In Defence of Reason

Portolani Books Volume  1: Anthology


This paper was written nearly thirty years ago when English education in the public sector was already beginning to feel the impact of a philosophy  that was to do untold damage.

Today the consequences are there for all to see, not only in the British Isles but in many other countries where misguided  educators have followed British example.

From all sides politicians proclaim their 'passion' for education', a phrase that has become little more than an empty electioneering slogan.

 Very few of them have any real idea of what  is wrong or how to remedy matters. 

The points made in  the accompanying text, although nearly three decades old, are as relevant today as when they were first written.  





In Defence of Reason*

A liberal view of Education

By Patrícia Lança

     Rationality, in the sense of  a universal and impersonal standard of truth, is of supreme importance..., not only in ages in which it easily prevails, but also, and even more, in those less fortunate times in which it is despised and rejected as the vain dream of men who lack the virility to kill where they cannot agree. Bertrand Russell

THIS PAPER WILL defend the view that knowledge can in some sense be objective and that it should be one of the principal aims of education to introduce pupils to the world of objective knowledge. An attempt will be made to refute the claims of those who hold knowledge to be entirely relative and, further, to show that the relativist view is incompatible with a coherent view of educational aims and indeed with the practice of sociology or anthropology themselves.

The origins of 'sociology of knowledge'

The idea that the style of thought in a given society is influenced by social and economic circumstances is not at all new, and its origins can be traced back to Plato, Macchiavelli, Francis Bacon and many others who have all pointed out the importance of social influences on ideas.

All of us are subject to bias. We are all influenced in our way of looking at things by our nationality, by the period in which we live, by the language we speak, by our class and professional interests and by the way we were brought up. But it is one thing to say this and to add that we can attempt to eliminate, to some extent, our preconceptions and make the effort to be less subjective and more objective, and quite another to draw the extreme relativist conclusion that states the impossibility of objective knowledge at all.

The great precursor of the extreme relativist doctrine was Hegel who said that men's views were determined by history and that the development of man's reason must coincide with the historical development of his nation. Karl Marx, whose philosophical development began in Left Hegelian circles, took this point of view a step further and the most widely influential statement about the social determination of knowledge was expressed in his Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy in the well-known passage:

It is not men's consciousness which determines their existence but on the contrary their social existence which determines their consciousness.

Taken alone and interpreted in the broadest sense this might sound plausible enough. But Marx saw the most fundamental social relationship as men's relationship to the means of production. This relationship would determine to which particular social class a man would belong. Their economic interests will, by and large, govern their way of knowing the world. It must be added that Marx saw this as a general trend rather than any sort of law which admitted of no exceptions. Marx's view was taken up and reinterpreted by the sociologists. V. Pareto saw the social elements as immensely important but held that in order to arrive at knowledge, men should try to overcome their socially conditioned bias. Durkheim and Karl Mannheim saw things differently, and their views laid the basis for what is known as 'functionalism' in sociology. Error, they held, lay in the individual and society was the best source of truth. If a particular belief enables people to function in their society then that belief is true. The logical conclusion, societies being different from one another, is that there are different truths, truth is purely conventional and there can be no general truth.

Malinowski defined functionalism in his article on Anthropology in the 13th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Supp.I):

The functional view...insists therefore upon the principle that in every type of civilization, every custom, material object, idea and belief fulfils some vital function, has some task to accomplish, represents an indispensable part within a working whole.

Max Weber and Scheler took matters further and propounded the view that the dominant axiological system in any society governed what knowledge would be sought. The value society places on aspects of reality will determine whether we notice them or not.

The contemporary 'sociologists of knowledge'

In the early 1970s two books appeared—Knowledge and Control and State, Schooling and Society—whose authors, headed by Michael Young, emerged as what David Cooper has called the 'Radical Egalitarian Critics of Knowledge, Education, Reason and Society' or the W-RECKERS, as he playfully calls them). The doctrines enunciated by these contemporary 'sociologists of knowledge' have become widely known and quite influential among some sections of the teaching profession. Their views descend directly from the Marx-Mannheim tradition, that of the Husserl school of phenomenological sociology.

The Radical Egalitarians make a very strong critique of many current educational practices, in particular the division of the curriculum. This critique is based on involved grounds, both sociological and epistemological. In effect they say that what counts as knowledge are criteria devised by social agents. These agents are context-bound. Their criteria therefore lack any kind of objectivity or rationality. The Radical Egalitarians are utterly opposed to anything like Hirst's Forms of Knowledge thesis. They oppose the subject-divided curriculum, the compartmentalization of knowledge. In essence, the idea of a set of distinct forms of knowledge which correspond to areas of the curriculum is denied. These forms of knowledge, say the Radical Egalitarians, are simply socio-historical constructs. They do not, however, defend integrated studies: on the contrary, they deny there exist subjects to be integrated. They object to all transmission-type teaching methods, to the notion of the teacher with expert knowledge, to academic authority. Further, they oppose the whole process of examination and assessment in schools.

Philosophically, the radical egalitarians are anti-objectivist and anti-absolutist. They say that men are active social agents who are producers of reality, that the objective world is the mere product of what man has created. They agree with C.Wright Mills that there have been diverse criteria of validity and truth—'truth and validity are not absolutes but derive from served relevances and legitimacies.' Now, the radical egalitarians use sociological and philosophical premisses to back up their arguments against the traditional curriculum. However, as D. Cooper points out, the division of the curriculum into subject areas does not, logically, depend upon Hirst's Forms of Knowledge thesis. A variety of arguments may be adduced to support subject division, including the economic one of division of labour. Just as a variety of arguments may be adduced to criticize the curriculum without necessarily espousing relativism. To knock down the Forms of Knowledge thesis is not to defeat arguments in favour of subject division. Indeed, the relativists may, and do, quite easily perform their task of attacking rationality within the traditional curriculum. But perhaps the traditional curriculum is not really the main target—indeed, logically, their position should take them to a situation where education, like sociology, becomes neither worth-while nor possible, as I will try to show.

A historical digression

To understand the motivations of the modern Radical Egalitarians and how they have appeared on the scene it may be useful to apply some of their own methods and look at the context in which they appear.

Anthropology, or the study of primitive society, was born and grew up in the age of colonialism. When Western man first embarked upon his discovery and conquest of the world, the Renaissance had not quite begun and it was the Discoveries that were to launch it. It is illuminating to note that all the early travellers from a Europe emerging out of feudalism—a Europe that was in so may ways poor, ignorant and brutish—were without exception overcome with wonder and admiration for what they saw as the superior civilizations of the East. And it was from these civilizations, beginning with the Arabs and their knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy as well as mathematics and nautical science, that so much new knowledge came to the West to be reintegrated in a society that would eventually use it to make an industrial revolution and conquer civilizations older than our own.

Contempt for other cultures, rather than awe and respect, arose largely in the nineteenth century when Western observers, accustomed by now for generations to science and machines, studied not the ancient civilizations of Asia, but 'savage' communities in Africa, the Pacific and the Americas. Here the colonial powers were frequently engaged in policies which resulted in virtual extermination of autochthonous populations, and missionary activity saw as its aim the conversion of the survivors from their 'savage' ways to a docile and submissive Christianity. Not surprisingly colonial policy-makers tended to welcome any account of 'savagery' that would seem to justify the white man's rule and enable it to be presented as a 'civilizing mission'.

In the reactions against the cruelties and injustices of colonialism, and the prejudiced and often naive studies of the earlier Western observers, it is again not surprising that there should arise a new school of anthropologists who wished to rid themselves of Western bias and study as objectively as possible the habits and outlook of primitive peoples. Such a desire for scientific objectivity rather than the normatively coloured reporting of earlier observers was, of course, the laudable fruit of the Western scientific attitude. But there was also an ethical content, borrowed perhaps from the better type of Christian missionary as well as from the anti-slavery and socialist-humanist movements of the latter half of the nineteenth century. 'These men we have hitherto called savages,' this view says, 'are in fact men like ourselves, neither superior nor inferior, simply different, and we wish to understand them'. This unobjectionable ethical stance became confused as anti-colonialism developed, until under the banner of a kind of 'super-objectivity, total relativism became the appropriate attitude among certain social scientists. 'To study and understand other cultures,' they seem to say, 'we must shed ourselves of all our prejudices and preconceived ideas, even that most basic idea of Western science that its methods and explanations alone are objective and represent an advance in human knowledge. The science we have been taught is no more valid as an explanation of the world than what we see as the magico-religious explanations arrived at by other peoples.'

Those who raise objections to this view are then accused of being context-bound and thus unable to be objective. To be objective for the relativist means being 'value-free'. Clearly there is a circularity in this argument similar to that of the Freudian who sees in all criticism of Freudian doctrine evidence of repression in the critic; or similar to that of the Marxist who sees in all criticism of Marxist class explanation evidence of class prejudice in the critic. As Popper has light-heartedly pointed out, the relativist is really claiming that he and he alone is not context-bound. This sort of refutation sounds facile and really does not take us much further than a healthy scepticism, but in fact it is with this kind of claim that the 'sociologists of knowledge' do get themselves out of the vicious circle. They hold, somewhat arrogantly, 'that the "freely poised intelligence" of an intelligentsia which is only loosely anchored in social traditions may be able to avoid the pitfalls of what they call the "total ideologies" and the hidden motives and other determinants which inspire them.'

What is objective knowledge?

However, objective knowledge requires a positive defence. It is under attack today from many quarters—and the attack on the subject-divided curriculum, dealt with above, is only a small part of the case. Modern relativists in effect accuse the objectivists of that confusion of categories of which the relativists themselves are guilty. The defenders of Western science and rationality, relativists say, regard their procedure and criteria alone as good and non-scientific attitudes as bad, whereas he whom the Westerner calls a savage is just as good as the Westerner is. Or, in similar vein, middle-class educated people are accused of despising the working class as ignorant and regarding their attitudes as bad and middle-class values as good, whereas in reality it is working-class values that are good because based on the solidarity of the exploited, and the middle-class values bad because based on a desire to defend middle-class privilege.

When an argument is framed in these terms the framer has clearly himself taken up a normative and not a 'value-free' position: the barricades are up and sides have been taken. The moral issue is paramount and objectivity subordinated or utterly denied. What is, in effect, being said is that if you are not on the side of the underdog you are on that of the top dogs, and to prove you are not on that of the top dogs you must be totally on the side of the underdogs. The argument suffers from the same kind of defects as that of 'Those who are not with me are against me' or 'My country right or wrong'. From the prejudices of the ethnocentric anthropologists we come full circle to the prejudices of the Radical Egalitarians. From the class bias of the 'bourgeois' political scientist we come full circle to the class bias of the 'working-class revolutionary'. And the young disciples of the modern 'sociologists of knowledge' are not quite sure whether they are taking up an ethical position in their insistence on freedom from 'middle-class values' or whether they are taking up an epistemological one in insisting on freedom from all values. In reality, the discussion does involve both ethics and theory of knowledge, but it is important to disentangle the threads.

It does not follow logically that because I disagree with somebody else's point of view I regard him as either a bad human being or an inferior human being (though there are some people who behave that way in discussion). Nor does it follow logically that because I see an alien society or a different subculture as holding a mistaken view about the world, I must regard their members as either less intelligent or less moral than members of my own society or sub-culture (though people with a parochial point of view often do so). If I have been properly educated I should know better than to conflate a value judgement with a judgement of fact.

However, in saying this it is not being claimed that value judgements are irrelevant. On the contrary, the keystone of the Western scientific attitude is precisely an a priori ethical position that will lead us to the principle of respect for persons: namely the belief that it is intrinsically, not only instrumentally, a better procedure in all human affairs, both moral and intellectual, to engage in free critical discussion about issues than simply to believe what is laid down by tradition and authority. Western scientific knowledge is regarded as objective—with all the failures to which objectivity is prone—not because it is true in any absolute sense. No serious scientist regards his theories as more than hypotheses. And 'scientific laws' are not laws in the positive sense, but simply well-established hypotheses that have not yet, despite rigorous testing, been falsified, but which yet may be (as Einstein falsified the most well-established scientific 'laws' of all times, Newton's 'laws' of motion).

When scientists claim objective knowledge all they mean is that the knowledge in question is public, justified publicly, criticized publicly, tested publicly. As Peters never tires of pointing out, it is this attitude to criticism and to the solution of social and political problems through rational discussion that lies at the heart of what is meant by a democratic way of life.

Now, if I respect persons, if I regard the pursuit of objective knowledge as the greatest human endeavour, I shall have a moral attitude to alien cultures that is very different both from that of the early ethnocentrists and from that of the relativists. When I come across a group that has faith in witchcraft or some other belief I regard as mistaken, I will not see them as 'stupid' but will want to know the social, economic and historical background that supports the origin, development and continuance of such beliefs. I will be interested in the function of such a belief system and will want to see if and why it is viable, i.e. why these people see the particular belief as working for them. I will try to recognize and eliminate my bias. But this does not mean I espouse relativism. The relativist encountering different 'truths', lazily concludes there can be no general truths. The objectivist encountering a variety of contradictory beliefs concludes that the search for truth must continue. As Popper has pointed out, the difference between the relativist and the objectivist is that the relativist concludes when he encounters different 'truths' that all are equally 'true', whereas the objectivist concludes that somebody must be, and very probably everybody is to some extent wrong. Just as two wrongs do not make a right, so two mistaken beliefs do not make one right one, or two right ones.

The distinction between viability and validity

It is important to distinguish between the use of the words 'viable' and 'valid'. Validity is a logical category, most fully developed within the context of Western philosophy,. This is, of course, not to suggest that validity or logic is only Western. On the contrary, as I shall argue below. We should never forget that mathematics after all came originally from India, and the Chinese are said to have had the concept of zero some 3,000 years ago. If there were not at least some logical basis common to all human societies—and this is what extreme relativists deny—it would be impossible for there to be any communication or understanding, and anthropology would be impossible. Viability, on the other hand, is an empirical category. The belief system in some way supports and is in turn supported by the way of life of the people concerned, and how it does so is an empirical question. If a system is viable it no more means that it is valid, than that the successful application of an invalid conclusion contradicts its invalidity. However, the relativists may be suggesting by the use of the term 'valid' that what happens in primitive society is something like this: inferences are drawn according to the usual rules of logic from premisses foreign to Western science to reach conclusions which seem to Western eyes mistaken, but given the premisses the odd conclusions are really perfectly reasonable. If this is what the relativists mean then they are simply admitting that the primitive society uses the same rules of logic as we do ourselves. if, however, the relativists mean something else—that conclusions are reached in some other way which we would not understand, and that decisions flowing from these conclusions are applied successfully in practice, then the word 'viable' should be used and not the word 'valid'.

Ethics and pragmatism

The curious thing that 'sociologists of knowledge' have yet to explain convincingly is why Western scientific thought, despite all the cruelty and conquest that have so often accompanied its diffusion, has in fact wherever it penetrates, won over pre-scientific attitudes. The cargo-cults of Melanesia may have been the first defence reaction of a primitive belief system against the impact of Western civilization, but neither they nor their precursors have spread outwards to us. On the contrary, they have shrunk, and the islanders of Australasia now flock into New Zealand and Australia as people from overseas do to Britain. The Chinese, having thrown off Western imperialism have not gone back to Confucius but have adopted Western science and a particular brand of Western political philosophy, with a consequent rise in living standards and reduction in mortality and disease. The Japanese, by adopting Western scientific modes of thought, have turned themselves from a backward, feudal nation into an advanced industrialized one in exactly one hundred years, and are now making significant and original contributions to Western philosophy, as well as science. It may, of course, be argued, that these peoples thereby also subject themselves to the ills an imperfect industrial civilization is heir to. But the fact of the matter is that, whatever the evils of Western society, and they are many, we do talk about them and criticize them and some of us try to change them.

Our much denigrated Western scientific society has more knowledge principally because it has had more experience from which to learn—we have travelled out of our primitive tribal past to become an open society, and although we still contain much of the magico-religious within our society and within ourselves, we possess objective (in the sense of public) knowledge of our own past and of other, different, types of contemporary society.

Although we are all subjective up to a point, and some more than others, because we are part of an open society where there is criticism and discussion, we have the possibility of objectivizing our knowledge, becoming aware of alternatives, criticizing, rejecting, accepting or modifying them.

To the extent that a child first lives in a closed social group, shut within his immediate family circle and as yet unaware of alternative ways of life, he is subjective. Education—and experience, which is what education in its widest sense really means—opens up the world of objective knowledge and the possibility of holding beliefs rationally. An adult of wide experience has more knowledge than an adult of limited experience. Most adults, anyway, have more knowledge than most children. Similarly , the open society has more knowledge and holds its beliefs more rationally than does a primitive society.

Our open society with its vast body of objective knowledge to which all its members in principle have access (though social imperfections may still place severe limitations upon this in practice), did not spring fully armed from the head of Jupiter. We have come a long way. All of us, even the sociologists, are the children of primitive ancestors. And we have come all this way because we have had more experience. Geographical and historical circumstances have given us access to alternative systems and brought about the cross-fertilization of cultures. This has been all to our advantage. It is, on the contrary, the closed world of the savage, of the ignorant in our own society, which breeds intolerance and subjectivity. The more truly educated and objective we are, the more we can understand and make allowance for those whose knowledge is limited by a closed society or a closed sub-culture.

The opponent of relativism is basically more optimistic about the human predicament than the relativist, because although he sees the member of a closed society as holding beliefs irrationally, he nevertheless maintains that the savage or the ignorant share his own basic human rationality. He does not believe, as does the relativist, that the savage or the uneducated have some other 'alternative' rationality. The savage or the ignorant, in using language, must use precisely the universal laws of human thought—the principles of affirmation, negation and the law of the excluded middle. If he did not, the anthropologist and the sociologist would never have come to know anything of his language or beliefs.

The difference, however, is that many of the savage's beliefs are grounded on false and unexamined premisses because he has been taught to accept these from authority from early childhood and has never had occasion to question them, because no alternatives have been presented to him from among which he could choose. Taught to accept traditional authority blindly, certain of his beliefs are accepted as though they were a priori truths, and hence never subjected to criticism. While his society remains stable and cut off from others, he will continue to accept traditional authority which only breaks down in time of crisis, confrontation and the presentation of a possibility of alternatives, and hence of choices.

Men cling tenaciously to their childhood beliefs unless taught to do otherwise. This is what makes teaching so difficult. But because we all do share a common rationality we can be taught by others who have more experience, and by experience itself, especially if we have also learned from the encounter with alternatives to make rational choices. When we regard pre-scientific attitudes as mistaken it does not follow that we have to regard them as irrational, but rather as irrationally held. There is an important difference here.

Given false premisses we can by rational methods reach a mistaken conclusion, and if our methods of testing are deficient, we may even find that in many circumstances the mistaken conclusion appears to work, thus supporting our belief in the false premisses. The essential difference between pre-scientific and scientific beliefs is not the rational process of thought involved but the degree of rationality with which the beliefs in the basic premisses are held and the technological possibilities of testing. The pre-Socratic philosophers laid the basis for rational holding of beliefs when they first subjected traditionally held beliefs to scrutiny and discussion. They argued about fundamental issues such as the nature and origins of man and of matter, and differed with one another about their premisses and their conclusions. Once a philosopher could openly disagree with the teachings of his master a tradition of questioning received ideas had started. Aristotle carried it on when he disagreed with Plato, his teacher. Students began to weigh up the arguments and decide for themselves. This was the first step in the West along a tortuous path, full of backsliding into inquisitions and persecutions, which has continued right up to our own day. It was, indeed, the beginning of the idea of a university—though the Greeks could not become fully scientific because they lacked the technological means for testing their rationally held beliefs.

Faith in reason and in the rational unity of mankind

We shall certainly not solve our problems by adopting pre-scientific modes appropriate to closed and stable agricultural societies. Nor by promoting in education ill-judged attacks on scientific rationality and on the rational unity of mankind. Our children who will have to face not only our problems but perhaps graver ones still, will only be able to solve their difficulties by extending the frontiers of knowledge, most importantly perhaps, in the human sciences, which are still in their infancy and so evidently suffering from growing pains.

It seems therefore that educationists must reject the attitude of the relativists. There can be no neutrality about the value of objective knowledge or about its ethical underpinning of respect for persons. When the pre-Socratic philosophers, over 2,500 years ago, emerged in that extraordinary cross-roads between cultures that exists in the eastern Mediterranean, and lit the first spark of scientific enquiry, as against magico-religious explanations of natural phenomena, modern man was born. He has now changed the face of the earth and embarked on the pathway to the stars. The heritage belongs to all men on every continent.

If we did not take this pride in Western achievement, we should really be refusing to share our good things with others. For a long time we used our superior technology to conquer and plunder less technologically advanced peoples. Now that they have freed themselves in many places from our yoke, it seems rather ironic that some of our intellectuals should seem to be saying that the good things we have to offer we ought to keep to ourselves because they are not really worth having—and not really worth passing on to our children.

In a sense, whatever their sociological antecedents, the relativists are in a direct line of descent from Rousseau and the romantic notion of the noble savage. But the logical conclusion of their position is very like that of the apologists of illiteracy who really feared that a little learning would make the working man restless, or that primary schools would disrupt the 'happy life' of the peasant in southern Europe. The industrial revolution indeed brought much suffering to millions but it laid the basis for the conquest of disease, infant mortality, death in childbirth, poverty and ignorance; and standards of living have steadily risen as a result. Historians can show, as romantic mythmakers cannot, that pre-industrial life everywhere was 'nasty, brutish and short' for the vast majority of men and women. There was never any golden age in pre-history. Carlo Cippola tells us that all the remains of pre-historic man in ancient burial grounds show that he died a violent death, often accompanied by cannibalism. Men who live in illiterate or pre-literate societies are rarely the carefree, childlike, 'noble savage' type beloved of the romantic imagination and of tourists. In such societies only fatalism and docile submission to traditional authority temper the misery and fear that is the daily accompaniment of a life of toil and ignorance at the mercy of the elements which are given the names of gods. And while the social scientist or historian may wish to inquire into the functions of widow-burning in India or clitorectomy in Kenya and other parts of Africa, perhaps only male students are likely (along with male natives) to find such practices 'valid'.

These extreme examples serve to remind the relativists, who wish to carry 'value-freeness' from field-work to classroom, that a moral choice cannot be avoided in education. If a relativist is to be coherent he must abandon all moral judgement. Any obnoxious practice, if it is the norm in the social group concerned would be justifiable by its function. If a Sikh girl pupil in an English secondary school is living within her community according to its norms, the relativist teacher should, logically, wish to do nothing to disturb her received view of her role. Then why should he disturb the English working-class girl's traditional view of her role, either?

Further, if the relativist accepts as 'valid' a non-English ethnic group's fear and hatred of outsiders, he must, to be consistent, regard English traditional racism, or football hooliganism, especially of the working-class variety in all its spontaneous violence, as 'valid' too. Perhaps the relativist would answer that in our society we regard change as normal and scientific knowledge as a traditional value along with freedom to criticize and to attempt to change things. Indeed, the disciples of the 'sociologists of knowledge', the Radical Egalitarians, are notorious for their desire to use education in order to change society. But they really cannot have it both ways if they wish to present a coherent argument, nor can they either on moral or epistemological grounds set themselves up as the only ones who really know what is good for other people. If we do regard criticism and freedom as values, what right then have we to deny them to others? That was what the old ethnocentrists did. They thought the savage mind could only be tamed, not westernized. That was what the old upper classes thought about the poor. Learning was too good for the many and must be kept for the few.

A coherent theory of education must stand four-square for objective knowledge, for rational belief held rationally. But as philosophers at any rate recognize, in the final analysis our rationality must come to a stop if there is not to be an infinite regress. My belief that nature is rule-governed, that it is a system to be understood by man's reason if he will only use it, my conviction of regularities, are intuitively based notions, innate knowledge as it were, the one act of pure faith of modern science, the irrational beginning of all rationality. But what makes it a different kind of irrational beginning is that I recognize its irrationality and am willing to discuss it and subject it to public criticism.

If a teacher can put this view over to his students in such a way that they will understand him, he will neither be indoctrinating them, nor transmitting bias, but winning them in the battle for reason which is perhaps more besieged today in more insidious ways than ever before.

*A paper delivered to a group of trainee teachers at Phillipa Fawcett College of
Education, University of London, 1979