“We were small and thought we knew nothing
Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,
Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled
We could stream through the eye of a needle.”
From The Railway Children by Seamus Heaney
Being philosophically naïve
When I was a graduate student in philosophy, I sometimes thought that the initial wonder and enthusiasm that drew me to philosophy as a high school student was in danger of being eclipsed by the pressure I was feeling to show how philosophically sophisticated I was. I loved the rigor and depth of the work I was doing on the graduate level, but I also often felt like a fraud. What did I really know about philosophy anyway? It seemed to me that I had to be very careful not to make obvious all the gaps in my philosophical knowledge. And no matter how much philosophy I read and how many classes I took, there were (and are) many gaps.
A criticism frequently heard in upper level philosophy classes and professional philosophy circles is that a particular point is “philosophically naïve.” As a grad student, it was clear to me that philosophical naiveté was not a quality to be flaunted. But what is philosophical naiveté and why is it something to be avoided?
As I understand it, to be philosophically naïve is to lack knowledge about the long intellectual history of the discussion of many philosophical issues, and so to miss the depth and complexity of particular questions. That is, to be philosophically naïve is to see the issue as simpler than it is and therefore to analyze it in ways that are superficial, given the history of the discussion in philosophy about it. By contrast, to be philosophically sophisticated is to demonstrate a familiarity with the relevant philosophical work on a particular topic, and an understanding of which questions are interesting and which less so.
I have thought a lot about philosophical naiveté and sophistication since graduate school. Because I work with pre-college students, some of them very young, many of the philosophy discussions we have would be considered philosophically naïve. The students with whom I work generally do not have much understanding of philosophy’s long intellectual history, and they approach questions such as “What is knowledge?” or “What is the right way to live?” without any real sense of the sophisticated ongoing discussion taking place about such questions.
So, on the one hand, young people’s explorations of the questions of philosophy don’t often appreciate their historical and intellectual complexity. On the other hand, though, such “naiveté” can make possible a fresh perspective. Young students examine these questions openly, with few preconceptions about what they already know and about which answers are more interesting than others. They tend to lack self-consciousness about showing how smart and/or knowledgeable they are — they plunge in to explore questions new to them without worrying that they should know something they don’t.
Sometimes a first look at a question, without knowledge of other people’s previous ideas about it, can yield a novel way of seeing something. After all, central to philosophy is the critical examination of all of the things we think we know. Analyzing a question of philosophy from the point of view of one who knows nothing has the potential to illuminate new ways of understanding. In this sense, it is our imaginative facility for wondering about the world that is the essential intellectual tool.
Can naiveté be in some ways an asset to philosophy?