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Children and Fools

for myself
in memory of July 15, 2006

When I was teaching philosophy, I would always have my students read Karl Jasper's "What is Philosophy?" from his Way to Wisdom, a collection of the twelve public lectures he gave on radio in 1950. I found the lecture straightforward, easy to read and yet comprehensive enough for an introductory taste of what philosophy is for students who are basically taking a philosophy course for the first time.

As was my sin during the first years of teaching, I would struggle with the whole text with my students, trying to leave no room for something undigested or an insight left unread. Though it was time-consuming, I basically covered and discussed every part of the short lecture. But there was one part I would always leave hanging because I couldn't understand it enough to try to explain it; so I just breeze through or touch on it. It was the part where Jaspers discusses the sources of philosophy--where they can be implicitly found in our everyday experiences--showing that we already have an idea of what philosophy is because we already do it even without knowing.

After discussing how spontaneous philosophy can be found in children, with the bizarre questions they ask and their inexhaustible curiosity, Jaspers, who was also a psychologist aside from being a philosopher, goes on to locate such spontaneous philosophy in those who were insane. I quote below the whole paragraph:

Spontaneous philosophy is found not only in children but also in the insane. Sometimes--rarely--the veils of occlusion seem to part and penetrating truths are manifested. The beginning of certain mental disorders if often distinguished by shattering metaphysical revelations, though they are usually formulated in terms that cannot achieve significance: exceptions are such cases as Holderlin and Van Gogh. But anyone witnessing these revelations cannot help feeling that the mists in which we ordinarily live our lives have been torn asunder. And many sane people have, in awakening from sleep, experienced strangely revealing insights which vanish with full wakefulness, leaving behind them only the impression that they can never be recaptured. There is profound meaning in the saying that children and fools tell the truth. But the creative originality to which we owe great philosophical ideas is not to be sought here but among those great minds--and in all history there have been only a few of them--who preserve their candour and independence.
This paragraph seemed opaque to me at that time. I just couldn't understand it enough to speak about it; for I only speak about certain points, say, of a text, if I could give examples of it in order to make it more understandable. Just repeating or paraphrasing the text would be useless. As a rule, I am only able to explain a thing if I myself have an experience of it, an inkling of it as seen in real life (and this is what an example really is).

So I just pick up the familiar saying that children and fools tell the truth and explain why: because they speak of what they see and they have no reason to lie. I throw in another cliche which says that there is a fine line dividing genius and madness and say that the philosopher stations himself on that line. Then I give Nietzsche as an example who was a genius but crossed the line towards insanity before he died. The main point I left with the students, partly to attract them into thinking that philosophy ain't that boring, was that the truth which the philosopher seeks is something larger than him; that, like the man who leaves Plato's cave for the first time, truth's sun can blind you. And this is the reason why Plato rhetorically asks Glaucon that if such a man were to go back to the cave after coming from the light, stumbling his way in the dark, "would he not look ridiculous?" (The Republic VII, 517). I tell them finally that this is the price that the seeker of truth would have to pay--that he may look like a madman.

Okay, so I admit I do a lot of explaining on that part unlike what I said before. But you see, that was all conceptual and a bait I use to entice the students, to attract them, to invite them; it was a pedagogical tool: to say that there is danger in what we are doing. I do not know if the "trick" works; but I do know at least that, based on their eyes wide open and wondering smiles, they are at least entertained.

But little did I know that I would be the one who would fall for the trick. Little did I know that I would go through the eye of danger and be thought of as "ridiculous." I would experience first hand what had puzzled me in Jasper's words. And it was not at all entertaining.

Just the same, let me tell you what I saw.

* * *

To be continued.

Insane-Clone by Jan Ekmann


  1. well, maochi, it worked. my students (your students) kept referring back to it until the final exams of the second semester even if i did not discuss and say anything about the cave. it did leave an imprint on them, maochi, and that's a laurel leaf on you as their teacher for only a short time--something teachers wish they can accomplish at least in the two sems thay have with their students. i thought you ought to know that although this is not probably the main point of your entry.

    see you when you get back.


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