Friday, July 18, 2008

A Need For Philosophy?

Having tea after my class on the Four Righteous Caliphs today turned on the discussion of philosophy. I was guilty to have started it: as I questioned the place of philosophy, and why the dearth of it, in our times. I do enjoy playing the devil's advocate (and no, they did not train us that in Law School :)

It was clear that I, for one, believe that philosophy has a real place in our lives and we need it more now than ever - especially in our post-modernity environment (as technically described by a Melbourne-trained participant - a topic which I will deal with in another entry), or in my layman terms, at a time when we all are like herds of lost sheeps wandering around.

The arguments went back and forth and a basic question was then asked: what is indeed this creature called "philosophy"?

Sometimes philosophers deal with questions of truth and sometimes with questions of goodness; sometimes they offer consolation for life’s sorrows and sometimes they are purely pragmatic. In the philosophy of science, a theory may be valued only for its predictive capability; its truth or falsity may be immaterial. In ethics, philosophy may have a prescriptive function, offering a preferred set of values; but where those values originate from is a debatable question.

For Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment could be captured in two small words: sapere aude - "dare to think". Modern philosophy speaks a bewildering variety of languages, from analytic logic to existentialism, poststructuralism, semiotics and the wilder shores of ecofeminism, and there is a fair degree of apartheid between its practitioners. Hence the temptation to view the discipline as too rarefied and "academic" for mere mortals.

There is Kipling's "If you can think and not make thoughts your master". It does not help that Isaiah Berlin captured hearts with his tongue-in-cheek remark that he had turned to political thought because "philosophy can only be done by very clever people". Yet in this age of uncertainty, when today's vocational training may be tomorrow's passport to redundancy, "dare to think" should be the motto pinned on the wall of every student's room.

The great virtue of philosophy is that it teaches one not what to think, but how to think. It is the study of meaning, of the principles underlying conduct, thought and knowledge. The skills it hones are the ability to analyse, to question orthodoxies and to express things clearly. However arcane some philosophical texts may be, the ability to formulate questions and follow arguments is the essence of education.

In that sense, philosophy is the study of what values and standards are known within the conditions of how they are known.

The reality is: Everyone has a philosophy, even if we cannot express it in words.

We either act as if our eternal salvation depends on following the mandates of scripture, or we don't. We feel the need to believe in something and search for understanding, or we adopt the cynical view that the search is useless. We all have some sense of what is right, and what is wrong. We can see ourselves as noble beings worthy of happiness or as guilty transgressors against the environment, social justice, or God. We will all decide often what it is that constitutes our duty. We think we know art when we see it. And we adopt political principles and support politicians and parties.

All of these are philosophical issues.

People often think of philosophy as a highly abstract and technical field, full of conundrums of interest only to academics. But in fact all of us depend on philosophic conclusions, and identifying one's own philosophy is a highly practical activity. We don't all need to be philosophers, any more than we all need to be mathematicians. But we all learn to add in school, and we all need to be able to do some basic philosophizing as well. That's how we know where we stand in the world and what we ought to do in life.

But, and this is the big but: in the end, the most important function of philosophy, as of others, is that it serves as a useful tool to understand oneself, of others, and in doing so, of understanding Him, of course not in the absolute sense. It adds a real meaning and purpose to Existence.

On top of having to write about modern and post-modernism/modernity (as succinctly disinguished by an expert participant), the discussion is adjourned to another tea session...

1 comment:

anonymous said...

"In that sense, philosophy is the study of what values and standards are known within the conditions of how they are known."

one muslim philosopher says that the task of philosophy is to find the limit of truth in every object of (and method to?) knowledge. acknowledging that reality enables us to recognize the proper places of things, at once demanding correct action in recognition of that reality. ultimately this enables us to ascertain our proper place in the order of creation. overstepping the limit of truth causes problems in both objects of and methods to knowledge. al-ghazali notes neglecting the limit of truth renders a praiseworthy science into one that is blameworthy. e.g. as has happened with philosophy itself before, and with fiqh since recent times.