How to we learn philosophy or understand it?
and Ady asked:
How do we learn?
and Bill asked:
Can you provide a brief dialogue (discussion) about "how we learn" from the philosophical positions
of a rationalist, feminist and scientist?
On one level we "learn" philosophy in the same way as we learn any other humanities subject, by
reading, thinking and rehearsing ideas in our own words. But there are differences. Whereas the
student of literature, say, doesn't have to write novels, plays or poems to be a successful student, the
student of philosophy does, to some extent at least, have to "do" philosophy. That is, s/he has to
evaluate arguments, assess their cogency, attempt to justify opinions. You could argue that the
student of literature is studying how to respond to literary texts in the same way as the student of
philosophy is studying how to respond to philosophical texts, but the difference is that the focus for
the literature student is the text itself, whereas the focus for the philosophy student is the
philosophical issue dealt with in the text. The philosophy text is assessed by its success in elucidating
the issue. So, how do we learn philosophy? By reading philosophy texts and evaluating them
critically. There is no substitute for that.
How do we understand philosophy — or anything else, for that matter? This takes us straight to
difficult philosophical questions (as well as to questions that are the province of psychology). What is
the conceptual connection between the concept of learning and the concept of understanding? Can
we have learning without understanding? This is likely to take us into normative areas, to questions of
value, of relative worth. We can learn things by rote without understanding them. We can understand
how items of information relate to one another without understanding the significance of the whole
structure. So, neither learning or understanding are all-or-nothing concepts: in many cases, at least,
we can be said to have learned something or to have understood something a bit, to some extent,
partially, in a way, etc.
How should we think of understanding? As a psychological state, something going on in the mind or
brain? Or should we think of it in more behavioural terms: you can be said to have understood
something when you can behave appropriately or utter the right sentences? Can we ascribe
understanding to others in the same way and with the same meaning as we ascribe it to ourselves?
These are questions that take us into the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language.
To understand "learning" we would need to be clear about what we mean by "understanding". To be
clear about "understanding" we would need to understand the meaning of "meaning", including the
kinds of meaning that are conveyed by language and especially by sentences expressing
propositions that such and such is the case, that point to external objects. We would then have to be
clear about the relationship between the meaning of these sentences and the beliefs of the person
who utters them, and then about the connection between beliefs, thoughts and whatever private
experiences occur in the speaker's mind. From there we could think about the mind/ brain issues, and
the ultimate connection between brain states and meaning and understanding.
There's a range of theoretical attitudes at each stage. Some people would be interested in
establishing a scientific, physical, causal connection between external objects and internal brain
states, and therefore in either explaining concepts like learning and understanding in physical terms
(or in eliminating them from the discussion entirely, as remnants of a discredited "folk" psychology).
Others would emphasise social and conventional factors, and might perhaps look at the different
ways in which we can be said to learn and understand things, both within and between different
cultures. For example, we talk about paintings, myths and sunsets having meaning, as well as words
and sentences. They might be interested in not reducing meaning, learning and understanding to any
one psychological or physical process. They might link scientific or reductive approaches to meaning
and understanding to issues of ideology and power. Some feminists, amongst others, might take this
As for rationalism, its perspective on learning and understanding would emphasise innate knowledge
and cognitive capacities with which we are born, as opposed to the information that we acquire
through our senses. This might be expressed in term of specific capacities of the brain. Even if we
reject the notion of innate knowledge, we might still agree that the ability to learn and understand
depends on such capacities. But this would not be equivalent to saying that learning and
understanding were identical with them.
A rationalist perspective might also emphasise analytical understanding — that is, understanding the
internal relations of ideas and the logical implications of concepts, and using deductive, rather than