Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Knowing the Liberal Arts

There are many ways to argue. One of them is not to argue at all. This seems to be William Michael's preferred method. Michael and I have been arguing about the definition of classical education (sort of), and whether anyone but him has any business talking about it. His preferred method for making his case seems to consist of making an assertion (e.g. that I don't know what classical education is) and then repeating it about five times, as if, through brute assertive force, he can conjure a sound argument. This is a curious thing to see in someone who claims the exclusive right to talk about the liberal arts, since one of the liberal arts is dialectic (in its most general sense to include the arts of argumentation), the art of discerning and making sound arguments and using them in a discussion. One would be tempted to conclude that, given his claimed expertise in all the arts, he would have mastered this one.

Since he has continually failed to state his case in as a logical manner, I have continually had to restate them in order to be able to make sense of them myself. Michael claims that I do not know what classical education is and so I therefore have no right to talk about it. This claim takes various forms.

The first form of his argument (if we can dignify it by that title) is to reduce the traditional definition of classical education that has prevailed for over 2,000 years to a very specific definition of his own, and then to ask whether the person understands classical education in this way. If he does not, then he does not know what classical education is and is advocating "fake classical education."

In a recent comment on my blog he wrote this:

Have you studied the classical Grammar or Varro, Priscian, Alvarez or Lily? Have you studied the six works of Aristotle's Organon? Have you studied the Rhetorical treatises of Aristotle and Cicero? Have you studied Nicomachus on Arithmetic? Euclid on Geometry? Boethius' work on Music? Ptolemy's Almagest?

In other words, classical education, which he narrowly defines as the study of the "classical liberal arts" (he talks as if the sciences are not a part of classical education, although the humanities seem to be a part of his own curriculum) necessarily consists in the study of certain specified primary texts. Michael makes a number of hidden assumptions in his case. His first is that there are certain texts one must know in order to know what that particular art is. The assumption here is very clear: If you have not studied these particular works, then you do know the relevant art.
Let's just take the case of the liberal art I know the most about: logic. Under his criteria, all those and only those who have studied Aristotle's Prior Analytics know logic. Now this assertion can quite easily be dispensed with by merely pointing out that there are people who have not read the Prior Analytics who know logic, and that there are people who have read the Prior Analytics who do not know logic (Michael himself seems to be included in this category).

Having studied Aristotle's Prior Analytics (part of his Organon) is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowing logic. Being neither necessary nor sufficient, it cannot be considered a criterion for knowing logic.

The other relevant observation here is that no logic teacher in his right mind would study logic using the Prior Analytics as his text. In fact, I have never even heard of anyone who did this. According to Michael's reasoning this is exactly what should done, indeed the only thing one should do, since the purpose of logic instruction is an understanding (and facility) with logic, and the only way to get this understanding (and facility), he thinks, is by reading the Prior Analytics.

Now I know he will probably say that the Organon involves much more than merely the formal reasoning laid out in other works included in the Organon. Fine. The same is true of all of them, the material logic in the Posterior Analytics, the topoi in the Topics, and so on.

This is also true of his Rhetoric. I am a great lover of that work, and have written an instruction manual to help step students through it. But I would never say that it was either necessary or sufficient for knowing rhetoric.

And it is true in all the other liberal arts--Varro, Priscian, Alvarez, and Livy in grammar, Aristotle and Cicero in rhetoric, and Nichomacus, Euclid, Boethius, and Ptolemy in arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. None are necessary for an understanding of the relevant art. There are people who know these arts whose knowledge is based on primary sources other than these or on secondary sources. To say one must know these particular ones in order to know the subject is just archaism.

Again, if Michael wants to make a case for this, he's welcome to go right ahead. But, as I have observed, he avoids giving any evidence or laying out clear arguments for his positions. He relies on assertions to bear the entire burden of his reasoning.

I'd love to hear his argument that only by reading Nochomacus and Euclid can one know mathematics. My father used mathematics throughout his career as an engineer. He designed the propulsion system for the Nike Zeus missile, headed the payload processing program for the shuttle, was on several shuttle launch teams, headed the program that put the first three spy satellites in space, and was the sole author of the design specifications for the nuclear centrifuge. Some of this he did through the use of a slide rule.

I'm sure Michael could tell my father a thing or two about mathematics.

Is it either necessary or sufficient that one know Heroditus and Thucydides in order to know history? Or Homer and Virgil in order to know literature? Again, I love the works of all these authors, and I think they are very important to know, but to say that they are in some way essential to an understanding of the subjects they exemplify is just nonsensical.

I'll address next what is required to know the liberal arts. But for now let's just observe that Michael's argument (if we can call what he does as "argument") is entirely unconvincing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A perfect example of reasoned argument at its best. Bravo!