This essay has been rewritten from a presentation given at the Fall 2002 Conference of the South Atlantic Philosophy of Education Society, Oct. 4th& 5th at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, NC.

edited 11/12/14


Learning to Assess Evidential Burdens.

  By Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.
Widener University

" There is, indeed, the Unspeakable--about which we must keep silence." --- Wittgenstein [1]

"If you can't say something nice, don't say it at all"--- Thumper's mother [2]


Introduction: a teaching failure

For about six years (1995 - 2001) I gave students in my philosophy of education course at Widener University an assignment which they seemed to find interesting. But, the reports they turned in perplexed me. I assigned them to watch the TV medium, John Edward on the SciFi channel. They were to assume that he was not an out-and-out fraud; for example, that he was not consciously engaging in deceptive behavior, or that his audience was not composed of confederates. The students' task was to come up with explanations for what they observed, other than the one John Edward himself gave: he communicated with the dead.

Point of the Exercise

There are several points that I try to get across to my students. The first is that some explanations carry a greater burden of assumption and evidence than others. This assignment is intended to get them to recognize that considerations of likelihood and of proof that they use in their everyday " civilian" life are legitimate to invoke in their professional roles, despite their long exposure to pressures, social and academic, to refrain from questioning whatever any putative authority opines. In short, one doesn't need a certificate or a degree to legitimate using one's reasoning abilities.

Another point to this exercise is that we needn't reject the outcomes of an inquiry -- in this case, a seance, as it were, by John Edward -- even though the process of inquiry is not explained to our satisfaction.

No less an important outcome of this exercise is the recognition that honesty and truth are not necessarily connected. Honest people may promote falsehoods and dishonest ones, truths. Involved are two different dimensions of assessment, intention vs. facticity.

Educational Justification & Dismal Results

For persons who lack an appreciation of these points, I doubt that education in science or philosophy has much deep effect. One ought to prefer scientific explanations; not, because they are honored with the appellation, "scientific" but because they carry importantly less epistemological and ontological baggage than do other kinds of explanation. Science is less "far-fetched."

One does philosophy in education, not by labeling present practices as imprimatured by deceased personages, but by fomenting inquiry in the face of institutional complacency, particularly as that complacency rests on questionable scientific and moral foundations.

In the last two years I have given this assignment, the students concluded one of two things -- both contrary to my instructions: John Edward speaks with the dead; or, our assumption notwithstanding, John Edward is a deliberate fake.

(I attribute this lack of success by my students partially to my inability to get them to understand what I am about. Indeed, in the writing of this paper I have gained some clarity for myself of what I am trying to do and how I might go about it. But more on this later.)

There are entertainable conjectures -- however improbable we might consider them to be -- that would explain how John Edward acquires knowledge of his interviewees via face-to-face contact rather than to accept that he is communicating with spirits. For example, allowing that individuals may have telepathic powers strikes me as carrying less of an assumptive and evidential burden than a belief in spirits and communication with them.

(What intrigues me about John Edward -- in this day and age when celebrity entails an almost complete lack of privacy -- is that no one in his production cast has yet sold an expose accusing him of fraud. To my mind this gives him a certain "institutional plausibility," although I certainly expect that any day now I will see him mentioned on a supermarket tabloid in an unsurprising revelation.)

The Lack of Perceived Alternatives

I believe my students' inability to come up with alternative hypotheses is a manifestation of a proclivity in our culture -- the search for Finality -- that supports the expatiation of ephemeral -- and not infrequently academic -- ideologies of all kinds, from Radical Empiricism to Post-Modernism. The point of any monism is to shut up the opposition, to specify an area, as Wittgenstein put it, "wovon man nicht sprechen kann," -- that you can't talk about. This suppression of opposition is not done forthrightly, since it would -- in Academia, at least -- appear dictatorial and unreasonable. But, for one who commands the necessary rhetorical and acting skills, it needn't be too surreptitious: a look of astonishment, or of tried patience often suffices to support professorial authority where argument or evidence may not. I prefer the dogmatism of the True Believer; or, of Thumper's mother.

I have observed colleagues at University X -- let no one jump to conclusions as to which university that is -- who sport the moniker "Post-Modernist." They tend to use a different maneuver from the Monist: all voices are heard, all voices are equal, but some -- those that get listened to -- are more equal than others. But there is no one acknowledged to be able to call anyone to account, because that would require a " regime of truth," a " metanarrative" to enable the invidious comparison. Like good, old-fashioned Behaviorists, they ignore -- excuse me, "do not reinforce" -- undesired responses.

I haven't lost hope for my students; I expect to continue the struggle and learn how to teach them. At the end of my main exposition I will discuss briefly what I did with my present class just last week to prepare them for the John Edward exercise.

My students are, of course, not the only ones who seem unable to consider an array of alternatives organized by weight of burden of proof. The incapacity to consider plausible alternatives, or to question the epistemological burden born by claims advanced as concerns is -- according to the research of Kahnemann et al [3] ---- a common tendency, even shared by some members of our own profession. Any one of us can no doubt recall meetings in which every vaguely discerned dark spot on the distant horizon was seen as a portent of major catastrophe; or, every minor felicity, for those, tumescent with hyperbole, an occasion for celebration. It is, for example, a major conceit of educators that grade inflation has increased over the last thirty years. Maybe it has. But the strength of this belief goes far beyond what a sober consideration of its evidential requirements demands.

The Philosophical Bias

This leads to a concern which philosophers in education need to address. It is a bias that derives from the ancient roots of philosophy itself: the assumption that being articulate is a necessary condition to knowing. [4] Vulgarly, this is the idea, certainly supported in our educational institutions, that the faster talker is necessarily the better thinker. [5]  

Socrates presses his many interlocutors to stop "merely" giving him examples of a concept X and to say instead what X is in and of itself. When they can't he concludes they don't know what it is they are talking about. The model Socrates has in mind is what we would call a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions but with a peculiarly Platonic twist; the conditions must specify properties that in some sense " inhere in" that which they help define. (In fact, it is easy to show how Meno's explication of virtue in fact defines it.) [6]

Socrates strives to make the definiendum context-independent -- as a good "arche" should be: immutable and indifferent to human experience. Philosophy in some forms contains a bias against the practitioner, which Richard Robinson [7] attributes to the disdain of Periclean Athenians for activities performed by women and slaves, even when these activities were intellectually demanding.

Philosophy of education texts may not help

If we, too, identify as knowledge only that which as been articulated, [8] we subject ourselves to the temptation to suppose that if we impart something to our students that is articulated, they are thereby gaining knowledge -- even across different modalities. This is a source, particularly in education, for the confusion among knowing that X, knowing how to X and knowing to X.

I have stopped using in my courses two books which suffer from this problem. They are worth reading but not particularly suited to enhancing practitioner skills. I teach a course that I inherited some years back which deals with values and ethics in educational practice It came with a book -- let us call it Text A -- authored by a sociologist and a philosopher of education, which gives three "perspectives" on society. The authors suggest strongly -- with no evidence at all to support this majorly empirical claim -- that these perspectives filter down and influence administrator and teacher behavior at the school and classroom level. This approach is similar to imagining that "idealist" teachers would behave differently from "pragmatist" teachers, and so on. Perhaps they might; but, under what conditions? That is the hard question; and, the realistic one.

My students found the problem vignettes in text A lacking in realism and detail sufficient to enable them to do any more than speculate -- generally, unconvincingly -- as to what the teacher or principal would do, given that they "espoused" a particular social perspective.

I switched to another book, Text B. This book is authored by two philosophers of education. The reader is treated to an overview of different principles of ethical action, e.g. benefit maximization, categorical imperative, etc. My students, superintendents, principals and teachers all found them not to be helpful. After all, when does one use a principle? What counts as "using" it? What about priorities among principles? The book did not help with these questions. (One thinks of Aristotle trying to teach geometry to Alexander the Great to help him become a better statesman.) I have decided to go a different route this year attempting to get them to articulate the knowledge that they as experienced practitioners already have. (This provided another impetus for this essay.)

An Example of " Anti-practitioner" Bias

Plato is a long way back in history and it might be thought that today's philosophers not likely to disregard the practitioner, especially after the admonishments of Wittgenstein and company. But as an example of philosophy disregarding practice, let's look at a theory expounded in Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art. [9]   Revisiting this theory after thirty years brings me to wonder whether it was not, originally, intended as a parody. I remember, though, how it was at the time taken quite seriously by philosophers of repute. [10]

Goodman proposes that performances of a musical work that have mistakes not be allowed to count as performances of the work. Goodman's criterion for judging a particular performance to be of a work W is that the performance comply with the score of W. That is, an accurate transcription into musical notation of what is actually played must be identical with the original score of work W. Educators might recognize this as a variant of the "Behavioral-Objectives" approach.

This is an extreme demand for articulability. Goodman's criterion derives entirely and solely from the musically notatable characteristics of the performance, disregarding the fact that making music is a human activity and that a musical work is given identity by the tacit knowledge of the performers and audience as well as the context of its performance.

Suppose we recognize a piece being played as the Emperor Concerto. However, the performer makes a mistake, perhaps hitting a wrong key. We may not, according to Goodman, identify the piece as the Emperor Concerto since the derivate score of the performance is not identical with the original score of the Emperor Concerto.

What does such a theory mean, in practice, for the musician, or the audience member? Do we withdraw our claim to have recognized the piece being played? On what grounds? We know the Emperor Concerto. Is what we have just heard an "imposture" or "forgery" of it? Is it a different work? Can we get our money back on the tickets? If we follow Goodman, our memory serves us here to absolutely no avail. That we classify what we have just heard performed as either an imposture or a forgery or a different work -- or even a non-work -- disestablishes the epistemic relevance of our memory. [11] The upshot of this bizarre theory is that we can never in the course of a performance identify what is being performed. [12]

Many philosophers would dismiss Goodman's theory by invoking Wittgenstein's notion of "family resemblances." This only works as a rebuttal if one can go on to spell out on what basis a resemblance enables identification of membership in one family rather than another. What comes to our aid here is the knowledge of how musicianship develops. In that process one learns to recognize that mistakes as well as misplays and improvisations do not disestablish the identity of a piece so long as player intention is taken into consideration.

As educators we often use simple, clearly identifiable, relatively context-independent examples to teach with, especially to novices. We call them paradigms or models. But in a world of practitioners we learn to live most of the time with the complicated, the embellished, the damaged, or the otherwise somewhat deviant. Expertise consists in knowing, that is being able to recognize -- not necessarily verbally articulate -- the practically admissible varieties and range of deviance from the paradigms we were taught with as novices.

Socrates' pursuit of the nature of virtue "as a whole" [13] is, understood from one perspective, an undertaking for the dilettante. It does not serve the pursuit of expertise. But it does support the undertakings of the educator in making knowledge accessible to the novice.

There is a question of authority that needs to be addressed. Whom should we concede more authority to, an articulate knower, or an inarticulate knower? Given the choice I suspect we would prefer the articulate knower if only because we would hope that the dialog and reflection enabled by articulateness would reduce the possibility of fraud and self-delusion.

Another attempt at teaching

I tried an exercise with my philosophy of education students recently in preparation for the John Edward assignment. I gave them sets of statements and asked them to rank order them as to a) the likelihood of their being true and b) the evidence needed to establish each one, paying particular attention to how difficult obtaining such evidence would be. For example, after ascertaining that each class member has a living brother, I gave them the following statements:

a. My brother bought a new car last week.

b. My brother is now in New York.

c. My brother is now on the moon.

d. My brother is now on Mars.

Although there was some variation in the positions of a and b, they quickly ranked d, then c as most unlikely, and -- I think this is significant -- having the heaviest evidential requirements. (I did not pursue the difference between judging the probability of an event from judging its evidential requirements because that would have made the exercise too technical.) My intent was to invoke a capacity in them that was untutored, "natural" so to speak, that they could be told to rely on for the John Edward assignment. When I presented the assignment to them, they seemed to understand what they were to do and understood also how it was like the exercise they had just completed. The results -- not yet in when this paper was originally presented -- : general confusion between what they believed to be true and the evidential requirements of possible explanations: "believed true" = "low evidential requirements." [14]

Work for Philosophers to Do

There was a time when I thought that Philosophy as a discipline would disappear, or, at best, persist lichen-like, within the walls of Academia: persistent but unappetizing. This is, I take it, what Wittgenstein and Rorty were strongly insinuating. Philosophy would disappear as Alchemy and Astrology had: superceded by its more scientific progeny, e.g. psychology, linguistics, literary criticism.

What has happened, however, is that the Sciences, particularly the Social Sciences and the Humanities have become institutionalized into competing sects, often within a given discipline. Some take this to be a utopian condition. Loyalty and tradition tend to be rewarded, rather than research and scholarship -- especially research and scholarship critical of disciplinary icons. [15]

Thirty years ago many philosophers of education were predicting the imminent demise of the field, or its degeneration into a publicity mechanism for curriculum enthusiasts. Some degeneration has occurred. Any philosopher willing to give up the critical tradition, to support -- even with demurrer -- organizational goals, finds warm welcome in many institutions as house ideologue.

Pursuing relevance, anything to maintain employment opportunities, some philosophers of education have reconceived their discipline as kind of "Social Work with Intellectual Quibbling." But there is honest work for philosophers of education. There is a real need for philosophical training -- if I am to judge by my ten years teaching doctoral students. Their main incapacity is that they do not trust their own experience, their ability to put two-and-two together, and the knowledge they have acquired through intelligent though unarticulated practice to count against the well-articulated vagueness they encounter in their coursework.

No one serves philosophy who promotes enthusiasms -- this tends to indoctrination and is at the very least patronizing. Our students are neither to be trained to be "advocates for children" nor "maintainers of the social order;" neither "promoters of free enterprise" nor "subverters of the Capitalist state;" neither "enthusiasts of Evolution", nor "defenders of Creation Science." Rather, they are to be taught to consider options, exhume criteria, and weigh evidence, all the while being treated by us with enough respect to allow them to make their own decisions, even if we disagree with what those decisions are.

The role of philosophers is clear enough: it is to legitimate and support those natural proclivities for questioning and offering criticism that our institutions, including even our academic disciplines, increasingly stultify.

Why should we do this? To preserve our best traditions, to clarify our disciplinary identity and to revitalize our sense of mission.


[1] Wittgenstein, Ludwig Tractactus Logico-Philosophicus , Sections 6.522 - 7 (my translation -- EGR)

[2] Bambi, Walt Disney Productions

[3] Kahneman, D, Slovic, P. & Tversky, A. Judgment under uncertainty; Heuristics and biases London: Cambridge University Press 1982 PAGE CITATION?

[4]   See Dreyfus, Hubert L. & Dreyfus, Stuart E. "From Socrates to Expert Systems: the Limits and Dangers of Calculative Rationality")

[5] It is easy enough to demonstrate that for even as simple an activity as correctly applying words as labels, the number of discernibles will tend to outstrip the terms of a given language used by a moderately complex organism i.e. knowledge will tend to expand beyond expressivity. A demonstration would begin along these lines: imagine a labeling organism, O, with m information-processing modalities. Each modality manifests p different states.  To be perfectly expressive a language used by O would need as many terms for labeling as there are all possible combinations (permutations, even) of modality states of all possible combinations (permutations) of modalities. Even with m and p rather small, the vocabulary set required is huge.

[6] Meno says that virtue is justice, temperance or anything which partakes of virtue. This is clearly a recursive definition which sets apart the virtues from things which are not virtues. It is of the form V = j, V = t and Vm = XrVk, where Vm is a virtue and r is the relationship " partaking in" (a previously established) virtue, Vk. In the form of necessary and sufficient conditions it would appear this way: Something is a virtue if and only if it is justice, or temperance, or partakes of anything established as a virtue. So from two initially identified virtues, justice and temperance, we can go on to identify other members of the set of virtues by determining whether a prospect " partakes in" either justice or temperance. Suppose we admit patience, P, on these grounds. Now we can use patience to admit other prospects. However, Socrates is looking for something more than just a definition.

[7] Richard Robinson, Essays in Greek Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1969 (page?)

[8] Another rendering of Wittgenstein's Wovon wir nicht sprechen können, darüber müssen wir schweigen. " Don't try to articulate the inarticulable." Like the Unknowable, the Unimaginable and the Incomprehensible, the Inarticulable is terminology for duping the unreflective.

[9] Nelson Goodman Languages of Art New York: Bobbs-Merrill 1968.

[10] After reading a criticism I wrote in 1972 of Goodman's book, Monroe Beardsley grudgingly conceded that my points were valid. However, he insisted that even if Goodman had made mistakes, "something like what he is doing has got to be right."

[11] Our memory is not infallible. But time or distraction is usually an intervening factor. The condition in which Goodman's theory places its proponent is that of a sufferer from Alzheimer's disease.

[12] Another interesting problem is this. A period of silence can be notated as a musical rest. Thus for any given performance we may get different derivate scores differing in the number of bars of rest preceding and following the notes actually played. Thus, the identity of the performed piece cannot be established. When does the transcriber of the performance start transcribing? When does he stop? Why? For more on this, see

[13] A. Sesonske & N. Fleming Plato's Meno: text and criticism. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1965. p. 15

[14] Those who believed in a spiritual afterlife found "John Edwards talks with the Dead" to be unproblematic. Those who disbelieved tended to reject it with little consideration for evidentiary requirements. I suggested that "John Edwards is telepathic and mistakes what he reads in the minds of others for spirit communication," as an intermediate explanation, quite independent as to what we believed as true or false. My students seem to be too emotionally caught up in the examples to recover the insights they had gained from the original exercise about the location of their brother.

[15] Cf. Edward G. Rozycki, " Reason And Authority In Education: Is the study of psychology appropriate to teacher preparation?" in Rethinking the Place of Reason in Education. The Proceedings of the Forty-Third Annual Meeting of the South Atlantic Philosophy of Education Society. 1998.