Tag Archives: Kant

Love, wisdom and wonder: three reasons to celebrate philosophy

The Conversation

By Matthew Beard, University of Notre Dame Australia

Today is UNESCO World Philosophy Day, a day aimed to “underline the enduring value of philosophy for the development of human thought, for each culture and for each individual”.

However, it was not so long ago that philosophy was the target of university funding cutbacks. Philosophy is commonly painted as a discipline defined by ivory tower musing and abstraction. We don’t often celebrate philosophy and many question its value. What makes philosophy so special?

We might start by saying a little about what philosophy actually is.

As every student who has ever enrolled in a philosophy subject knows, philosophy’s etymological roots lie in two Ancient Greek words: philo – loving, and sophia – wisdom. Thus, literally translated, philosophy is a love of wisdom.

This romantic notion is one that still resonates with philosophers today, but it doesn’t say much about what philosophy does, or what it offers to humanity. To answer that, we need to consider philosophy as an intellectual discipline.

Todd Lappin/Flickr

Aristotle argued that philosophy begins with wonder. In this he is right, but more precisely, philosophy begins when we wonder about something. It is – like every intellectual discipline – a way of asking questions about the nature of things. In this way, philosophy is born of the very basic human disposition toward asking questions.

More than that though, philosophy asks questions of a particular type. British philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that all disciplines are defined by the types of questions that they have been designed to answer. Again, the study begins with questions.

Most questions that human beings tend to ask can be divided into two categories: formal and empirical. Formal questions as those that can be answered by deduction from our knowledge of axiomatic truths: for instance, the answer to “are healthy behaviours ones that prolong our lives?” is discoverable merely by thinking logically about the concepts of health and life.

Empirical questions, by contrast, cannot be answered without observation of the material world. “Which behaviours are healthy?” cannot be answered without observing some large number of behaviours and tracking their effects on health.

However, there are another set of questions whose answers cannot be discovered either by formal or empirical inquiry. For instance, the question: “why should I be healthy?” or “should I fear losing my life?” cannot be deduced from the very concepts of life and health, nor discovered through observation of healthy, living beings.

These questions demand an entirely different method of analysis. This, Berlin argues, is what defines philosophical questions: ones that “cannot be answered either by observation or calculation.“ This describes our questions about life and health. To answer these questions requires a kind of knowledge that neither formal nor empirical inquiry can attain. In this case, we need an understanding of the value of human life.

Values cannot be observed: nor are they (with apologies to Immanuel Kant) mere matters of deduction from self-evident truths. Rather, they imply entirely new kinds of questions about value, right and wrong, and the relevant context. Today, determining whether, and under what conditions, life is valuable is as pertinent a question as ever – despite all our advances in scientific analysis and a deepening understanding of what life – as a concept – actually is.

Answering a question like this requires more than clinical facts regarding levels of pain, likelihood of recovery, or quality of life. They require serious thinking about questions such as whether existence is always preferable to non-existence, the relationship between death and non-existence, the moral significance of suffering, and the importance of individual autonomy.

Philosophy matters, simply, because the answers to philosophical questions matter. Not only is it a matter of life and death, but a matter of, to name a few examples, the nature of law, the role of language, where morality comes from, whether there is a God, whether there is a self and what constitutes our identity, and what beauty is. What makes these questions important is not only that they help societies to function (although they certainly do), but that they reflect something deeply fundamental about human beings: that we are physical creatures, but our consciousness is not restricted to physical matters. Indeed, philosophy is both reflective and perfective of human nature.

As author and philosopher C.S. Lewis explained, although we are physically embodied, most of the things that give our lives value are less tangible than material reality, and philosophy is among them:

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.

Aristotle thought that philosophical reflection was the perfection of human living. He might have been overreaching a little bit, but there can be no question of the value that reflection adds to our lives.

There is only so much that talking about philosophy can persuade of its value though.

Today, on World Philosophy Day, I encourage you to give it a try yourself. Find a philosopher – there are plenty on Twitter and every university faculty member has an email address – get in touch and see what it’s like first hand. All you need is curiosity, and the right question.

The ConversationMatthew Beard does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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Free your mind – but are there ideas we shouldn’t contemplate?

The Conversation
By Matthew Beard, University of Notre Dame Australia

You’re a free thinker – congratulations – but does that mean you can, and should, approach everything with an open mind? Let me try to convince you you shouldn’t.

I do not want to argue with him: he shows a corrupt mind.

So remarked Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), a giant of 20th century moral philosophy. She was referring to the kind of person who is open to being convinced of something that is intrinsically unjust, such as a court judicially punishing an innocent man.

This seems to be the antithesis of what a moral philosopher ought to do. Her judgement seems to display a dogmatic close-mindedness to the free thinking that philosophy typifies, and an intolerant disposition toward different ideas. To dismiss the reflective, well-considered thinking of another person – even if it leads to uncomfortable conclusions – is the stuff of ideology, not philosophy.

Or so it seems.

Philosophy is, as any undergraduate student has been told, a love of wisdom and a quest for truth. Philosophers are good at recognising the complexity of truth, and accepting that there is merit in a wide range of different positions. They are also good at explaining why common assumptions are oftentimes problematic, and are therefore masters of qualifying terms:

I agree, but; Yes, insofar as; I think that’s true, on the condition that …

Philosophy begins, as Aristotle remarked, with curiosity and wonder.

Socrates, the pedagogical role model of Western philosophy, saw himself as a gadfly whose constant questioning of unreflective beliefs stung the vacuous horse of the Athenian political system.

Immanuel Kant similarly described the work of David Hume as having awakened him from his “dogmatic slumber”. Once awakened, a mind is hungry for and open to a close and authentic engagement with the truth – this hunger, like the taste for Pringles, is hard to stop once it has begun.

Is everything open to questioning? Are certain things so patently unethical that even being open to believing in them if one hears a persuasive enough argument is demonstrative of a deficient character?

Riccardo Romano

Everyone believes, to borrow an example from Quentin Tarantino’s revenge film, Kill Bill, that sexually abusing a person who had fallen into a coma from which she is not expected to wake is wrong.

What, however, are we to think of the person who argues that “at the moment I think that those practices are immoral, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise”? Is this a virtuous commitment to truth – or a cold and de-personalised detachment from morality?

Reasonable disagreement on complex issues such as commercial surrogacy, the extent of the right to privacy, or same-sex marriage isn’t demonstrative of anything other than the importance of the goods at stake and the wonderful capacity of human beings to form their own opinion.

In such cases tolerance, open-mindedness and respectful debate are virtues of utmost importance. But as Patrick Stokes has argued already in this series, just because we haven’t settled every moral question doesn’t mean that truth is completely subjective. Just because people disagree on some matters doesn’t mean that they do, or even should, disagree on all of them.

One of the mistakes people often make about moral philosophy is that once one becomes a philosopher, one must discover the truth by themselves. Melbourne philosopher Raimond Gaita describes the consensus view of the true philosopher as being so strongly committed to truth that he or she should “follow the argument wherever it leads”.

Gaita is rightly critical of this position but nevertheless the belief prevails: to shirk hard truths is not becoming of a philosopher. It betrays truth, cowing to popular opinion and a deference to assumption that undermines the very practice of philosophy.

Except that philosophy is itself a moral activity.

Philosophy isn’t (primarily) a profession, nor is it a tool of argument. Philosophy is a way of living and being in the world, and the philosopher is, like every other person, shaping him or herself through reflection, questioning, and analysis.

Should I ever allow myself to become a person who believes that the rape of a comatose person, or any other person, is justified, or – to cite a recent controversy – that “after-birth abortion” (also known as infanticide) might be a justifiable practice?

Of this thinking, Gaita remarks that, “were my commitment to philosophy to tempt to me such nihilism, I would give up philosophy, fearful of what I was becoming.”

I think Gaita is right, but it is important here to distinguish between discussion of a belief and the belief itself. In a Western society, no discussion should be taboo.

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) faced a host of criticism for arranging a talk entitled “Honour Killings are Morally Justified”. I think it would be wrong to host such a talk with the hope or belief that people might be persuaded of its truth – but I don’t think hosting a talk on honour killings, with the intention of understanding how the practice is justified by some, of hearing why it takes place, could ever be condemned as immoral.

As I argued at the time, FODI organisers were wrong to title the talk as they did, but they weren’t wrong to want such a talk to occur.

We can discuss which beliefs are ones which it is simply wrong to be open to persuasion regarding; in some ways, that might be a matter of private determination, but we ought to agree that such things exist.

Indeed, any truth, once we recognise it to be true, ought to be clung to. “Test everything. Hold fast to that which is good.” wrote St Paul to the Thessalonians. Be willing to listen, but recognise that what one is willing to be convinced of, or what one is willing to be persuaded from, is itself a moral choice.

“No man wishes to possess the whole world,” Aristotle wrote, “if he must first become somebody else.”

Part of what defines a person, a society, and humanity, must be what we refuse, absolutely, to allow ourselves to become – not only as actors, but as thinkers too.

This is part of a series on public morality in 21st century Australia. We’ll be publishing regular articles on morality on The Conversation in the coming weeks.

The ConversationMatthew Beard does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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