Feeling the force of argument

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Higher education requires students to make judgments about the evidence and arguments placed before them, and all judgment has an aesthetic aspect. A mathematics student must be struck by the validity and elegance of a proof; a science student must feel the weight of evidence (or the lack of it). In the humanities, a lot of bad writing is the result of students trying to articulate and defend judgments that they have copied from secondary sources but have not felt in their viscera. This is not to say that judgment is all unreasoned, inarticulate conviction. Nor is it to suggest that logical relations between premises and conclusions are somehow subjective. On the contrary, the point is that students should perceive logical relations as objective realities. A student who knows that the argument on page 84 is a good one simply because it satisfies the rules set out on pages 64-73, but who does not feel the force of its logic, will lack all motivation to internalise the rules or use them on other occasions. The difference that validity makes to an argument must be vividly real to a student if that student is to see why it matters. Nor is this merely a matter of motivation. A student with no feeling for the logical structure of the subject-matter will struggle to apply techniques in new contexts. One of the proper goals of higher education is to equip students to do their own research. A student who does not feel the badness of a bad argument is unlikely to produce many good ones. After all, good arguments usually start out as not-so-good arguments that don‘t feel quite right. In this paper, I will contrast the case of philosophy with that of mathematics, using the work of George Polya. I will then claim that mainstream English-speaking philosophy is 2 ill-equipped to think about the aesthetic and emotive aspects of the experience of doing and learning philosophy. I shall blame the Enlightenment for this state of affairs. More specifically, I shall find fault with the view that humans are naturally rational, where we understand ‗rational‘ to mean something like the dispassionate, formal rationality on display in the end-products of the mathematical sciences. I shall then offer the work of R.G. Collingwood as a route out of this bind, and conclude with some practical consequences for teaching.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTeaching Philosophy
EditorsA. Kenkmann
ISBN (Print)9781847062444
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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