The oldest kind of philosophy, metaphysics, has more often than not consisted of fantastic opinions about the nature of reality. The search for the most fundamental concept—which we now know to be a mistaken pursuit (due to the understanding of perspective and the fallacy of essentialism)—uncovered at various times the following: air, water, fire, ideal forms, particulars, universals, monads, occasions, doubt, self, God etc. Because these are unable to be substantiated and are often counter-intuitive, many practical-minded people have been turned off by philosophy. And this is probably for the good.
But in the twentieth century, after thousands of years of traditional philosophy, various thinkers began to see philosophy as a rational method to be applied to any discipline to explore that field in greater depth. So scholars invented the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of history, the philosophy of art, the philosophy of science and so on.
These so-called sub-disciplines of philosophy (the traditional dimensions of philosophy being metaphysics, episte-mology, ontology, ethics, aesthetics, logic) were an opportunity to step back from within the bowels of a discipline and to look at the field from areas outside of it. Thus, for instance, philosophy of science began to look at the history of science (e.g. how it progressed with stimulation from religion, politics, mathematics, logic, etc.), at the ethics of science (e.g. how the technological products of science impact society), at the method of science (e.g. were its findings epistemologically consistent or its methods logical enough?), and at the meaning of science in the largest view of human endeavour. Interestingly, though many scientists doubt the value of the philosophy of science, most well-known modern scientists have done their own fair share of such thinking.
The philosophy of science, along with all the other ‘philosophies of, ’ is one of the humanities and not a science. Philosophy can be seen as the metadiscipline that uses our civilization’s most rational tools to critique all fields of intellectual pursuit: it uses historiography, logic, epistemology, and conceptual analysis to explore observations, theories and conclusions in any field. Because modern disciplines can be so in-grown, tradition-bound, and self-serving, it is necessary—for them to be relevant, universally accessible, and truthful—to study their findings from other contexts and other perspectives, and integrate their content into the largest body of knowledge we can. This makes any study more intelligible, more useable, more fruitful. Let me give some examples of this. The first is drawn from the field of physics. We will then look at the study of religion before taking up the example of economics.
The Case of ‘Complementarity’ in Physics
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, physicists began to penetrate the secrets of the atomic structure of matter. It began to look as if the smallest units of matter and energy behaved like both particles and waves. This was a field beyond direct, unaided observation, so physicists made theories based on the measurements of whatever instrument they used in experiments with atomic phenomena.
To account for the various behaviours of electrons and photons, the prominent physicist, Niels Bohr, came up with a theory called ‘complementarity’ that supposedly showed how these phenomena could exist as both particles and waves. I won’t go into the details of it (no one but Bohr claimed to understand it in any detail), but will just comment on its tenure as a theory. It was accepted by the majority of quantum physicists and, even though no one could explain it very well, it lasted as the rallying point for the dominant school of quantum physics for years—until new philosophies of physics arose and became the focus of discussion.
In the last few decades there have been a handful of philosophers of science who have researched the historical context of ‘complementarity’ and have shown how the arrogance, defensiveness and politics of scientific competition concealed the fruitlessness of this particular theory. It took historians and philosophers to finally explain this theory as a metascientific issue and to put the irrational mysteries it spawned to rest. (See Karl R. Popper’s The Schism in Physics and Mara Beller’s Quantum Dialogue.)
There are quantum physicists even today as well as New Age thinkers who would defend ‘complementarity’. But since it was really a philosophical theory rather than a strictly scientific one, philosophers and historians are as equipped to critique it as physicists. If its conceptual confusion and political genesis can be shown, it should be laid to rest.
And this leads to our next example and to a most important point: no discipline is ever completely a field unto itself. Newton once said he never feigned (metaphysical) hypotheses; that is, he only stuck to the data. We know now that he was mistaken. It is actually impossible to do science based strictly on observation or on mathematics. Science (and math and all disciplines) is a part of our total human knowledge. It shares in our general conceptual and perceptual constraints.
So when we teach any discipline, we must always put it in the context of human knowledge and always step outside it to utilize other tools in its examination. And we need to examine each discipline, not only to see that it is functioning well in its own sphere but also to evaluate its impact on our lives in general.
Religious Studies in the Classroom
As another example, let us take the study of religion. In the United States, religion was initially studied in religiously founded institutions. Thus Methodists studied Methodism as Christianity, as religion. No one in these institutions objectively compared the various sects of Christianity (and there were many, all conflicting), much less the other major world religions. Even philosophy of religion was for a while merely the study of the common issues of Christianity (types of salvation, proofs of God, etc.).
When colleges became secular (i.e. government-run public institutions or private ones not beholden to particular religious sects), comparative religion became a discipline. But still only the traditional ‘participant’ views of each religion were compared. It is only relatively recently (since the 1960s and even later) that ‘religious studies’ emerged where non-participant, scholarly investigations of religion are taught alongside participant views and where religion is critiqued as a human institution. But what about school education? What about religious studies in high school? What place does it have in a Krishnamurti school? At Oak Grove School, I teach religious studies as part traditional (participant’s) view and part scholarly view and I dwell on the distinction and the need for both views. I discuss heuristics, which involves different ways of organizing the data of religion, different perspectives from which to look at religious phenomena, as well as philosophy of religion. We look at the most common everyday religious occurrences (which are mostly still animistic, occasionally mythological, rarely mystical) and also the most sophisticated theological doctrines. We explore Krishnamurti’s critique of idea and tradition, which to my mind is by far the best philosophy of religion yet.
Approaches to Teaching History
In my history classes (United States and World) I introduce the issues of historiography and philosophy of history as well as what I (and suggested state standards) consider significant content. Students must learn that history is not an essentialist discipline with a fixed canon, that historical reality can be seen from many perspectives, that historical perspectives are chosen for purposes of investigation, that laypersons as well as historians must use critical thinking involving logical, conceptual, linguistic and archaeological skills to discern the truth and relevance of history.
Towards a Humane Economics
As a final example I take the field of economics. I hated economics as a youth. It seemed obscure and overly complex and amoral. Now I know it was made that way on purpose, by an elite that depended on common ignorance to allow them their (often immoral) economic control. Yet for just these reasons, economics can be a very interesting subject. It seems we are coming to the end of the ‘oil’ age and perhaps of the corporate capitalist era as well. To survive materially we (the United States and the world) will have to begin a new economics, and it will have to be simple and clear and ethical in the broadest sense. So one cannot just teach the micro- and macroeconomics of traditional corporate capitalism—as do the majority of public and private schools in this country. To do justice to the discipline of economics and to the breadth of understanding of the students in class, one must put economics in a larger context. For instance, one must be able to show how the last grasp of the oil era powers is causing the greatest geopolitical disturbance right now; show the corruption endemic to corporate capitalism; show the effect of economic systems on the health of the planet and the psychology of the individual; show that technological evolution need not be amoral or immoral, that human values and well-being have precedence over technology, efficiency, and the pursuit of innovation; show that history has important economic lessons for us; show that there are alternatives—and viable, joyful, interesting alternatives—for every entrenched system (or idea for that matter); show that science and justice and reason and compassion can work together to solve economic problems; and finally, show that no economic or technological fix can solve the deeper problems of selfishness and violence. These are issues that would emerge from a decent philosophy of economics, one that is not narrowly focused on the national economy of one place or on the unsuccessful alternatives of the last one hundred years.
Economics is traditionally taught as a narrow pseudoscience. Philosophy of economics can humanize it, contextualize it, make it accessible to all, and make it a challenge for all of us to participate in. To ‘humanize’ a discipline is to show its true nature, as something created by humans and therefore changeable by humans. Given the ultimate failure of most historical economic systems, and the chaos of current economies and societies, now is the ideal time to learn from history; and then to go on to create a new and original economics suitable to what we know about human suffering, human selfishness and human inequality.
When the humanities operate like philosophy—as philosophy of this or that—they interject into all disciplines (science, math, art, business) a much needed objective, multiple-perspectived, critical aspect that prevents any single discipline from becoming the viewpoint on reality. Science and the social sciences need the humanities in this way as much as the humanities need science.