By Nicole Decostre
This paper was presented at the annual Austrian conference for Philosophy for Children, October 2017
When it comes to Enlightenment, we immediately refer to the British, German and French philosophers of the eighteenth century.
Could referring to those Enlightenment ideas provide us with a better understanding of our present days and make us feel ready for the future?
Don’t we have our own enlightened thinkers, who are thriving on the richness of the technical and scientific evolution that makes them different from the historical philosophers of Enlightenment, but on the other hand seem to be threatened by those achievements?
Are the problems and the values cherished at that time still current?
With the wars and the genocides of the twentieth century, are we not allowed to speak of a total upheaval of the idea of progress?
Are there any new factors of our present evolution that would be hostile to Enlightenment?
How would Lipman answer to those ancient and new challenges?
It clearly appears that Matthew Lipman is heir of Enlightenment. That is largely attested in his autobiography[i] through his great intellectual curiosity and his philosophical choices as well as through the different stages of his life. In that work, we find many proofs of his open-mindedness, of his nuanced rationality, his scientific inquiry, and his deep and consistent humanism. His trust in human progress through education has been the goal of his entire life and has resulted in a monumental work, original and unique in the whole story of philosophy.
The fact that this enlightened mark is combined with empiricism and even with pragmatism is also perfectly clear. The array of ideas in his works is always embodied in specific situations and circumstances as well as in frames, softened by experience and by his will to make them concrete. We understand now how wise Lipman is: instead of an ideal universalism often contradicted by the facts, he analyzes the values in situation and he strongly cares not to make them absolute. He reminds us the French writer and moralist of the eighteenth century Vauvenargues (1715–1747) who wrote that our errors and our divisions are sometimes due to the fact that we consider that people can be totally good or totally evil. Like Vauvenargues, Lipman is far from an easy propaganda about Good or Evil! He is close to James Waller who, in his book Becoming Evil (2007), analyzes the way everybody may become evil and for whom a way to be delivered from Extraordinary Evil is education. Waller cites the American educational philosopher Maxine Greene (1917-2014): “It is through and by means of education (…) that individuals may become empowered to think about what they are doing, to become mindful, to share meanings, to conceptualize, to make varied sense of their lived worlds.”
Lipman’s strong care for children has nothing in common with the status marked by the etymology (“infans”=cannot talk). His contacts with social sciences made him mistrustful of the absolute idealism of the eighteenth century as well as of the triumphant verbalism of 1789. With his first book, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, Lipman shows a deep respect towards a child considered as a complete partner for inquiry. That kind of care will be extended to all ages and enriched by different famous characters in the field of philosophical thinking: John Dewey, Ann Margaret Sharp, and Richard Rorty among others. He never invokes Reason. Instead, the participants search the good reasons, so that they learn how to make the distinction between good and bad reasons. This is what Lipman considers as lively rationality and effective reasonability.
A subtle enlightenment
The construction of an emancipatory thinking, source of real autonomy of the person, represents obviously the heart of the pedagogic work of Matthew Lipman. He acts as if he used a phrase of Voltaire[ii], who considered that the number of thinkers is very low and that those who think don’t want to trouble the world. In doing this, Lipman takes the opportunity to offer to the world a civic and political denial, according Dewey’s book Democracy and Education (1916).
To the civism decided in 1789, Lipman proposes the indispensable complement of a patient, thoughtful and participative education. Like Nietzsche, he wanted to become a practical master and to arouse the personal judgment and the thinking of the youngsters, so that they wouldn’t forget what are the reasons of their knowledge and how they have acquired it.[iii]
Our philosopher and pedagogue is close to Helvetius (1715–1771)[iv] and also to the French epistemologist Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) by his desire of openness and of plurality represented by the community of inquiry (C.I.). For both of them truth always results from a dispute between contradictory opinions. When a participant gives an example, a counterexample is expected. Through the exercises, each participant manages to reach selfcorrection.
On the contrary, ideological absolutism accompanied by triumphant verbalism favors political absolutism, which – as d’Holbach (1723-1789) wrote[v] – tries to keep in slavery all individuals: everywhere in the world, people are deluded, maintained in ignorance, impeached to use their rationality. As a wise and conscious pioneer, Lipman fights that universal fate. But he does it without imposing a doctrine or a system. He addresses the roots of the problem but he never forgets the relativity and the complexity of human condition. His huge moral contribution is made without any moralism, something really exceptional in a field that is very often dominated by indoctrination, as it can be read in Lisa Ethical Inquiry, through the exercises for that novel.
Let’s consider now the famous republican motto of France: “Freedom – Equality – Brotherhood”. That motto is as beautiful as unrealistic. This revolutionary motto for that time symbolizes the dream of the eighteenth century.
Freedom is a metaphysical entity that is often contested and that doesn’t exist in real life. Lipman, the pragmatist wants to arouse the need for concrete liberties such as freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of information, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of political choice. With his exercises in Mark Social Inquiry (chap. VII), he helps the distinction between political liberty and free will.
Equality in human condition is of course a beautiful ideal. But in the facts, where and when is that ideal attained? It only exists in theoretical writings, powerless against the barriers of the real power of avidity and of the general exploitation, denounced by Karl Marx. How does Lipman react to that? He organizes the “philosophical community of inquiry” (C.I.), putting together the most and least gifted, the most and least cultured, the old and the young, as well as different ethnos or nationalities, in a perfectly equal treatment as full partners of a free, open, and common enterprise. He doesn’t proclaim equality: he builds it up vividly! For example, in Mark Social Inquiry (chap. VII), Lipman studies in the C.I. what is just (Discussion plan 4). Or he explores the social experience: does the law apply differently to different classes? (Exercise 10). This is for him the opportunity to propose an exercise on discrimination (19). Exercises help to make the distinction between equality and equity.
Concerning brotherhood, every lucid mind knows that it has to do with feeling, with empathy, with “elective affinities” as Goethe called them. This is the reason why brotherhood is not decreed. Like all theoretical themes, that notion is treated by Lipman through the C.I. and can represent an enriched brotherhood, at the condition that it is open and enlightened. Such a practice would represent a real education in ethics! We can call it team spirit, a spirit made of solidarity, of reasoned complicity, of total respect and of empathy build up in action. To give an example, in Mark Social Inquiry (novel p.42), Mrs. Williams remarks: “Unless young people understand the ideals which a society is trying to achieve, how can they tell whether the institutions in that society are working well or badly?” The exercise 20 (chapter 4) explores the way ideals serve as goals or guides to action.
Let’s not confound the C.I. with communautarianism. While communitarians fuse in a gregarious reflex, in which a real thinking and ethics are absent, the C.I. functions with the dynamics of interconnected brains and that dynamics grows thanks to the dialogue, a growing that is nowadays largely proved by cognitive sciences. Lipman’s choice is the essential choice of ethics, a key for the political, which means for a possibility of a really democratic society and for a real project of civilization and of peace. We are far from the verbalism of sermons of all sorts, and from the empty slogans of propaganda!
Let’s note that the C.I. requires no conclusion and even less a consensus. As Nietzsche liked it, instead of closing the dialogue and of drying out the curiosity, the answers become new questions. If it has been important at all times, it has become more important today where everything goes quicker and quicker. Instead of proclaiming values, the values proclaimed or recommended today should be seriously analyzed. For example, the ideal of justice doesn’t always coincide with legality. There have been even “villainous laws”, a set of French laws restricting the 1881 freedom of the press laws passed under the Third Republic (1870-1940), after several bombings and assassination attempts carried out by anarchist proponents of “propaganda of the deed”. We have to be lucid enough to be able to make the distinction between legality and legitimacy when they don’t coincide in the reality.
Laws can be used to dominate instead of to protect. It is the reason why it is important to ask questions like: who made them and why? What have they been made for? Are they useful for public good or for private interests? La Fontaine wrote: “According as you’re feeble, or have might, High Courts condemn you to be black or white.”[vi] Is this statement still current?
Let me give you just one example: is it acceptable that the application of the international legislation about the patents authorizes food and pharmaceutics industry to obtain patents for plants (particularly from Amazon) that exist since millenaries and are known by traditional and local methods? Wouldn’t that be a theft permitted to the strongest to the detriment of the weakest and nearly a crime when you know that hundreds of ruined and desperate farmers (Indians and others[vii]) commit suicide in many places of the world?
Lipman’s approach is really specific, isn’t it? For example, Lipman’s "caring thinking" has not much to see with the “care” (as used in French because usually people cannot easily translate it and sometimes they translate it by solicitude). That expression has been recuperated by the prevailing “emocracy”[viii] which has significantly weakened it with false synonyms like empathy or charity. For Lipman, the pedagogue, developing a caring thinking means a total care for all the factors that intervene in a problem, the intellectual as well as the sensible ones.
Similarly, “reasonable” in the Lipmanian view means compatible with a certain rationality as well as questionable. His wish for lucidity can even go further. It is so that when Lipman talks about the experience of déjà vu, he writes: “The capacity for fresh perception and for jamais vu experiences seems to be one of the capacities that is sacrificed as a part of growing up in our culture.” [ix]
Culture can become what Bachelard calls an “epistemological obstacle”, like the way he opposes “taught rationalism” that blocks the thinking and “teaching rationalism” that guarantees the progress of the knowledge.[x] If the word culture is often magically understood as positive, it can in fact also mean complete blindness, absolute confinement, and total refusal of intelligence, curiosity, and openness to the world. Nowadays it can mean a sociopolitical death in front of globalization of information and of the worldwide exchanges. Anyhow, how many supposed educations remain prisoners in fossilized and really outmoded traditions! And the robots, the thinking machines that appear and prosper at the rhythms of algorithms are they to guarantee openmindness? And what about “I think, therefore I am” of Descartes which also means “I only can be what I can think”?
[i] Matthew Lipman, A Life Teaching Thinking, The Institute for The Advancement of Philosophy for Children, Montclair, 2008; translated by myself but not published yet.
[ii] Voltaire, 13ème Lettre philosophique.
[iii] Nietzsche, Letter to Gersdorff, 6 April 1867.
[iv] Helvetius, De l’Esprit, II.
[v] D’Holbach, Système de la nature, I, 14.
[vi] Jean de La Fontaine, Fables, “The Animals Seized with the Plague”, VII, 1.
[vii] In India, the traditional basmati rice has just been patented with the consequence that it has become awfully expensive for a dispossessed population.
[viii] Neologism meaning power of the emotions.
[ix] Mark Social Inquiry, chap. VIII, leading idea 1.
[x] Gaston Bachelard, Le Rationalisme appliqué, chap.II.