Fiddling While Rome Learns
Philosophy As Wonder, Curiosity, Goodness, Truth, and Beauty
By Josh Brisby, M.Ed.
Here at Memorial Lutheran School we teach Logic as well as Speech and Debate during the middle school or “logic years.” We inspire our students to love wonder, curiosity, goodness, truth, and beauty. These topics all converge in a subject usually reserved for college students: philosophy. However, philosophy certainly has a place in middle school and high school because of the connections between inquiry and wonder, curiosity, goodness, truth and beauty. Philosophy has traditionally been divided into various academic fields. Let’s explore how each field can find its place in the classroom.
The inquiry of metaphysics and ontology inspires us to be curious about the questions “what is real?” and “what is the nature of reality?” Many of us take this for granted. For example, I assume the laptop on which I am typing this article, right now, is a real entity. I can “feel” it and “see” it. Yet, if I assume it is real merely because my senses notice it, then how am I sure I am not hallucinating? Rene Descartes in particular went so far as to doubt everything but concluded that at least he must exist, since he was thinking. “Cogito ergo sum,” “I think therefore I am” is his popular contribution to thought. Was he right? In exploring questions of being and reality, we can respond to this with a critique as well. Asking our students “why?” gets them to think. I often tell students I am the “why guy.”
The inquiry of epistemology inspires us to wonder about the question “how do we know?” For example, we take for granted that atoms exist. Have you ever seen an atom? We take for granted that Hawaii exists, or that George Washington existed. How do we know that all this is not some grand conspiracy? Of course, that would be pretty over-the-top; but, at the very least it raises the question. Can we have true knowledge simply because someone else has told us? Philosophers ask the question of how knowledge is justified and warranted. Can I have true knowledge if there is a possibility I could be wrong? Or does this knowledge have to be infallible to be real and true? The nature of knowledge is even a topic that some Christian philosophers have sought to address. They usually point to Colossians 2:3, “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Yet of course I would ask them if this passage is really talking of Christ in the sense of epistemology. The Bible is sufficient for knowledge of salvation. But is it sufficient for the rules of chess or a flight operator’s manual, etc.? The question of “how do we know” brings students and teacher alike to curiosity and wonder together.
The inquiry of aesthetics asks “what is beautiful?” You have heard that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Is this really true? Does not God have an ultimate standard of Beauty? The philosopher Plato responded to this question with his theory of the forms. Everything is a lesser copy of an ultimate Form, insofar as there are therefore different degrees of “beauty,” with ultimate “beauty” being the “perfect form of beauty.” For Plato, “ugliness” is therefore not a “thing,” but simply a lack of the “form of beauty” on this “chain of being” or a lower rung of the ladder. When discussing “beauty” then philosophy permits us to move beyond opinion and into a substantial discussion with the ancients.
The inquiry of ethics asks the question “what is good”? It also therefore deals with the inverse, what constitutes evil. What are the virtues? What are the vices? Aristotle believed everything could be thought of in terms of excess or deficiency. The in-between, or the “Golden Mean” is how one can find the “good” or the “virtues.” This branch of ethics is called “virtue ethics.” For example in Aristotle’s system, the virtue of “courage” has an excess of “foolhardiness” and a deficiency of “cowardice.” No one would say a man that rushes into battle without weapons or planning is “courageous.” Nor would one say that a man who runs away from battle is “courageous.” But a man who plans and receives counsel and training and weapons before running into battle would be considered courageous. How philosophy intersects with ethics provides for ample discussion on the question of what is “good.”
The field of logic is the study of proper argumentation and how to apply those arguments. What is an “argument”? A formal argument has premises and a conclusion. An informal argument will not be as “polished” as this, but will be an assertion backed up with evidence. We all make arguments every day. Even something as simple as this assertion, “mom, we need to get gas for the car because the needle is on empty,” is an argument. The mother in this example could respond with a counter-argument by saying “no we don’t because the needle is broken.” The son or daughter could respond in turn with another counter-argument in saying “but daddy had the needle fixed so we really do need gas”, etc., until one side finally concedes. Here at Memorial we enjoy this especially in Logic class and in Speech and Debate. Of course, we teach our students to argue respectfully and logically.
There are other fields of study as well, such as cosmology and cosmogony which have to do with the nature and origin of the universe. Here at Memorial we have what we would call a “Christian cosmology” and even a “Lutheran cosmology” in that we affirm that everything in this universe is ultimately about the Cross of Jesus Christ as the center point of all of history.
Philosophy has a significant place in the classroom at a classical Lutheran school. Here at Memorial, it is taught in ways that inspire love of wisdom, and of wonder and curiosity. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are found in Christ and in His Word and in His creation. He is true Wisdom. Equipped with this Wisdom by faith, our faculty and students stand ready to venture into areas of philosophy inclined to wonder as they think and live in the world.