Philosophy at the centre stage

Philosophy at the centre stage

Book Title: The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the digital age

Author: by Scott Soames.

Shelley Walia

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates suggests that ‘philosophers study and prepare for death, learning that it is not to be feared.’ Philosophers must dwell on it, not for the purpose of replacing religion, but ‘to articulate a rational approach to life that helps individuals that they need to face their own mortality, while continuing to contribute to the reason and evidence-based project of improving human societies.’ We certainly need beliefs to endow our lives with some purpose, beliefs founded not on passion, but on rational empirical knowledge of ‘who we are, what we most value, what we are capable of, and what we cannot escape.’

The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the digital age
by Scott Soames.
Princeton University Press.
Pages 464.
$30

In his recent book, Scott Soames explores how it is not only politics, science, technology or the humanities, but also ethics that need to be relentlessly reinterpreted and reconceptualised in changing contexts. Philosophy’s idea of rational inquiry has thus become the basis of all theoretical knowledge as well as practical wisdom. Inexhaustible contributions to the way we understand ourselves has an impact on the individual as well as our shared lives. The path, Soames argues, to happiness, virtue, existence and the finality of death, as well as the centrality of our correlation to history, depends on this merger of philosophical and empirical investigations. The foundation of reason and experiential explanations join hands with the intellectual energy of western philosophy to chart a course of human development in terms of education, law and the social sciences.

Taking, for instance, the example of the Covid catastrophe and its apocalyptic ramifications on human life, one could argue that the contemporary affairs of the state, unlike the practice in the ancient Greek Senate, ignores the bearing of philosophy on different disciplines, intellectual enterprises, and universal concerns. To meet the present challenges, we need to confidently ‘articulate a rational life-plan’. It is for this reason that New Zealand has begun to conduct the affairs of the state by inviting scholars and thinkers from various disciplines to be on the think-tank to formulate a discerning, all-embracing road-map to face the current turbulence. Left in the hands of the elected representatives and civil servants, the action taken is ad hoc and rather knee-jerk with several negative repercussions as apparent in the loss of jobs and the malaise of hunger overwhelming millions. Germany, too, has taken the timely step of inviting academics to help the state and navigate the ethical balancing act of reopening society while safeguarding life. Only a handful of natural scientists and virologists find place on a 26-strong expert group consisting largely of philosophers, historians, theologians and jurists.

Sadly, philosophy stays within the four walls of the academia, where it passively retreats into the textual rather than be integrated into everyday life as well as become the bulwark of resistance to the arbitrary state power and its violence. It is often overlooked that philosophy is indeed a substitute for the theoretical position of the Left giving a galvanising call to political leaders to use the minds of philosophers in discussing political and social issues. Such was the practice followed by President François Mitterrand who fell back on a long tradition from classical Greece, in which a transparent leadership sought to take full advantage of the minds of philosophers and social scientists, encouraging a meaningful conversation between the statesman and the thinker.

In the present times, philosophy is ubiquitous from media to the arts, from culture industry to global capitalism. It livens up cafes and clubs, and is universally at the disposal of corporate entrepreneurs and major state commissions. In such a context, Soames dismisses philosophy’s submissive role in upholding laws of nature or the state.

He demonstrates the power of certain undying truths and transforms the role of philosophy from being merely about human concerns for survival to something more engaging, always proposing new-fangled problems and arriving at novel solutions. Thus the philosopher constantly intervenes in situations, whether historical, political, artistic, or scientific. In this lies the real philosophical exigency for throwing light on the fundamental choice of thought as well as the distance between rationality and greed for power.

Philosophy’s ethical and political intervention is necessary to ascertain the nature of questions we ask as well as confront the fact that we are often asking the wrong questions. Is communism a bad idea? What is the role of the Left in France? What lies ahead for humanity? The driving forces behind philosophy are concepts and age-old truths which demand answers to fundamental questions of human progress to evolve endlessly. Aristotle emphasises in Book 1 of his Metaphysics, ‘All men by nature desire to know’. In addition to the understanding of the world, we aspire to seek first-rate societies. For Scott Soames, philosophy is about everyday life and the questions we ask about it. As he maintains, ‘For me, “progress” is a term qualifying interaction, e.g. between interlocutors. And insofar as philosophy can be seen as a form of conversation, it certainly allows for progress. I don’t particularly care whether the progressive elements lie more in the problems or answers or in the methods of tackling them.’ The foremost diktat of philosophy or for that matter, any human science is: ‘Never accept the world as it is.’