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Common Ground in the Academy (by Owen Anderson)

Note: The following entry is from Dr. Owen Anderson (Arizona State University), a Fellow of the Institute for Classical Education

In my lasts posts we talked about the move from pre-skeptic to skeptic to post-skeptic.  We underscored the purpose of the Academy as the pursuit of knowledge starting with basic things.  Now we need to consider common ground.  If we look at current human disagreements we might conclude that there is no common ground.  Humans are bitterly divided and at this time we may be on the cusp of it getting even worse.  So why trust there is common ground?  Is this just an instance of: hope springs eternal in the human breast man never is but always to be blest?  Is it a case of blind belief in common ground?

In our pursuit of knowledge, we are seeking true beliefs.  We form beliefs by reason when we say that something is or it is not the case.  Even before that we want to understand meaning.  What does a belief mean?  What does the world around us mean?  What does our life mean?  We use reason as a test for meaning as we consider various beliefs.

Common ground between humans begins with reason and the ability to understand.  We can all understand the same things and therefore we can all have this common ground.  When we talk and discuss together, we are trying to understand each other.  The alternative is to say that no understanding is possible and we only talk in order to have the power of persuasion over another.  The Greek Sophists took this latter position.  Socrates reminds us that we think and dialogue to attain knowledge.

Any attempt to find common ground without beginning with reason will fail.  The other options would be something like power or empathy.  These are non-cognitive categories meaning they are not about meaning, true, or false.  In order to understand power and how to use it, or empathy and when to apply it, we would first have to use reason to understand.

But we still need to address the challenge that this is just blind belief in reason.  After all, if humans are rational and they are still bitterly divided then reason must not be of much use.  We used a kind of reductio argument above by showing that there is no other place to begin in common ground.  We can also positively answer this objection by noting that the divisions continue as a result of the neglect of reason not its use.  The discussions that go on and result in continued divisions are not getting to what is basic in the disagreements. They are more often venting sessions.

In looking for how to begin working toward unity we must begin with common ground.  And common ground begins with reason.  This is the starting point in the Academy as we search for meaning and truth.

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