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But What is the Question?

Denis Solomon • 1,206 words

“It’s like sports education, if you only start at sixteen you’re going to be so unfit to start with it’ll be really hard. It should be compulsory at an early age – around eleven or twelve”.

The perceptive comment of a British teenager on – wait for it – philosophy.

The comment was among several elicited by the literary section of a newspaper in interviews with adolescents about a book entitled Sophie’s World, by a Norwegian called Jostein Gaarder. Mr. Gaarder exercises a profession unknown in the Anglo-Saxon (and therefore the Afro-Saxon) world: he is a secondary school teacher of philosophy.

Unknown because to the general public and even the education authorities philosophy is a subject for university professors (hardly even for university students) and therefore useless.

On the other hand, it is true that it is not possible to teach philosophy, since philosophy is precisely what we do not know. It is a series of questions, not a compendium of answers. The subtitle of the book, therefore, is “a novel about the history of philosophy”. The history of philosophy is indistinguishable from the history of thought.

We do in fact teach the history of thought, but in bits and pieces, as part of courses in history, literature or even science. But the history of thought as a subject in itself not only embraces all other subjects but requires a particular kind of honesty in teacher and text-book. For its purpose is not to inculcate knowledge but to awaken and sustain curiosity, to liberate the mind of the student from preconception and prejudice, and above all from fear, even though part of the material itself is the concept that freedom and liberation may, like much else, be illusions.

This can only be done by inviting reflection and discussion on the basic questions that have engaged the minds of human beings from the dawn of history: reason versus perception as the source of knowledge; the nature of reality; the ultimate constituents of matter; free will versus determinism; good and evil and the knowledge of them; the nature of time and space. The last two are of particular relevance now that the boundaries of physics are being stretched so wide that the distinction between philosophy and science, hardly more than a century old, is once more disappearing, and post-Einsteinian physics is actively seeking a unified theory of matter – quite literally, a “theory of everything” – and you cannot consider yourself educated unless you can get your mind round concepts such as a multi-dimensional universe or a time when time did not exist. An astoundingly complex blend of empiricism and theorising that is a direct challenge to the Kantian view that man, as a part of the universe, cannot, by definition, understand it.

Apart from intellectual liberation, acquaintance with the history of thought quite simply defines you as a human being. The faculty of wonder and the knowledge of our mortality are the only characteristics that set us apart from the animals. Most people suppress the first and deny the second by seizing on the first religion they encounter, and thereafter thinking of precisely nothing. To be a civilised human being, however, you must not only think but know yourself a part of thinking humanity. In the words of Goethe, “he who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth”. Or, as a character in Sophie’s World remarks, “it is the only way to become more than a naked ape”.

While I was teaching at the university I got so tired of students who could not tell me the difference between astrology and astronomy, who couldn’t name Darwin’s major work but knew all about the vicissitudes of Jim Bakker, who drew their cosmogony from horoscopes and their psychology from Oprah Winfrey, that I agitated to be put on a committee that was planning a philosophy programme. My contribution was a suggestion that instead of lecturing ex cathedra about Plato and Marx, Kant and Aristotle, we should select themes of contemporary interest to young people and examine with them how the themes were treated by the different thinkers according to their philosophical orientation. Absolutely not, said the chairman: we must begin with the Greeks, go on to the Fathers of the Church, then Descartes, then Spinoza, then Kant...that’s how philosophy was taught. I left and didn’t come back.

So when I heard on the invaluable BBC programme “Meridian” a discussion of Sophie’s World and an interview with the author, I bought a copy at the first opportunity – i.e. on my next trip abroad. It is a splendidly clear, and excellently translated, discussion, lightly disguised as a novel, of the great themes of human thought, as they recur in different forms in the work of philosophers, scientists and artists from the Greeks to the twentieth century. Religions, and particularly Christianity, are dealt with as phases of the process: St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are shown as attempting to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, respectively, with Christian theology, and ideas of the nature of God are shown to vary from the Judaic notion of an all-powerful being intervening in the course of history to a shorthand expression, in Spinoza, for natural law or the totality of the universe. And the relationship at different epochs of philosophic thought with art and literature is emphasised – Hegel as a product of romanticism, and Sartre’s existentialism as a source of the literature of the absurd.

In terms of theory the twentieth century is slightly underrepresented. Freud and Sartre are its main representatives; Moore and Russell, Santayana and Wittgenstein are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps Gaarder felt that the philosophy of linguistic or logical analysis was too abstruse for adolescents or its relation to traditional themes too complex, though I would have thought that Russell’s theory of descriptions, for example, would have been useful as “clearing up two millennia of muddleheadedness about existence”, as Russell modestly claimed. On the other hand, current concerns of physics, the big bang and the expanding universe, as well as ethical and political themes such as ecology and the status of women, are present throughout. There is an out-and-out condemnation of the current wave of occultism and pseudo-mysticism, which is described as having the same relationship to philosophy as pornography to love, and is contrasted with the real adventure of genuine philosophic speculation. Read as a novel, the book has a plot which is itself a sort of practical problem in philosophy, and which it would be wrong for me to reveal.

But the great value of the book is its insistence that it is not answers that are important, but questions, and the courage to ask them.

A book with a Norwegian setting may be a little too exotic to be considered as a textbook in our secondary schools, and in any case might not be much good in the hands of our less than literate teachers. Nevertheless, it ought to be seriously looked at by curriculum planners and should certainly be in every school library. “Christ is the answer” say the bumper-stickers. Maybe. But what is the question?

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top