janitors in the Crystal Palace

I am going back to Critchley’s book Continental Philosophy for a second read. I’m not a philosopher so it takes time to sink in.

In this passage from early in the book Critchley describes how in the 17th century philosophy became a handmaid to the newly dominant pursuit of science. The original Greek conception that knowledge and wisdom were part of the same comprehensive, civic, good living enterprise, was upended by science which valued knowledge – episteme – over the love of wisdom. Plato’s queen of the sciences, philosophy was left to mop the floor.

The question is what does the subjugation of wisdom and the favoring of knowledge leave out? What is the implication for our lives?

Here is Critchley’s description:

In a science-dominated world, what role does our professional philosopher assign to philosophy? This can in part be answered by recalling the Greek word for knowledge, episteme. Philosophy becomes epistemology, the theory of knowledge. That is, it is overwhelmingly concerned with logical and methodological questions as to how we know what we know, and in virtue of what such knowledge is valid. Philosophy becomes a theoretical enquiry into the conditions under which scientific knowledge is possible. In the scientific conception of the world, the role of philosophy moves from being, as it was for Plato, the queen of the sciences, where theoretical knowledge was unified with practical wisdom. It becomes rather, in John Locke’s formula at the beginning of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1689, an under-labourer to science, whose job is to clear away the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge and scientific progress. Philosophers become janitors in the Crystal Palace of the sciences.

Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy, The Gap Between Knowledge and Wisdom, p 4-5, Oxford


bring me back to earth
September 13, 2011, 4:19 pm
Filed under: the sweet life, unseen world | Tags: , , , ,


We could do worse than to emulate the ambitions of a man who concentrated his life’s goal on three passions: love, knowledge and pity for suffering.  It’s interesting how pity grounds love and knowledge, which otherwise would soar up into abstraction and self regard.  In fact, by his definition, forms of religion and science which exist for their own sake and gratification, can become quite cruel in their unwillingness to look at and react to the broken world they have been established to serve.

The prologue to Russell’s autobiography, in full:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair. Continue reading

banking education

This excerpt from Paulo Freire‘s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a discussion of techniques of education while also being a broad critique of how conservative societies are run.

He says that institutionalizing a false separation between those who ‘know’ and those who ‘don’t know’ debases and enslaves whole classes of people in our society.

He defines knowledge as a continuously restless and symbiotic and necessary inquiry between student and teacher and teacher and student.

He reveals for what they are an educational elite who prescribe and enforce a mythology of ignorance on a supposed uneducated under class, thereby maintaining their own place at the top.

He offers the hope of a system of education in which teacher and student are reconciled.

I have taught at the university level for over 10 years.  My best students were always capable of the symbiotic relationship with me that Freire describes.  However there is always, in every class, strong evidences of the passive student who has been pushed down and made to memorize and regurgitate and obey.

This book was published in the late 1960s – 50 years ago! – and is amazingly topical.  That a simple classroom could hide beneath it’s innocent exterior such scandal.  Can you imagine how different our lives would be if we publicly identified the corruption of banking education and upended it?  A flowering of creativity, an outpouring of new knowledge, new institutions with new agendas, new and interesting kinds of conflict, stuff we’ve never seen before.  What about you?  What differences can you see?

Here is Freire’s excerpt —

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry. The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence. The students, alienated like the slave in the Hegelian dialectic, accept their ignorance as justifying the teachers existence — but unlike the slave, they never discover that they educate the teacher.

The raison d’etre of libertarian education, on the other hand, lies in its drive towards reconciliation. Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.


The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students’ creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed.

-Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

beasts and lunatics
September 19, 2009, 11:15 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Here is a quotation from Critchley’s Continental Philosophy in which he gives a kind of primer description of each of a half dozen or so significant 20th C European (non British) philosophers.

Critchley establishes a dialectic:  that an emphasis on knowledge leads to scientism and turns us into beasts and conversely an emphasis on wisdom rejects scientism, introduces obscurantism and turns us into lunatics.  But his broader point is that the Continental philosophers instruct us to return to searching for the meaning of life – by way of wisdom – and conversely to resist the reductive nature of mere knowledge.

My contention is that what philosophy should be thinking through at present is this dilemma which on the one side threatens to turn us into beasts, and on the other side into lunatics.  This means that the question of wisdom, and its related question of the meaning of life, should at the very least move closer to the centre of philosophical activity and not be treated with indifference, embarrassment, or even contempt.  The appeal of much that goes under the name of Continental philosophy, in my view, is that it attempts to unify or at least move closer together questions of knowledge and wisdom, of philosophical truth and existential meaning.  Examples are legion here, whether one thinks of Hegel on the life and death struggle for recognition as part and parcel of the ascent to absolute knowing; Nietzsche on the death of God and the need for a revaluation of values; Karl Marx on the alienation of human beings under conditions of capitalism and the requirement for an emancipatory and equitable social transformation; Freud on the unconscious repression at work in dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue and what that reveals about the irrationality at the heart of mental life; Heidegger on anxiety, the deadening indifference of inauthentic social life, and the need for an authentic existence; Sartre on bad faith, nausea, and the useless but necessary passion of human freedom; Albert Camus on the question of suicide in a universe rendered absurd by the death of God; Emmanuel Levinas on the trauma of our infinite responsibilities to others.  This list could be extended.

-Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford