Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Ideas Have Consequences: The Need for Universals

Needs to share this article written by Dennis Buonafede at the Integrated Catholic Life Blog. One of the greatest challenges with teaching (at any grade level) is the rampant philosophical system of nominalism. Additionally, the lack of critical thinking is overwhelming. What is worrisome to me is the idea that many of those who teach in religious education or work with our youth do not feel the need for continuing education – or any at all. We spend so much time accumulating knowledge that the little we know we never take the time to understand. Words have meaning, ideas have consequences and actions determine eternal destinies.This is a must read!

Ideas Have Consequences: – The Need for Universals

“Wonder and the passion for philosophy, let us explore all aspects of life and understand all that it has to offer.

“I had claimed to have learned little to nothing in regards to valuable life lessons in the past four years. For that much, I was correct. But in the past five months, philosophy has taught me not to ‘know’ as much as I can about life, but to ‘understand’ as much as I can about life, and for that, I am forever grateful.”

-Gr. 12 Philosophy Student, June 2010

In my previous article, I mentioned that the Holy Father expressed concern over what he called “the eclipse of reason.” I suggested that common sense is no longer common because of the relativistic mindsets within our culture. Unless we can begin to reconnect young people to reality as it is, rather than as we wish it to be, we will lose another generation to the malaise of relativism and, by extension, a lack of faith. This is why, as a teacher, I place a great deal of emphasis on our human capacity to reason in an attempt to instill a love for wisdom and God. It may seem that teaching common sense is simply stating the obvious, but as George Orwell (d. 1950) observed, “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.

A Small Mistake at the Beginning

In order to understand what we as parents and teachers should do in our current situation, we have to step back for a moment and examine how we got here. There is no simple answer to this question. I’m currently halfway through a book entitled, A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher. At over 700 pages it is a tough go, but very detailed. The process has been a very long one – over 500 years – and it has many elements to it, but for my purposes I start with one turning point in philosophy.

St. Thomas Aquinas once said, “A small error in the beginning is a great one in the end.” As in geometry, so in philosophy – if you’re navigating a ship over thousands of miles, being off just 1 degree in your initial course plotting will leave you hundreds of miles off course at the end. The same with philosophy; if the beginning premise is just a little flawed, you will end up with some very serious errors at the end.

In the 14th Century, William of Ockham and others broke from the then common school of thought and began a small and gradual movement that has led to where we are today. His approach countered the position of Aristotle and Aquinas, who both held that universals had real objectivity (real meaning) in themselves as concepts. Instead, he argued that universals have only subjective value and no meaning in themselves. For example, Aquinas would say that the concept of “triangle” is a universal that captures the essence of what a triangle is, though triangles can only be experienced as a particular – this triangle or that triangle. William of Ockham argued that there is only “this triangle” or “that triangle” and the concept of triangle is just a mental construct, an image useful for discussion. When we extend this idea, then “human nature” has no meaning in itself except in individual observable human beings. Thus we cannot say that human beings by nature are curious: only individual men are curious as individuals.

If you do not completely understand the concept of universals, perhaps this comparison will help you to understand the impact of the idea. The Protestant Revolt by Martin Luther is analogous to what happened with Nominalism in philosophy. As Luther’s main premise, Sola Scriptura, eventually led to the rapid fragmentation of Protestantism, so that there are now over 40,000 registered Protestant Christian denominations, so too did the rejection of universals cause a fragmentation in philosophy into many different “-isms” that in our day has prompted the Holy Father to coin the phrase “The Dictatorship of Relativism.”

The current attitude towards philosophy that is prevalent today is another consequence of this abandonment of universals. Many people see philosophy as an esoteric, academic study that has no valuable application in the real world. That mentality is unfortunate because we are all philosophers. Recently, Dr. Peter Kreeft, in a 2010 address to the Catholic Medical Association, stated that, “Everyone needs not to have a philosopher, but to be a philosopher, though not everyone needs to be a professional philosopher… You can avoid being a professional philosopher, but you can’t avoid being a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. To love wisdom is simply to be human…” Therefore, with these two realizations in mind we gain a glimpse of the task before us. Philosophy needs to be reclaimed as a proper and worthwhile human endeavour, one that must be founded on reality as it is and not merely as we perceive it to be. Simple ..but not easy.

Ideas have Consequences

My approach to teaching philosophy focuses on the consequences of ideas, rather than just the ideas themselves. Today’s students are of a mindset that “actions have consequences” and only then, if you get caught. A connection needs to be re-established between the actions and the ideas that precede them. For example, if your idea of a good time is to get together with friends and get as drunk as possible, then your actions will follow that idea. You will purchase a large amount of alcohol, get together at someone’s house or cottage and then proceed to drink a great deal – usually by playing drinking games. This leads, of course, to other more serious consequences. Change your idea of a good time and your actions will change also.

Now, I don’t tell students this right away. When I begin teaching a new semester I introduce the topic that “Ideas have Consequences” and proceed to ask questions right away. Teenagers, generally speaking, tend to suffer from overconfidence in their understanding of life. That’s a nice way of saying they think they know it all. Since none of us do know it all, I immediately try to dispel them of that fantasy. It goes something like this.

Teacher: “Show of hands, how many of you are NOT the same person you were back in Grade 1?”

(All hands go up)

Teacher: “So, when did you change your name and obtain new identification?”

(Stunned looks from students)

Teacher: “Well, if you’re not the same person you were in Grade 1, then you can’t be going by the same name or identity because that’s not you. The you that used to be you is no longer the you that you are now. So… are you going to change your name and ID or will you continue to live under a false identity???”

Students: “But Sir, that’s not what we meant!!!!”

Teacher: “But that IS what I asked and you held up your hand. So what is it? Are you the same person or not?”

That little exchange leads us to discuss the difference between who I am – my personhood – and my constantly changing attributes, characteristics, personality, etc. This little exercise will serve a role later when we discuss human nature, ethics, marriage, etc.

I follow the same format for questions like, “How many of you want to marry someone who will make you happy?”

Of course, many hands go up (which leads me to wonder about the owners of the hands that didn’t go up). I call them “foolish”. After the initial shock wears out, I explain to them that no one can make us happy because happiness comes from within. We also have an infinite capacity for happiness that no one person can fill. Therefore, it’s unfair to ask our spouse to “make us happy” and to do so is a sure recipe for divorce. Interestingly enough, a former student came to visit me last week and informed me that she had separated from her boyfriend for just this reason. Apparently, he said that she wasn’t doing enough “to make him happy” and she told him what she thought of THAT idea! It’s a real joy when your teaching pays off!

The big question I eventually ask concerns freedom, which students define as being able to do what they want, when they want, with no restrictions. By that definition, no one is free and any freedom you might have is an illusion. This leads to examining the idea that freedom is the capacity to choose the good… which leads to the question of what is good… which leads to the question of why we should choose the good… and so on.

G.K. Chesterton once described education as initiation, “It is in its nature a progression from one thing to another; the arrangement of ideas in a certain order.” As teachers and parents (parents are by definition teachers), we serve our students and children best when we lay out ideas “in a certain order.” Fortunately, when we see reality as objective – that is, real in itself and not just a construct of our minds, hence the recapturing of universals I spoke of above – this order comes out naturally. Take any subject, remember that good ideas have good consequences and that bad ideas have bad consequences, then follow the logic.

This will be my approach in this series; you can use it in class or with your children during dinner – because it is my experience that the best philosophy is done where food is involved!

One Soul at a Time

I would like to conclude with a word of encouragement. The state of our culture did not come about overnight and it will not be resolved overnight. Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow; today’s trouble is enough for today (cf. Matthew 6: 24-34). God gives us, as parents, the children we need and He gives our children the parents they need. As much as we might be tempted to think otherwise, this was not a mistake. We should use every teachable moment that comes up (especially the evening meal) as an opportunity to examine life, for as Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.

The same goes for teachers. Every student we have in our classroom is there for a reason. Nothing is random for God. This is all within God’s plan. Once we are comfortable with this reality, we then daily take St. Augustine’s advice to heart – work as if everything depended on you and pray as if everything depended on God.

One Response to Ideas Have Consequences: The Need for Universals

  1. Joe Adams says:

    Loved that back and forth with the students about not being the same person. Really speaks to the point of how contemporary understanding has really let everyone down.

    As well, I think that you can even take your understanding that people are “accumulating” knowledge a step further. I say this because there is an interesting problem that is occurring in our society. Educators rail against the wrote memorization of things and yet they still test as if wrote memorization were necessary. As well, there is increased pressure, in terms of a societal norm, for people to be “informed about the world around them”, and yet people have no control either over the subject matter of the content nor the critical skills in which to engage the content that the “world”, or should I say mainstream media, presents them. We have become consumers of information with no real way to understand the information without having it disseminated by someone as the information is given. People have gotten away from understanding ideas and concepts, and are so focused on the minutiae of the individual bits of information that they are blinded as to its cohesiveness to the greater whole. People end up believing things that simply aren’t true, because the individual piece of information being presented to them is taken out of its context, stripped down, and being re-fabricated into its own understanding as if the fact being presented to them is somehow new and has never happened before. While, yes, this particular instantiation of a thing (say for instance the disaster in Japan) has, in its particulars, never happened before, the problem that exists is that it is still being presented as if nothing of this sort has ever happened before.

    All of this has a couple of really interesting problems for our current age. 1) It denies the history of things and keeps us from acknowledging both universals and that knowledge is a cumulative experience. Contemporary historians, as well as educators, would rather feed us everything without context and without a proper grasp of looking at several things and finding what is common throughout. So we become consumers of information, leaving the “better” people to disseminate the understanding for us. This leads me to issue #2 and that is that our contemporary age is leading us into not only a further polarization of society in terms of who receives information and who gives information, but it also leading the average Catholic, as well as mainstream Christian, into a sense that Gnosticism is ok and actually very fruitful, if you want to “make it” in the world. That you have to be a member of the part of society that gives information and insight in order to be conceived as having value for society. It’s a very dark place which is creating a plethora of low-level “zombies” who simply feed on the information given and act in accordance with that level of information contributing to a malevolent understanding of societal norms. This, of course is in contrast with those who give or create the news and set the agenda of thought for all those who aren’t them. You can see the link to Gnosticism in our skewed understanding of “Full, active, and conscious participation”, in that if you aren’t a part of the “active” part of the parish, than you are just part of the masses. You’re part of the family, but not part of the more inner-circle part of the family that REALLY deserves God’s grace because they help to shape things for the parish and if they aren’t going to Heaven, than the rest of the parish SURELY isn’t going. That this participation in the “inner circle” is an understood part of those “who know better.” It really is pernicious and infects the understanding of a great number of people.

    Unfortunately, I have not come up with any better plan to combat this other than the diligence of those who see this problem as existing, as well as changing the educational system from “consumption” to “conceptual”.

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