Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Abstracting ourselves from ourselves: The insidious effects of higher education

<ssume we all are, I am extremely grateful for the education I have received thus far at Carleton. This, however, has not managed to preclude my consideration of its faults. I believe such consideration is crucial not only to the well being of any student, but also to that of the institution as a whole. The following is an attempt at what I’ve seen to be a fault; I leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not it’s imagined.

In order for us to lead happy, meaningful and fulfilling lives I think it is imperative that we understand ourselves. To me, the development of such understanding has always been a fundamental component of a liberal arts education. Sadly, though, it seems the realization of this aspect of our education is hindered significantly by the confusion of knowledge of ourselves with knowledge of things external. By way of a distinction between two types of knowledge, introspective and abstract, allow me to try my hand at explaining this phenomenon.

Abstract knowledge is knowledge of fact and thus much akin to information. While some abstract knowledge must be logically processed before it is realize in full, some can merely be heard and absorbed; this will become clearer later on. Introspective knowledge is knowledge of ourselves and thus similar to wisdom. To understand claims concerning human phenomena introspectively is to understand them through direct observation of the truth of these claims in oneself. To understand such claims abstractly is to understand them as purely theoretical. While abstract thought is applicable to more than just human phenomena, it is with this specific application of it that I am concerned. Allow me to clarify this distinction with a few examples.

Buddhism claims that desire is the cause of suffering. To have abstract knowledge of this claim is to simply know this theory and the reasoning behind it: desire causes us to want things, suffering is a result of us not getting the things we want, therefore desire is the cause of suffering. To have introspective knowledge of this is to come to see this within yourself through the analysis of and reflection upon your past experience, i.e. by direct observation. While the Buddha’s claim may not be perfectly true, there is presumably some truth to it; introspective knowledge is the realization of this truth. Introspective knowledge helps us understand how and why we work and thus factors into the decisions we make about how to live our lives. Abstract knowledge exists to us more as a fact and, having not yet come to achieve a sort of intuitive status within us, does not really affect the way we go about our daily lives.

Hillary Putnam makes the following argument against methodological solipsism. Methodological solipsism claims that everything of which we conceive is ultimately identical to some complex construction of our own experiences. Consequently our conceptions are in no way universal. This itself is a universal claim and thus self-refuting. Because this is a logical concept and logic is divorced from human experience (insofar as it is divorced from emotion) it can only be understood abstractly. While this, as well as many other logical concepts (such as concepts in math and physics), one may need to reflect upon to understand fully, this reflection does not involve the analysis and evaluation of human experience but rather that of logical and abstract concepts. This is a fundamentally different sort of reflection than introspection.

Geronticide (the killing of the old) is customary is some Inuit tribes. To have abstract knowledge of this is simply to know that this happens. To have introspective knowledge of this is to understand geronticide as though you were an Inuit, i.e. as not immoral, not cruel, and necessary. Such (introspective) knowledge of other cultures is revealing of human nature and thus helps us to understand ourselves. This is because we are instantiations of human nature. I believe that if we look closely we can see the proclivities of other cultures in ourselves, and thus oftentimes recognize an aspect of our humanity of which we were previously unaware. Abstract knowledge of this fact contributes to our base of abstract knowledge from which we can draw when contemplating human nature. And while the establishment of such a base is a crucial component of a good education it should not be an end, but a means.

Before I continue I would like to make it entirely clear that introspective knowledge of and thought on a given text is communicable, capable of being analyzed and, most importantly, capable of being more or less true to the text. For this reason it is entirely possible to focus on introspective thought and knowledge in a classroom setting. In general, indicators of whether a course’s focus is on the introspective or the abstract are the speed through which the course material is moved and the balance that is struck between the breadth and the depth of the curriculum.

I said earlier that our education’s attempt to help us understand ourselves is hampered by its confusion of these two sorts of knowledge.

Thinking the abstract to be introspective, it seems that institutions of higher education believe themselves to be imparting introspective knowledge to us when in fact they are often not. This then seems to cause us, the students, to think the introspective to be abstract. We are brought to think that what it is to learn about ourselves is to learn about abstract theories of human nature. While our education is not so formative as to tell us what to think, it nevertheless seems to tell us how to think and I fear this may be worse because it’s more difficult to recognize. This confusion of introspective for abstract thought seems to preclude the robust introspective inquiry that should mark the mind of any liberal arts student.

This is not an attempt to render the abstract knowledge pursued by the humanities and social sciences illegitimate; it is not. Such knowledge is in fact crucial to the realization of its counterpart. It is simply an appeal to have this distinction recognized; what appears to be the solution to this problem. Yet, this is not as easy at it seems. Not only must we recognize a difference between these two types of knowledge but we must realize this difference in full, by which I mean introspectively. It would indeed be a shame were our very lack of familiarity with this sort of knowledge to perpetuate its absence.

-Peter Berg is a second-year student

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *