What do Bill Clinton, Woody Allen, Philip K. Dick and Vaclav Havel have in common? They all studied philosophy at university. In fact, philosophy has been taught in Western society for over two and a half millennia. What is it? I found the following definition on Google: “the rational investigation of questions about existence and knowledge and ethics.” Perhaps it is easier to understand if we consider the type of questions philosophers ask? Who am I? What is good? Why be moral? What makes something a work of art? To what extent can anything be proven? Is it possible to create thinking machines? What is justice? Is there an afterlife and what is it like?
Why should we study philosophy? Philosophy has been maligned as being divorced from reality. Sometimes philosophers do invite ridicule, especially if they are French. This is an example from A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. :
“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multidimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously. A machinic assemblage, through its diverse components, extracts its consistency by crossing ontological thresholds, non-linear thresholds of irreversibility, ontological and phylogenetic thresholds, creative thresholds of heterogenesis and autopoiesis. The notion of scale needs to be expanded to consider fractal symmetries in ontological terms.” I pity the poor translator! But philosophy doesn’t have to be like that. It can be a wonderful window on the world. It does not teach us what to think but how to think. Among other things it gives a good grounding in logic, reasoning, the ability to understand complex issues, open-mindedness, precision, how to identify fallacies and how to improve our general reading, writing, and communication skills. But it is more than that because it fulfils a natural human desire to reflect upon fundamental questions about the universe and our place in it. I also think it would be a brilliant way to learn English and practise all the basic skills – speaking, listening, reading and writing. With a group of six students you could meet in a café to discuss philosophical topics. There is a lot of reading material and audio on the Internet, which could form the basis for discussion in the class. A teacher I used to work with told me this idea and I have always thought it would be a very productive way to learn English (This kind of tutorial would work equally well with economics, history or literature.)
How it should be taught. I don’t know the situation now but when I was at school in the UK we didn’t study any philosophy. This is a terrible gap in my education, which I have been trying to make up for over the last few years. Philosophy is not an easy subject but if it can be taught in a dynamic way using stories and thought experiments, then there is no reason for it to be boring. The book that opened my eyes to the beauty of philosophy was Sophie’s World (Sofies Verden in the original Danish) by Jostein Gaarder. It is both a novel and a basic introduction to philosophy and should be compulsory reading for adolescents.
Sophie’s World is just one example of philosophy in popular culture; it permeates our society through books news, movies, music, games, or even in casual conversation. The Matrix, The Simpsons, Memento, Being John Malkovich and Crimes and Misdemeanours can all be used to teach philosophical concepts. Personally, my favourite is a 2001 film, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, an animated story about a nameless young man, played by Wiley Wiggins, who finds himself trapped in a continuous series of dreams. The film is a tour-de-force, a guided tour of current trends in philosophy. This heady mix of conversations monologues, debates, rants, and philosophical speculation is just an amazing experience. The cinematography is also very original; it was shot with real actors using digital video and then a team of artists using computers drew stylised lines and colours over each frame.
In 2005 the BBC’s In Our Time programme organised a vote to decide The Greatest Philosopher, with Karl Marx coming out on top. Obviously I would not have voted for the hirsute German but I do have my favourites. I would start with Socrates. The Socratic method is such a fascinating way of teaching. He would go around the agora asking apparently innocent questions. But they would trap his interlocutors into contradicting themselves. I like the balance Epicurus found between pleasure and moderation. As a sceptic, I love Hume – I am very much into that pragmatic English empiricism. Finally I have to mention Karl Popper with his falsification theory and his defence of an open society. They are all part of how I see the world.
I hope I have been able to whet your appetite and I haven’t even mentioned world philosophy. Doing philosophy can be fun and stimulating. It can become part of anyone’s life. So next time you’re sitting in front of the TV watching some vacuous reality show, remember: More Plato, less Big Brother.