Thursday, December 28, 2006

Philosophy: Who Needs It?

This is something I wrote years ago. I had forgotten all about it until I recently twice chanced upon it on the internet. I thought I might as well put it here.

Philosophy: Who Needs It?
D. R. Khashaba

First appeared in:

The discusssion launched by David Large and Keith Parker raises a vital if, in a way, deeply disturbing issue, for it should make everyone engaged in philosophizing stop and ask oneself: Why do I do it? But - to anticipate myself - what is philosophy good for if not to be a Socratic gadfly?

So, instead of trying to answer directly David Large's question: 'Philosophy: who needs it?' I will begin by trying to answer, in the first place for myself, the question: Why do I philosophize? I think the honest, factual, answer is: I can't help it. It's a bug that has taken hold of me without asking my permission. In the Preface to my Let Us Philosophize (1998) I confessed that the book was a personal testimony of a seventy-year-old man who throughout his life "has had one overriding and abiding passion — call it addiction if you will: the urge to find answers to questions that most sane people raise at an early stage of their lives then throw behind their backs to attend to the business of living."

Has my philosophizing made me wise or good? At this point let me step out of the confessional and re-word the question thus: Does philosophy make people wise or good (keeping back for the moment the question whether these are two things or, as Socrates would tell us, one and the same thing)?

The metaphor of exploration, favoured by Keith Parker, is good provided we note that philosophy is inward not outward exploration. If wisdom or goodness were a mountain or a forest out there somewhere, then we could have settled the question empirically. But wisdom and goodness are not 'out there' but 'in here'. (How to interpret this 'in here' is another question we have to put aside for the moment.) And when we ask for the testimony of those who claim they have something to say about wisdom and goodness, they give us widely differing accounts. That is, even if wisdom and goodness are admitted to be goals sought by all, they turn out to be not the same for all people.

But this, to my mind, is not as negative a result as it seems to be. Different philosophers give us different visions of the good life and different pictures of the world; but they do, each of them separately, give us a unitary picture. What is the good of this? In my opinion, two all-important things (which in the end may not really be two but one thing). First, it gives some satisfaction to that terrible urge to ask questions and seek understanding. Many of us would agree that when that urge is denied satisfaction the result is either torment or torpor. Secondly, it is this life in the light of a unified Weltanshauung that is the distinguishing mark of a human being and sets humans apart from other living beings; and who wants to lose that birthright? (How to reconcile or choose between those different ideals and world-pictures is too large a question to go into in the present context.)

So to the question: Why philosophize?, the answer seems to be that some people are just born that way. There are those who are impelled by their nature to sing or paint or invent tales, and there are those who are impelled by their nature to ask themselves questions. And it so happens that all of these, when they each obey their peculiar imperative urge, render inestimable service to the society in which they live. The lyricist, the painter, the story-teller, add to our life beauty and joy and wisdom — yes, I credit poetry and art, rather than philosophy, with giving wisdom. The questioner, on the other hand, in subjecting our accepted notions and theories and beliefs to examination, spares us the fate of turning into fossils: for a species whose most effective tools in the struggle for survival are mental tools is inevitably doomed when those tools remain unchanged in an ever-changing world.

This brings us back to the Socratic gadfly, and so to the question: Who needs philosophy?, my answer is: The whole of humanity is in very bad need of philosophy, perhaps today, when we have so much of knowledge and so much of power but so little of understanding, more than ever.


Blogger Dar said...

That would be my answer also. Happy New Year!

7:18 AM  

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