11th March 1998
If this is not an exercise in narcissism, the aim of putting my work on display like this has got to be that I will learn from the process, just as much as those following it. I shall make mistakes sometimes bad mistakes despite, or maybe even because of the pressure not to 'show myself up'. Well, I must not 'tremble, lest I miss the bull's eye'. I am not aiming at the bull's eye, or, at least, not right away. I would be happy if my thoughts and questions succeeded in converging in the general direction of the target.
What, then, is learning? In many ways, that is for me a more interesting question than, 'What is knowledge?' It is more interesting because it is more focused. Many things are, or purport to be, knowledge: scientific knowledge, knowledge of other minds, perceptual knowledge, knowledge of the past, and so on. Each case is different. Unless of course you are going to question them all at once, as Descartes tried to do in his Meditations. (After battles with generations of students, I find it increasingly difficult to see all-or-nothing, global scepticism or doubting whether we have any knowledge at all as a serious problem. But perhaps that is just my failing.)
Learning is cottoning on to something you hadn't cottoned onto before. I don't want to say, 'getting to know something you didn't know before' because that would immediately raise the question, 'What is knowledge?', which is the one question I want to avoid. Also, there are many things we learn which aren't so much a case of 'getting to know' something as learning how to do something. Of course, once you have learned then you know. But, as many philosophers have pointed out, it is a radically different kind of knowing from knowing that something is the case or indeed knowing some thing. So let's stick with 'cottoning on'. One gets the hang of something, or catches the drift. (I wonder where the phrase, 'cottoning on' comes from?)
Here's an example that I am particularly interested in: learning to philosophise. You do learn things (like the history of philosophy, or that such-and-such has been regarded as a 'problem of philosophy'), and you also learn how to do things: how to argue, how to pick an argument apart, how to analyse a question, how to avoid getting bogged down in too much analysis. And so on. Yet, interestingly, in the case of philosophy perhaps in other cases too there isn't a point where one would say that one had learned, period.
What should one say about that? I suppose I must think that I am a competent philosopher, otherwise I wouldn't be doing this! If you can ride a bicycle, even badly, you can ride a bicycle. If you can philosophise, then you can philosophise: it doesn't matter if you're too incompetent to make any progress. Yet, on second thoughts, that is a rather superficial view. Everyone can see whether or not the tyro manages to stay in the saddle, even if they fall off after a few yards. With philosophy, there can be a serious question raised whether you are doing it at all, even though you, and perhaps on-lookers too, think you are.
The process of learning can, and perhaps usually does include imitating. 'You imitate the best. The rest you memorise.' Sometimes we mistake imitating for learning. But if all you, the learner manage to do is imitate the actions of someone who hasn't learned themself even though they think they have then you haven't learned either!