I have a family history of engagement with the Great Books method of education. My father was at U. of Chicago when it was all the rage there. He didn't care for it. I enrolled at Columbia U. in part because of their participation in that tradition. I didn't like what they did with it. And my daughter went to St. John's College in Maryland, where they adhere to it rather strictly. She loved it.
One of the stated goals of the method is to get the student to engage directly with dead thinkers who left important books behind. But what does engage mean in this context? It does not mean just reading them to know what they thought, in the sense of knowing what positions they took on this and that. The goal is supposed to be something more like grasping how they thought.
It strikes me that this is a bit like an ideological Turing Test. The original Turing Test was proposed for artificial intelligence, and the idea was that a computer would really be intelligent when you could engage in a computerized chat where you were unable to detect that you were talking to an artificial intelligence.
Ideological Turing Tests are similar. The idea is that you really understand liberalism, for example, when you can engage in a chat, pretending to be a liberal, and no one will be able to detect that you are not one.
Lately, for example, it has been reported that conservatives are better at impersonating liberals than liberals are at impersonating conservatives.
Similarly, it seems to me, one goal of engagement with Aristotle or Plato is to move toward the ability to answer the question: what would they say about X, where X is something they didn't really address. It's the sort of question that needs to be approached with some care. It's not about mind-reading. It's about grasping their habits of mind, which is worthwhile because they were great thinkers who were each, in their own way, great at thinking.
But the great books can also be approached as a pigeon holing exercise, memorizing and categorizing positions, in some sort of pre-set schema. The presuppositions of Marxism are particularly hazardous, because in dialectical materialism it's not really people who are doing the thinking, it's the means of production and historical situation that are determining their thoughts, so the theory pushes you away from grasping how they really did think.
Was this post,
whatever it may mean,
created by a ghost
in a machine?