Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Value of Philosophy

Note: this article is authored by Dr. Maina Sharma, HoD, Philosophy department, B Borooah college, Guwahati. It was published in a local daily on the eve ofWorld Philosophy Day”.

The present age is described by many as the age of uncertainty and confusion. Many of us are uncertain about so many things around us. We are uncertain about the best form of government, about the best economic and social system, about what things are right and what things are wrong. We seem to be confused whether people are better behaved today than they were at the time of our forefathers and so on and so forth. This spirit shows itself not only in the actual state of public affairs but also in the general attitude towards fundamental values in personal and social life. Scientists like Max Planck says that these systems mark the beginning of a great renaissance, but there are others who see it in them the tidings of downfall to which our civilization is destined. At any rate, this seems to be a transitional age, and is full of danger as well as promise, rich in possibilities. The times of certainty are also the times of stagnation. When we know what to think we cease to think. Evidently, it is a time for reflective thinking, and this is what philosophy is. No dates, formulas or rules need be memorized. Without relying on unnecessary jargon and technicalities, philosophy lands us into central, profound areas of human concern. The only important prerequisite is an enquiring mind. Philosophical questions grow out of a kind of thinking that we do when we ask ourselves whether something we believe or accept is reasonable to believe or accept.

The idea of philosophy as a rational questioning of our beliefs is as old as human civilization itself. It is developed above all from Socrates in the Athens in the fifth century B.C. He entered into dialogue which was his preferred way of doing philosophy and numbed those he talked to, because his object was, at least in the first instance to show that they did not know what they thought they did. With the ultimate aim of obtaining knowledge, philosophy challenges and makes people realize that what they take for granted is not necessarily true.

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty and critical attitude. There is no straight answer to the questions of philosophy. Philosophers like Socrates do not rush into saying that know this or that; they step back and think about things. But here a sceptical worry surfaces. Is philosophy for that very reason does not matter? Philosophy matters a lot to make us aware of the importance of some questions, to examine all the approaches to them, and to keep alive that speculative interest in the universe which is apt to be killed by confining ourselves to definitely ascertainable knowledge.

There is no more important exercise of human rationality than philosophical reasoning. It can reach to the foundation of our beliefs, thoughts and expose them what they are, solid or shaky, good or bad. A belief whose reasons have been examined deeply enough to reach the level of philosophical questioning rests on a firmer foundation than one that has been examined less thoroughly. This makes philosophy knocking at everyone's doors though this does not mean that everyone should become a professional philosopher. Every human being, befitting the name, wants assurance that our beliefs are well grounded.

None can thus escape philosophy once they start questioning themselves, their assumptions, beliefs and practices. The question as to whether one shall or shall not enter upon the domain of philosophy was settled long ago by Aristotle when he said, “Whether we will philosophize or whether we won't philosophize, we must philosophize.” Consciously or unconsciously everyone frames for himself a theory of the relation of the individual to the universe and on his attitude to that question his whole life and conduct, public and private depends. In the present time, philosophy cannot afford to be packed off to the sidelines intellectual life. It must regain its place in the heart of our lives making us aware of our goals, the reasons for pursuing them, and give us consistency in their pursuit. It has to help us to match our reasoning to the reality confronting us. This cannot be possible without a rigorous examination even of the things we take most for granted. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, infinite and obvious; common objects rouse no questions and unfamiliar possibilities enlarging our thoughts are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, a new horizon of possibilities opens up enriching out intellectual imagination and removing the somewhat arrogant dogmatism which closes the mind against speculation.

Philosophy as a way of sharpening our thinking is a cleansing act, an act of purifying the intellect. By imposing its strict demand for consistency, philosophy tightens up our standards of knowledge guiding us in concrete real life situations. It is because of this, educationalists favour introductory classes in philosophy even for those whose primary intentions are to study other subjects. The pencil needs to be sharpened before it can write with sufficient care about other topics. Philosophy as a critical survey of existence from the standpoint of value, provides the kind of insight, the most concretely needed thing of the present time. An engineer today whose knowledge is restricted only to technical matters of engineering, or a physician whose competence extends only to the substance matter of medical training, is ill-prepared to understand even the basic problem that face his profession. These there is thus a demand for a new ethical, legal, economic and political wisdom in the affairs of government which can prove as an useful antidote to the arrogance produced by dwelling on the apparent progress of the society in the fields of science, economics, etc.. If we are truly to love wisdom (the word “philos” in Greek means the love of wisdom), we cannot afford to live in a world of illusion. Our anguished time will cry aloud for new visions. If by philosophy we mean the search for wisdom, the appraisement of values, the careful logical analysis of concepts, it seems to be just what the world needs now for the preservation of the life of humanity.

The Problems of PhilosophyA History of Western PhilosophyApology: On the Death of SocratesThe Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World's Greatest Philosophers