PHILOSOPHY TO THE RESCUE?
PHILOSOPHY TO THE RESCUE?
Can philosophy help us overcome the current economic upheaval? For most people philosophy is at best a harmless pastime for the idle, without bearing on the practical problems of life. Professional philosophers cannot be exonerated of the guilt of having confirmed this false view and attitude. So we cannot blame those who would dismiss the question as unworthy of serious consideration. But let us give it some thought.
That the speciously glorious magnificence of modern human civilization stood on very shaky grounds should have been evident from the disgraceful disparity between the living conditions in the poorest and the richest regions of the earth. But only exceptional individuals here and there could see that, and when those spoke, their words fell on ears deafened by the din of modern life — until the world was plunged into the present economic crisis.
But is it not a mistake – indeed the most fateful kind of self-deception – to see this as an economic crisis? It may bare the chicanery of economists who tricked us with their esoteric and mystifying lingo into believing that theirs was a secure science that guaranteed continued success and prosperity. But that is not all. The roots of the economic problem strike deep into the infected soil of false values and a diseased philosophy of life.
The Booker Prize-winning novelist Ben Okri commenting on the crisis (TimesOnline, October 30, 2008: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article5041585.ece ) opens his insightful article with these words: “The crisis affecting the economy is a crisis of our civilization.” Further on he states that the only hope “lies in a fundamental re-examination of the values” that we have been living by. Again he says, “Our future depends not on whether we get through this, but on how deeply and truthfully we examine its causes.” These are wise words and what Okri says in depicting the lack of vision in the contemporary human scene is no less wise.
But who is to carry out the deep and truthful examination of causes, the fundamental re-examination of values? On the face of it, this is a task for philosophy: but quite apart from the fact that our academic and professional philosophers are of all people the least concerned with the real problems of life, I do not believe that philosophy proper, philosophy as such, is equipped to deal with specific practical issues. In the closing chapter of my Let Us Philosophize (1998, 2008) I wrote:
Directly, philosophy has no contribution to make to the ordering of human society. Indirectly, the role of philosophy in the ordering of human society is immense and indispensable; immense beyond measure and absolutely indispensable, but it must always be and can only be indirect, because philosophy can only work on the individual and from within the individual.
The present confoundment of the human condition is at bottom, as Okri asserts, a crisis of civilization, or, as I prefer to put it, a crisis of culture. At one point in his article, Okri delivers a truly oracular pronouncement: “What is most missing in the landscape of our times is the sustaining power of myths that we can live by.” This sums a view that I have been putting forward in all my writings but that it is not possible to expound adequately within the confines of this paper. To put it as plainly as it is possible to do so in a few words: We need a philosophy that affirms the value of our inner reality — a reality that the outward-looking sciences are blind to and that the yonder-looking dogmatic religions mutilate and smother; a reality that only genuine philosophy and poetry and art can present, but only clothed in myth, since in its essence it is ineffable.
When I say this I am immediately bounced upon by those who believe that only positive, objective, empirical knowledge, arrived at by the methods of science, has validity and utility. But don’t they see where our marvellous scientific knowledge and our astounding technological capabilities, divorced of true wisdom, have landed us? As Ben Okri has it: “Material success has brought us to a strange spiritual and moral bankruptcy.”
Allow me to once more to reproduce words from an article (http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=247) I wrote a long time before the present crisis loomed:
The human world is in very bad shape. There is abject poverty, disease, ignorance, misery, side by side with abundance, waste, astounding technology — I need not go on. Our politicians and economists play games in their artificial, closed systems of unquestioned fictions of expediency, power, market values, economic forces — all of which are worshipped more blindly than any supernatural god has ever been. The world of human beings must be re-formed on a wiser and more just basis.
We need a culture that gives priority to human dignity and integrity, to love and humaneness and the sense of beauty, and philosophy will be at the very heart of that culture.
D. R. Khashaba