As a caveman, I have problems with the philosopher king/s. These problems seem unchanged whether the question in the title is thought to be peculiarly masculine or inclusive or whether the gender is changed. Similarly, age, ethnicity and quality of shoe (if any) do not seem particularly germane. Being conscious and of an enquiring mind are pertinent.
These problems are over and above those I have discerning the appearances before me and judging, within the limitations of my current understandings, what I and others should do in order to promote our flourishing.
One problem is that I do not understand what a philosopher-king is doing in claiming that what I claim to see and know is based on mere appearances, but what the philosopher-king says is true is based on reality. Is there only one reality and, if so, how am I to comprehend what is claimed if one philosopher-king says different things at different times or two philosopher-kings disagree? Or is it that, having seen reality, what a philosopher-king says is true is true ipso facto, a form of transubstantiation by verbal incantation. If there is more than one reality and my appearances are not real, what is it that a particular philosopher-king is claiming is true?
Another problem I have, as a caveman, is being able to recognise a philosopher-king rather than a pretender. I probably expect a bit more than self-identification by a philosopher-king to warrant acceptance of the claim to that status. Likewise, merely presenting a different perspective on the world with attendant different understandings and actions would hardly warrant anointing a self-proclaimed philosopher-king. Among my fellow cavemen are many who think quite differently from me and who do not see the world as it appears to me. Thinking differently does not alone warrant elevation to the throne. But what more could there be? Even if I were to convert to the philosopher king’s way of seeing and apprehending the truth in an approved way, this would not suffice. Many cavemen have undergone numerous conversions; in some cases, this is called education and is the purported aim of schooling, so it would seem that seeing this light also is insufficient. Without some qualitative difference between the various ways that cavemen see the shadows and reflections and the way the philosopher-king sees the light, the latter is no more than another caveman in a fancy cape and an unusual headdress.
Perhaps my caveman problems might be resolved in large measure if I understood the correspondence of philosopher king’s truth claims to reality as this could provide the required qualitative difference. Provided reality does not change over time or space, a claim that properly corresponded to reality would be eternally true and supposedly better than my caveman provisional claims. I say supposedly because, for instance, there are many circumstances where action requires a decision in real-time and neither the time nor resources are available to obtain an eternal truth. Now this situation should diminish over time as humanity accumulates eternal truths available for use by those converted to the philosopher king’s way of seeing or translated into Caveman for their use. It seems, however, that rather than this cumulative accretion of truths, we find that, just as we have almost achieved the theory of everything, someone comes along and either destroys our civilisation or starts a theoretical revolution. As a caveman, I cannot understand the nature of the correspondence that converts a provisional claim into an eternal truth. Perhaps what is required is that I become a philosopher-king so that I can apprehend that correspondence. I am not aware that even Plato anticipated everyone would become a philosopher-king in his Republic, although most teachers would wish all their students would become proficient practitioners in the traditions that comprise the school curriculum.
One might not require an identifiable correspondence between a true statement and reality but rather posit divine truth that is eternal, absolute and immutable and contrast that truth with the finite, relative and mutable truths of human beings. In this situation, the divine could be in the form of the philosopher-king, and humans are in the caveman condition. The call for foundational certainty is met by faith in the divine truth. It may be presupposed that human truths progressively approximate divine truth, but then the role of the truth condition in knowledge claims becomes more problematic. Some accepted social standards of truth assessment are required if the truth condition is not to collapse into the evidence condition and knowledge becomes true belief. Foundational certainty is replaced by the certainty provided by the social traditions to which the caveman is committed and so provide the conditions for his survival and flourishing.
It may be that, as a caveman, I do not share the heavenly ambition of philosopher-kings and their propagandists to achieve the perfection of man possessing eternal truths and contemplating an unchanging universe. Not only do I not share the ambition, but I also do not see why it should be regarded as a desirable outcome of our individual and collective daily efforts. It just seems boring and pointless. Rather it seems more attractive to strive to make the best of what we have got in the changing circumstances we face for the benefit of ourselves and others. In this enterprise, truth, understood provisionally, plays a lesser role, and I anticipate that trust is a more central notion for achieving individual and social success. So instead of asking ‘Is what the philosopher-king says true?,’ the caveman asks, ‘Should I trust what the philosopher-king says?’
Asking the question ‘Should I trust what the philosopher-king says?’ is not going to be a frequent occurrence in a society that shows a marked degree of generalised trust in other people and things in that society. Such a society has developed and established ways for trust to occur between people and between people and things without overt consideration in particular circumstances. Most people come to trust the ground upon which they walk and can overcome concerns about cracks in the footpath or gaps in a bridge. Some think that person/thing relations are matters of reliability alone, but there is more to trust in things than reliability. We may be forced to rely on something but do not trust it.
Much of what we believe, know and act upon depends on testimony, whether of philosopher-kings or fellow cavemen. Depending on whether the notion of truth is limited to propositions of a particular kind, questions of the truth of testimony often do not arise or are insufficient. It is arguable whether the question of truth is relevant for claims that something is good or for making a promise. In other cases, a true proposition may be uttered, but its truth is insufficient if it is being used for unacceptable purposes, such as to mislead someone. If propagandists for philosopher-kings have not experienced reality by direct acquaintance or some such means akin to that underpinning the status of philosopher-king, then what the propagandist says is hearsay and subject to appropriate caveats. A more robust approach in a wider range of circumstances is to question whether testimony is trustworthy for the purposes at hand.
Provisional truth is important, however obtained, but largely because it is more trustworthy than other claims. It may be thought that the caveman’s problems with truth are only symptomatic of a post-truth age ushered in by post-modernism and/or President Trump. Sophisticated attempts to resolve these problems have been made over recorded time, but they have not been successful. Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger (p. 9) observed:
[A]s Otis Pease (1958) points out in his study of American advertising between 1920 and 1940, the advertising industry was not necessarily interested in facts. Whether an advertisement was literally true or false was mostly irrelevant – what mattered was the psychological impact of the advertisement – the association it created in the minds of its targets.
As advertising in contemporary society, including political advertising, may rival schooling in its capacity to influence what people want, believe and do, the lack of constraint by truth in advertising points to a practical limitation of a focus on truth. Instead of the question ‘Is what is said true?,’ the question ‘Should I trust what is said?’ may be more efficacious in many settings. Knowledge would then become trustworthy belief supported by adequate evidence. But this faces questions about the adequacy of testimony as evidence for trustworthy belief, and these questions apply as much to the testimony of other Cavemen as to Philosopher King’s testimony.
It is neither practical nor possible for us to experience what is required as evidence for much of what we believe. We believe what we are told. In a functional society, most generalised trust relations are established for individuals by participating appropriately in the society and are not overtly considered or recognised.
Whether this is regarded as a problem and how it is a problem or not depends on the epistemological stance taken (internalist/externalist) and the similar distinction regarding the self (individualist/communal). Examples of this division of view bound. Rene Descartes (p. 12) was unimpressed with the testimony of others and particularly so with teachers.
[W]e were all children before we were adults, and … it was necessary for us to have been governed for a long time by our appetites and our teachers – which were often opposed to each other, and neither of which, perhaps, always gave us the best counsel – it is nearly impossible for our judgments to be as pure and as well-founded as they would have been if we had had the complete use of our reason from the day of our birth, and if we had been guided by it alone.
For those, however, for whom reason does not provide a trustworthy guide for individuals, recourse is had to other accounts. Tony Coady developed an externalist account of testimony and says ‘our trust in the word of others is fundamental to the very idea of serious cognitive activity’ (p. vii); ‘when we learn language, we do so not merely by observing what others say but by trusting their saying of it and their powers of discrimination’ (p. 170).
Within this setting of generalised trust, not only trust of testimony but also trust in other forms of locution, there needs to be an acceptable way to determine whether a particular example of testimony is trustworthy. This is generally to assess how well the testimony fits within the ongoing successful experience of the person giving the testimony and those assessing it in the community in which they participate. This ‘fit’ is in terms of coherence and cohesion within the evolving tradition in which the testimony is given. But a satisfactory assessment of testimony in these terms does not identify truth. Simply that, for our current purposes and with the available information, we may trust that testimony. So it is for the child who trusts the epistemic status of what the teacher says, whether that teacher poses as a Philosopher King or not. For a survey of the current literature on trust and an account of testimony that does link trust, testimony and truth, see Faulkner (2020).
Once children have reached a point where uncertainty, fear, disappointment and similar concepts have developed, then questions of trust can arise and require answers.
Children need to develop self-trust, which is something more than confidence in that it requires adequate justification appropriate for the purposes and circumstances. Self-trust is an outcome of successful education and a valuable outcome of schooling. One benefit of reconceptualising schooling, in terms of trust, is to identify different criteria to be used to assess and report good teaching and good schooling and thus change the accountability regime to reward what matters, instead of what is easy to count. In later life, self-trust is required as new situations arise and create new demands. So it is important that schooling enables the children to be able to gain self-trust from their interaction with the situation, including others in that situation, rather than derive it solely from the teacher.
Children acquire the basic inter-personal and non-personal trust relations in their early family life, and the acquisition of language plays a central role in this. These trust relations are embedded in the traditions the child experiences as part of family life. Schooling extends the range and complexity of the trust relations in the traditions selected for inclusion in the curriculum. Children learn how to judge what is trustworthy in those traditions and can be tested on how well they make those judgements and can act accordingly.
Classrooms can be seen as a complex of interconnecting trust relations between children, children and teacher, children and selected traditions, and between teacher and class. Classroom management can be seen as a matter of establishing and maintaining appropriate trust relations, including the role of the teacher as an exemplar of educational, personal and traditional trust relations. The teacher’s trust relations extend to the school administration and education authorities beyond the school, as well as to parents and the local community. Teacher accountability could well be conceived and rendered in terms of these trust relations. School improvement, in terms of changing trust relations, could prove more effective than nostrums for raising student achievement test scores. Schools that espouse the truth of philosopher-kings or encourage their students in the pursuit of truth may not be regarded as good schools when compared to schools that are safe, enjoyable and trustworthy.
When should a Caveman trust a Philosopher-King?
Establishing the truth (however conceived) of a proposition provides good grounds for believing and trusting that proposition. Such truth is nice but neither necessary nor sufficient to establish trust in the utterance of that proposition. We can trust what is proposed but not how it connects to other relevant features of the situation nor why it was uttered. The truth of a proposition does not go to establishing the trustworthiness of the speaker nor the worth of the enterprise of which the utterance is a part. Good judgement and appropriate action rely on more than truth. Trusting a teacher (whether a philosopher-king or not) involves more than the epistemic status of the teacher’s utterances, important as that is.
This piece was written after Fazal Rizvi’s online address to the PESA AGM on 7 December 2020 prompted me to start thinking again after a six-month hiatus. Fazal Rizvi is in no way responsible for the content of this column.