The Three Stages of Learning
All through his boyhood days, the hero of our story had dreamed of making a mighty voyage across the entire world, seeing new places, tasting new foods, meeting strange people, hearing tall tales… he could go on with the dream. One day, aged about twenty, he bought himself a wagon with the money he had accumulated scrupulously, and sometimes not so scrupulously, over the years.
He then announced his intentions to all his family and friends, who received the news with much fanfare. The date of his departure being fixed as the start of the next lunar month, coming up in a fortnight, the villagers wished to speed him along in his packing, for there was much to be done.
The next morning the wagon was brought and stationed at the village commons, behind our hero’s house, and his mother began the proceedings by gifting him a basket full of figs and two sacks full of potatoes. His father donated an axe and two bales of fresh hay for the ox. His brothers threw in catapults, bows and arrows, wood for cooking and pairs of boots.
Over the course of the next few days, well-wishers dropped by regularly and deposited all sorts of items each felt was indispensable to our hero’s voyage. In no time, the wagon was full: the wheels bent sideways, the spokes nearly buckled, and the axles were bowed. Still, things were being thrown in — in fact, some of the villagers mistook the wagon for the village dump and began to dispose of their garbage in it on their walk to their fields.
The day of departure finally arrived. Dressed in his finest clothes, our hero had the ox yoked to the wagon, bade a jolly farewell to his family and friends, and jumped onto his seat. The ox, sensing it was time to pull, pulled his hardest. The wheels creaked, the axles squeaked, the ox lowed, our hero groaned, but nothing moved.
The boy leaped off the cart in dismay and looked into his wagon. His heart sank. No ox could pull all that. He sat by the side of the path, disconsolate. The villagers fell to muttering among themselves — each blamed the other for having put into the wagon excess and unnecessary items. They felt their own contribution was truly indispensable, and that everything else could be made do without.
While they argued, our boy sprang to his feet, walked purposefully to the wagon and took another look. The first two items he noticed were a stack of wood (or cooking) and an axe.
“I can cut wood whenever I wish during the trip if I have that axe,” he said to himself and took out the wood. Next, he spotted a huge basket of salted anchovies. Knowing he had packed his fishing gear, he returned the fish to his mother, who accepted it graciously. Bit by bit, over the rest of the day, he picked up each item and carefully considered whether it was truly needed for the voyage. Gradually the wagon lightened and the axles straightened. The wheels regained their circular shape.
Our hero came to understand much about the nature of the trip he was setting out on, the capacity and mechanics of his wagon, and the strength of his ox. Finally, he stepped back and was happy with what he saw: the wagon was now barely half-full.
The disgruntled villagers had long dispersed, each with the gifts that they had given, and others with a few extra items too. Only his family was still present, looking on and occasionally giving some advice and encouragement. He once again bade them goodbye, gestured to the ox to start pulling, and waited.
This time, the wagon responded with a jerk and the wheels began to turn smoothly. He was off. He was leaving finally. The last time our hero turned around, he could barely make out his family waving their farewell.
This story is illustrative of the passage in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, under the section ‘The Discipline of Pure Reason in Polemics’, where he describes the three stages in the study of a new field:
(i) dogmatism: where the student accumulates all the knowledge that he can find on all related topics and absorbs it indiscriminately;
(ii) scepticism, where he comes to realize that much of what he has absorbed is useless or plain false, and is beset by a sense of depression; and
(iii) criticism, in the sense of critical appraisal, during which he shakes off the melancholia of scepticism and judiciously assesses the stock of knowledge he accumulated in the first stage (that of dogmatism). He is able to categorise and rearrange his knowledge carefully, sifting through what is mere trivia and facts, what are the integral pieces of knowledge, etc, and thereby comes not just to a mastery of the field of study itself, but to a profounder understanding of his own mental faculties, its strengths and limits.