[Blog] The Purpose and Use of Philosophy by Jose Mario De Vega

The Purpose and Use of Philosophy
by Jose Mario De Vega

Mario De Vega

I refer to Steven Lydon’s “It’s time to start teaching philosophy as a formal subject in our secondary schools”, The Irish Times, August 1st.

I overwhelmingly concur with the call of his paper with regard to this issue. Needless to state, I am voting affirmatively to his thesis.

Nonetheless, may I be allowed, with the indulgence of the reader to express a few words to further adumbrate on the points that he lucidly raised.

As the report narrated:

Education is a field in which small but well-targeted reforms can make a big difference. One of the simplest options open to the Department for Education and Skills is the introduction of philosophy as a Leaving Cert subject. No single other step could so dramatically raise the standard of second-level education.”

Comment:

I agree that education is an indispensable tool to make a big difference not only to one society but to the whole world! In the immortal words of President Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Nonetheless, it is my firm view that “the modern-day education system has failed the whole world. The world has built many colleges and universities, yet we have no peace because what we consider education is but an incomplete one.

“We fail to realise that education is not a scheduled event, but a continuing process; that the quest to develop ourselves and to refine our character does not cease when we leave the university and enter the working world.”

Education must not stop round about the end of the second decade of life; rather it should and must be a lifelong pursuit and endeavor.

What kind of education is needed? My simple answer is: a Liberal Education!

Professor A.C. Grayling says that:

“By ‘liberal education’ is meant education that includes literature, history and appreciation of the arts, and gives them equal weight with scientific and practical subjects.

“Education in these pursuits opens the possibility for us to live more reflectively and knowledgeably, especially about the range of human experience and sentiment, as it exist now and here, and in the past and elsewhere. That, in turn, makes us better understand the interests, needs and desires of others so that we can treat them with respect and sympathy is returned, rendering it mutual, the result is that the gaps, which can prompt friction between people, and even war in the end, come to be bridged or at least tolerated.”

Is that enough? No, because for education to be fully effective and dynamic it must be a blend of the external and internal in order to create true humanness in a student. External education alone cannot confer human values and benefit the world.

The external factor is what our educational institution hammered us to be, while the internal substance is our social background, culture, upbringing, and how our family raised and educated us. The two elements must concur to produce a good individual.

Again to quote Professor A. C. Grayling:

“Moreover, a true education provides people with a broad knowledge of culture and history, enabling them to appreciate the amenities of life, to understand that they encounter in their experience as citizens of the world, and to relate with greater insight and generosity to others. Like any appetite for finding out, and thinking about what learned, grows by feeding; and with the nourishment it provides come other goods of the mind and the heart.”

Going back to the report, it also stated that:

“Not teaching philosophy is a bit like not teaching English. People will do it anyway; they’ll just do it badly. More than any other discipline, philosophy teaches you how to think well. Rigour and creativity are consciously being developed and the subject enables you to make a clear distinction between true and false.

“This all seems obvious, until one recalls how decisions are actually made at the highest levels in this society. The Anglo Irish tapes are one sad illustration. The old argument that philosophy does nothing for the economy smacks of the same short-term thinking that landed us in the current crisis.”

Comment:

Indeed, teaching philosophy is not like teaching English. There is a great difference in using the English language as a means to teach philosophy from that of teaching philosophy as a means to discuss the meaning of life.

A philosophy lecturer may use a variety of languages depending on the nationality of the philosopher he or she is teaching, yet if he or she is not fully grounded on the central tenets or the primary ideas of the said philosopher, no languages can help him or her to teach the said subject-matter. His or her proficiency on the English language will not help him or her in teaching the philosophy of the said philosopher. Understanding the language of the philosopher is one thing, but knowing the character and realizing the vital principles of the said philosopher is another.

It is beyond dispute that philosophy teaches us to think well and most importantly to think for oneself. Undeniably, “Rigour and creativity are consciously being developed and the subject enables you to make a clear distinction between true and false.”

This is in-line with what Professor Tim Maudlin said: “If you think of philosophy, and I think this is a bit better and more important. If you think of the job of the philosopher methodologically is to very carefully figure out by what reasoning you arrived at some conclusion, or why is it you hold some belief. What are the grounds for it? How did you get to it and are those grounds good grounds for holding it? To carefully review arguments and unearth their presuppositions and then hold those presuppositions up to the light of day and ask whether you want to believe them. That’s what I would say is the foundation of philosophical method.”

The distinctive animating spirit and characteristics of a true philosophical endeavor are the following: a seemingly endless curiosity, a questioning mind, critical inquiry, a probing temperament, reflective analysis, insatiable pursuit of the truth in the name of knowledge and wisdom.

Once more to quote from Professor Grayling, “enquiry of this kind is obviously a highly exportable process; practice in it constitutes what we called a ‘transferable skill’. For this reason alone philosophy ought to be central and continuous feature of the school curriculum from an early age, because it immediately potentiates students’ work in other subject areas… Philosophy is par excellence what offers the evaluator part of this desideratum.”

To the preposterous charge that “philosophy does nothing to the economy” thus implied that it is “useless” or “immaterial”, let me state that philosophy as part of the General Education and the Humanities in general is precisely the very subject that expands man’s humanity and harmonizes his individuality. These are the indispensable elements utterly necessary for the development of Man’s Selfhood that will lead to Social Solidarity!

Philosophy, in the view of the great Bertrand Russell, “is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”

I fully concur with the author, Mr. Lydon when he listed the obvious benefit of teaching philosophy:

“A philosophical training has obvious benefits for the sciences and the humanities. The best scientists are those who can use knowledge creatively. Philosophy goes beyond science: it teaches the value of taking an ethical stance towards others. It shows students how to express their own interests in common terms, the foundation for a healthy public sphere. For decades, all of this has all been obvious in France, Germany and the United Kingdom, where philosophy is a permanent fixture at second level.”

Comment:

This is clearly understood by Professor Will Durant. As he categorically enunciated in his magnus opus, The Story of Philosophy:

“Science tell us how to heal and how to kill. It reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war. But only wisdom — desire coordinated in the light of all experience — can tell us when to heal and when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy. And in these days our means and these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire. It is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from despair.”

As I’ve stated in my own article:

Philosophy constantly seduces us by provoking us to look at the same thing in a new way.

Once the familiar becomes strange, they can never be the same again.

Exercise in self-knowledge is both a hard and sweet devotion; once wisdom is fully entrenched within our minds and souls, it can never be undone and it can never be “un-thought”.

Knowledge without morality is dead; wisdom without a strong and firm ethical basis is unthinkable.

To be a complete man, what we need is not only the dryness of the mind, but also the warmness of the heart and the goodness of the soul. (The quest for ethico-moral values, The Star Malaysia, October 20, 2011)

It is my firm and vehement view that a country which does not include philosophy to its educational system will never ever be a great, powerful and truly liberating nation.

In the immortal words of Socrates:

“Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?”

Jose Mario Dolor De Vega
Philosophy lecturer
College of Arts and Letters
Polytechnic University of the Philippines

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