Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two late obituaries: Julius T. Fraser (1923-2010); Matthew Lipman (1922-2010)

I am sorry to say that I am very late in learning of the deaths of two philosophers, almost exact contemporaries, who ought to be more well-known. J.T. Fraser died last November; Matthew Lipman last December.

A moving memoir of Fraser can be read here on Frederick Turner's blog (Fraser's work on time informs Turner's aesthetics from the ground up, especially in Beauty: the value of values.)

Fraser's books on time were some of the first books of philosophy I stumbled upon in my local library growing up. Fraser argued that time is not a single thing; it is a whole series or hierarchy of different temporalities which all serve to mediate or resolve tensions of the previous level. Energy flies from itself at lightspeed and is (as per Einstein) literally timeless; in its coalescence, matter enabled things to happen; but of course, at the cost of any particular form being destructible. Life emerges in part as a navigation of just this difficulty, with its drive to reproduce, whereby the template of life, so to speak, survives its material base. Consciousness itself arises as yet another wrinkle in this same dialectic.

From all this, it would be hard to avoid the impression that Fraser's work presents a kind of evolutionary Hegelianism. There's a certain truth to such a summary, but like any summary it leaves out the essential. In fact, Fraser's philosophy seems (to me) far more inspired by a close study of 20th-century physics than German idealism. Fraser founded the International Society for the Study of Time, which has continued this grounding in interdisciplinary studies and empirical research.

It is worth noting that another starting-place for Fraser was von Uexküll, from whose concept of umwelt Fraser derived his emphasis upon the experiential aspect of whatever temporal level was in question. It's worth pointing out, given that a number of SCT readers are currently reading Graham Harman, that Fraser speaks explicitly of the umwelts of nonliving objects. At the same time, Fraser remains a Kantian when he says,
it is obvious that a world of distinct and only partially overlapping umwelts--of young children, birds, viruses, molecules--are still features of ourumwelt. ...they may be taken as real only to the extent that we can know and comprehend them. There is nothing inconsistent about the situation. It is the conscious human mind that searches for order among inorganic and organic phenomena, then writes natural philosophies about them; it is not the other way around. It is we who are capable of thinking ourselves into the position of radiation, particles, or field mice, and of outlining the boundaries of their universes to the limits of our capacities. (The Genesis and Evolution of Time, p. 23.)
This avowal of the uniqueness of thinking is also the conclusion of Matthew Lipman:
To me, the most interesting thing in the whole world is thinking. I know that lots of other things are also very important and wonderful, like electricity, and magnetism and gravitation. But although we understand them, they can't understand us. So thinking must be something very special.
This citation is from Lipman's first novel, Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery. Harry is a fifth grader, and he writes the foregoing sentences in a report on "The Most Interesting Thing in the World." Matthew Lipman was a pioneer in philosophy. He did not (as far as I know) write any revolutionary interpretation of Kant or Aurobindo; his innovation was not so much in what he taught as in who he taught it to. Frustrated by the apparent incapacity of college students to engage in critical thinking (this was in the late 1960's), Lipman left Columbia University to found the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, hoping that teaching philosophy to grade school students would cultivate the capacity for critical thinking he found lacking in his undergrads.

To this end, Lipman wrote several novels aimed at pre-teens, as well lobbying strenuously for the teaching of philosophy to children. He insisted that kids as young as 6 or 7 years old could learn to reflect critically. This is sometimes held to be argued contra Piaget and others, who maintained that this intellectual capacity did not usually come into play until later; but in fact, much of Lipman's practical work is addressed to children at about age 10 or 12, when (according to Piaget) children start to acquire this facility. His work has since had worldwide success. (I initially learned of Lipman via the blog of the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children, which coincidentally is located in my own city of Seattle.) One can see a number of videos on philosophy for children online (E.g. here; the link is to the first of seven parts of a film featuring Lipman; the other parts can be found following it. The sound quality is bad; but there are other videos linked as well.) Lipman's hope to cultivate critical thinking seems to have some empirical validation; his obituary in the NY Times mentions that some 3,000 New Jersey middle-school students in New Jersey who took his philosophy course showed nearly almost twice the academic progress in a year as their "non-philosophical" peers. I am not especially eager to validate philosophy as an adjunct to "academic achievement" in general, but as a teacher of school-children I can confirm what probably ought to be obvious to anyone who thinks about it: children are born to philosophize, and what's more, ask far more ambitious questions than most grad students.

You can read a couple of interviews with Lipman as well.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these notes, Skholiast. I'd never heard of either figure. I always appreciate it when you write about education.