Friday, March 4, 2011

Filosophy Friday: Let’s Read ‘Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction’ by Edward Craig, Part 1

For the next few weeks (if I’m going chapter by chapter, eight) I’ll be going through this book my dad picked up at the UM bookstore, called Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig. It’s a very good introduction to philosophy, and one that you can spend days wracking your head over even if it is, as the author claims, just a roadmap to the study of philosophy. It explores a few concepts, points us in the general direction of a few good philosophers and their works, and hopefully armed with this knowledge we can ourselves have a working knowledge of philosophy with which we can hold a fruitful discussion.

I am not going to reproduce the text of the book, not only due to copyright issues but also because it’ll be a hell of a job. It’s not so thick, in fact it’s thin enough to fit in a pocket, but it’s still too much work for a side project. While typing this out I still found it was quite a job, so luckily I didn’t try it. Also I think it’s better for me to try and decipher and discuss the various points highlighted by the author. Any quotes from the author will be marked with quote marks ‘like this’. It’s also important for me to highlight that I’m expanding and adding to what the author says, and any parts which are unclear or deserve a specific example I can call to my mind will be expounded upon. Philosophy, after all, isn’t a subject to be memorised and accepted at face value, but one to be criticised and discussed, so I will do just that.

Let’s start slow today. Today we’ll cover the introduction, titled, well, ‘Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction’. And it is.

The author begins by saying that ‘anyone reading this book is to some extent a philosopher already. We all have a basic idea of how the world works, or how we think the world works, at least. We also all have a basic system of values peculiar to us, either drilled into us by our parents or our belief system, or gained through experience. He then says that everyone, even those who don’t think about it, have some kind of answer to the basic philosophy questions:

1) What should we do?
2) What is there?
3) How do we know?

The last question was described by the author as a question that would ‘kick in the moment we get self-conscious about the first two questions’. The first question basically means, “How should we live our lives?” It’s a question that naturally arises once we have our basic needs of living all cleared up: food, water, shelter etc. Since there’s so much to life than our basic needs, what else is there for us, and how should we go about it?

The second question is basically a question about the world. What is there? What do we have in the world? This question, much like the first, seems very basic, but only because, as the author noted, we have some kind of answer already. Some might say “There’s the world, it’s made of rocks and shit, deal with it” and that’s one view, albeit a very narrow one. Some might say “There’s good and evil,” and still that would be a bit narrow view to take things in terms of black and white. I hope that by now you see that the simplest question, if we get really reflective about it, is not very simple at all, and that there are layers and layers of unspoken questions within them.

The third question of course arises once we get the first two straightened out. How do we know? The author suggests ‘use our eyes, think, consult an oracle, ask a scientist?’ This is a big question even at its core, and one that does deserve a lot of scrutiny – and it is scrutinised, by many philosophers.
The author then says that philosophy ‘simply means being rather more reflective about these questions’ and what has already been said about them, correlating with his earlier statement that almost everyone has a philosophy already. It’s just that those who study philosophy, and those who name themselves philosophers, think about these things more than those who don’t.

The author then expounds on this issue, saying that philosophy is extremely hard to avoid, even by those who claim not to be interested in it. He offers this:
‘Consider somene who rejects it (Philosophy), telling us that “Philosophy is useless”. For a start, they are evidently measuring it against some system of values. Secondly, the moment they are prepared to say, however briefly and dogmatically, why it is useless, they will be talking about the ineffectuality of certain types of thought, or human beings’ incapacity to deal with certain types of question. And then instead of rejecting philosophy they will have become another voice within  it – a sceptical voice, admittedly, but then philosophy has never been short of sceptical voices…’
He then takes the second part of that, the part where human beings just aren’t up to answering certain types of question, and argues against it. He takes that to imply that making these discoveries aren’t a worthwhile endeavour, that it has no effect on our lives. ‘Surely that can’t be true?’ he asks, and I agree with his standpoint. First of all, we human beings naturally will ask questions, and isn’t it worthwhile to examine what we have, to look at details surrounding us and find out the answers for ourselves? The author puts forth an example: what if we didn’t think we were up to the task of debating the nature or even the existence of God; or as he put it, ‘if we were all religious agnostics’. That would surely be a worthwhile endeavour; we would have an answer to “Where did we come from?” And as Muslims, we are required to believe in the existence of God, and we believe in Him through the word of His Prophet, Muhammad p.b.u.h. Thus Islam, in a sense, is a voice within philosophy, one that proposes that God exists, via the word of The Prophet Muhammad p.b.u.h and that There Is No God but God. As has been repeatedly said, we do have a certain view of the world, even if we never question it. And that also puts to rest the idea that answering these questions is ineffectual; if we all doubted the word of The Prophet Muhammad p.b.u.h, then would we still be Muslims? Would there be jihads, revolutions, the formation of Islamic states? Surely things would be very different if we never bothered to answer these philosophical questions.
The author then considers those who, like my beloved Farra, choose to opt out of philosophical discussions. It doesn’t mean they have no philosophy, certainly; Farra has her own set of values which makes her endearing to me. It’s just that these people, which it seems to me includes nearly all of the Malay population, choose not to ‘philosophise’ as the author puts it. They are not willing to ‘state their views and argue for them or discourse upon them’. They may, like the Zen Buddhists, believe that doing something is far more important than just thinking about it, or maybe they just think (like Farra, and the Malays I spoke of) that philosophy is something that is weird and hinky and hurts their brains.
Well if philosophy is something so dear to us, then why do they think so? The author then concedes that they’re not entirely wrong; some philosophy is likely to seem weird and hinky and even hurts the brains of really experienced philosophers. He then explains that ‘the best philosophy doesn’t just come up with a few new facts that we can simply add to our stock of information’. The best kind of philosophy is the ones that challenge us to think different, the ones that don’t just confirm what we know but replace our own way of thinking with an entirely new one. That may seem scary, and doubtless is one of the leading causes of Intellectual Brain-Freeze (brain-freeze not caused by cold drinks). The author consoles us by saying we’ll start slow – hopefully this is slow enough for most people.
If it isn’t let’s pause for a moment and reflect on what we’ve read. We’ve read that everyone has a philosophy, whether they ‘philosophise’ or not. And we’ve read that while philosphy is strange and Brain-Freeze inducing (indeed, the best ones are like that), it is certainly worth our time to ponder the basic questions of ‘What should we do? What is there?’ and ‘How do we know?’ since if we didn’t, first of all life would be very different, and secondly life would actually get really boring really quick. Okay? Shall we continue?
The author then asks what philosophy is for. He concedes that philosophy covers way too much ground for there to be a general answer to that question, and states that seeking wisdom and truth for their own sakes is a nice idea but ‘history suggests that’s all it is’. He then notes that a lot of them have to do with a means for salvation. The means and the salvation vary as much as the philosophies themselves, and here the author gives an example of Buddhists believing that theirs is for ‘enlightenment’. However he then points out other philosophies, the ones that have stayed with us, have a certain motivation or deeply felt belief behind them; those, in other words, who wanted to change the world. Renee Descartes, for example, wanted a world rooted in the modern conception of science; Karl Marx wanted to liberate the working class. As for ourselves, if we have a purpose and view, it would do well for us to pursue what has already been said about what we attempt to do.
The author then says flat out that he hasn’t attempted to define philosophy, but rather ‘implied that it is an extremely broad term covering a very wide range of intellectual activities’. I myself agree that it’s hard to pin down what one means by philosophy; indeed, in the Philosophy Bites podcast, David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton asked a whole mess of modern philosophers about the meaning of philosophy, and absolutely nobody gave the same answer – unless you count simply laughing as an answer. The author then says that he will try to give his answer, though he’s certain he’s as correct as anybody else giving a different kind of answer.
What he describes as philosophy sounds like a natural progression of human beings from being focused on survival, to finally trying to live. Back in the day, we used to hunt animals and gather fruits, without even registering why we did things. But then somehow we gained the capacity to question why, which invariably helped things. Once we learned the laws of causation, and used it to our advantage, instead of simply observing things we started making things happen. As mankind’s mental capacity increased, more and more problems were solved but soon more and more mysteries arose, some of which the answers aren’t readily apparent or take considerably longer times to prove. As the author says, ‘life raised a host of questions, where previously it had simply been lived, unquestioningly’.  That must have been a huge turning point, a great crisis in the lives of our ancestors. The author concludes that ‘philosophy is the sound of the species trying to recover from that crisis’. Or, in other words, philosophy is us trying to make sense of our lives and the world in general. He admits that his description is rather broad, and even covers some fields which we now know as scientific, but points out that in different stages of history the term philosophy has meant different things; at one point in time, physics was one of the philosophical fields. Nowadays though, we tend to think that philosophy is something that university professors in philosophy departments do, which the author insists is too limiting a view. He ends the introduction by describing the few works he will discuss, and some advice on reading the book proper.
So let’s summarise. Philosophy is us trying to make sense of our lives, and the world in general. That includes attempting to answer the basic questions of ‘What should we do?’, ‘What is there?’ and ‘How do we know?’ Attempts at answering these have been motivated by a need for salvation in the afterlife, or a need to get at the truth, or a desire to change the world. However answering those questions, or philosophy, isn’t limited to some dude from two hundred years ago – everyone has some kind of answer to it, though not many people want to discuss it because a lot of it seems so weird. The study of philosophy is simply being a bit more reflective on these questions, and learning what has already been said about them, and why.
That’s the end of the column for today. Bear in mind this is just the beginning. Next week, hopefully, we walk with Edward Craig again while he discusses Plato’s Crito, which he uses as a launchpad into discussion of ‘What Should I Do?’ which, if you remember, is one of the basic philosophical questions described just now.
Hope you like this new direction I’m taking, and I hope to see you in the next Filosophy Friday column.

By Hafiz Tajuddin with No comments


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