Philosophers have a love for opening minds

By By Deen Chatterjee

By Deen Chatterjee

Professional philosophers are members of the world’s second oldest profession. Etymologically, “philosophy” means “love of wisdom,” so a professional philosopher is a professional lover. But perhaps that’s not the best way to be, because professional lovers are the worst of all lovers. To be a professional in love sometimes takes the fun out of love and makes it unexciting.

However, a professional philosopher has his or her fun and excitement in the classroom, where he or she gets to “corrupt” young people’s minds. Socrates was the first known philosopher who was charged with corrupting youth. He was later forced to drink hemlock for his transgressions.

These days, we are spared the hemlock for pursuing the Socratic profession, but I believe Socrates was lucky because he didn’t have to drink the Union’s coffee. In any case, philosophers remain as suspect today as they were in the time of Socrates. To help young people open up to new and different ideas is often deemed tantamount to corrupting their precious souls.

Why would people be threatened by a love of wisdom? Perhaps because philosophical speculation questions dogma. Religious fanatics are the clearest examples of the dogmatic mind, though such fanatics can often be rather amiable, with a Pat Boone smile. The only thing they should be commended for is that they make heaven look unattractive and hell a real fun place to be.

The prospect of spending the rest of eternity-which is a hell of a long time-in the company of Pat Robertson is very boring, if not scary. Hell, on the other hand, is where the party is.

A philosophy teacher must let his or her students know that being open-minded is not the same as mindlessness. A person who claims that it is groovy to drink beer, smoke pot and copulate copiously needn’t be any more open-minded than a pathological prude, who is a person with the nagging fear that somebody is having fun somewhere.

Perhaps the greatest gift a philosophy teacher can give to his or her students is to make them appreciate the value of reason, though one must be aware of reason’s limits. Faith is often salvaged by what we can’t know, which makes faith therapeutic and the faithful rather humble-but if faith is saved by what we do not know, then that faith is arrogant and no good.

Socrates proclaimed that an unexamined life is not worth living. The path to the examined life starts early, in the college days or even before. To broaden the intellectual horizon of the students, the philosophy teacher must challenge them to question conventional ideas and accepted beliefs, let them explore all sides of an issue and allow them to draw their own reasoned conclusions.

Our society cares less about being rational and more about coming out on top. To counter this trend, students should know that a reasoned conclusion carries more weight than an unsupported or largely emotional claim or one supported by faulty arguments. Students must give up the idea of “your” reasons and “my” reasons and learn how to decide between good reasons and bad reasons.

By mastering the art of clear thinking, philosophy students can gain an important sense of autonomy in a society held hostage by experts, authorities and statistics. But philosophical inquiry needn’t be confined to the one-dimensional intellectual pursuit of ideas. In fact, philosophy at its best is not divorced from daily life-instead, it can be a valuable guide to life.

Philosophy is not afraid to ask the big questions, though it cautions against simplistic answers. Socrates didn’t claim to have answers. Though it is still a matter of dispute whether his characteristic professed ignorance was just a facade or true humility, he gave us the Socratic method that is so useful as a teaching tool.

Though philosophy is not keen on providing answers, it can still be a valuable guide to life. In fact, systematic and serious study of philosophy can be useful and therapeutic precisely because it shows us that it is more important to question intelligently than to settle for a quick fix. This can have a liberating effect on a society that acts in haste to get results right away.

Nietzsche once said that most people are born posthumously. Unfortunately, he was right. Most people don’t live-they simply exist. They are not curious, nor do they challenge themselves to explore. Instead of responding to the big issues of the day, these people wistfully look back at the good old days when sex was dirty, air was clean and Michael Jackson was black.

But the only good thing about the good old days is that they are gone. Those were the days when people were locked into a social pattern of injustice, ignorance and mindless conformity. Today, however, as we look forward to the new possibilities that confront us, philosophy can be a big help. Intellectual curiosity that philosophy generates is an exciting antidote to boredom, stagnation and a dangerous passivity. It gives us a wake-up call.

Philosophy can be a valuable guide to life by stimulating ideas that are not only relevant for a personal philosophy of life but crucial to collectively creating a better world. Philosophy is the only discipline that challenges the foundational categories of our thought system and asks the big normative questions of life without predetermined answers. Thus, while its method is rigorous conceptual analysis, its goal is open-ended.

All this is ideally suited for the politics of the impossible that eventually generate social changes and movements for a more just world.

Robert Kennedy articulated the politics of the impossible in these words: “Some people see things as they are and ask ‘why,’ but I dream of things which never were and ask, ‘why not?'”

The idealism of Robert Kennedy was symptomatic of an earlier time that was going through a much-needed transition and social upheaval. This idealism is missing today, especially among our students. Philosophy teachers are poised to rekindle it. Consequently, in our mass culture bent on systematic moronization, philosophy professors should regard corrupting the youth as their sacred duty.

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