Monday, 8 November 2010

Cause and Blame and Wittgenstein

It is not unusual for things to go wrong in education. Indeed, most things that we try tend merely to 'sort of' work (depending on who you talk to), or conversely 'sort of' not work. And when things go badly wrong, it's tempting to blame things.. or people. But when we 'blame' things we mistakenly think we are identifying the cause. But blame and cause are not the same. Blame is tied up with personal subjectivity, those aspects of it which relate to personal identity and injury mixed with a subjective reading of causal mechanisms. Causal mechanisms on the other hand, are not necessarily subjective (although our ideas about them might be): causal mechanisms are discoverable - but it takes some cool heads!

Identifying cause means identifying how things really work. Given the evidence of things that actually happen, it probably means that some theory or idea about how things ought to be needs to be revised. The challenge then is to find more effective ways of expressing our ideas about reality which better fit the phenomena we see. Only through doing this can we realise the value of doing things (whether they work or not), and better prepare ourselves for the likely outcomes for the next intervention.

But this raises an interesting question. For what we are doing is understanding better what the university is through observing what it does under certain conditions. But how can you understand what something is by looking at what it does? Surely the causes for something are antecedent to that thing's existence? Yet I think this is a reasonable thing to do: it's where Aristotle got it right, and Hume got it wrong.

But it struck me that Wittgenstein had some sort of insight into this when he shifted his thinking from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations. He always maintained that philosophical problems resulted from misunderstanding what language is. He spent the first part of his career analysing propositions for their inherent meaning. Later on, he realised this was a mistake: you can't understand language from analysing what it is; only by looking at how it is used - in effect, what it does.

The video is my explanation of what education does in cybernetic terms for our Chinese students.

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