Subject:  Pessimism – The Porcupine’s Dilemma

Event:  Birthday of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788

Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom. -Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer, who was born on this day in 1788, is philosophy’s best-known curmudgeon. He was born into a wealthy German family, but tragedy struck when he was just a teen:  his father’s suicide caused him, like Buddha, to begin reflecting on life’s suffering:  “In my seventeenth year, without any earned school education, I was gripped by the misery of life as Buddha was in his youth when he saw sickness, old age, pain and death.” 

Arthur Shopengauer by Gennadij Jerszow.jpg
Sculpture of Arthur Schopenhauer by Gennady Jerszow (Wikimedia Commons)

Schopenhauer had little doubt that the glass of life was half empty; nevertheless, he still resolved as a philosopher to record and share his thoughts: “Life is an unpleasant business; I have resolved to spend it reflecting upon it.”

Just in case anyone doubted his pessimistic outlook, Schopenhauer entitled one of his works Studies in Pessimism (1851).  Here he gives a less than glowing review to life:

In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.

There are two closely related words, however, that present a ray of sunshine and hope in Schopenhauer’s otherwise gloomy world view: ascetic and aesthetic.

“Ascetic” refers to the monk-like existence of a person who lives a life of self-denial.  The ascetic overcomes bodily desires and appetites, never marries, and embraces a life of austerity and humility. Schopenhauer lived a very simple, regimented life.  He never married, and lived alone, except for a pet poodle named “Atma,” a Hindu word for the supreme universal soul.

“Aesthetic” refers to the branch of philosophy that contemplates and explores the nature of art and beauty. Attending the theater, reading poetry, or examining a painting allow us to hold a mirror up to life.  Schopenhauer advised us to respect all artistic creations:  “Treat a work of art like a prince.  Let it speak to you first.”  Of all the arts, music was especially important to Schopenhauer; he was known to play his flute every evening after dinner (1).

Schopenhauer also turned to nature as a means to reflect on life.  In his famous parable called the “Porcupine’s Dilemma,” he holds up the social habits of porcupines  as providing wisdom into the tension between intimacy and autonomy that lives in each of us.  Sigmund Freud was so inspired by Schopenhauer’s prickly metaphor that he kept a bronze porcupine figurine on his desk:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself. (2)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What are the two areas of life that Schopenhauer turned to to find hope in what he saw as an otherwise hopeless existence?

Challenge – Fables of Flora and Fauna:  Like Schopenhauer, the philosopher Alain de Botton advised us to examine nature:  “Nature is a kind of book, and when we open our eyes to it, find its pages filled with distinctive lessons about wisdom and serenity” (3).  Do a bit of research on some specific plants or animals.  Select one that you find particularly interesting.  Explain how what you learned about his plant or animal might serve as a parable for the human species.


February 22, 1930:   Today is the birthday of psychologist Walter Mischel. Mischel’s marshmallow test gives us unique insight into the role that willpower plays in individual success.  Summarizing his work, Mischel said the following:

“. . . When I am asked to summarize the fundamental message from research on self-control, I recall “Descartes’s famous dictum cogito, ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” What has been discovered about mind, brain, and self-control lets us move from his proposition to “I think, therefore I can change what I am.” 


1-Warburton, Nigel.  A Little History of Philosophy. New Haven:  Yale University Press, 201.

2-Schopenhauer, Arthur. “Studies in Pessimism – A Few Parables”  (1913)   translated by Thomas Bailey Saunders.  Wikisource.

3-”The Wisdom of NatureThe School of Life


Subject:  Thinking/Learning – Bloom’s Taxonomy 

Event:  Birthday of Benjamin Bloom, 1913

Creativity follows mastery, so mastery of skills is the first priority for young talent. -Benjamin Bloom

Today is the birthday of American psychologist Benjamin Bloom.  In 1956, Bloom created what has become the most influential model of how people learn and how people think.  Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which was created over sixty years ago, remains one of the most useful tools for teachers and students to articulate the ways in which the brain processes learning, beginning with foundational learning and moving to higher levels of critical thinking.

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Bloom’s Taxonomy (Wikimedia Commons)

The idea behind Bloom’s Taxonomy is to help teachers and students advance their thinking and learning beyond superficial levels.  By classifying thinking into six categories, the model makes the thinking and learning process less abstract, showing how students can process their learning in different ways and at different levels.  

Knowledge – Remember/Define/Memorize: This is the most fundamental level of learning something.  It is the recall level where students memorize a fact, a definition, or a concept.  If, for example, you were studying the concept of cognitive dissonance, you might write down and memorize the definition.

Comprehension – Understand/Explain/Paraphrase:  This is where students move beyond just memorization by explaining what they know in their own words, by summarizing main ideas, and by illustrating what they know with examples.  This also involves comparing, contrasting, classifying, inferring, and predicting.  Engaging with the learning in this way, moves the learning from short-term memory to long-term memory, making it more likely that the learner will be able to master what they are learning.  If, for example, you were studying cognitive dissonance, you might demonstrate your understanding of the term by explaining what cognitive dissonance is in your own words and by giving a specific example to illustrate it.

Application – Use/Demonstrate/Sketch: This where students use what they have learned by applying it to a new situation or context.  Using the knowledge takes it from the theoretical level to the practical application level, making the learning both more meaningful and more practical.  If, for example, you were studying cognitive dissonance, you might apply your knowledge of it by explaining how cognitive dissonance might relate to a situation in which a person buys a new car.

Analysis – Examine/Classify/Dissect: This is where students examine and break information into parts or classifications.  It involves looking at causes and effects, making inferences, and supporting generalizations with evidence.   If, for example, you were studying cognitive dissonance, you might analyze it by identifying the specific causes and effects that make it happen.

Evaluation – Appraise/Argue/Judge: This is where students form and defend opinions about what they are learning.  It involves making judgments based on criteria and supporting those judgments with valid evidence.   If, for example, you were studying cognitive dissonance, you might evaluate it by discussing whether or not the overall effects of cognitive dissonance on individuals are positive or negative.

Synthesis – Create/Design/Compose:  This is where students use their knowledge and learning to create something new and original.  It involves combining elements into new patterns or generating alternative ideas or solutions.  For example, if you were studying cognitive dissonance, you might write a research report on the term where you use evidence from two or three different sources to explain your position on why it is an important concept.  You might also develop your own graphic to illustrate the cause and effect relationships related to the idea.

Notice that each of the six different levels of the taxonomy requires the learner to engage at deeper and deeper levels with the learning, integrating that knowledge in different ways, ways that are successively more challenging, ways that require more and more cognitive engagement, which then leads to higher-order thinking and higher levels of mastery.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What are six different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and how does the Taxonomy make learning less abstract and help push students to higher-order thinking?

Challenge – Learning in Bloom:  How might you create a lesson that teaches a basic abstract concept in a way that students truly learn it?  Take an abstract concept that you know well, such as capitalism, photosynthesis, or rhetoric, and write a lesson plan that involves six different activities that students will do — at each of the six levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  The goal is to help students move from basic understanding to higher-order thinking. 

ALSO ON THIS DAY:  February 21, 1962:  American author David Foster Wallis was born on this day. In 2005, Wallis presented the commencement address entitled “This Is Water”  to the graduating class at Kenyon College, a liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio.

Wallace began his address with an anecdote:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

As Wallis continued his address, he challenged the graduates to approach their lives philosophically by thinking and reflecting consciously, paying attention to the obvious realities that, though seemingly obvious, are — like water to the fish — often the hardest to see.  The freedom provided by education, according to Wallace, is the ability to choose to pay attention and see what is hidden in plain sight.


1-Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc, 1956.