Starting from the Ground View

“Further, each person judges rightly what he knows, and is a good judge about that; hence the good judge in a given area is the person educated in that area, and the unqualifiedly good judge is the person educated in every area. This is why a youth is not a suitable student of political science  for he lacks experience in the actions of life, which are the subjects and premises of our arguments. Moreover, since he tends to follow his feelings, his study will be futile and useless; for the end [of political science] is action, not knowledge. It does not matter whether he is young in years or immature in character, since the deficiency does not depend on age, but results from following his feelings in his life and in a given pursuit; for an immature person, like an incontinent person, gets no benefit from his knowledge. But for those who accord with reason in forming their desires and in their actions, knowledge of political science will be of great benefit.” 

Book 1, Chapter 3 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Trans. Terence Irwin, 1999)

The point Aristotle expresses above is ancient, but still feels strongly relevant today. It deals with a number of issues that still ring true: the importance of an individual’s experiential knowledge, the breadth of that knowledge, and the difference between an emotional inclination towards gaining knowledge versus the rational desire to do so. Passion is something we’re taught to hold in high regard, probably higher than duty or personal responsibility. Passion and emotion are also, according to Aristotle, more characteristic of young people than they might be of more ‘experienced’ individuals.

What does this experiential knowledge refer to? Do you need to be in politics to learn about politics? Does this mean that young people should not be actively engaged in the political realm, as referenced above, because of this lack of experience? The implication seems to be that the realm of political thought, for example, should exclude participants who are lacking in life experience. In general, this feels like something a preceding generation would likely say about the following, as would the generation preceding them. Why should a student, or really any twenty-something year old be given political credibility when it could be argued that he or she hasn’t experienced enough to have a legitimate voice?

This idea probably goes a little deeper than that anyway. Experiential knowledge shouldn’t refer to full immersion within a field, or else only a select few would ever be qualified to talk about it (maybe this is the point but we’re here to talk about things and that’s what we’ll do). Experiential knowledge should instead refer to an immersive, contemplative approach to really fleshing out an issue or a topic, and really working to become an expert. Gaining experiential knowledge should be a methodical, calculated process. Aristotle’s issue seems to be that a student or young person, in mind or body, is more prone to make decisions rashly and emotionally. A youth might find that he or she is passionate about a given cause or issue, and seek to become an expert on the matter. It would seem, in Aristotle’s thinking, that this is not the correct way to gather knowledge. In fact, Aristotle’s thinking dictates that gaining knowledge in such a way brings no benefit.

Even millennia after the fact, Aristotle’s point hits home. Logically speaking, it’s natural and practical to question the opinion of an emotionally charged young person, especially regarding important political matters. We live in a world that runs on emotion and instinctive, barrel-fire reactions; thoughtful, deliberate consideration has been thrown to the curb. Respect is earned, not given, and maybe that’s the wise approach to be taken when assessing the opinions of our peers.

Knowledge should be pursued for the sake of knowledge; critical thought should be the means by which we seek the truth. Passion and emotionally driven opinions are the easy way out, and Aristotle would likely say that knowledge sought out of anger is not knowledge worth gaining. Instead, what’s really worth working towards is philosophical thought starting from the ground view, developed through careful consideration and thoughtful deliberation. Knowledge sought for the sake of accuracy and with the goal of discerning the truth, which is most effectively acquired through experience, is knowledge worth working for.

Perception is reality, and much of what we deem common knowledge is also common misconception. In fact, it can be argued that most of our common knowledge is the direct result of uninformed perception. There seems to be a sense of entitlement to accurate information within the search for knowledge. By consciously applying philosophical methods to everyday thought, we can start to work towards repairing false perceptions that to this point we’ve taken as common knowledge, and hopefully begin thinking more critically on a broader level, something that seems to have gone by the wayside.

The way we go about our thinking right now, specifically us as young people, is the wrong way to do it. Shouting over our peers and stifling thought out of anger, justified solely by difference, has been halting the progress of our critical thought on an amateur, everyday level. It’s important to develop a broader sense of knowledge, especially as young people, in order to speak even as a remote authority on a given topic. Knowledge can be focused, but should it be? Philosophically speaking, maybe it’s time for us to start thinking on a broader level, challenging our perceptions, and developing a deliberate thought process, through which we can attack things we encounter directly and indirectly in our lives. Through a process like this we might put ourselves in a position to gain experiential philosophical knowledge, and maybe that’ll be enough to make a difference.


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