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What is philosophy? (3)

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By Douglas Anele

In ethics, proposed standards of right or good conduct are thoroughly scrutinised and various ethical theories on offer dissected to determine their strengths, weaknesses, and applicability in real life situations. Of course, it is a grave mistake to think that ethics is a mere academic discipline, for it is of the utmost importance that our lives be guided by sound moral principles. A little reflection will disclose that virtually all human actions have a moral dimension, that is, can be evaluated as either right or wrong. So, it is the function of moral philosophers or ethicists to work out the implications of our moral choices and indicate ways in which we can reassess and improve our ethical principles just in case there are reasons for adopting better ones. As Socrates reminds us, “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

As human beings, we appreciate what is beautiful and pleasing to our sensibilities. Works of art – music, paintings, novels, poetry, sculpture etc – enrich human lives in ways that demand philosophical investigation. Our responses to these artworks have a distinctive immediate emotional character to the extent that we describe what we experience with special words like ‘beautiful,’ ‘sublime,’ ‘exquisite,’ ‘moving,’ and so on. That is why aesthetics constitutes a significant contribution to philosophy in the works of great thinkers like Aristotle, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant among others.

Majority of experts in the field agree that the fundamental concept in aesthetics is ‘beauty’ and its adjective ‘beautiful.’ Some pertinent questions that arise in aesthetics include: What is art? Does the statement “X is beautiful” refer to the object or to the special feeling aroused in the person who perceives the object, or a combination of both? Are judgements of taste objective or subjective? It is the job of aestheticians to investigate the concept of beauty, develop a philosophically robust definition of art, and explain the role it plays in human life.

Having presented various definitions of philosophy by practitioners in the subject and its major branches, it is time to deal with an important question, namely, what is the use of studying philosophy? As one who teaches the subject in a university, I am usually asked what philosophy is all about and the benefit of studying it. Oftentimes those asking such questions have already categorised philosophy in their minds as one of those “easy” courses that are “inferior” to the so-called “lucrative” professional disciplines like law, engineering, accounting etc.

This estimation of the value of philosophy is completely wrong. Every well-informed person knows that philosophy is of the greatest importance not only in the production of enlightened individuals but also in shaping the developmental trajectory or blueprint of nations as well. To showcase just two examples of the latter, the constitution of the United States of America embodies the political ideas of the British philosopher, John Locke, who was actually a trained medical doctor. Again, it is beyond dispute that communist or socialist countries are modelled after the philosophy of Karl Marx. Accordingly, only an ignorant or undereducated person would relegate philosophy as a course of study or downplay its significance in personal and national development.

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At this juncture, it must be admitted that one does not need to study philosophy in a university or master the highly technical topics in the field in order to manifest the essential mental attributes of a philosopher or benefit from studying the subject. In fact, there are people with doctorates and professorships in philosophy who seldom exhibit appropriate combination of the core dispositions of genuine philosophers – the questioning attitude, open-mindedness, relentless quest to get to the truth of things through reasoning, and love of wisdom.

An engineer, medical doctor, farmer, lawyer – indeed, anyone with a reasonable level of literacy or education – can read the non-technical works of great philosophers and become knowledgeable in the subject. Even more important is imbibing the philosophical attitudes, namely, the critical attitude, openness to new ideas, willingness to resolve disputes through reason and argument rather than through ad hominem and violence, and an unceasing desire to seek the truth even if it clashes with one’s cherished beliefs. That said, Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers, believes that philosophy can give certain things that will enhance the value of those who study it, both as a human being and as a citizen.

It is of great help in the cultivation of the habit of exact and careful thought especially in questions of large practical import. Philosophy can give an impersonal breath and scope to the conception of the meaning and purpose of life. By studying it, the individual would learn to have a just measure of himself or herself in relation to the larger society, of contemporary human beings in comparison to those that lived in the past and those that will be around in the future, and the entire history of the human species when juxtaposed with the history of the universe as revealed by recent developments in astronomy and physics. Russell argues that by enlarging the objects of one’s thoughts philosophy serves as “an antidote to the anxieties and anguish of the present, and makes possible the nearest approach to serenity that is available to a sensitive mind in our tortured and uncertain world.”

When people look down on philosophy, it is because they do not see how the discipline can contribute to what psychologists call “maintenance needs,” that is, those physical and psychological needs that people must satisfy to maintain themselves as human beings: food, security, housing, job, social interaction, to mention just a few. But humans also require “actualising needs” associated with self-fulfilment, creativity, self-expression, and self-actualisation.

To evaluate courses solely in terms of their job-preparation value, as most people are wont to do, is to take a narrow and myopic view of what human beings need. This does not imply that reading philosophical literature or studying philosophy as a course will necessarily lead to self-actualisation. But as Manuel Velasquez correctly observes in his book, Philosophy: A Text with Readings, “philosophy helps by promoting the ideal of self-actualisation, or what the psychotherapist Carl Rogers terms ‘the fully functioning person.’” Philosophy exposes the person that studies it to different ways of looking at the world, and aims to integrate at the personal level thought, feeling and action in a meaningful way.

In this era of extreme specialisation in narrowly defined fields of study, philosophy is the best way to broaden one’s intellectual scope which should be at the centre of effective liberal education in a fast-changing globalising world powered by science and technology. Evidently, the various sciences and engineering disciplines produce experts in these fields. However, it takes philosophy to produce that ideal of an enlightened person who understands that it requires knowledge beyond the barrow prism of her specialty to engage meaningfully with other human beings and the life-world.  In other words, philosophy helps to deepen personal awareness and awareness of the world.

Not only that, but philosophers like J.S. Mill, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre among others have also articulated reasoned secular worldviews firmly grounded on the human condition which are superior to the pious fictions of religious superstition that can help us cope with the vicissitudes of life. For anyone genuinely in search of a better alternative to religion, the best place to look for it is in philosophy. A good acquaintance with philosophy, especially elementary logic, is of great assistance in refining our power of analysis, critical thinking, evaluation, and capacity to justify our positions with good arguments.

Identification of bad reasoning or fallacies is an essential part of logic that helps us avoid slipshod reasoning and understand better the principles that undergird valid arguments. An open democratic society needs citizens that can reason properly in both their public and private lives. Logic, as the study of the methods and principles for distinguishing good arguments from bad ones is an indispensable tool in this regard. To be candid, it will take volumes to exhaust all that can be said to justify why everyone should take philosophy seriously, especially in a country like Nigeria where the opium of religion has combined with intellectual laziness and moral laxity to produce tens of millions of the most gullible human beings on earth. Therefore, it is time to bring this discussion to a close by quoting the immortal words Epicurus, an eminent ancient Greek philosopher: “Let no young man delay the study of philosophy, and let no old man become weary of it; for it is never too early or too late to care for the wellbeing of the soul.”




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