12:00 AM, November 15, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 15, 2007

Rethinking philosophy today

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Md. Golam Dastagir

Sculpture by Auguste Rodin

Launched in 2002 by Unesco, World Philosophy Day is being celebrated across the world, including Bangladesh, on November 15, for the sixth consecutive time.
This year, Turkey is hosting the international event, which will take place in Istanbul on November 22 and 23, with a roundtable entitled "Dialogue: Between whom and on what?" and another on "The philosophical foundations of peace and human rights: Where do we stand?"
On the occasion of the day this year, Unesco has officially launched a special philosophical study entitled "Philosophy: A School of Freedom -- Teaching philosophy and learning to philosophise: status and prospects," which focuses on the state of the teaching of philosophy in the world at pre-school, primary, secondary and higher education levels, emphasising pedagogical and didactic orientations for the promotion of the teaching of philosophy in the world.
The philosophy program is an integral part of Unesco's activities, since all its major issues, such as peace, justice, democracy, freedom, human rights, education, and so on, have a solid philosophical background, with an analytical and conceptual rigour. In fact, Unesco was born out of a philosophical and ethical investigation into the conditions of the world, and thus, the philosophy program was undertaken by Unesco in 1946, just one year after the organisation came into being.
Philosophy is not, as often misunderstood by many, searching for a black cat in a dark room. As opposed to Asian philosophy that arose out of the sorrows and sufferings of human life, Western materialist philosophy, though born with the cosmological concern in the 6th BC in Greece, had treaded a long way to reach the mid-20th century, addressing common problems of human life and existence and instilling independent thinking for individual thought and judgement.
Philosophical study does not mean quibbling about what does not contribute to building intellectual tools, nor does it mean wrangling about what does not have any practical impact on social or intellectual change; rather, it entails the heart of human existence. Man is a rational being, and thinking is his distinguishing property, the activity of rationality. By philosophical study we mean critical thinking of fundamental issues of human life, the foundation of which is logic. Philosophical reflection means critical analysis of concepts, views, ideas, or beliefs.
Philosophy is an intellectual activity -- an attempt to understand the general principles and ideas that lie at the heart of our existence. He who philosophises acts rationally and thinks clearly, as philosophical reflection helps clarify our thoughts, beliefs, doubts and questions arising from various aspects of life and the society.
Consistent clarification and coherent criticism of crucial issues of the environment enhance intellectual skills required for any task that humans are responsible for -- clerical or managerial.
Philosophical exercise provides consistency in life and develops human critical skills to understand and question the fundamentals problems that we face and share with others. Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, the Director-General of Unesco, therefore, rightly commented in his message on World Philosophy Day 2007 that "Philosophy Day is first and foremost a collective exercise in free, reasoned, and informed thinking on the major challenges of our time."
In line with this, Unesco has already undertaken several projects, such as "philosophy of science and culture of peace," "philosophy and democracy," "philosophy and human rights," "the future of human beings," "philosophy facing world problems: poverty, global justice," and so on. As a major stakeholder of philosophy programs, Unesco has organised a symposium on the topic "Practice, training and research in the school context: Perspectives," to be held on November14, followed by "Stories of human rights thought" on November 15.
In the perspective of the present age of globalisation with new technologies, philosophers are now concerned with a new task of promoting "ethics of science and technology," which is also a concern of Unesco in that it underscores the necessity of philosophy in imbuing the public mind with a certain number of social and moral notions and reinforcing love of peace and devotion to the ideal of culture.
World Philosophy Day is observed across the world with the prime goal of promoting and popularising philosophical reflection, for philosophy, as a school of freedom for human solidarity, explores ways and means of cooperation and reconciliation, fundamental to working towards social stability and peace out of emerging global problems.
Philosophers are expected today to emphasise on ground-breaking academic research, tackling contemporary critical issues of concern, and facilitating debate on philosophical insights with policy-makers and decision-makers. Social justice requires rational activities of sane people enlightened by philosophical wisdom.
Philosophers need to focus on matters of immense public importance and interest. Philosophy, to my mind, is thinking about what we think about, and questioning what are known as established truths. There is not a single area of basic human interest that does not interest the philosophers -- be occidental or oriental. Today's philosophers are not only critical thinkers, but are also systematic social science researchers about the unresolved problems and unanswered questions of the present world, already stained by tension, contention, conflict, intolerance, violence, etc.
Philosophers in the present century are devoted to interregional and intercultural philosophical dialogues, though the foremost task is to deal with the intra-cultural conflicts. This intercultural-philosophical dialogue has taken on a new meaning in the context of increasing globalisation, and of the fluid local and global political climate. Thus, this is becoming a vital means of maintaining peace and world unity. This was the central theme of the events held at Unesco in Paris, 2004 on the third Philosophy Day, in which this author participated.
Our present society is facing a severe moral crisis. Values, ethics and education are imperative for justice and peace. Sustainable development of a society is preconditioned by peace, which is not an object that can be purchased or given, but a healthy socio-economic condition brought about by rational beings through moral acts and rational thoughts. Efforts have to be made to understand and attain peace within the context of the individual, the family, the society, the nation and the world, as Sun Myung Moon proposes, reflecting Confucianism.
Social, moral and religious values and principles are necessary components for development of any society. Strong ethical foundation in education and sound reasoning of our views provided by philosophy can positively strengthen the capacities of our sense of values and broaden our minds for critical appraisal of our own actions -- a soul-searching way of curbing white-collar crime and blue-collar corruption in a country like Bangladesh.
Moral philosophers may have a role to play in providing conceptual foundation to the values and principles that contribute towards the work of social cohesion in this conflicting world.
Now is the time to take effective measure to introduce courses on ethics and logic at all levels of our educational system, like those found in European countries, because one of the goals of the intersectoral strategy on philosophy at Unesco is to promote the teaching of philosophy at secondary and university levels. It is heartening to note that countries like Belgium, Norway, Australia and Brazil, have already taken decisions to introduce philosophy from primary school.
Some British Universities offer MA in Philosophy of Physics, with courses on Philosophy of Management, Philosophy of Biodiversity, and the like. They run centres like Centre for Applied Ethics, Centre for Practical and Professional Ethics, Centre for Philosophical Counselling, etc. On Philosophy Day, Finland sets up makeshift "Philosophy Booths," like traditional telephone booths, for philosophical counselling.
In the context of Bangladesh, the NCTB must consider introducing a course like "Philosophy for Children" at the school level, as is the expected outcome of engaging philosophy in the general public advocated by Unesco. On the contrary, logic at the HSC level in our curriculum has been downgraded in order of groups in recent years in such a way that our higher secondary students rarely find it suitable to choose it. Furthermore, our existing PSC rules set aside philosophy graduates to vie for some, though not all, civil service jobs.
We seem to have failed to eliminate the common misperceptions about philosophy that still exist in our society, even though institutional philosophy teaching commenced in the early 1920s. Our philosophy bigwigs should sit together with the concerned high-ups to deal with the aforesaid issues, and engage in brainstorming in search of new philosophical practices for the advancement of philosophical study and research.
Dr. Md Golam Dastagir is Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, Jahangirnagar University.

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