In Today's Times, What Is the Role of a Philosopher?

In 'Letters to a Young Philosopher', Iranian academic Ramin Jahanbegloo conceives philosophy as an inherently ethical enterprise.

It is interesting to note that some fishes find it easier to swim against the current. A trout, for example, is known to use the turbulence in the water and bounce off the eddies to propel itself forward. Salmon and tuna, on the other hand, prefer to go with the flow. There are others like pufferfish, which avoid the rough waters altogether and limit themselves to serene and sheltered lagoons. The present condition of most professional philosophers resembles those of the pufferfish, at least in the Indian subcontinent. Their activities and interventions take place in their “sheltered lagoons”, mostly limited to the university departments where they teach courses with cryptic jargon like “epistemology” and “metaphysics” in their titles, which continue to remain incomprehensible to those outside the university walls. Yet, there has been no dearth of scorn for their vocation today.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that philosophy, as an academic discipline, suffers from carrying an identity that is perceived to have negligible utility for today’s world. The second concerns a specific contemporary sentiment that believes we are all “thinking” beings, and hence philosophers. Any deep conversation has become “philosophical”. The world doesn’t need more philosophers, but scientists, CEOs and development professionals. After all, what pressing problem is the philosopher solving?

Consider the philosopher

In his celebrated essay titled ‘This is Water’, American writer David Foster Wallace relied on a parable of fishes to make a point about education. The essay begins with two young fishes swimming along and their chance encounter with an older fish, who greets them with “Morning boys, how’s the water?” Swimming a bit further and confused, the younger fish finally looks at his partner and goes “What the hell is water?” The point of this parable, as Wallace noted, was that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones hardest to see and talk about”.

Wallace was in some senses a philosopher himself. He majored in philosophy and English during his graduation and began his PhD in philosophy at Harvard, which he later dropped out of. As a young philosopher, Wallace believed that the true purpose of education had less to do with gaining knowledge or explaining the world around us. Rather, for him, education is about developing an “awareness”, of “what is so real and essential”, yet “so hidden in plain sight all around us…that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: this is water, this is water.”

Ramin Jahanbegloo. Credit: Twitter

Wallace’s perception of education evolved from his own understanding of how we experience the world. According to Wallace, all human experience is processed from the point of view of the self, which he termed “our default setting”. Wallace identified two “default settings” that we are prone to – the “self-centered” and the “socially conscious”. The best representation of the former is the daily frustrations we face in our lives when everybody seems to be “just in the way”, delaying us from getting to where we should be. Though the “socially conscious” default setting is less about “me” and more about the preserving nature and the world, it is still antagonistic to most of humanity, who are “selfish”, “inconsiderate” and set to ruin our planet.

Education, then, is about “de-centring” us from our own experience, thus helping us perceive alternative realities. This may be considering the possibility that others may be in a “more legitimate hurry” than we are, or it may be accepting that “it is actually I who am in his way”, or it may be appreciating that everyone is probably going through a hard and tiring day, just like me. And developing such a worldview has nothing to do with morality or compassion for Wallace. Instead, it is a matter of proactively “choosing” to alter our default settings, a prerequisite to becoming truly “free”.

Ramin Jahanbegloo
Letters to a Young Philosopher
OUP India, 2017

Wallace believed that this adjustment, to go against the current, requires no knowledge or intellect. In fact, he candidly remarks that the troubling aspect of his education, and something that is specifically attributable to those trained in a discipline like philosophy, is that it leads them to “over-intellectualise” stuff, thus losing themselves in abstract arguments.

Despite this, Wallace felt that his liberal arts education helped him to exercise “some control over how and what you think”. This meant “being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” And this awareness is needed not because such careful construction of meaning helps one produce great works of art from the mundane, but because, this is the only way to go through an adult life without being “dead” (literally), “unconscious” and a slave to one’s “default setting”.

But there is nothing wrong in going along with our natural default settings, and Wallace is conscious of avoiding any moralising sermons that claim this is how you are “supposed” to think or act. He acknowledged that we may not be able to do it some days. Yet, he is hopeful that, with education, we may be able to see possibilities that are not “pointless and annoying”. Education, then, helps us “consciously” decide how we experience things, and determine “what has meaning and what doesn’t”.

Letters to the philosopher

The idea of education, and what it entails, is also central to the India-based Iranian academic Ramin Jahanbegloo’s book, Letters to a Young Philosopher (LYP). At the heart of this book is the claim that “thinking” is indispensable to an existence without mediocrity. LYP comprises 16 letters from a master to his apprentice. For Jahanbegloo, or “R” as the master is referred to in his letters, philosophy is an “inquiry into the art of living”, a call to “think” as well as maintain a disposition to hear.

In his book, Jahanbegloo adopts a thoughtful and relatable vocabulary to delineate some of the aspects we have already discussed. For R, the “default modes” of thought and action are best represented by the phrase “techno-bureaucratic society”, which incentivises a particular kind of attitude over others, an attitude of conformism and mediocrity. Reading this book, one wonders how come we have replaced mediocrity’s original antonym, “excellence”, with an idea of “success”, despite both the words meaning very different things. R identifies this substitution as a byproduct of our current education system, which he feels has become a means to an end. Education is perceived today as a body of knowledge and skillset that helps us reach a goal, commonly termed success, key ingredients of which are high purchasing power and a penchant for sophisticated consumption.

R stresses on the importance of going back to the idea of education as a training for nurturing the human soul. Such an education should focus on the art of “thinking”, which is not about “knowing” or “possessing” an idea by being hard-headed about it, but to be thoughtful while encountering and responding to the other. Humility in holding opinions forms the core of this education. And it is this decay of education as an ethical enterprise that R laments. R links the current pervasive lack of “thinking” in the modern world to the rise of evil (read violence, hatred and indifference to others’ suffering) in society. Throughout the book, R continues this call for humility and responsibility, but at the same time highlights the necessity of being “conscious” as well as “critical”. This is because meaning or awareness from our life experiences is not found in what we see, read or do, but in the process of thinking and reflection we can bring to these images, words or actions.

LYP is undoubtedly a deep and meaningful book, conveyed through sharp yet compassionate writing. The book aims to be the gadfly, stinging the reader and keeping them in a state of alertness and resistance to mediocrity. It conceives of philosophy as an inherently ethical enterprise and reiterates that the philosopher’s role is to draw attention to the shortcomings of our present human conditions, thus generating moments of critique. And this needs to be done with an attitude of excellence – so with humility, responsibility and meditative awareness.

Death of a philosopher

Unlike R, Wallace was adamant that education and philosophy need not be an ethical enterprise. Wallace was deeply sceptical of inherited “pre-formed positions” of “moral clarity”. His main problem with embracing positions of virtue and compassion as part of our education was that it provided packaged answers to the “young fishes” and painted certain perspectives as “more right” than others. He was very particular about the fishes exercising their own freedom, “the really important kind of freedom” which involves “attention, awareness, discipline, effort” to care about other people, and sacrifice for them in our “myriad petty little unsexy ways, everyday”. Wallace concluded, “none of this is about morality, religion or dogma, or big fancy questions about life after death. The capital T-Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or may be 50 without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”

Wallace did not make it to 50. He hung himself at the age of 46, troubled by chronic depression. Five years before his death, in an interview, Wallace pointed out a paradox produced by our liberal arts education, especially those focused on philosophy and literature. While the whole liberal arts enterprise is premised on the “nobility of the human spirit”, most of these educated graduates end up being unhappy once they finish their education. In a country like India, a significant portion of the liberal arts graduates majoring in a discipline like philosophy may not find financially rewarding jobs. And not all who find financially rewarding jobs will end up using what they have learnt as part of their education.

Wallace’s philosophical brilliance lies in identifying the connection between the everyday mundane in our life and how it impacts the world. His writings focus on highlighting this often overlooked reality of how we, in our little unconscious ways, contribute to the ongoing crises or acts of violence and rage around us. He wants us to think whether our default settings cause pain and suffering to people we don’t know. And it doesn’t require us at all to take up arms or burn down buildings to bring a positive change in the world. Maybe all we need to do is to relax in our sheltered lagoons like a pufferfish and think about what all this means. It may lead us to realise why our indifference to the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, or the rapes in Unnao and Kathua, might have something to do with how people from other communities feel about us. And that would be a good starting point, for doing philosophy.

Sreejith Sugunan is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Join The Discussion