The case for philosophy

May 24, 2022 08:56
Photo: Reuters

The time for philosophy – is now.

The past few decades have seen drastic shifts to what we construe as ‘useful’ or ‘informative’ degrees in higher education – and beyond. From the fixation upon computer sciences and programming in the late 1990s, to the surge in finance and business-related post-graduate and under-graduate courses made available thanks to the imbuing of corporate culture into higher education in the 2000s (and, no less, management consultancy!), to the revival of interest in the ecological and the sustainable in preemption of the existential challenges threatening to thwart everything and anything we know (all at once!) – there have been numerous cycles of subjects coming into, and fading out of popularity.

It’s year 2022, and I’d posit that the next cycle – or the next ‘in-vogue’ subject – constitutes the philosophical. And it’s not hard to see why. The raging pandemic that has swept large swathes of Planet Earth over the past three years, paired with inexorable geopolitical risks and instability stemming from so-called ‘great power politics’, has compelled us to rethink questions that are of fundamental, ontological importance. Why are we here? Where do we go? Why do we live? For how much longer can we live? These questions may appear – deceptively – to be empirical postulations; yet undergirding them remains the nagging and emphatic sense of philosophisation, that has been sorely missing from a progressively de-intellectualised public discursive sphere. In short, people have questions, and people want answers.

I have heard many a time that philosophy is too ‘detached’ from the real world. Perhaps that is true, if one’s conception of philosophy involves a conjured image of ten to twenty folks sitting in a kumbaya fashion, next to a dilapidated fireplace, somewhere tucked away in the Ivory Tower of yore. Philosophy can indeed be alienating to, and alienated from the people – specifically when and if written in obscurantist philosophic-ese that makes no sense to anyone, barring those who delight in snobbery. Yet to equate such forms of philosophy with the whole of philosophy; to confuse the inherent with the manifest, would be – ironically – a philosophically unsound blunder.

Philosophy is about interrogating facts, norms, and claims as we know it. For those with a more politico-philosophical inclination in their interests: why must we obey this particular political authority? Why should we take ideologically propagated orthodoxy as a given? Why is loyalty deemed a virtue? Or, for those with more metaphysical preoccupation, what is “is”? What if we are all in a simulation? What if there is no such thing as “possible worlds” – and what if they’re all real entities (as Lewis would have us believe it!).

And of course, once one gets into epistemology, that’s where the really intriguing, discombulating mental gymnastics begins. Can we possibly know what we do not know? Can we know what we want to know, but do not know? Now, my dear reader, you may see this as little more than mere pontificating posturing – yet for many who dabble in academic philosophy, ‘tis a matter of life and death! ‘Tis a matter of significant importance of intimate value. And indeed, should epistemology be applied to the context of social sciences, that’s when we see the intersection and overlap between power structures and knowledge structures.

Why do we choose to believe only those with political prowess and economic privilege? Why do we fetishise degrees in Hong Kong, as if one’s university and post-graduate education would be some sort of holistic indicator of one’s character (I know many a well-educated, highly intelligent individual that unfortunately has all but actual character and integrity). Philosophy – especially when paired with critical theory – challenges these assumptions; it forces us to take seriously the limits to authority, to rethink our orientations as individuals, and, ultimately, to live freely. And freedom – amongst all the scarce goods and virtues we see in short supply – is of paramount importance.

The case for philosophy could also be aesthetic in nature. The argument is simple. That whatever is beautiful, must be good. That philosophy uniquely unlocks our access to what is beautiful. And therefore, by the metrics of aesthetic axiology, we should see philosophy as an art of the good, not necessarily in pointing us towards the good, but certainly in equipping us with the goods itself. Now that’s what I call the core ingredient in a life worth living.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review