Oct 31, 2010

Anselm on Persons in God's Mind (part 1)

Saint Anselm makes a very interesting distinction at several points in his writings.  He contrasts how things are in our thought, language, or knowledge about them with how things actually are in themselves.

Such a contrast between reality and appearance, or reality and representations of reality, is a commonplace found in nearly all philosophical approaches, even in those which accord priority to perspectives rather than to realities.  Anselm goes further, however, introducing a higher, or better put deeper, level: there is how things are in our knowledge of them, how things are in themselves (in se), and how they exist, as he puts it, in the divine Word, i.e. how they exist in the mind of God.  Here is one of several key passages (in Hopkin's and Richardson's translation:
Now, it is evident that the more truly the Creating Being exists than does the created being, the more truly every created substance exists in the Word (i.e., in the Understanding) of the Creator than in itself. Therefore, how would the human mind comprehend what that kind of speaking and knowledge is which is so vastly superior to and truer than created substances, if our knowledge is as vastly surpassed by these [created] things as their likenesses are different from their being?

Oct 24, 2010

Why It's Been Quiet

A short post, just to wiggle my toe in the blogging waters (actually have a few posts currently parked and waiting the time and energy to be finished).  In addition to CLA matters aplenty, committee work, teaching classes, and readying presentations, this month has been given over to finishing one stage of what has been so far a 6 year project, and starting another stage.

About six years ago, two years into teaching Philosophy and Religious Studies classes at Indiana State Prison, just two years out of grad school, Adrian Papst, a young, earnest English Catholic guy who was studying at the Institut Catholique de Paris (and whom I'd met at the stimulating Continental Philosophy of Religion conference in Lancaster, where the Radical Orthodoxy types squared off against the Pomos / Derridians), sent me a packet of photocopied documents.

He knew of my love for Maurice Blondel's thought and (largely still untranslated) works, and he mailed me several accounts of meetings of the Société Française de Philosophie, in which Blondel had been involved, accompanied by some other Blondel documents from the early 1930s.  These turned out to be key writings of Blondel during the 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates, which ran roughly from 1931-35 or 36 (depending on how you want to draw the historical boundaries), but I did not know it at the time, until I started reading through the pieces he had sent, and following up with some research and photocopying of my own.

Oct 16, 2010

"CLA" as an Analogical Term

"What is the CLA?" I get asked by colleagues at Fayetteville State and from other institutions, on an almost weekly basis these days.  Their stances vary, not surprisingly, according to the character and intellectual dispositions of these colleagues (some people are less curious, some more, some attempt to get the big picture, others shy and wriggle away from it).  But their interest, their receptiveness, their attention, their "angle" also varies in dependence with two other factors:  what they think they might do with the CLA and why they think they might (or ought to) do whatever they have their mind set -- vaguely, to be sure, but set on.

A few nights ago, as I composed an email to a Czech colleague affiliated with a neo-Aristotelian journal and interested in the Collegiate Learning Assessment, I realized that a set of linguistic distinctions (which we share because of our philosophical formation) and work open up one particularly felicitous way to set out the scope of what the term "CLA" covers.  "CLA" is an analogous term.

(notice, not quite the same thing as analogy in general, a type of argument, trope, or form of inference)

There is a distinction whose first tentative technical conceptualization ultimately goes back to Aristotle, later refined by Medieval philosophers and theologians (and put to a lot of uses, particularly in theology!), then expanded in modernity by those studying language, argument, and metaphor (for example, the hermeneutic scholar Paul Ricoeur or the semiotician Umberto Eco) and now fairly routinely applied all the way by those whose philosophical formation includes a good solid basis in the classics of Philosophy.

The basic idea behind it is this:  a term which is analogous has multiple meanings, all of which are connected with each other in some way(s).  There is some core meaning to the term from which the other meanings derive and to which they remain connected, but this core meaning does not capture the entire fullness or range of meaning of the term.  The other, ancillary, spun-off meanings make their own contributions, expand the scope of the term, interconnect it with other terms and concepts.

For one hearing about analogy and analogical predication -- as I know from the experience of bringing it up with colleagues and teaching students about it -- at first this can be a bit confusing.  So. . .  the term does have a meaning, right?  . . .  but it's got other meanings, and these are all somehow connected with each other? So. . . Huh?

What I (and pretty much everyone else I know who teaches about this) do when faced with this initial confusion is explain the contrast between analogical terms and two other sorts:  univocal and equivocal. 

Univocal terms have one single meaning, and all not-simply-metaphorical uses of that term relate to that single meaning.  It's actually not that easy to come up with terms that in every and any context are univocal, not least since without realizing it we often rely upon analogy.  In clearly delineated contexts, it becomes much easier to find examples.  "HTML code" is an univocal term.  Granted it applies to an awful lot of objects or things, but the term is used the same way (as far as I know) in referring to that vast set of things.

"Seal" is a now-classic example of an equivocal term.  When teaching about equivocation, I'll ask the class for different meanings of the term, and they'll usually come up with four very quickly:  the animal that we see in the zoo or on television; the emblem of the state, country, or other office ; the action of closing something up (or sometimes the portion itself  that closes); and, this guy

The meanings of the terms are not related to each other.  The word "seal" refers to very different, unconnected things.  Of course, you might tie them all together in one sentence, for example:  "Seal took the baby seals and the state seal of North Carolina, and sealed them in a bag.  Still, all you would have done with this is heaped together words which denote different senses of the word "seal".

Of course, it might also refer, as they occasionally point out, to Navy Seals -- and now with that sense of the term we start getting back to the analogical.  Why are they called Seals, after all?  Because they are like the swift-swimming carnivorous animals, among other reasons.  These different senses of the term are connected analogically.

"Paper," which can mean the material, the material configured in various shapes, genres of writing set down on those configured materials, or a type of publication also put down on (differently) configured materials, is another good example of an analogous term.  "Health" and "healthy" are a classic example.

So, back to the CLA.  Many of the faculty (and even some of the students -- but different motivational structures for them) I end up talking with about the CLA understandably want to wrap their head around it, and to do so right away.  The context of discussion can change -- it  might be a faculty development seminar, a consultation with a program about incorporating the CLA into their major, a meeting about our five year Quality Enhancement Plan, or just conversation with an individual faculty member.  But the governing assumption remains the same, sometimes explicitly stated ("but the CLA is just. . . ."), sometimes just lying dormant, implicit, silently generating confusion in the hearer's mind.

Two approaches, oriented around different anchor-points, suggest themselves:

The CLA has its origin in the CLA test, used by schools for assessment of advancement of student learning,  graded and reported on by CLA Assessment. All the other meanings and referents of "CLA" derive historically from their relations with this testing tool.

Or, the CLA is a determinate approach, developed and taught by CLA in the Classroom, then implemented concretely by individual institutions, programs, faculty members.  All the meanings of "CLA" are tied together by their greater or lesser alignment with this approach.

In classic structural linguistics, or in semiology/semiotics, this contrast is immediately recognizable as the difference between adopting the diachronic perspective or the synchronic perspective. The first looks at history, development and change in time, the second at the articulated system as a whole, abstracting from time.  Adequately engaging the reality of a term, a thing, a phenomenon, of course, requires attention to both perspectives.

All of the meanings -- at least the ones germane to pedagogy -- of CLA relate back to these two core meanings.  The CLA is a form of test marked by several consistent general features and a growing number of instantiating exemplars.   It can be an "official" CLA Performance Task employed for assessment of "value-added," indexed to other measures such as incoming students' SAT scores, the results compared over time and to those of other institutions.

It can be an assessment tool like FSU's Rising Junior Examination, used as a second, independent means for institutional assessment of student learning.  That exam itself as a CLA, but we considered several "different CLAs" (i.e. Performance Tasks) as possibilities before settling on one.  We have already been assigned the task of creating another "CLA," this time incorporating the topic of personal responsibility.

It can also refer to an individual student response, so that one can speak of "having graded 20 CLAs today."  It can refer to the general approach, as when we say someone is "really good with the CLA" or "just started learning about the CLA".  This is the meaning somewhat erroneously used in advertising the Saturday Academy workshop I will provide in roughly four weeks, which has been billed as being on "CLA," but which will really focus on one main element of the CLA, the rubric, and the practice of grading.  Of course, learning more about one element, dimension,  or concept of the CLA does entail learning about the CLA more generally, since the parts do cohere.  Still, the confusion I anticipate when new junior faculty show up expecting a workshop which will introduce them to and lead them through all of the elements of the CLA, and find out that I will mainly talk about and provide them resources dealing with rubrics and grading shows that the term can be used in a more proper sense, closer to the core, and a less proper, more derivative sense.

So, long story short:  the CLA means a number of interrelated things.  It is not, like the old trope -- very old, in fact, going back to Jain polemics with Hindus and Buddhists in ancient India --someone brought up at a recent meeting, about the blind men discussing the elephant, up for grabs, meaning radically different things for different people.  It is possible to attain a synoptic, holistic understanding of what is comprised by the term, and what  its primary senses are.  So, when someone says they work with, or know, or use the CLA, perhaps the most prudent thing to do is to ask them precisely what they mean by the term.

Oct 10, 2010

Anselm's God, the Sun, and the Unfathomable Ocean

At the end of (though technically at the beginning) of weeks simply saturated by concerns of faculty development, business ethics, course design, the CLA, my three sections of Critical Thinking this semester, articles on disparate topics I committed to, and seemingly endless meetings, I want. . .  better put, I need to read, think, and write about something other than those matters.  I had hoped Sundays after mass I would make time to start reading my way piece by piece through the volumes of the writings of the Church Fathers I bought on a bargain four years back.  But, inevitably, undone work and unfinished products from the previous week intrude.

Unable to stick to my first intention, I decided on a plan which would combine some sabbatical conversation with great Christian thinkers but which would also tie in with my current projects.  I made my bones a while back as an Anselm scholar, and continue publishing articles, giving talks, and even writing a book on his thought. My Anselmian explorations have had to be placed on hold so far this semester (except to write an application for an NEH Summer Stipend to work on the book), so Sundays will provide the space and time to follow along with the great Benedictine saint and philosopher.

One of the paradoxes of Anselm's theocentric writings is that in them he tells us that God is both known and unknown, that we can have an idea of God, but not comprehend God, that in fact our language even at its most theologically precise can just barely gesture towards God.  Anselm has been called everything from a rationalist to a mystic.  Both labels do apply, in fact (if they are not understood exclusively), because in Anselm they are not opposed but complementary, and this is precisely because of the object his thought strives towards, the person he communicates with, the ultimate reality he extends his mind, human language and concepts, to grasp:  God.

Oct 6, 2010

Ethics of Anger

About a week ago, one the local Cumberland County Library branches emailed me to ask whether I might be willing to give some sort of talk an evening in January, something dealing with Philosophy, perhaps, the librarian suggested, a talk about Ethics.  Always ready to squeeze another gig between already plotted engagements, even more to scribe in fresh ink on a virgin calendar (at least virtually), I immediately agreed.  Engaging a group of non-academics, people unaffiliated with the university, but intellectually active, curious, questioning, is both challenging and rewarding.  I have come to take a double view of philosophical topics.
On the one hand, there are matters of the mind which possess their own intrinsic worth and beauty, and this often renders them complex and not immediately accessible (often inexplicable, even unintelligible to my philosophical colleagues).  There is no popularizing these, no "bringing philosophy down from the heavens to earth" for such matters.  The mind and the heart must make the step by step difficult climb to reach them, must puzzle the concepts open, unfold the ideas portion by portion, before uncovering the prize.

On the other hand, there are many other matters philosophy and philosophers grapple with that ordinary plain people who have something on the ball ought to be able not only to understand without any disciplinary preparation or training, but also to enjoy, to delight in thinking about and understanding.  Aristotle begins one of his most difficult works, the Metaphysics, observing that "all human beings by nature desire knowing" (or "to know" or "knowledge", depending on how you want to translate it).  If to us academics, this seems a starting point rendered patently untrue by our experience, how much of that is due to that natural inborn human desire being stymied instead of encouraged in its development by those who are to introduce learners to a subject, to lead them deeper and deeper within, to bring them to vistas from which they can look out, their perspectives ever after altered?

I wrote back that I would mull over possible topics.  I always have four or five different irons in the fire at any given time.  Which of those would admit adaptation for a more popular lecture and discussion?  I started on the list.  Then my partner phoned and grabbing the opportunity to sound her about my proposed subjects, I started reading down the list. She stopped me after the second one.  The first one was all that was needed, it would easily draw and keep interest.  And I had not only been experiencing it, studying it, dialoguing with the great philosophers, theologians, saints and psychologists about it, I'd already written a few pieces and started on a book about it.  Just pitch the first one, she said.  It's all you need.  But it needs a sexier title.  I've got it:

Oct 3, 2010

Ethics and Prison Education

This past August, my colleague Joseph Osei and I provided a workshop on moral transformation and teaching philosophy in prisons at the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (my portion, with handouts, is available here, and videos here)  Joseph had proposed the workshop idea to me back in winter, and I readily agreed.  I came to Fayetteville State directly after having taught six years full time for Ball State University at Indiana State Prison, and I had been mulling over the experiences of working in a prison, interacting with inmates, seeing growth and transformation in some of them, unsure as to what to do with those experiences and reflections.  I knew that eventually I wanted to write about it, but the topic was so vast, so heterogeneous, had so many vantage points from which it could be looked at, that I never got around to doing more than corresponding with a few of my former students and answering questions people asked once they found out about my years at ISP

So, the conference and the panel provided me the occasion to finally start thinking, researching, and writing on prison education in a more serious and directed way.  I began reading my way through the literature on prison education, some of which is admittedly quite poorly thought out or bent so ideologically as to be useless for anyone who has not boarded that particular thought-train.  There are a number of very interesting, useful, and thought-provoking articles available, albeit relatively few on Philosophy.  There are more writings on ethics and on moral development written by non-philosophers, since academic philosophers are generally uninterested in any serious way in prisons, crime, punishment, and moral reformation in prisons.