a growth Medium for the whole mind
The Case Against Buckets
Philosophers like to say that all the other subjects teach you what to think, whereas philosophy teaches you how to think. That’s unfair to the best teachers in those other subjects, but it contains an element of truth.
Too much education is organized as a group of buckets to be filled, and we are encouraged to worry that our buckets are not full enough. But high levels of intellectual confidence and excellence are not achieved by filling buckets.
Suppose you’re a high school student aiming at a top college or university - or a recent graduate navigating the early stages of a career. Most people assessing you - college professors, placement directors - might take a few minutes to decide whether you’re a good prospect or not so good. But excellence tends to show itself almost immediately.
What makes the excellent candidate so obvious? More knowledge? Luck? A higher IQ?
Mainly, no. Mainly, it’s something that emerges from the written and spoken voice.
Confidence without arrogance. Precision without unnecessary detail. An engaging enthusiasm that has left performance anxiety behind. A sense of the larger intellectual landscape... and an ability to think critically about how our knowledge "buckets" relate.
This is not about learning more information. It’s about using whatever you already know as raw material with which to grow and strengthen your ability to write, think and decide clearly.
“We don't yet know what we don't yet know.”
British physicist David Deutsch
Sessions with Richard may involve talking about a vast range of questions you won't find on any syllabus. Thinking about these things isn't just a worthwhile end in itself. It forms a vital context for deeper responses to all our everyday thinking and decision-making:
What's the relationship between a fact and a theory?
The moderately poor today are materially richer than Renaissance kings - but even the rich are often unhappy. Why?
What would an ideal society look like? And is asking what an ideal society would look like a good or bad way to think about how we should live?
Picasso says that "art is the lie that helps us see the truth." Does it?
It's my opinion that whales are not fish, and that torturing people is wrong. Do I have good reasons for believing these things, or are they “just opinions”?
If it doesn't bother you that a hundred years ago you were not alive, why does it bother you that a hundred years from now you won't be?
Think of your mind as a house. A tutor arrives with new furniture. Richard will help you rebuild the house.
“It may be that I am in the universe the way my cat is in my library.”
American philosopher William James
Is this therapy? counseling? coaching?
In a word, no. But...
Psychotherapists and mental health counselors work with patients who are unable to function within a “normal” range of behavior because of issues such as anxiety, depression, or OCD. The therapist’s job is to identify the dysfunction and mitigate it.
Life coaches and executive mentors help people with self-diagnosed practical issues including procrastination, poor planning, or a lack of a sense of purpose or direction.
Some philosophers call themselves counselors because they are using often-ancient philosophical traditions to help people manage a broad range of practical life difficulties, ranging from boredom to grief.
Caring about your mental flourishing is central to Richard’s style of mentoring too - but Richard’s model of mens sana (healthy mind) is centrally concerned with enriching your life by enriching the intellectual tools you have for examining your ideas.
“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard.”
American historian David McCullough
Often - depending on the needs of the client, but this is especially true of students - Richard's technique centers on intensive, rigorous, ultra-detailed attention to clear language.
This approach comes in part from the ideas that animate the "Philosophy in the Schools" movement, which has a track record of dramatically improving students' academic abilities across the board.
In the UK, a randomized trial involving 3,000 children investigated the academic value of teaching philosophy to children. The teachers, often with no previous experience in philosophy, were given just two days of training. Yet students showed dramatic gains in confidence and self-esteem. Average reading, math, and writing skills improved dramatically relative to peers outside the program.
At Duke University, a 5-year study of 10,000 children tried a beautifully simple experiment: teach children who do not test as "gifted" as if they are gifted. The result? Many children subsequently did so much better academically that they then did test as gifted.
Why are very clever students so drawn to philosophy? Because it's where the hardest problems are! But all young people, and adults, can benefit from being invited to wrestle with big-picture questions about their own thinking and living.
“It is no ordinary thing we are discussing, but how to live our lives.”
Mentoring works best as a long-term engagement but even a few hours can make a big difference.
The best session length depends on each individual's interests, age, and goals. One-hour sessions are a good place to start. Sometimes 90-minute or 2-hour sessions are useful.
Richard charges $70 / hour online, but our first meeting is free: it is your opportunity to get a sense of whether this is a good fit. If you think it is, save 10% by committing to five sessions ahead of time. I accept payment through PayPal, Google Pay, and Venmo.