The historian versus the philosopher

A friend of mine from the CUNY program and I have over the weekend been communicating briefly via email about how one of our classes is going. She’s worked as a high school teacher as well as a principal, and I admire her for her articulate, thoughtful, and authoritative way of speaking in class. She’s a pragmatist, which I didn’t realize was a posture in contrast to mine until recently.

Our professor, a self-proclaimed anarchist, is radical in his views and often offers our class a cross-section of progressive readings, far leftist articles, and resources from as much as non-Western sources (like the Russell Means speech I referenced a few posts back). I tend to feel that while his politics can be more extreme than I can conscience – I still don’t know how an anarchist can truly think that society can be much more than Hobbes’ worst nightmare, at least in the event of a total governmental collapse – but I really like his way of exploring the givens in society nowadays, particularly in reference to the omnipresence of technology in modern life, which maintains a very thin veil between privacy and public (and governmentally controllable) information, or to the influence of corporate interests in public schooling, reflected in the trend of using prefab curriculum on tablets which may act to divide and conquer the free and curious mind (and reduce teachers to technicians) in public schools. His philosophical, critical vision of society suggests a deep reading for alternative views and new possibilities not yet fully explored.

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My friend, while a strong critical thinker, appeared resistant to such conversations in class. At least, that’s what I assumed in her responses to his questions along this vein (“technology is here to stay,” etc.): that she didn’t care to talk about these changes because she saw them as part of the process of dehumanization that has happened ever since human societies became a collective vision of better human existence.

I struggled with her resistance for a couple of weeks, thinking she was simply being contrarian, until it dawned on me: I wasn’t any more right than she in thinking that we should be talking about these things, at least in the way our professor chose to address them. She was offering a perfectly legitimate perspective, though not the same as his philosophic, anti-establishment one. And one of the best parts of such a pragmatic perspective is the offering that things are what they are because a variety of perspectives have worked together to form this version of reality, now. Can we throw them out and simply move to the alternatives before conversing about all versions of the story?

There is a place for both the historian and the philosopher at the table; this is in fact something I’ve learned in my political philosophy class, in which the conventional is frequently juxtaposed with the universal by Locke, Hegel, and other thinkers. Each is incomplete in vision without the other. Keep only the former, and you restrict the capacity for newness and opportunity by holding on to what has been as the range of possibilities; keep only the latter, and you forget the path by which you’ve reached the today in which you argue for tomorrow.

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