Thursday, November 08, 2007

Van Damme Replies (Sort of)

While cleaning up some comments spam I came across this brief note that may have been lost in the flurry. In this post Greg criticised a passage from Lisa Van Damme's essay "The False Promise of Classical Education."

In a kind of proxy comment, an anonymous contributor passed this reply on, allegedly from Van Damme:
From Lisa VanDamme:

What defines the hierarchical order of concepts is distance from the perceptual level, not "wideness." "Doberman" is, unquestionably, more abstract than "dog": Ayn Rand addresses this issue in ITOE, and nothing I have ever said contradicts it.
Leaving aside the oddness of replying by anonymous proxy - surely it would be easier just to reply directly - this also seems to not answer the issue. Here's what Greg quoted from Van Damme's original essay:
Van Damme: "There is a necessary order to the formation of concepts and generalizations. A child cannot form the concept of “organism” until he has first formed the concepts of “plant” and “animal”; he cannot grasp the concept of “animal” until he has first formed concepts such as “dog” and “cat”; and so on. The pedagogical implication of the fact that there is a necessary order to the formation of abstract knowledge is that you must teach concepts and generalizations in their proper order. An abstract idea—whether a concept, generalization, principle, or theory—should never be taught to a child unless he has already grasped those ideas that necessarily precede it in the hierarchy, all the way down to the perceptual level."
Greg's point in the post was that if this was true, one would start with "Doberman", go up to "dog", then to "organism" etc. Yet this seems unlikely.

Van Damme and other commenters do not seem to have a direct response to this, and merely reply to the effect that Greg's demonstration is a "straw man" because Rand said otherwise in the ITOE. But if Rand's theory (or Van Damme's expression of it) does not stand up to its own derivable consequences, this is hardly Greg's problem! Rather it speaks to the basic wooliness and what I regard as the outright emptiness of most of the speculations expressed in the ITOE.

At any rate, it would be interesting if Van Damme wished to reply in a bit more detail - even by proxy - to Greg's original post, and we cordially invite her to do so.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but Jesus Christ, you guys are dense. I have replied to this objection to Van Damme on several occasions now and nobody seems to understand my reply.

You say: "Greg's point in the post was that if THIS was true, one would start with "Doberman", go up to "dog", then to "organism" etc. Yet this seems unlikely."

If WHAT is true, you would need to go from Doberman up? What is the "this"? What is the theory you take Van Damme and AR to be asserting that implies the point about DOBERMAN. I can go through the entire paragraph you quote and find nothing that implies it:

a) Is it Van Damme's example that PLANT and ANIMAL must be formed before ORGANISM? True, that is an example of a widening, but it doesn't imply that *every* narrower concept must be formed before a wider concept. It's just one example.

b) Is it Van Damme's example that DOG and CAT must be formed before ANIMAL? Yes, it's another example of a narrowed concept coming before a wider concept, but it doesn't imply that every narrow concept comes before a wider one. The fact is that it's just easiest to illustrate the idea of hierarchy using examples of widenings.

c) Is it her use of the phrase "and so on," which might suggest that every other example will be just like the first two regarding narrowness and wideness? If it really did suggest that, then yes, DOBERMAN would come before DOG, which would be ridiculous. But that's a lot to read into a little "and so on," and it's at best an infelicitous way of writing on Van Damme's part, not a condensation of AR's theory. But the way you read the "and so on" depends on what you read as the "so": does it refer to the fact that both of the examples are widenings, or the fact that they are necessary orders of learning? Surely she's just talking about the second.

d) Is it her statement that "there is a necessary order to the formation of abstract knowledge"? But that doesn't say that the necessary order is always from narrow to wide, only that there is some necessary order.

I'm sorry, but that covers every element of the quoted passage, and there's nothing in there, except perhaps the facile "and so on" that implies what you say it implies.

You are not committing a straw man fallacy because you are ignoring the passage I originally quoted from ITOE, where AR contradicts the view you originally ascribed to her. You're committing a straw man fallacy because there is NOTHING in AR's corpus that suggests that we always go from narrow to wide. And there is much to contradict it. Her view, and I will repeat it once again, is that which concepts are first level is determined by the nature of what is most perceptually similar to the child, and this is determined by the nature of his perceptual system and the nature of the objects.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>I'm sorry, but Jesus Christ, you guys are dense.

Now that's a little harsh...;-)

>If WHAT is true, you would need to go from Doberman up?

Ok let's break this down step by step.

If this claim is true:
Van Damme: "The pedagogical implication of the fact that there is a necessary order to the formation of abstract knowledge is that you must teach concepts and generalizations in their proper order."

Now, what does Van Damme say is the "proper order" ?:

"An abstract idea—whether a concept, generalization, principle, or theory—should never be taught to a child unless he has already grasped those ideas that necessarily precede it in the hierarchy, all the way down to the perceptual level."

The "proper order" she exemplifies by:

"A child cannot form the concept of “organism” until he has first formed the concepts of “plant” and “animal”; he cannot grasp the concept of “animal” until he has first formed concepts such as “dog” and “cat”; and so on."

Now, your argument seems to be that we're "committing a straw man fallacy because there is NOTHING in AR's corpus that suggests that we always go from narrow to wide."

But here's what Van Damme herself writes in the very sentence preceding the section quoted:

"The issue of the sequence in which knowledge is presented to students is, as I argued in “The Hierarchy of Knowledge: The Most Neglected Issue in Education,” absolutely vital to a proper education.

Van Damme then chooses to illustrate this allegedly "absolutely vital" sequence by not just one, but two examples of going from narrow to wide, and none in the other direction.

Seems to point the way pretty clearly to me. You claim Rand wrote otherwise. Well, once again this is hardly Greg's problem - as you say, it seems to be logically implied by these examples - and may indicate the reasons for the terseness of Van Damme's proxy reply.

For either:
1) Van Damme has misrepresented Rand's theory here, either by accidental emphasis or simply through not understanding it herself
or
2) Rand's theory itself is an ad hoc "grab bag" of vague and pretentious jargon (eg:"integration", "closeness to perceptual level", "identifying reality", etc) the rambling presentation and any-which-way amorphousness of which befuddles even its own followers. If it were not studded here and there with confident phrases about how supposedly important a "proper understanding of abstractions" and how "revolutionary" Ayn Rand's "understanding of the relationship between concepts and reality" was, one fears they would be lost entirely.

Or possibly 3) Both.

Daniel Barnes said...

(note: Italics above are mine)

Anonymous said...

Wow. So if I want to illustrate the idea that all men are mortal, and I say "Socrates died, and Aristotle died," it must mean that all men are philosophers! Give it up. The next post about the unconscious is far more serious objection than this.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>Wow. So if I want to illustrate the idea that all men are mortal, and I say "Socrates died, and Aristotle died," it must mean that all men are philosophers!

True, this is not quite the content of your argument...but it is not far from it. Give it up...;-)

Greg Byshenk said...

Might I suggest that the "doberman" example is somewhat infelicitous? That is, though 'doberman' may be in some sense narrower than 'dog', it is nonetheless an extremely abstract category (indeed, I believe that, at least according to those like the AKC, one cannot determine whether some 'dog' is in fact an instance of 'doberman' without detailed reference to its ancestry).

Thus, the concrete reference would be a reference to 'Spot', which could then be abstracted to 'dog', and likewise with 'Fluffy' and 'cat', then 'animal' from 'dog' and 'cat', and so forth.