Studies in Philosophy and Education

, Volume 29, Issue 3, pp 315–320

Leonard J. Waks (ed): Leaders in Education: Intellectual Self-Portraits

Sense Publications, Rotterdam, 2008


    • Faculty of EducationThe University of Western Ontario

DOI: 10.1007/s11217-009-9152-4

Cite this article as:
Ellett, F.S. Stud Philos Educ (2010) 29: 315. doi:10.1007/s11217-009-9152-4

Overview: Tales from the Philosophical Trails

Leonard Waks has crafted a wonderfully rich and open set of questions and has masterfully edited the responses from his selected set of established philosophers of education. Waks asked if each would be willing to write about their early life experiences, first encounters with philosophy (and philosophy of education), period of serious study, early works, their mature works, and the current challenges and opportunities in the field. Each was also asked to list personal favourites among their own works and to provide a brief list of works which have deeply influenced them.

Waks set out to select authors whose works had been influential in the field for over a quarter century, and ended up selecting about two dozen. Here are the philosophers of education: Sharon Bailin, Robin Barrow, David Carr, Kieran Egan, Walter Feinberg, Gary D. Fenstermacher, Jim Garrison, Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon, Paul H. Hirst, Jane Roland Martin, Nel Noddings, Michael A. Peters, Hugh G. Petrie, D. C. Phillips, Richard Pring, Emily Robertson, Francis Schrag, Harvey Siegel, Jonas F. Soltis, Kenneth A. Strike, Leonard J. Waks, John White, Patricia White, and Christopher Winch. One could hardly provide a better listing!

There is a personal “Foreword” (in a narrative style) by Israel Scheffler which the reader will find very interesting and insightful. Scheffler’s recounting of his early years at Harvard will surprise many readers. And Leonard Waks himself provides a broader and more encompassing historical overview of the American and British contexts which “chronicles” the rise and decline of the “revolution” of analytic philosophy. Waks’s “Introduction” to the book is best seen as his interpretation of the field of philosophy of education (in the American and British contexts) over the last half century. All in all, I think the reader will find the introduction to be generally interesting and insightful.

There are also two appendices to the book. In the first, Emily Robertson provides a eulogy summarizing Thomas Green’s life and contributions; in the second, Paul H. Hirst provides a short account, “Philosophy of Education in the UK: The [Current] Institutional Context.” Let me briefly note that Green’s The activities of teaching is often used to characterize Green as an analytic philosopher. But his Predicting the behavior of the educational system (1980), in collaboration with D. Ericson and R. Seidman, is a work which constructs an empirical theory which can predict (and explain) key aspects of the system!

When the reader sees the various ways in which the philosophers of education have responded, the reader will rightly conclude that Waks has obviously asked his questions in a most encouraging manner. He has allowed all forms of narrative; he has even allowed a poem! One can only imagine what Waks received in response to his semi-structured and open-ended questions. He has exhibited great care and attentiveness to their responses. I think the reader will find the narratives to be captivating and deeply insightful. Waks has encouraged his philosophers to be direct and frank; he has welcomed the downright conversational. Although I was familiar with many of these philosophers, there were many unexpected and insightful “moments.” Some of the narratives had me “bent over” in laughter! Some of the narrators appeared uncharacteristically humble, while others appear uncharacteristically “bold.” Some of these philosophers appear as critics of the empirical research in the education. And when one sees the targets of the critiques, one can see that their concerns are well founded. In contrast, others appear as reaching out to contribute to various empirical research projects and to educational programs as well. In carrying out these activities, philosophers of education are not doing something unique. I shall say no more about any of the responses, for I do not want to spoil the reader’s fun and insights!

I might also note that the book could be used in a course devoted to teaching philosophy of education, for the narratives nicely bring out the humanistic and social aspects of philosophical inquiry. And parts of the book could be used as supplemental material when a course is having students read some of the articles or books by the philosopher. For example, students who are reading Jane Roland Martin (or Nel Noddings) will surely find the narratives presented in this book to be extremely useful in setting the wider context and locating the dynamics of the particular philosophical inquiry.

Activities on the Philosophical Trails

Here I would like to make a few remarks about the wider Nordenbo (1979) claim which Waks features: “the rise and decline of analytical philosophy of education.” I believe my remarks are generally supportive of Waks’s own judgment that such a claim “can be seen as both incomplete and to some extent mistaken” (p. 7). I see my remarks as agreeing in the main with both Waks and Scheffler. (A note in passing: it is going to be difficult to generalize about analytic philosophy when one grasps that an extremely diverse range of philosophers have been called “analytic” and when one grasps that many who are called “analytic” claim they merely work in the “analytic-idiom.”)

First, it is the case that conceptual analysis and its relatives remain very much near the core of philosophy of education. And here philosophers of education have explicated, extended, and reformulated the tasks at hand. The works by Scheffler (1960), Wilson (1963), Green (1971), Soltis (1978), Black (1972), Pitcher (1972), Scriven (1988), Black (1975), and Coombs and Daniels (1991) provide an excellent set of core readings on conceptual analysis and its relatives. After drawing the distinction between a “reportive definition” and a “programmatic definition,” Scheffler (1960) warns the reader that it is most difficult to recognize a programmatic definition when a philosopher of education provides an adequate reportive definition of a concept (and makes no attempt to provide the moral argument for continuing to use the concept). I have always suspected that Peters’ (1965, p. 112) remark that “… I do not much mind if I have [already put my foot on the primrose path that leads to essentialism]” is an attempt to block a Schefflerean critique of the status of Peters’ analysis! John Wilson provides some elementary, but helpful orienting remarks about necessary conditions, and his section “ought punishment be retributive” provides students with great opportunity to get in and do some analyzing. Soltis nicely draws together various forms of necessary and sufficient condition analyses using concepts central to education. In the same book, Black (1972) and Pitcher (1972) argue that a good analysis of a concept will try to find not only necessary conditions but also the characteristic (or presumptive) features of a concept (e.g., it is made of wood and one might expect it to float, but for all that it does not). Scriven argues that conceptual analysis should not be confused with “operational definitions,” common definitions in education which are not much help at all. He also provides reasons for holding that all educational researchers should have some competence in doing conceptual analysis.

Although Black (1972) appeared confident that his analysis of “reasonableness” was on the right track, he later (1973) came to the conclusion that it is impossible to get a good analysis of “rationality” which fits all of the clear cases. Black argued that what is needed (for the purposes) at hand is a “semi-stipulative definition” which honors most of the important cases and criteria of the concept (but does not honor all of them) (Yet Black has been called an analytic philosopher! See Garver (1967)). The literature which involves John Rawls’s theory of justice (1971, 1991) is a literature involved in clarifying, and if needed, offering a semi-stipulative definition for the concept of “rationality.” In her The limits of a liberal education, Meira Levinson (1999) tries to develop a civics education for a pluralistic liberal democracy. And carrying out this project, she is, in effect, offering a semi-stipulative definition of her key concept, “autonomy.” In what I regard as an excellent, summary article, Coombs and Daniels (1991) extend and elaborate the procedures for doing conceptual analysis and for developing and defending semi-stipulative definitions.

In order to see the importance of these points about concept analysis and its relatives let us consider the concept of “critical thinking.” Many educators say and a few hold that one of the primary goals of education is to get students to be critical thinkers. Among his many contributions to philosophy of education, Robert Ennis has had a life-long project of analyzing “critical thinking” (1958, 1980, 1991). Yet Ennis has also worked with well-known test theorists to develop and validate tests for critical thinking for the public schools. Although Scriven (1991) may be best known for his numerous contributions to educational evaluation in the 1960s and 1970s, he has also contributed to the work on critical thinking. For example, Alec Fisher and Scriven (1997) provide a thorough and critical review of the various conceptions and the tests associated with each, and they put forward a semi-stipulative definition which they argue is relevant for most educational contexts.

Two of the philosophers (Siegel and Bailin) in the Waks book have also engaged in developing a defensible view of critical thinking. By providing a thorough and critical review of various conceptions, Siegel’s book (1988) contributed in major ways to the ongoing discussions. Partly in response to Siegel, Ralph Johnson (1996) argued that since there are still so many unresolved problems and conflicting views, we should suspend the analytical work until these are resolved. And partly in response to Siegel and Johnson, Sharon Bailin (1999), in collaboration with R. Case, J. Coombs, and L. Daniels, has put forward a semi-stipulative definition which they argue serves the needs of the primary and secondary schools. Bailin et al. have also generated curricular materials and performance assessment strategies for their conception.

Thus, as this brief review of the work on “critical thinking” shows, philosophers of education continue to use conceptual analysis (and its relatives) to help analyze, develop and defend important educational goals. Furthermore, many of these philosophers have taken part in the educationally related activities of developing and validating assessment procedures and developing suitable curricular materials. So, analysis (in the narrow sense) is but one of the activities in which philosophers engage.

Let us consider another philosopher, William Frankena. In his widely read paper (1966) “A model for analyzing a philosophy of education,” Frankena said he is only interested in doing the new philosophy, the kind which only “does analysis.” I have always read this (very useful) essay with “several qualifications,” for in his previous work (1965) on the “three historical philosophies” of Aristotle, Kant, and Dewey, Frankena not only analyzed but also he criticized the various claims and offered comparative judgments about their contemporary relevance.

Finally, let me consider Israel Scheffler and start with his “Toward analytic philosophy of education,” a paper first presented in 1953. It should be clear that Scheffler has been greatly influenced by the views of M. White, W.V. O. Quine, and especially Nelson Goodman, three philosophers often called analytic. (And Scheffler (1953) also mentions Carl Hempel’s work in the philosophy of science which uses “material implication” (“if p, then q” means “not p or q”) as the main analytical tool). What I find striking about his 1953 essay are the paragraphs on Nelson Goodman and foundationalism. In the essay, Scheffler credits Goodman with defeating that version of foundationalism which holds that justification must eventually lead to beliefs which are certain. Let me quote Scheffler (1973, pp. 14–15) in specifying what the alternative is:

In order to avoid the regress, we need only hold some beliefs with initial credibility. We need attribute certainty to none. While we try to attain and preserve a maximum of initial credibility for the total mass of our beliefs, any single one is subject to withdrawal under pressure of conflict with this total mass.

Now one should see these words (1953) as expressing what will be a lifelong project for Scheffler. (See Epistemology of objectivity (1982) to Science and the world (1996)). It may well be that early on he conceived of this project as an “analytical” project. But it should be clear that Scheffler is also modifying and constructing concepts and principles to carry out this project which tries to work out, explain, and defend the view that scientific inquiry is objective. And though Scheffler acknowledges “the wide attention” which has been given to his critique of Thomas Kuhn’s work, he urges that more attention be given to his “treating the opposition of coherence and certainty” (1982, p. ix).

In a major summary on the work on philosophy of science, Frederick Suppe (1977) wrote:

…Rejecting [the positivistic] view, a group of ‘young Turks’—including Hanson, Feyerabend, and Kuhn—started examining scientific practice and the history of science and developed Weltanschauungen views that, unfortunately, made scientific knowledge a social phenomenon in which science became a subjective and, to varying degrees, an irrational enterprise.

More recently, philosophers such as Lakatos, Toulmin, and Shapere have attempted to steer a middle course between these two extremes wherein science is a rational enterprise concerned with finding objective knowledge of the real world. (pp. 704–705)

Scheffler (1982, Ch. 4) was one of those who interpreted Kuhn as making science a “subjective and, to varying degrees, an irrational enterprise.” Scheffler was also one of those developing and constructing a positive account which seeks a “middle course.” Scheffler (1982, p. 129) asserted that “[i]f we take just [Kuhn’s] affirmation of older concepts and under new labels, we have a plausible but no longer novel view.” When asked who has anticipated this kind of Kuhnian view, Scheffler replied Carl Hempel and John Dewey. And he could have said that his own work develops such a view (See Kuhn 1977).

In his later years Scheffler found he had to accommodate in some ways the views of his mentor, Nelson Goodman (1978) and his Ways of world making. Here Scheffler has attempted to recover the key Goodmanian insights and develop a kind of “pluralism.” Another of Goodman’s students, Catherine Elgin, the current philosopher of education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has also tried to construct a defensible account in her (1996) “The merits of reflective equilibrium.” This essay also tries to link epistemology and objectivity and to incorporate what is recoverable from Goodman’s work. In both the Scheffler and Elgin accounts, a key role in explaining and defending “objectivity” is played by the epistemic values (e.g., predictiveness, explanatory power, simplicity, agreement with what already has reason to believe, and so on). The Scheffler and Elgin accounts belong to a larger family of theories which sets out to develop concepts and principles which can plausibly explain the normativity of scientific discourse. (See, for example, Hooker 1987, 1995). In such activities, there is a role for conceptual analysis (and its relatives). But such activities also include many of the tasks involved in the development and evaluation of theories in the widest sense. One might also note that the “epistemic values” surely play a key role in critical thinking. One work which clearly emphasizes the epistemic values is Lewis Vaughn’s The power of critical thinking (2005).

I hope the reader will find my brief remarks a useful and helpful interpretation of the field of philosophy of education. But I also hope that these remarks will not be read as in any way taking away from the general value of Waks’s book. It is very well written; and it is engaging and very insightful. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in philosophy of education or interested in inquiry in general.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009