Home » culture

On Education and Its Institutions

The contemporary controversy concerning education centers around the institutions tasked with providing it.  We ask ourselves what curricula should be implemented, what teaching methods are most effective, and how governmental agencies can assist in the growth of educational institutions—we debate the morality of teachers and their influence, the rights to speech and questioning, the difficulty of grading and assessment and so on and on.  All too rarely, especially as these disputes intensify, do we pause to question our presuppositions concerning the true nature and purpose of education itself.  Indeed: long is it overdue that we turn our gaze away from the institutional structure and instead towards the individual, the family, and especially the parents who themselves are not only the first teachers of their children, but who ought to teach them always—who ought to be models from which their children learn throughout life.

This is not to deny the necessity of educational institutions—not only as pragmatic necessities for parents who cannot afford to homeschool but also for higher learning of every kind.  Yet, though necessary, institutions will always be insufficient.  We cannot outsource or offload the responsibility for education to any institution or collection of institutions.  Institutions are lenses that help bring clarity and focus; but they are not the light.

Real Education

Education, as any experienced educator knows, consists in guiding rather than informing; in fostering the right questions rather than the correct answers.  Intellectual nourishment, however, requires a holistic approach.  Going to the gym five days a week will do relatively little for one’s health if all other hours of the day are marked by constant consumption of junk food and buttery baked goods.  So too, the best teaching in school cannot eradicate contrary examples given at home—nor, for that matter, should this be required.  For the student to see his parents’ leisure hours consumed whole by television or distractions encourages inheritance of the same infertile habit.  Every human being signifies to every other not only through words and actions, but by the virtues and vices cultivated in one’s person.  We not only think through signs; we are ourselves symbols, signifiers of the truths and goods in which we believe, shown through our actions.

Thus, we must reorient our perspective on education: the foundation—the first symbol by which its merit is conveyed to the child and spread throughout the culture—cannot be found in the institution but rather only within the household and particularly in parents aflame with their own love for wisdom and learning.  This love becomes a first spark in the lives of children—to be focused and brightened by the lenses of educational institutions.  But they can neither start nor maintain that fire.

Communal Lights

This love of learning and discovery passed from parent to child need not be of abstruse topics—neither metaphysics nor science, theological controversy nor philosophical dialectic—but can be rooted in the very life of the home: in the tradition of family, in the cultivation of land, in the play of language through story and invention.  Principally, this love must kindle the natural desire to know, that sits at the heart of every human being.  That parents may seek development of their own higher education, of course, serves all the better, for this demonstrates that learning not only satisfies curiosity or amusement, but that it requires discipline, and that this discipline earns the soul richer rewards. 

By showing this intellectual discipline to children—and, indeed, one’s whole community—the parent (or even the unmarried and childless adult) exposes the lie that education after childhood constitutes a mere hobby or pastime.  At the Lyceum Institute we aim to provide a digital community which supports this continued pursuit of learning—as, indeed, education always is enriched by being shared with others.  In fact, no education occurs alone; it is handed down by ourselves and by others and flourishes thereby, through books and records of findings and thought.  But a living engagement takes it further: brings it into the life possible only through conversation, through disputation, through real questioning. Community, structured by an institution, helps shape the lens through which the lights of learning shine brighter.

We would love for you to join us.

On the “Culture War” and Formal Causality

The term kulturkampf, literally “culture struggle”, has long-since been translated into English as “culture war”.  I have no desire to participate in a “culture war”.  Indeed, as I will argue here, the very notion of the “culture war” is not only misguided but harmful.  But as someone living within a culture, however, I do believe it is inevitable that I and everyone else—willingly or not, consciously or not—everyone does participate in the struggle over culture.

Semantics of War and Struggle

Why this “quibbling over semantics”?  Before I get to the semantics themselves, I have to say that I have never accepted as legitimate the objection that one is quibbling over semantics.  Words are important.  They signify concepts, and concepts are that on the basis of which all human history (all that is truly human, that is) has unfolded.  If you do not believe words are important, there seems to be no reason for you to read this—or anything.  In fact, the objection of “quibbling over semantics” presumes a nominalist or at least idealist divorce between cognitive activity and things independent of cognitive activity; but pursuing that question would take us far off track.

Returning therefore to the semantics of “struggle” and “war”: I protest the latter term because it suggests an entirely inapt metaphor.  War, to be waged justly, must have a reasonable expectation of victory.  One adopts violent means out of necessity: the need, namely, to produce or restore an orderly way of life that allows human beings to pursue their natural and fitting goods.  War should be irregular.  And before anyone thinks about bringing it up, let me say that there is an entirely different way in which the concept of “spiritual warfare” or “spiritual combat” must be understood, which would take us into a discussion well outside the boundaries of what I am here to discuss today; but which, succinctly, may be presented by saying that there are conditions for decisive victory in matters of the spiritual soul of the human being.  Not so in matters of culture, which is, by nature, an intrinsically temporally-unfolding suprasubjective reality constituted through a pattern of relations which attains a new foundation in every human being who is born and reared within a society of other human beings.  Or to put this in other, simpler words, culture is an ever-present and ­ever-developing reality which can only exist through the exchanges human beings have with and towards one another.  It is never final, because we human beings, as existing on earth, are not final; we, by nature, are creatures that change both over the course of our individual lives and over the course of generations.  So long as humans have freedom of thought and will, culture may change.

What’s Wrong with the World?

Allow me an anecdote.  When I taught ethics at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, a secular school in Boston, Massachusetts, I started each semester by giving the students a notecard on which to write their names, email addresses, a hobby or interest, and—in a single sentence or less—something they believe to be wrong with the world today, with the promise that I’d give my own answer later in the semester.  Their answers ranged from the very thoughtful to the kind one might expect in a caricature of a beauty pageant.  Most were focused on what could be called systematic societal issues: poverty, inequality, abuse of power, ideologies, a lack of charity or honesty among people as a whole, and so on and so forth.  Throughout the semester, we read a variety of thinkers influential in ethics: David Hume, J.L. Mackie, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, Philippa Foot, Marilyn Frye, and so on.  Each, in some way, provides a “system” for ethics either as a whole or with regard to some specific problems: rules or sets of principles which, if followed, are promised to improve society.  They might be rather loose rules or principles, or rather strict ones—but all had in mind the same goal, despite the significant differences in their means.  Mind you, I was required to provide a survey course covering a broad range of thinkers and theories—ideally, I would have focused the course more intently on better thinkers, but the conditions of my employment were non-negotiable.  Regardless, being required to teach a wide range of theories and thinkers, I spent most of the semester showing how these proposed systems have intrinsic and unavoidable flaws, no matter how strictly observed; how they fail in other words, how they do not provide us a secure and ethical society, and how they may be overcome or abused.  Towards the end of the semester, we would read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—after the first book of which, I would read their answers as to what’s wrong with the world back to them.  They would remember my promise, and that it was my turn. 

“What’s wrong with the world?” I asked myself, out loud, before them.  “Me,” I would answer; “I am.”

You might recognize this answer from a legend about Chesterton—I freely admit that I lifted it.  But it is, I believe, a good teaching tool: yes, there are many systematic problems with our country, our world, our politics, and our culture.  I cannot control any of those problems.  I can try to change them, but I cannot control them; for all are dependent upon millions of wills not my own.  I am, by nature, in control only of myself and even that only to a limited degree (i.e., I cannot will myself to be something I naturally am not—as I cannot will myself to be a top-tier athlete—maybe a decent one, but genetically that has always been out of my grasp—nor can someone born a man will himself to become a female, and so on).  The circumstances into which we all are born are beyond our control.  What is in our control is our capacity for virtue, the decisions and choices that we as individuals make.  Naturally, this extends into those with whom we have close relations: our individuality is only relative, and we are ourselves constituted largely through the relations we have with others.  But the faculty of the will extends efficaciously only to the self.  We may influence others through a kind of formal causality—objective or specifying causality, to be precise, which is just what I was attempting to do with those students, showing them the truth through a careful, painful, difficult process, one class session, one reading, one assignment, one Socratic hour at a time—but we cannot control their wills.  We can only attempt to specify objects for their thinking, propose to them what we believe is true, and strive to show them—most especially through how we live ourselves—the truth of the good, and thus that it is desirable.

Struggle and Habit

It in this inability to control others and the difficulty of showing the truth in which the struggle over culture consists.  It is perennial; it occurs again and anew with each individual human being who grows up in this or any other society.  Believing that ever there could occur a society where the demonstration of what is true is not difficult, where the struggle for it does not recur on a daily basis, is a fantasy which obscures the truth of the matter.  There are no shortcuts: the effect of specifying formal causality does not and cannot occur on a cultural scale through the impositions of force.  It is a gradual process of developing habits and requires careful and constant attention.  I had relatively decent success, teaching my ethics course, in persuading students to think that Aristotle was a very good starting point, to recognize that claim as true, in other words: but only because they were small classes of no more than 22 students.  (I doubt the effects were lasting, unfortunately—a single isolated course with students exposed to little else of similar thinking.  But I may hope that their thinking has remained on the track set down by the course, given the intensity of our discussions.)  That is not to say a larger class could not have been likewise incipiently persuaded; but affecting such a first step towards persuasion among most of a large crowd would likely have been only superficial, a fleeting adherence born not of intellectual conviction but birthed merely through winning the moment—through presenting them a fictionalized, fantastic version of Aristotle: the bold, counter-cultural Stagirite who stands athwart modernity, etc., etc.

In the age of mass media, and especially the internet, where any message has the potential to reach masses of people, such reductive approaches possess a seductive allure—especially if we conceive of the cultural struggle as being a war.  We see this video, or that trend, or this or that celebrity spreading a false message; we see their YouTube hit counters ticking over into hundreds of thousands, millions, hundreds of millions of views; this odious Tweet (Twixt?) garnering countless likes and retweets, that Facebook post being shared over and over again; misinformation being spread far and wide; and we feel that we must combat these numbers with our own.  Alarms blare in our mind and we hear the shouts of: “They are beating us!  They are winning!  We are losing!”  They are gashing us; so we must, we think, respond in kind.  We fashion exaggerated narratives, pseudo-historical accounts—we put on airs of gnosticism, of being the elect, being “those who know”. 

Pyrrhic Wars of Formal Causality

But the battlefield of those who wage war on the truth is fantasy.  To engage them in combat is to step on to that battlefield; to have to use their weapons, weapons which rely upon a kind of seduction into a way of living rather than understanding the truth about the good—weapons which aim at the lower rather than higher faculties of the human being.  This would be to abuse the influence of objective causality. 

I do not mean to suggest that fiction and fantasy cannot be put to good use.  They can be powerful means for telling stories which elucidate truths better than can be done by any philosophy.  But with the degradation of good philosophical thinking the fantastic loses its proper context of significance.  For a right formation of the moral imagination there must also be the claritas of good intellectual judgment: not only that there may be produced good works of creative fiction but that their interpretation might be guided correctly.  To gain these two goods of intellectual correctness and imaginative rectitude proves not a matter of battle, but of struggle.  It is lived by each of us individually and realized culturally in our being with one another.  Approached as a war, you may “win” a battle here or there—changing a school curriculum, passing a law, discrediting a movie or television show or speaker—but fought as battles, they are inevitable pyrrhic, costing us more than they gain.

An older version of this is available in audio form here:

Love and Kindness

Among the diverse ways in which people today live unreflectively, prominent is the attachment to kindness. Frequent are the admonitions to be kind—and, indeed, often it is used as a defense for one’s moral righteousness when caught out in immoral actions: “I’m not a bad person, I am kind…” (as though being kind covered up all other blemishes of character!). Thus, as one of our members asks:

What is kindness? What is the relation between kindness and the Good? It seems today that a lot of people speak of kindness as a replacement for being good. Kindness seems to be a way of affirming someone in what choices they make (regardless of the choice). I would interested to hear what people think about this.

Good questions! We will therefore be discussing the nature of kindness this evening during our Philosophical Happy Hour (request an invite below).

In correspondence with this, and in preparation for this conversation, I would suggest reading some selections from St. Thomas’ treatise on charity, including that on the principal act and that on fraternal correction. One particular passage I think most relevant:

q.27, a.2, “whether to love, considered as an act of charity is the same as goodwill?”
Goodwill properly speaking is that act of the will whereby we wish we well to another. Now this act of the will differs from actual love, considered not only as being in the sensitive appetite but also as being in the intellective appetite or will. For the love which is in the sensitive appetite is a passion. Now every passion seeks it object with a certain eagerness. And the passion of love is not aroused suddenly, but is born of an earnest consideration of the object love; wherefore the Philosopher, showing the difference between goodwill and the love which is a passion, says (Ethic. ix.5) that goodwill does not imply impetuosity or desire, that is to say, has not an eager inclination, because it is by the sole judgment of his reason that one man wishes another well. Again such like love arises from previous acquaintance, whereas goodwill sometimes arises suddenly, as happens to us if we look on at a boxing-match, and we wish one of the boxers to win. But the love, which is in the intellective appetite, also differs from goodwill, because it denotes a certain union of affections between the lover and the beloved, inasmuch as the lover deems the beloved as somewhat united to him, or belonging to him, and so tends towards him. On the other hand, goodwill is a simple act of the will, whereby we wish a person well, even without presupposing the aforesaid union of the affections with him. Accordingly, to love, considered as an act of charity, includes goodwill, but such dilection or love adds union of affections, wherefore the Philosopher says (Ethic. ix.5) that goodwill is a beginning of friendship.

Philosophical Happy Hour

« »

Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

Trauma, Sorrow, and Beauty: Maritain and Rouault on Art

On 13 April 2023 at 7pm ET, Dr. Thomas Hibbs (see event times around the world) will present the Annual John Deely / Jacques Maritain Lecture for the Deely Project at Saint Vincent College, in Latrobe, PA: “Trauma, Sorrow, and Beauty: Maritain and Rouault on Art” (Zoom link).

In his work on the crisis of the visible in contemporary culture, the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion argues that images typically operate as idols rather than icons. The images we encounter are “proportionate to the expectation of desire.” Such a culture excludes images that would engage us so as to transform our desires and lead us out of ourselves to transcendence. We need more than simply a reorientation of our vision. The new pedagogy of images cannot be straightforward or initially affirmative, since it must make us aware of our disorders, sorrows, and traumas. It will offer hope not through facile transcendence but through otherwise hidden paths at the margins of mainstream civilization. In the philosophy of art of Jacques Maritain and the art of his friend Georges Rouault, images take on the evils and afflictions of this world, its manifold traumas and sorrows, and trace a path toward beauty, gratitude, and joy.

Abstract of the Presentation

Thomas Hibbs is currently the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, where he is also Dean Emeritus. Hibbs has published more than 30 scholarly articles and seven scholarly books, including three on the thought of Thomas Aquinas. He has also published two books on film and co-authored a book, Soliloquies, with the Japanese-American artist, Makoto Fujimura. A new book, Theology of Creation, is set to be published in August of 2023 by Notre Dame Press. He also has a book on Justice as Solidarity under contract with Word on Fire publications. Hibbs has published widely in the popular press, with more than 100 reviews and discussion articles on film, theater, art, and higher education in a variety of publications including First Things, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Atlantis, The Wall Street Journal, and National Review. He writes regularly for The Dallas Morning News.

About the John Deely / Jacques Maritain Lecture

The Annual John Deely / Jacques Maritain Lecture strives to make better known the work of these two great thinkers in the Poinsot-inspired tradition of Thomistic philosophy. Jacques Maritain wrote many insightful works on art. Indeed, I am reminded (as Dr. Minerd quoted from it recently) of this fascinating passage from “Sign and Symbol”:

in a work of art are found the speculative sign (the work makes manifest something other than it is) and the practical sign (it communicates a stimulation, an appeal); not that the work of art is formally a practical sign; it is rather a speculative sign which by superabundance is virtually practical… In the work of art… we meet with what can be called the direct sign (indicating an object) and the reverse sign (making manifest the subject).

Maritain 1937: “Sign and Symbol” in Ransoming the Time, 253.

Two things catch my attention here. First, the superabundance of the work of art that makes it virtually practical. Second, the notion of the reverse sign, which manifests the subject. I believe one sees this latter clearly in the work of Rouault. Trauma and sorrow appear in his faces. He shows beauty in a certain simplicity. This should be a fascinating lecture and Q&A!

For all those unable to attend in person, the session can be watched live on Zoom: “Trauma, Sorrow, and Beauty: Maritain and Rouault on Art”.

What Is Wrong with the World?

“What’s wrong with the world?”  Countless thinkers have asked this question, especially over the past century-plus, and they have asked it over and over again; to the point that few in recent years seem to ask it any longer, even for the purpose of adopting the thinnest veneer of rhetorical posturing.  No. Today, almost everyone seems pretty well-decided about what is wrong in the world. As such, their questions aim at means to rectifying those wrongs rather than at understanding what they are.

Taking such an aim ignores, however, that most hold only opinions about what is wrong, for very few hold any knowledge about what is right.  Not knowing what is right—and by knowing is meant not merely “feeling” something to be right or wrong, but being able to articulate what causes the act or practice to be good or bad—we can only react to certain things as wrong.  The reaction might be correct (that is, appropriate) or incorrect (inappropriate).  Someone might react, for instance, with disgust at exposing children to sexually-suggestive performances.  Someone else might laud this exposure.  The former is correct; the latter, not.  But if the former reaction cannot be explained, cannot be grounded in a causal explanation, it will have difficulty justifying itself in a world where the sense of the natural has been evaporated in a cultural confusion, in a culture which has grown increasingly separated from the ordination of nature itself.

Aristotelian Revival

To ask, then, “what is wrong with the world?” one will receive a myriad of answers based on feelings—some of which answers may be correct, others which may be incorrect; but the grounds for both will appear almost equally instable in efforts at communication.  The only means of resolution, then—when confronted with the inevitable conflict between opposed reactions—becomes violent conflict.  But such a resolution is, at best, temporary.  New differences of reaction will arise, even under (perhaps especially under) the most totalitarian and authoritarian of regimes.

What then, are we to do?  Where does the answer lie for our cultural conflicts?  It lies, as suggested, in an understanding of the good (i.e., that in accordance with which a course of action is right).  We can do no better than to begin by returning to Aristotle. We must rediscover his wisdom, and strive as best we can to understand the truths he reveals as they illuminate our struggles today. Chiefly, Aristotle teaches us the necessity of virtue. This rediscovery of virtue should not, as some would understand it, require a “strategic retreat” from the world. Rather, the rediscovery teaches us how to live in a world that might hate us for our virtues—and love us in spite of that hatred.

Virtue of Community

Last year, I read (among many of his works), Byung-Chul Han’s Disappearance of Rituals. At the very outset of the text, Han writes:

Rituals are symbolic acts.  They represent, and pass on, the values and orders on which a community is based.  They bring forth a community without communication; today, however, communication without community prevails.

2020: Disappearance of Rituals, 1.

Doubtless, we can observe the absence of ritual readily in the prevalence of communication without community. Such communication, arguably, fails even to be communication in truth. Indeed, Han here evokes the specter of paradox. There cannot be community without communication. A community coalesces around something common, which does not come into being without communication.  But the exaggerated point remains valid: that distinct, particular acts of communication are not needed when there exist rituals which contain that commonality and communicate it to the community. Explicit linguistic communication finds itself required less when ritual has already established commonality.

Ritual requires definition, of course—and defense of such a definition exceeds the intent of this post. But succinctly, we might say that every ritual comprises an external habit. There may be private or internal elements as well, of course; but rituals are performed. As such, they concern a holding of oneself with respect to the world.

I believe it would do much good if we could see that good rituals result from virtue. Perhaps we can identify—causally—that the absence of true community constitutes something wrong with the world today. Perhaps, recovering virtue, we can recover true community.

Virtue: Ethics

What does it mean to be good as a human being? Modernity, all too often, has treated this as a problem to be solved. That is, we tend to view moral failings as simply in need of the right solution, the right education, the right program. Morality, however, is something that belongs to the individual. It is a matter of internal habit, not a matter of an external system.

The Challenge of Chivalry

Written by an anonymous author in the late 14th century, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight continues to entice the human spirit: drawing us toward something grand, mysterious, and—perhaps most of all—towards the betterment of our own virtue. The titular hero, captured in poetic verse, exemplifies chivalry. Sir Gawain demonstrates courage, piety, courtesy, honesty, honor, and chastity. He also shows us the struggle to maintain these virtues against real and sometimes contrary temptations.

In 2021, David Lowery’s cinematic adaptation, The Green Knight—which he wrote, directed, edited, and produced—was released to critical acclaim. Notably, the film differs from the poem almost as black from white. It presents context, characters, settings, and even many of the actions in an almost inverted light from those of the anonymous author. To some, this may seem a merely “postmodern” contrarianism. But, regardless of its differences, the film, too, captivates us and for reasons not dissimilar—even if by opposed means.

For both, it seems, present a version of chivalry’s challenge: one, situated in a chivalric context; another, placed amidst decline. The former gives us an image we may hold up as an ideal. Does the latter hold up a mirror to ourselves? What does an un-chivalric age do to a would-be chivalrous man?

On 5 January 2023 [edit: delayed from December because of travel woes], the Lyceum Institute will hold a Symposium on The Challenge of Chivalry: Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. We will feature the poem in our discussion, but draw out certain themes through comparison and contrast with the film, as well. What does it mean to be chivalrous? How does this concept of virtue fit into our present times? This Symposium is free to all enrolled members. Both reading the poem and watching the film (or at least reading a synopsis) are recommended. Note that the film is not suitable for children.

⚘ Semiotic encounters with John Deely | Winfried Nöth

On 17 December 2022 at 12:00pm/Noon ET (see event times around the world here and join the live Q&A here), Winfried Nöth will present on “Semiotic Encounters with John Deely.” Nöth was Professor of Linguistics and Semiotics and Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Cultural Studies of the University of Kassel until 2009, Visiting Professor at the University of Wisconsin (1985-86) and Humboldt University Berlin (2014-15), has been Professor of Cognitive Semiotics at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo since 2010. He is an Honorary Member of the International Association for Visual Semiotics and the Institute for Edusemiotic Studies. His research is on topics of general and applied semiotics, cognitive semiotics, and Charles S. Peirce. Among his book publications are Handbook of Semiotics (1990, in German 2000), Mediale Selbstreferenz (2008) and Semiotic Theory of Learning (2018, with A. Stables, et al.). Nöth has edited Origins of Semiosis (1994), Semiotics of the Media (1997), and Crisis of Representation (2003), amongst others. Together with Lucia Santaella, he is the author of Imagem: Comunicação, semiótica e mídia (4th ed. 2005), Comunicação e semiótica (2004), Estratégias semióticas da publicidade (2010), and Introdução à semiótica (2017).

Commentary will be provided by Myrdene Anderson.

Join the Live Q&A here.

2022 International Open Seminar on Semiotics (IO2S) | Website

This collaborative international open scientific initiative and celebration is jointly organized by the Institute for Philosophical Studies of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Coimbra, the Lyceum Institute, the Deely Project, Saint Vincent College, the Iranian Society for Phenomenology at the Iranian Political Science Association, the International Association for Semiotics of Space and Time, the Institute for Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Semiotic Society of America, the American Maritain Association, the International Association for Semiotic Studies, the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies and the Mansarda Acesa with the support of the FCT – Foundation for Science and Technology, I.P., of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education of the Government of Portugal under the UID/FIL/00010/2020 project.

Re-Thinking Education

I have, relative to my own age and experience, long been a critic of academia. Just the other week, a friend reminded me of a late-night frustrated rant delivered in graduate school about the seeming hopeless prospects laid before us. Not only our chances to find meaningful employment, I claimed, but the whole structure is crumbling. The problems are entrenched in its very structure: it has become irredeemably ordered toward expedience, technical training, empty credentialing, pseudo-professionalism, consumerism, and disdainful of the methods through which true intellectual habits are formed, for these all are inconvenient to its model.

But worst of all, the gears of academia’s modern mechanism grind down those who most love its true (if largely abandoned) purpose: the pursuit and teaching of the truth. Many good professors stay in their positions despite academia: they love teaching and seeing their students get it; discovering truths new to themselves; being in a community of the like-minded. But to see these goods realized often requires a Herculean effort. Burdened with apathetic students and bureaucratic headaches, they are left with too little time. Job security eludes many, and most attain it only by sacrificing even more time to tasks even more tedious.

What are we to do? Give up and allow ourselves finally to become naught but ground-down dust—or abandon the academic intent altogether? Or… might we do something else? I believe in the third alternative. Allow me to explain; and allow me to be so audacious as to use poetry in offering an explanation of re-thinking education.

The Purpose of Education

Controversy over the topic of academic freedom seems to arise every so often. In recent years, the controversy has mostly concerned the policing of language and adherence to ideologies concerning individual identities. Popular figures—mostly those who have suffered somehow at the hands of relevant censorship—have made names for themselves by railing against this restriction of intellectual freedom. But the proponents of academic freedom often champion it as a kind of absolute principle. Behind their advocation stands a belief that, on a level playing field, truth will win out over falsity, and, therefore, academia should be a place where any idea can be stated.

But the “level playing field” does not ever exist.  Culture shapes students long before they enter the university and tends to maintain a hold on their thought throughout as well.  Moreover, even in the university, we live not by intellect alone.  A professor may have weak arguments, but a cool, commanding air about him; and he may be handsome.  The other, meanwhile, might have the best reasoning, but be physically ailing, old, unrelatable.  To which will the typical eighteen-year-old be more drawn?

Many academics accepted (contrary to the spirit of intellectual inquiry) that the academy was a place in which they could freely pursue whatever theory they wished.  To be sure, intellectual inquiry demands a looseness with respect to restraint.  But it does not merit total absence of any restraint.  It requires an antecedent purposiveness: that of being-towards-truth.  Put otherwise, freedom without purpose is not really freedom; and academic freedom not ordered towards the pursuit of truth (and the willingness to admit fault or uncertainty) is not a freedom anyone should possess.

In the absence of this unifying pursuit (behind which absence there lies another story too long to tell here), the “university” (to which name it no longer merits a claim) turns to purposes inhuman and inhumane: primarily, the diversion of its resources into the training of functionaries.  This perversion of aim runs deep.  It infects university presidents and deans, board members and trustees, hiring and curriculum committees, and branches out systemically through every vein of the increasingly-bureaucratic institution.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W.B. Yeats 1919: ”The Second Coming”

W.B. Yeats’ poem—perhaps his most famous—“The Second Coming” expresses this reality, most especially in its first stanza.  The university has lost its center and all culture falls apart.  If governments and corporations seem increasingly totalitarian, this comes as a response (a poor one) to an anarchy in the human soul: a loss of principle and a corresponding loss of order.  The world seems bleak… and we lack the education to make it right again.  Many, I think, anticipate the “rough beast”—war, plague, famine, destruction of all civil order; a purging fire—with trepidation, anxiety, but also a sense of relief.  Let it all be over.

Slow Build of a New Approach

Like many, I do not find myself often brimming with optimism about the world.  Things do, indeed, appear bleak.  But it is historically myopic to believe this bleakness an abnormality.  If we find the world seeming dark today, perhaps this is because we have never been able to see so much of it in so short a time.  All the worst news rains down upon us in a constant barrage.  Tragedy, strife, and suffering can be delivered instantaneously around the globe.

Good things, on the other hand—truly good things—take time for their fruits to ripen.  As such, we can seldom see them at an instant.  We must observe them closely and across months, years; perhaps even decades or centuries.  The immediacy of the bad and the long, slow unfolding of the good, no doubt, frustrates our contemporary minds.  Habits of immediate gratification have seized us all.  We lack the patience to wait and watch, to see the good through from seed to fruit.  But our impatience is unbecoming.  The realization of the good is and ought to be slow.

Why “ought”?  Perhaps that assertion evokes a knee-jerk reaction, an objection.  But from where?  What within us objects to the notion that the good ought to be slow?  Most likely, it arises from that aforementioned habit of immediate gratification.  Yet do we truly see the good of things gained immediately?  Or do we not, and rightly so, appreciate more the things hard-won?  Deep and abstruse philosophical questions emerge here: questions concerning act and potency, virtue and human habits.  We’ll not tackle them at the moment (for, indeed, they cannot be tackled at a moment—for understanding them is a true good).  Succinctly stated, however, the world which we inhabit requires toil by its nature.  It is fitting that we toil to bring forth the good.  We may not like this truth; but we will be much more at peace with the world if we recognize and accept it.

Doubtless, we find ourselves frustrated with the state today of academia.  We want a quick solution—just as we might wish to become healthy or virtuous or more learned ourselves tomorrow.  Perhaps it seems the most expedient path to recovery lies with the already-extant institutions.  Universities have buildings, of course, and funding, and faculty; accreditation and curricula, degrees and name-recognition.  But they no longer have credibility because they no longer have purpose.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas 1947: “Do not go gentle into that good night”

And purpose, of course, is also a true good.  We cannot “hand it back” to the university, held as it is by the perverse order entrenched in every level of its existence.  Purpose in education must be grown again, slowly, painstakingly, day by day, month by month, year by year.

Put otherwise, the answer is not, as Dylan Thomas would have it, to “rage against the dying of the light”; but neither is it to “go gentle into that good night”.  The sun is setting on the university, and it may be a long darkness to follow. But there will be a dawn, and we, in the meantime, may hold a candle.  One flame may beget another, and that second beget a third, and so on—but we should not try burning down the house just to make a briefer, brighter light.  An educational institution cannot be created in a single day. We have our purpose. But we will build that fire slowly.

Help Keep the Flame

Alright—just as I am not often brimming with optimism, neither am I often this melodramatic.  The flame is a metaphor, of course, for what I hope the Lyceum Institute is, and will be.  And, of course, I hope that you will help keep it going: either by donating or, even better, by supporting us through enrollment (or purchasing our “manifesto”). Re-thinking education requires a slow building of habit. We are planting the seeds. We hope you will help us bear the fruits: this year and next, this decade and the following, throughout this century and beyond.

⚘ Poinsot: The Essence of the Sign | Brian Kemple

On 26 November 2022 at 11am ET (see event times around the world here and join the live Q&A here), Dr. Brian Kemple will present on “Poinsot: The Essence of the Sign”. Dr. Kemple holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of St. Thomas, in Houston TX, where he wrote his dissertation under the inimitable John Deely. He is the Founder and Executive Director of the Lyceum Institute.

Philosophical interests and areas of study include: Thomas Aquinas, John Poinsot, Charles Peirce, Martin Heidegger, the history and importance of semiotics, scholasticism, phenomenology; as well as ancillary interests in the liberal arts, technology, and education as a moral habit. He has published two scholarly books—Ens Primum Cognitum in Thomas Aquinas and the Tradition (Brill: 2017) and The Intersections of Semiotics and Phenomenology: Peirce and Heidegger in Dialogue (De Gruyter: 2019), as well as a number of scholarly articles, popular articles, and his own Introduction to Philosophical Principles: Logic, Physics, and the Human Person (2019; 2nd edition 2022) and the forthcoming Linguistic Signification: A Classical Course in Grammar and Composition (2021).

In addition to being the Executive Director of the Lyceum Institute, he is the Executive Editor of Reality: a Journal for Philosophical Discourse.

2022 International Open Seminar on Semiotics (IO2S) | Website

This collaborative international open scientific initiative and celebration is jointly organized by the Institute for Philosophical Studies of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Coimbra, the Lyceum Institute, the Deely Project, Saint Vincent College, the Iranian Society for Phenomenology at the Iranian Political Science Association, the International Association for Semiotics of Space and Time, the Institute for Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Semiotic Society of America, the American Maritain Association, the International Association for Semiotic Studies, the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies and the Mansarda Acesa with the support of the FCT – Foundation for Science and Technology, I.P., of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education of the Government of Portugal under the UID/FIL/00010/2020 project.

Wisdom & Culture

Too few are the hours dedicated in our day to the pursuit of contemplation: not only the fruits of genuine meditative insight, but also the practice whereby it becomes possible. Yet the philosophical desire sits in all our hearts, realized or not. Join us in either or both of these wonderful seminars to weave philosophical reflection—not mere abstract metaphysics—into the practice of your daily life.

Seven Interfaces of Philosophy – What is knowledge?

Introduction to the Philosophy of Culture – How do we think about culture?