Who needs philosophy
I am a thinker. As a writer, one must be. As a human being one should be. Yet I am often told I ‘over-think’. Those who say this believe that decisions are simpler than they appear to me. And of course, from outside, that may well be true. I think there is a lot more to it than that.
Our thoughts come from many sources – many of them barely understood even by experts. I have written about modern brain science. This is one source. In several articles about age, I have talked about how we can change our behaviours and health by thinking differently. In my post about coaching, I described how society is changing some fundamental codes of behaviour. These, and others, use philosophical concepts such as right and wrong, good or bad, worthwhile or trivial, muddled or clear. These debates are what make us human and why most decisions require more thought than simply ‘gut feel’.
Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are.RUTH CHANG
Yet, often, when trying to discuss philosophy, eyes glaze over. ‘What has this got to with everyday life, Lik Hang?’ ‘I need to do stuff now – I can’t just wander in a desert somewhere to contemplate!’
And philosophers don’t help…Here is one description of philosophy:
Education in philosophy involves becoming aware of major figures and developments in the history of philosophy, learning up-to-date techniques and accepted answers to philosophical questions…Graduates of the philosophy program at James Madison University are expected to have come to terms with difficult texts dealing with advanced philosophical arguments.
In other words, studying philosophy means learning from other philosophers and understanding complicated concepts. Interesting, perhaps, but hardly relevant to everyday life.
The Philosophy Foundation does better:
Philosophy is a way of thinking about certain subjects such as ethics, thought, existence, time, meaning and value… The aim is to deepen understanding. The hope is that by doing philosophy we learn to think better, to act more wisely, and thereby help to improve the quality of all our lives.
Even then, many will say:
I go to school, grow up, eat, sleep, love, work, perhaps raise children, get old – and eventually – die. What is the point of wondering why life happens or how to improve the quality of my life? Life’s too short. Let’s live and enjoy the moment.
It is a wonderfully simple approach. No-one can say it is wrong. But a philosopher might ask:
Why then do humans have brains? What makes us different from animals?
It is harder to answer that. Doing so only matters to a philosopher, it seems!
Philosophy matters to us all
Socrates walked through Athens disturbing his fellow citizens with his questions and forcing them to review their opinions to evaluate their consistency and possible implications. Confucius travelled a China torn by wars, questioning and commenting on the behaviours of princes and officials to force them to think about their lives, morality, and purpose.
…Philosophy should not be defined and recognised by its object, nor by some specifically employed methodology, nor even – as is often suggested – by its accessible language, but essentially and exclusively by its purpose.Lucia Ziglioli, Psyche
I do believe that, despite all contingent and historical difficulties or our personal weaknesses, rational thinking has a key role to play in society, and that philosophers can stimulate meaningful public conversations about what really matters.
Philosophy helps to keep us wondering and to remind us about what we don't know. It's not just about helping you to be happy, but also this kind of slightly discomforting thing of reminding us of what we don't know. I’m a practical philosopher - I do academic research on ideas from different eras and cultures, then try them out in my life, and interview others to see how ideas have helped or harmed them.Jules Evans
In the brilliant introduction to her “Kingdom of Characters”, (that we shall review soon in this blog) Jing Tsu writes about the development of the Chinese script since the end of the Emperors. She points out that, before the introduction of simplified Chinese characters, Chinese scholars had to learn almost 50,000 characters by heart to be able to read or write and thus study. Education was restricted to the elite who had the money and time to learn. Far less than one in a hundred people could become educated, therefore. They were doomed to remain subsistence-level peasants with no concept of their potential.
Ignoring philosophical thought and debate, produces similar effects in today’s, supposedly more educated, society.
In a blog in September 2020, we wrote:
Education systems are challenging and being challenged. What young people need to learn is changing very fast. Current curricula and methodologies no longer suffice. The outdated examination system plays a large role in student stress.
In 2020, The Guardian explained:
Schools are killing curiosity: we need to stop telling children to shut up and learn. Children should be prompted and encouraged to ask questions even though that can be challenging for the teacher.
(Socrates had the same problem. He was forced to commit suicide as a result.)
In 2021, The Times Education Supplement, has a critical article about the effects of the pandemic on education by T Ryan Byerly ending:
Finally, and somewhat ironically, teaching students to be intellectually dependable also promotes their critical thinking. As John Dewey observed, students learn to think for themselves by thinking together with others. It is the thought they observe in public interaction that they learn to repeat in private reflection.
In Harvard Ed. Magazine Professor David Perkins hates the typical question from students: “`Sir, why do we have to learn this?” But he values it even more. “And students are completely right,” he says. “First-graders are very interested [in school], but over time, engagement slides and slides. There are often multiple reasons why, but one is that they don’t see the relevance of what they are learning. They don’t see how it serves their lives.”
We should be moving away from an understanding ofsomething — the information on the test, the list of state capitals — to an understanding with something.
Students can then make connections to other things. For example, rather than just learning facts about the French Revolution, students should learn about the French Revolution to understand issues like world conflict or poverty or the struggle between church and state. Without those connections, Perkins says he is not surprised that so many people have trouble naming things they learned that still have meaning today.
The need for thought
Philosophers step back from life, ask questions, and test out the validity of alternate actions, thoughts, motivation, and behaviours. One coaching technique, for example, is to look at yourself and your dilemma from outside and imagine you are coaching someone else. Whether you call it philosophy, thinking about things, theorising, asking questions - we all need to think, argue with ourselves and each other and, thus perhaps, arrive at different conclusions from when we started.
Education systems must change for the (infant) human race to develop. Until they do, the advantages of philosophical thinking will be available only to the very few who choose (and have the resources) to study and learn from it. Most of the world’s population is immensely better educated than even 100 years ago. But if we cannot remember most of what we learned at school, how much value has that education brought the world? As in ancient China, most of us learned a few facts at school perhaps. Some of us knew enough to pass exams.
Distressingly, very few of the world’s 7.5 billion people have learned how to think, to reason, explore concepts and rationally to evaluate or modify their behaviours as a result.
This must change.
Worked on the article: