Introduction: Current situation

Introduction: Current situation
Herman van Veelen, resulting from the workshops “the art of living knowledge” held in January 2010 at the University of Utrecht.

The past few months I followed a kind of course about Spinoza and the modern university. I say a kind of course because it wasn’ t really like any other course I’ve followed. A lot of our ‘lessons’ were in the professors house, and often she made food for us. We didn’t get lectures, but we had conversations, in which the two teachers would try to answer all the questions we came up with. This was possible because it was rather small-scale, there were about five of us. This experimental form wasn’ t a coincidence. It was meant to provide an alternative to the current university system, where only measurable results count, and the university is supposed to make profits. Besides having an alternative form, our course also had an alternative subject. We were trying to read Spinoza, and use his philosophy to help us understand what is happening in the university, and how we’re going to change it.

To not overstretch this short talk, I chose one particular problem that the university has, and will try to find a solution by using only a couple of concepts Spinoza uses. The problem is this: The lectures we are getting are becoming more and more like audio-books. There is hardly any interaction with the professor. A friend told me that in Delft, where she studies, they often get lectures were the students are divided over two rooms. The one room has a professor in it, doing the lecture. The other room has a big screen, and audio, so that the students there can also follow the lecture. Apparantly it is not even seen as a problem anymore that those students cannot have any interaction with the teacher. This is just one side of the problem, the other side of the problem is that the university feels like this is a good thing. More people are hearing the same stuff for less money. If we follow this logic we will end up following courses over the internet, from professors that have long since been fired. I think that the reason the university feels like this is that they don’t have a proper understanding of how knowledge works.
In this presentation I will try to find a practical solution to this problem. The way I will do this is through using some concepts from Spinoza’s philosophy, mainly adequacy and inadequacy. I will start by explaining why I use this method, and what it’s drawbacks and advantages are. Then I will explain the concepts Spinoza uses, and in the end I will try to give some practical examples of how using these concepts would change education.

Approach: Reading Spinoza about the university, and anachronism?

Our approach to education was reading Spinoza, and using his theories to talk about the university. This seems rather weird at first. Spinoza of course never wrote about the modern university, just like he didn’t write about cell phones. One of the drawbacks of using an old philosopher about modern questions is that you’re going to want to compare his writings to modern ideas about similar problems. The problem with this is that we see the world in a totally different way. To read Spinoza you have to realize that he didn’t know about the big bang theory, or about multiple levels of infinity.
Spinoza for example, like many philosophers in his time, believed that if you know everything about a cause, you can work out what the effects will be, but if you just know effects, you cannot work out what the cause was. I’ll try to give an example of this. Let’s say we have a red billiard ball, that is going to be the cause for a green billiard ball to start moving soon. So if we know that the red billiard ball is moving with this exact speed in this exact direction we can describe exactly how the green billiard ball is going to react. This is something most people would agree with. However, he also believes that if we only see the biljart table after the red ball has bounced into the green one, and we now now the exact speed and weight and everything about the green ball, we cannot describe how the red ball had moved. So we can completely know an effect if we know the cause, but we can’t know the cause if we only know the effect. To a modern philosopher this seems rather strange, and newtonian physics for example completely disagree with this view. However, to really understand Spinoza, we have to look at the world through his eyes for a moment, and forget that some of the things he believes seem a bit weird to us.
If we don’t do this it will be really easy to look at some statement in Spinoza’s theory, and say ‘Hey, most modern philosophers and scientists say this is nonsense, and if you do use this you won’t be able to build a spaceship, so his theory is obviously false.` This will mean that we can’t learn anything from Spinoza.
On the other hand we don’t want to just take everything for granted, just because Spinoza said it, and he was a genius philosopher. We have to find a way to look at the world through his eyes, and then appreciate the things he came up with. The cool thing about Spinoza is that in his theories he talks a lot about what he calls inadequate knowledge, and how it is not useless. I think it would be wise to treat some Spinoza’s ideas as inadequate, not throw them away, but also realize that they are not the complete picture. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me first explain what ‘inadequate’ really means.

Spinoza: What are inadequate ideas, and what is positive about them.

Spinoza tries not to use the words true and false too much. He doesn’t really like the idea that there is something positive about falsity. Let’s compare this to our idea of light and dark, you can say that when there’s less light it gets darker, but you can’t positively spread darkness like you can spread light. Besides that he doesn’t believe that there is any idea that’s completely false, all ideas have truth in them. So because the words true and false where allready taken he uses adequate and inadequate.
A good example of an inadequate idea is that of a part of a mechanical clock, a little cog, all by itself. We may completely understand the cog we’re looking at, we know how heavy it is, what color it has, how big it is, just everything. Yet sometimes it just starts moving in a completely different direction of what we would expect. We are surprised, because we thought we understood the little cog. What we miss though is the rest of the clock. The reason for the cog to move in a weird direction is not inside the cog itself, it is in the way it interacts with the rest of the clock. So our idea of the cog turns out to be incomplete after all, we need more information to tell how it is going to move. The things we knew about it weren’t false though. When we find out more about how the cog is situated in the grand scheme of things we don’t come to the conclusion that all our ideas about the cog were stupid and old-fashioned, we just find out that our idea wasn’t complete yet.
Another example is the fact that we feel like the sun is a lot bigger than the stars.We might have heard that this is not true, but still many people have the intuition that this is not really so. This is not strange, says Spinoza, because we can only know what affects our body, through the senses and such. In fact the vast majority of our ideas is inadequate, exactly for this reason. So we can only see the sun through how it affects us, and it definitely affects us as if it was a lot bigger then most stars. So, strange as it may seem, this idea isn’t false either. Even though if we were to have an adequate, more complete idea of the sun, where we know that it is just a middle-sized star, this will just be an addition to our idea of the sun. We will not however, find out that our old idea of the sun as way bigger is false. This seems really weird, we would normally say that the idea of the sun as bigger than the stars, and the idea of the sun as the same size can’t both be true. Maybe it might help to see the first, inadequate idea of the sun more as an incomplete idea, where we have a lot of blanks to fill in.

Practical: How will using these concepts improve university education.

So now up to the practical part. How will we use this idea that all ideas are true, and have value, even if they seem false and contradicting with ideas that make more sense to us. One of the practical uses I think is to learn from each other, even though none of us have the absolute truth. We must realize that even if we both have an incomplete idea, we both have something to gain from learning the other’s idea. In this way we can learn from old philosophers like Spinoza, even if we believe them to have inadequate ideas about some things that we see as basic knowledge about the universe. Also in this way we can learn from other students. It might even be that a professor sometimes has something to gain in hearing the inadequate ideas his students have. Another way we can use Spinoza’s ideas about adequacy is by realizing that students are not blank slates when they start a new course. It would be very useful to hear what ideas a student already has, so that all the professor has to do is fill in the blank spots as it where. This asks for some change in how the university works though. When you’re in a room with a hundred students and one professor there simply isn’t the time to talk about the knowledge that a student brings with him. In our series of meetings we have tried to make that time, and not just have our Spinoza-experts lecture us for two hours. The way we have tried to accomplish this is by working in a small group, and asking questions about stuff we wanted to know. This also means that we as students had to know exactly where our blank spots were. What pieces of Spinoza’s theory as we understood it seemed weird, and disagreed with each-other. In this way you also learn how to actively search for a better understanding, and not just suck in the professors words like you’re learning them by heart.