, for example, Kant’s claim that the structure of the human mind forces us to think in terms of Euclidean geometry, just a few years before non-Euclidean geometry was discovered, or Comte’s “positivistic” claim that we would never know the composition of the stars, just a few years before scientists discovered how to analyze stellar composition using spectral lines.

The problem is not simply that these guys goofed up. The problem is that, for centuries, philosophers have supposed that they could gain insight into the inner nature of reality by thinking about how we use words, by studying carefully how we think about the world, and by utilizing the basic common-sense knowledge that we all already possess – without doing complex experiments, without learning advanced math, without making painfully detailed observations of nature, etc.

The “method” of philosophy, in short, is that of a literate, articulate gentleman, someone who is very skilled at using words but who does not want to soil his hands with actually doing detailed observations or experiments, or bother his mind with doing high-level math or learning about the detailed observations and experiments carried out by others.

(A few philosophers today are actually going to the trouble to learn real, advanced math, science, etc., but they are very few in number. People who can really handle tough math and science, naturally, tend to become mathematicians, scientists, engineers, etc., rather than philosophers.)

This philosophical method is the exact opposite of the scientific method: science has progressed by assuming that nature hides its secrets in the hard, difficult to come by, details.

Kepler discovered that planets move in ellipses by trying to understand why Tycho Brahe’s actual observations differed in tiny details from what any existing model predicted. Darwin proved the fact of natural selection through his bizarre obsession with Galapagos finches, and many other varieties of animals. The second law of thermodynamics was developed by thinking in great detail about how heat engines worked, and trying to figure out what the performance of the most ideal possible heat engine would be.

Science is the result of an obsessive-compulsive disorder directed to making unnaturally detailed observations of nature in the paranoid belief that nature is hiding deep secrets in those absurd, tiny little details.

And it has worked.

The method of philosophy has been to assume that the inner nature of reality is inherently accessible and transparent and can be understood by thinking calmly and carefully in the comfort of one's armchair, as if reality were simply another well-spoken gentleman who can be understood if one courteously and attentively listens to his words.

That has failed.

So, while kids should learn about the history of philosophy, they most emphatically should not be encouraged to think “philosophically,” i.e., in the way that professional philosophers have thought for the last couple centuries. That method of thinking is a proven loser.

Of course, some areas that are usually considered part of “philosophy” are subjects that humans simply must deal with. The obvious example is ethics: you do have ethical views, whether you admit it or not, and it would be best if you consciously investigated and understood those views.

But… the fact that “ethics” is classified by libraries and by universities under the subject of philosophy should not compel us to think that professional “philosophers” are actually experts on ethics or that the “philosophical way of thinking” is necessarily the right way to think about ethics.

Ethics is too important to be left to the philosophers.

Ethics has to do with the practical issue of how we should live our daily lives: on the face of it, numerous different subjects have something interesting to say about that question – history, anthropology, economics, biology, religion, etc.

And, surely, the accumulated common-sense wisdom of human beings through the generations has some relevance, too.

Yes, kids certainly need to learn about the difference between right and wrong, and from a very early age. But it is an error simply to assume that philosophers are better able to think about ethics in a careful, systematic way than experts in other intellectual disciplines.

In thinking about ethics, the quality of someone’s thoughts must be judged on its own merits, not by whether or not he is officially a “philosopher.” And, based on the failures of philosophy in so many other areas, one should not be optimistic about philosophers’ contributions to thinking about morality, either.

So, yes, homeschooled kids should be taught about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, about Locke, Hume, Kant, and Hegel – indeed, they need to be intellectually immunized against Kant and Hegel.

But children should also be taught not to think “philosophically,” in the manner of current and recent academic and professional philosophers. On the contrary, they should be explicitly told that, for at least the last two centuries, the philosophical enterprise as carried out by professional philosophers has been an obvious failure and that the vast increase in our knowledge of reality during the last several centuries has been due not to philosophy but to natural science.


  1. Have you ever heard of Ayn Rand? Her epistemology seems to almost align with the scientific method.

    "Since man is not omniscient or infallible, you have to discover what you can claim as knowledge and how to prove the validity of your conclusions. Does man acquire knowledge by a process of reason—or by sudden revelation from a supernatural power? Is reason a faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses—or is it fed by innate ideas, implanted in man’s mind before he was born? Is reason competent to perceive reality—or does man possess some other cognitive faculty which is superior to reason? Can man achieve certainty —or is he doomed to perpetual doubt? The extent of your self-confidence—and of your success—will be different, according to which set of answers you accept."


    "No concept man forms is valid unless he integrates it without contradiction into the total sum of his knowledge. "

  2. Kim wrote:
    > Have you ever heard of Ayn Rand? Her epistemology seems to almost align with the scientific method.

    Yeah, I’m familiar with Rand – I read all of her novels, and a lot of her non-fiction (including the first edition of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology ) when I was a teenager.

    I’m largely in agreement with the quotes from her that you posted, and, in particular, I would emphatically endorse the point that it is important to always ask oneself “How do I know this?” (That does not mean you can necessarily give an immediate answer to that question. But, until you can answer that question, you need to be a little concerned that your “knowledge” may be false.)

    I guess I have a couple of problems with Rand, which really should largely be blamed on some of our followers rather than on her. First, many of her followers seem to claim that she came up with all of her ideas herself. She didn’t: a lot of her ideas on both epistemology and political philosophy go back to Locke, for example.

    That’s not a bad thing. Locke was one of the most sensible and insightful of the philosophers who lived during the last several centuries. And, of course, no one invents everything himself: even Newton and Einstein were building on the work of their predecessors.

    Nonetheless, I find it a bit irritating to have Rand’s follower’s act as if her ideas all originated with her, when, of course, that is not really possible.

    Second, some of Rand’s followers tend to focus more on what Rand’s position on some subject was than on what is actually true: this is related to the “Who are the real Objectivists?” question.

    A number of her followers are also very keen on “converting” people to Objectivism. I saw some try to "convert" the philosopher Colin McGinn in an online discussion, for example. Colin is one of that minority of current philosophers to whom I alluded who is very bright, scientifically informed, and serious about using all resources available, including science, to understand reality. He almost certainly knows more about philosophy than those who were trying to "convert" him to Objectivism.

    Colin's a decent guy, if they had raised some specific issue with him, he would have discussed it and everyone, including Colin, might have learned something.

    But, trying to "convert" Colin to Objectivism was a waste of time. He's going to make up his own mind about things; he won't become anyone's follower.

    Rand was an interesting, thoughtful person, and she caused me to think about some things I had not thought about before. I’m happy to hear what her views were on some subject that happens to come up.

    But I’m not going to treat her, or anyone else, as a final authority whose word is gospel.

  3. (CONT. -- it seems my own blog is limiting my comment size!)

    I don’t know how much contact you have had with any of Rand’s “official” followers: if you haven’t had much contact, what I am saying may sound rather strange. After all, Rand herself said that a person should not accept any other human being as a final authority.

    Unfortunately, I have myself seen a number of her followers behave as I have said. For example, one of her most prominent followers claims that he knows that both relativity and the Big Bang are wrong. He knows pretty much nothing about science himself, and I hear that some of the scientists in the Objectivist movement have tried to tell him diplomatically that he is publicly making a fool of himself, but to no avail.

    So, I guess I’d say in summary that I think Rand was a bright, provocative person who caused me to think about a lot of things, and, indeed, I think on many points she was correct.

    But, I would discourage anyone from being a follower of Rand’s, for the same reason I would urge them to avoid being a follower of Stephen Hawking’s or Richard Feynman’s (my own “mentor” in physics) or anyone else: people ought to think for themselves.

    Needless to say, no one should become my follower, either! Fortunately, there seems little danger of this happening – I seem not to project the persona of a guru.

    All the best,


  4. Amusingly, in order to argue against the philosophical method, you've had to engage in logical argumentation -- that is, you've had to engage in the philosophical method.

    First, you've challenged the idea that "the inner nature of reality is inherently accessible and transparent". Good for you. You've nicely summarized Plato: appearance and reality are two different things.

    But wait, then you turn around and argue, to the contrary, that "the accumulated common-sense wisdom of human beings" is going to tell us something about reality. So, now, instead of assuming that reality is hidden, you're concluding that knowing about reality is just a matter of our collective common sense. You've moved from Platonism to ordinary language philosophy!

    Here at least is a sensible thought: "In thinking about ethics, the quality of someone’s thoughts must be judged on its own merits." Exactly! Every philosopher would applaud at this point. And what are those merits? Oh, hmm, well, in order to determine what the merits are of an ethical view, I suppose we'll have to do -- what is it called again? -- oh yes, "philosophy". Good old a priori armchair investigation. (

    Unless you think empirical methods are going to tell us these things. In which case you're also engaging in philosophy, albeit of a radical empiricist sort.)

    Of course, you're right that philosophers are completely in the dark when it comes to mathematics. Because mathematics is all about investigating the natural world! Oh, wait, no! Mathematics is all a priori, isn't it? Armchair stuff. If we aren't careful, mathematicians and philosophers might start mingling and . . .

    Oh no. Even if we assume Leibniz belonged to the distant past, now we have to deal with Hilbert, Church, von Neumann, Boole, Poincare, Peano, Cantor, and worst of all that Platonist Gödel.

    And, of course, from the work begun in Frege, Russell, Whitehead, and Tarski you get Turing and the birth of computing. Too bad that "computing" went nowhere, and philosophy was such a failure, completing failing to expand our knowledge.

    Even now, physicists rely on philosophers without giving credit where credit is due. Who gave you the concept of a possible universe, or of a multiverse? Who gave you the concept of an infinitessimally small point? Who taught you about causation, determinism, indeterminism, and relativity? Randomness and information? Complex systems? Signaling systems? Natural laws? Evolution?

    Oh, that's right. Your dear mother, philosophy did. All of these concepts originated while you were still suckling as she held you in her armchair. Yes - just try to argue against philosophy without engaging in philosophical argument, and you'll begin to appreciate that that you're still living in your mother's basement, applying her ideas but claiming all of the credit.

    But I should forgive you. Perhaps you've read too many things translated from French and sold in the Barnes and Noble philosophy aisle, as opposed to, say, academic philosophical journals. Such a charitable way to learn about other disciplines.


  5. ktl,

    I'm debating whether or not to simply delete your comment since it is so filled with nonsense and ignorance.

    For example, you wrote: "And, of course, from the work begun in Frege, Russell, Whitehead, and Tarski you get Turing and the birth of computing."

    Well, no.

    I know a great deal about computing (I hold various patents on Galois-field techniques for error-correction coding), and I also know quite a lot about the development of mathematical logic. Sorry, your history is off, wildly off.

    Similar points could be made about the rest of what you say, but I am sure you do not want to listen to someone who merely possesses actual knowledge about the real world.

    I will leave your comment and my reply up briefly so you can see them.