Pre-Skeptic to Skeptic to Understanding (by: Dr. Owen Anderson) (reposting)

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

In my first blog post about the Academy I discussed the role of critical thinking in the pursuit of knowledge. This teaches the student to lead the examined life by being able to identify assumptions and ask critical questions about the meaning of beliefs. This helps teach how beliefs operate as a system and build from what is basic and first. I ended that first post by talking about the change from a pre-skeptic, to the skeptic, to the post-skeptic.  

Have you ever thought you knew something and then faced a challenge of some kind that made you realize you do not know what you thought you knew? This is the process of going from pre-skeptic to skeptic. It is a central part of learning and is especially observable in the later parts of high school and the first years of college. The pre-skeptic is the student who thinks they know. This is sometimes called blind belief or fideism. It is mere assertion. Learning will not take place until this confidence is brought into question. This is to examine oneself.  

For the student who does come to realize that their confidence was misplaced (and not all do this) the next stage is the skeptic. The first thing such a student realizes is that they do not know. This is the Socratic model. Socrates came to see that he does not know while others think they know and do not. This is Socratic wisdom. The process of asking questions, the dialectic, is what brought this out. It is drawn out of the student (educare).  

We don’t want to get stuck at the skeptic level. This is an intermediate level. It is where the Academy remained. The Old Academy made bald metaphysical assertions in the type of the Pre-Skeptic. The New Academy revived Socratic questioning to show that this was not knowledge but then remained at that stage and is given the name Academic Skeptic. How can we move our students to knowledge?  

I used the term “understanding” in the title on purpose to name the third stage. Knowledge can sometimes be confused with either knowing a fact or knowledge by acquaintance. The process of questioning, dialectic, draws out if this is understanding. If a student understands they can answer relevant questioning about the meaning of what they claim to know. It would be an odd claim to say “I understand it but I can’t show that I understand it.” That’s reverting to the pre-skeptic fideism and asking the other to accept that fideism. The teacher cannot accept this fideism in the student.  

The Academy did not emerge from this skepticism. It is still a term used, the Academic Skeptic, and the general caricature of the intellectual. This is someone who can tell you about many different views and belief systems but cannot tell you which one is actually true. At best the intellectual tells you which appears to be true, or seems to be true, or is possibly true. Next time, we need to show how we can get out of Academic Skepticism and grow to understanding. The teacher must do this before the teacher can help the student do this. 

Some people think that poets don’t do research, but that isn’t the case, at least if they are serious: you need to know what words mean and how they work in verse; and you need to know your subject. And if that subject is the life cycles of mushrooms and the orbits of comets, well, you need to study such things. You need to investigate mycelium and aphelion. 

Dr. Anderson is professor of philosophy and religious studies at Arizona State University’s New College. A research fellow of the James Madison Program at Princeton and a prolific author, Dr. Anderson also serves as a Fellow of the Institute of Classical Education. 


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