The Liberal Arts Tradition is a foundational work that provides an excellent overview and insight into how the Classical education movement can bring to life educational traditions and principles in the 21st century. This week our book club continued with our discussion of Part III of the book, dealing with Philosophy as it sits above the 7 Liberal Arts.

Viewed as a culminating practice, once a student has a solid foundation in the Language  (the Trivium) and Mathematical (Quadrivium) arts, the philosophy section provides the contemporary reader with the opportunity to re-imagine the world of learning, as it was for over two millennia. Indeed, it was by no means a monolith, however, Jain and Clark, deftly identify the shifts in enlightenment thought when the frames of reference (worldview or ontology) were redrawn for modern man.

The Enlightenment, ironically, stands out as a turning point where the brilliance of thinkers such as Isaac Newton Descartes and Francis Bacon, became a double-edged sword for the humanistic and Logos-centred Liberal Arts. The rise of the Science Age facilitated great material progress for humans, such as was never previously imagined. However, it was also the beginning of a shift away from some foundational principles from which it had been birthed. Scientific thinkers such as Bacon and Descartes left little room for the influence of supernatural and transcendental worldviews into which they were born. Little by little, poetic, experiential and aesthetic knowledges which predominated were replaced with the scientific method, the search for observable, objective truths.

Whilst I am no critic of science, in its place, it is obvious when reading this section of the LAT that scientific method has overstated its claim on human reality, this is no more obvious than in the social sciences. The social sciences, defined as the study of human society and social relationships in fields such as education, politics, economics and psychology all effectively transmuted from philosophical discourses to scientific endeavours. Whilst I recognise some merit in scientising (is that a word?) aspects of these fields - I love a good dataset, it is painfully obvious that they are not well represented as sciences. I began my studies in biology and moved later into psychology. I went from measuring tree height and number of species to measuring attitudes, beliefs and values. I had no end of difficulty coming to believe that these things were being measured properly, I wasn't even sure they could be measured at all; I was assured that it was possible through proxy measures like a 'happiness scale'. Social science seems light on the science. When placed in the context of earlier moral philosophy, social science appears antithetical to rationalistic, materialistic scientific method.

I don't intend to demean the field, these issues are to some extent acknowledged by the professionals within them, but I believe most are unaware that the true problems with research is actually 'the water they are swimming in'. The human simply cannot be reduced or known by scientific method alone. Thus, the social sciences suffer from a deeply flawed paradigm, a flawed anthropology and we are inheritors of its flawed products as they inform policy makers, politicians and institutions on all things related to human society and social relationships.

As I read through the moral philosophy section, I could not help but wonder if perhaps the social sciences would function a lot more efficiently if they were set free from the scientific structure. Not to be departed from it altogether, rather not defined by it. It seems to me that what has occurred is that scientific method, found to be reliable and wonderfully useful in the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics etc) has been extrapolated into the realm of 'social sciences' in an effort to lend some kind of credibility and force to these disciplines, losing much of value from philosophical discourse and theology in the process.

Imagine an economic system that was forced to account for transcendentals such as purpose, goodness, truth and beauty in addition to material product? Or indeed an education system that was not blind to these same things when considering pedagogy or curriculum. We repeatedly hear a call to more 'evidenced-based' practice to inform teaching and learning. Well there is a place for that, but consider which writers and researchers get published and read in school staff meetings, if evidence-base is the only criterion. When did researchers include a child's love of beauty and goodness in a study? It is not really possible to embrace such ideas from the scientific mode of thinking. On the other hand, the philosophical approach has the flexibility to include all genres of thought, rational, poetic, intellectual, experiential, transcendental. Perhaps it does not churn out a definitive response in the same way a statistical analysis can, but we have to ask ourselves what even is the real value in all these studies and analyses that often fail to produce the desired outcome in a real world setting?

During and after the Scientific Revolution, Moral philosophy was reduced to ethics studies and pursuits in economics, education/learning, psychology and politics, were consumed within the scientific paradigm. The deep philosophical approach to subject matter was superseded by the ostensibly more reliable and rigorous scientific discourse. But alas such a loss. I know how a child's heart leap in the classroom when I mention big ideas like purpose and meaning? You see it is personal but also grand, a reflection of God. We simply cannot fit the gamut of human experience into scientific method, nor should we want to because to do so is to diminish our immeasurable humanity; yet this is exactly what has happened to the academy and society at large. Every subject in school perhaps with the exception of the arts and some English, is science, including philosophy. Perhaps it is time to reacquaint ourselves with messy philosophical thought that outraged the Athenians, because nothing could be known for certain or lofty poetic literature that makes us soar for we don't know why. Ironically, I suspect that where the scientific method with its solid record for discovering truth has failed us in this context, the philosophic mode with its vast array of unknowables may hold the answers we seek.

This article was first published on Logos Australis.

  • About the Author: Sarah Flynn-O'Dea is a Queensland teacher and the founder of Logos Australis.