The Problems of The Problem.
Ludwig Wittgenstein is an Austrian-French philosopher working in the tradition of analytical philosophy. The mentionability of Wittgenstein is, he subverted the norms of thinking philosophically. According to Wittgenstein, philosophy is all about doing problems, that is, if you say you are doing philosophy, it means, you are doing a real life problem. In other words, for Wittgenstein, there is no philosophy other than the management of problems in a specific way. This insight has been adopted later by several scholars of various fields to think about language and practice. Prominent among them is Talal Asad, an anthropologist of US base, who argued that every utterance is already belonging to a particular form of life. This in a way is an extension of Wittgenstein’s idea that every utterance is already part of a problem-space. To utter means some way or the other to be part of a problem and an attempt of making sense of the same. However, apart from the philosophical repercussions of this idea, I am drawn to it in the context of our discussion in order to understand what are the conceptual consequences of ‘problem’ and ‘case’ in relation to knowledge. As I am working in Humanities discipline, the ‘problem’ appears to me quite differently from the ones who are grounded in Engineering or other similar background. So how to think ‘problem’ in the discipline of Humanities?
So, as ‘problem’ has an aspect of verifiability, that is, an idea being verified through experimenting with ‘problems’, Humanities seems to have a different sense of idea, problem and verifiability. One of the major features of the conventional ‘problem’ is that it is often triggered in the domain of the positivist knowledge, or in other words, scientific positivism. As Humanities essentially is not in tandem with the grammar of scientific positivism, and moreover, often harbors negative thinking (I am sure philosophers can understand this), the idea of ‘problem’ needs to be rethought in Humanities. I am aware that the category of problem, in our context, is made sense of as a pedagogical one. But as my priority here is conceptual thinking, I find the idea of problem in need of a serious reconsideration especially in reference to what it does in Humanities where I belong. One of the major criticisms I have about PBL is that it was largely assimilated to a monotonous instrumental reasoning, maybe mostly because it was primarily conceptualized in the domain of scientific and professional discipline. Considering the increasing diminishment of the positivist school in Humanities, ‘problem’ is often thought of outside the equation of ‘problem-solution’, ‘question-answer’ etc. Which is to say, ‘problem’ has attained a conceptual status in Humanities, not as a practical issue to be resolved through certain formulas like measurement, experiment and so on. To put in other words, while ‘problem’ is meant here as merely something that denotes the ‘practical’, in Humanities it by itself is a concept. So doing Humanities means hereon posing ‘problems’, that is, only ‘problems’, and complicating any attempt at resolving those ‘problems’. In a pedagogical sense, I would ask my students to come up with ‘problems’, not equations to solve them. Every solution is an exhaustion of problems and therefore the exhaustion of the practical.
October 16, 2020 @ 12:56 am
I enjoyed this post and I agree that it is easy for discussions of pedagogy and active learning to reproduce positivistic values, whether intentionally or not. I would argue, however, that the humanities does more than just pose problems or raise questions; we also sometimes look for solutions, even if we accept that the nature of these solutions will be multiple and heterogeneous. For instance, writing an essay requires that one take a concrete position on an issue, even if there is an assumption that no one position can ever completely reach the truth. I also wonder about how framing problems in terms of pragmatist, Deweyan theory may help to situate broader purposes in problem solving situations. In Deweyan theory, situations are qualitative and are brought about by an overall sense of doubt or uncertainty that makes inquiry necessary. Inquiry, according to Dewey, should proceed not by a pre-determined method but by the needs or techniques specific to the situation. In a way, I wonder if this is what problem based learning is trying to get us to move towards. However, I am left wondering where the political fits into all of this. Does some science pedagogy take for granted a political orientation towards ecomodernist, corporate values without questioning how those values may be present in the localized problems? To me, the most compelling potential of problem based learning is that it might show the connection between scientific/technical practices and these other value based decisions. This type of problem solving, however, requires an instructor to work with a great deal of complexity, and to be curious about these problems.
October 18, 2020 @ 10:22 pm
Thank you very much for sharing your interesting ideas! I agree that when we talk about “problem”, there could be a lot of differences between humanities, and science, and engineering. However, I personally do not understand why you think that PBL “was largely assimilated to a monotonous instrumental reasoning, maybe mostly because it was primarily conceptualized in the domain of scientific and professional discipline”. I believe PBL can still be useful (and especially) in human sciences. As you mentioned, “doing Humanities means hereon posing ‘problems’, that is, only ‘problems’, and complicating any attempt at resolving those ‘problems’.” So although one side of the story is coming up with new problems, and I agree, the other side of the story is to come up with new perspectives towards the old problems. At least the second task could be very well handled with PBL and this method has the benefit of making the students philosophers rather than merely making them memorize the ideas of the past philosophers. For the task of posing new problems, I also think that PBL can still be useful. For example, we create several student groups. In each group, the students are asked to come up with some questions about a specific topic. Then, they comment on the problems they have come up with within each group, and after that, the students are asked to criticize the comments from the other group members. Finally, the results of the discussions in each group can be presented in the class for everybody.
October 19, 2020 @ 12:22 am
Thanks for this post! I really appreciated that you took the concept of problem-based learning and applied to your work in the Humanities. You wrote that “problem has attained a conceptual status in Humanities, not as a practical issue to be resolved through certain formulas like measurement, experiment and so on.” As a biologist, this is a radically different sense of ‘problem’ from what I am used to, but it also highlights shared concern that we both have with implementing PBL. One of my biggest concerns in the PBL approach is that assessing success for students requires an evaluation of critical thinking as opposed to a recitation. I realize that this becomes even more important when the ‘problem’ itself doesn’t have a single right answer in humanitarian study, but rather a valid explanation or reasoning. One decision that I made regarding teaching through PBL is that I would never come up with my own problems, but instead use existing case studies. It seems as though implementing this approach in the Humanities would certainly be preferred to identifying new problems, especially when they are so difficult to define!