My Life In The Liberal Arts: Part IV

In the end of my junior year of high school, I was in a completely lethargic state of mind. It did not occur to me to question or criticize anything that anyone said. I did not search for my own opinions; I went with others’ as long as they convinced me. The others did all the thinking for me, but I was persuaded I was thinking independently and critically.
At the same time, I got to seriously understand the main political and economic issues of the last century, from the mouth of my family members. As everyone, they had opinions, which were just like everyone else’s: questionable, if not refutable. Nevertheless, I passively absorbed their discourses, without even thinking of actively examining them, their premisses and their conclusions… In short, I had become an intellectual robot.
What was truly happening was that I had made it an habit ever since childhood to lean on my parents’ knowledge of (and outlook on) the world to shape my intellect. I remember thinking that they knew an astronomical amount of things about the world and that I could ask them the most remote question I could ever think of, they would still be able to answer. Yet I was still a child. On the other hand, I remember having been frustrated several times by their lack of knowledge on topics in which I had an intense interest. The issue seemed not to be their lack of knowledge or their bias, but the discrepancy between my curiosity and theirs. They seemed not to be so driven by questions they could still have had in mind, to which they could yet refrain from seeking an answer.
At the end, however, of my high school junior year, I had somehow grown into my parents’ habit of silencing questions I had in mind, concentrating on political issues. I learned a great deal from my parents and grandparents, but it is now clear to me that I did not distinguish belief from knowledge. I trusted all they said, with the illusion that it was all well-founded knowledge; I could not give arguments to question their opinions.
The fundamental error I had made was that I thought I had acquired the arguing skills I needed for my whole lifetime and that I could therefore argue whenever a dispute could arise. It had not occurred to me that my arguing had no value if I could not question the foundations of others’ assumptions.
Upon my first encounter with philosophy in my senior year, my teacher purported to teach us to make the distinction between belief and knowledge in the way Socrates tried to teach as many Athenians as he could. What was specific to Socratic method was the way he always seemed to reveal the foundations of his interlocutors’ beliefs, for his interest was definition. My philosophy teacher paid much attention to definition, so as to surprise me from time to time, articulating in words what I knew was in my mind, but which I could not express. As she and the other students argued, it was clear to me that she always found a way to reveal a flaw in the foundations of their arguments. She thus revealed to me a new dimension of logic: for the first time I had truly understood that logic could be outside of mathematics.

– Noe Amellal

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