Deliberately Sorting Out Knowledge with Aristotle for Better Learning, Teaching, and Long-term Flourishing (Who’s Afraid of Epistemology? Continued)

“All men by nature desire to know.” — Aristotle in The Metaphysics 

“Democratic movements inside groups and nations are always taking place and they are the efforts to increase the number of beneficiaries of the ruling. In 18th century Europe, the effort became so broad and sweeping that an attempt was made at universal expression and the philosophy of the movement said that if All ruled they would rule for All and thus Universal Good was sought through Universal Suffrage.”                          –W.E.B. Du Bois in “Of the Ruling of Men

“It is in another way that philosophy is useful—to help us to understand things we already know, understand them better than we now understand them. That is why I think everyone should learn how to think philosophically. For that purpose, there is no better teacher than Aristotle.” –Mortimer J. Adler in Aristotle for Everybody

Indeed, in our fractured republic, we need philosophical help from good thinkers and methods, from ancient times to the recent past, to assist us in our pursuit of increasingly inclusive, long-term flourishing. In this pursuit, diverse people and methods, including ancient Greek and modern African-American philosophers, can help us think better about what we know, what we erroneously think we know, and what we need to learn. 

As in previous posts, I’m working through angles on the “Rational Way of Knowing,” and I’m about to finish up my all-to-brief tour of three ancient Greek thinkers and some features of their epistemologies: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Then, I’ll briefly survey at least two more rational philosophers for their different approaches to epistemology and their connections to teaching and learning. 

Writing in 4th century BCE, Aristotle asserts that long-term flourishing is the ultimate good. The Greek word equivalent to this is “eudaimonia,” which is often translated “happiness,” and likely in mind in Thomas Jefferson’s use of “the pursuit of happiness” in The Declaration.

Encyclopædia Britannica notes that “For Aristotle, eudaimonia is the highest human good, the only human good that is desirable for its own sake (as an end in itself) rather than for the sake of something else (as a means toward some other end).” In the recent past, many educators and psychologists have wisely turned to long-term flourishing, or eudaimonia, as a more inclusive aim for education. (Martin Seligman discusses Aristotle’s influence on his notion of positive psychology for long-term flourishing here.)

Deliberative Rational Methods for Personal and Public Learning  

Although limited in his views of rights and democracy, Aristotle’s notion of deliberation represents the sort of approach that can help us learn more and better navigate our public conflicts. Reading texts such as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics or his Politics, one sees examples of Aristotle’s method of deliberation. Methodically, he takes inventory of different categories such as types of happiness or pleasure, goods or governments, and he then proceeds to systematically analyze their functions, strengths, and weaknesses with ample reference to details from their their real-life practices. 

In terms of specific teaching methods, as Gilbert Highet notes in The Art of Teaching (163-164), we don’t know if Aristotle involved students in tightly guided discussions, used more of a lecture approach, or if he used a little of both. Highet asserts that whatever the case, Aristotle modeled exceptional rigor and clarity in his processing of arguments, categories, and connections to evidence. 

(Side note: In thinking about my teaching experiences and my previous posting on Socrates, I find Aristotle’s caution against too much open-ended discussion with learners who don’t have sufficient background knowledge as a timely and wise point–the specific textual reference from Aristotle escapes me for now. Years ago, I realized that I needed to make sure that my use and enjoyment of Socratic discussions in my high school English classes didn’t leave students confused by the lack of explicit structures, support, and knowledge checks.)

In one of the best surveys of curriculum theory and practice I’ve ever encountered, Wesley Null’s Curriculum: From Theory to Practice explores the importance of thoughtful education for deliberation, ranging from ancient Greek somewhat elite notion of education for leaders to our more inclusive education for modern, representative democracy. Null asserts that “[t]he sooner we begin to see curriculum as a practical activity that requires deliberation, the sooner we will create better teachers, curriculum makers, and educational institutions at all levels” (22). Rarely do I experience professional development that promotes such deliberation about curriculum. Educators aren’t the only ones who should be focused on deliberative conversations: Students should be taught to effectively use deliberative thinking to work through important academic, personal, and public topics. So, deliberative discussions should not only be about curriculum but also an important part of curriculum and instruction.

As Aristotle, Du Bois, and other good thinkers throughout time and across cultures demonstrate, such deliberative thinking is knowledge rich, rigorous, and beneficial for long-term flourishing. The following section presents a few Aristotelian patterns that may prove useful for professional and personal development in these areas. 

Putting Aristotle’s Topics to Work for Deliberative Learning and Teaching 

Aristotle’s use of categorical topics (often referred to as Aristotle’s Categories or Aristotle’s Topics) has much untapped potential for use in personal and public learning situations. In simplest terms, a variation of his approach works through any given topic of knowledge with six categories in mind (another perspectival-hexagonal image may apply): 

  • Definition: What are we considering? What is its essential definition? 
  • Division: What are its parts or sub-categories? 
  • Comparison: How are the different definitions, divisions, and other features similar or different? 
  • Relationships: What correlations, cause/effect, contraries, & contradictions are noticeable?
  • Context: What is true about this topic or area of knowledge in different times, places, and purposes? 
  • Authority: What is the most convincing and true version of the knowledge, claims, details, and related connections? How so? 

Such categories or topics and their related questions serve as a heuristic with which we can check our knowledge work for its rigor, comprehensiveness, and coherency. [A “heuristic” is an organized approach to learning, problem-solving and/or discovery; heuristics are also noted as “exploratory problem-solving techniques that utilize self-educating techniques (such as the evaluation of feedback) to improve performance.”]

Over the years, I’ve come across various adaptations of Aristotle’s categorical topics, and this version is partly influenced by Daniel T. Richards’ “Six Ways to Invent an Argument.” It’s interesting to notice how these sorts of categories appear in different ways for literacy instruction (as text structures) or in college level composition courses (as rhetorical modes). I also find the related classic notion of “invention” particularly helpful because it focuses on taking careful inventory on what is known and practiced–in contrast to the more romantic notion of invention as creating something out of nothing. The romantic, ex nihilo, approach to starting to write or create can lead to a lot of procrastination and unnecessary stress for many students as opposed to starting with the classical inventory approach used by many ancient Greek philosophers and orators.  

Although Aristotle tends to work through topics in a linear fashion, his topical strategies could be pursued in different sequences and combinations. COVID-19 and other current event knowledge topics are likely to work well with this approach. Indeed, our focus on everything from the nature of the virus to our arguments about various authorities gives us many opportunities to practice deliberative thinking. 

I often find myself mentally referring to Aristotle’s topics when I’m reading a news post or thinking about educational topics of theory and practice. (These six categories also have much potential for helping educators plan for topical studies across the disciplines: “Sickness and health” might be one such strikingly relevant topic that could be combined across the disciplines and along the grade levels. My focus on epistemology or ways of knowing might be another such topic.)

For a demonstration of Aristotelian categorical thinking approach applied to the topic of justice, you might enjoy viewing Michael Sandel’s TEDTalk on “The Lost Art of Democratic Debate.” Sandel explicitly refers to Aristotle and implicitly uses related thinking moves that fit well with the categorical thinking approach noted above. Hopefully, in our time, we can have more of these friendly debates and discussions in ways that will help us move past our often hostile public interactions. 

In many ways, Aristotle was very scientific in his approach to knowledge. Many of the questions that empirical scientists ask today fit well as applications of Aristotle’s topical knowledge categories. The key difference for Empirical Knowing, as I will discuss in at least one future post, is the role of replicable experiments. 

Some Qualifiers and Upgrades for Aristotle

Two apology notes: First, I have so lightly touched on the best of Aristotle in this posting, and there are so many more helpful bits to be found in his writings and in secondary source works about him. Second, Aristotle has many failings, and I by no means suggest that his biases should be accepted (especially concerning women, slaves, and social classes). Nevertheless, we have much we can learn from Aristotle in spite of his blind spots, and as C.S. Lewis helpfully reminds us, we can rightly learn much about our own blind spots by studying old books. 

Perhaps one of our blindspots is in the area of true friendship. That’s one of my favorite themes in Aristotle. I especially enjoy his extended discussion of it in Book VIII of his Nicomachean Ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also has a thoughtful analytic summary of Aristotle’s view of “Friendship.” Such a sense of civil life as connected to friendship intrigues me in our time when friendship seems neglected, at least during pre-COVID-19 connections. Many accounts from different disciplines and different authors have noted how impoverished modern life has become in terms of friendship as consumerism, social media, autonomy, and other alienating temptations of our time have distracted us from pursuing better friendships.  

Speaking of friendships, it seems relevant to be writing a post that somewhat connects Aristotle to W.E.B. Du Bois after watching a movie this past weekend about the real-life relationships between Mike Burden, Reverend David Kennedy, and several others. Burden was a former KKK member who quit the Klan and became friends with the African-Americans whom he had previously treated as enemies and unworthy of respect. The sacrificial actions of friendship from Kennedy are so humbling and inspiring. For a good introduction to the story, check out “The Real Story of Burden: How a KKK Member Changed His Life with Help from a Black Minister.” The powerful movie Burden is rated R with disturbing language and scenes of violence but with an overwhelmingly spiritual message that complements the powerful role the friendships play in the movie. Ultimately, a strong sense of Christian love is part of the knowledge that takes friendship and reconciliation to a whole new level, beyond anything that I think that Aristotle could imagine. 

Bridging out, especially those connections between faith and knowledge serve as a good lead-in to my upcoming post on Thomas Aquinas’ approach to “Rational Knowing.” 

Invitation to Reflect and Consider: 

  1. What categories do you tend to apply to topics of interest? How do they compare to Aristotle’s six topical categories? 
  2. What are some of the most important topics to define? (e.g. What is justice? What is the most important quality of a good life?) 
  3. What’s missing from common definitions of happiness in terms of an overall good life? What else is needed for long-term flourishing–beyond mere pleasure?
  4. How else might Aristotle’s categorical topic relate to your own pursuits of better learning and teaching? 
  5. What do you think is important about friendship for long-term flourishing? How might the idea of friendship relate to education–for good or for bad? 

For Further Study and Reflection:

Ethics, Politics, and Metaphysics, by Aristotle (the Penguin editions are especially accessible)

Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, by Edith Hall

Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness, by James O’Toole

 The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman

Hell to Pay: Classics and Radical Inclusion in W.E.B. Du Bois’s ‘Of the Ruling of Men,’” by Harriet Fertik (a brief and insightful argument about Du Bois’s use of the classical tradition to promote democracy and inclusion–very timely for us too!)

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