Philosophy and the Contemporary World

The following is a talk I will give at the office of the UNESCO here in Bangkok. Today (November 18) is UNESCO World Philosophy Day, and I was invited to give a talk on this occasion.


Today is a joyous occasion. We are celebrating the World Philosophy Day. Usually philosophers do not receive much recognition from the society in which he or she is a part. So the establishment of World Philosophy Day by the UNESCO is very welcome. And today we are reflecting on the role of philosophy in society. The question is how philosophy is relevant in the contemporary world.

But before we do that let us pause for a moment and think of what philosophy actually is. Philosophy is a strange discipline in that it has always been in crisis. Philosophers have thought for a very long time that there are forces that threaten the very existence of philosophy. Not only are philosophers thinking about this problem nowadays, but they actually thought that philosophy had a precarious existence at best for almost as long as there is philosophy. It is no surprise that lay people tend to think of philosophers as woolly eyed visionary who are deeply impractical and do not fit with the world. The story of Thales immediately comes to one’s mind. As is perhaps well known, Thales, who was credited as the world’s first philosophy, thought that water was the key ingredient in all things. According to the story, one day Thales was walking, but his eyes were fixed on the heaven. As he did not see what was directly in front of him, he fell down a well while he was walking and watching the starts at the same time. Philosophers today are scarcely better than Thales in this regard.

So we are back to the question. Being thought to be a highly impractical subject, when then is philosophy? This is not an easy question to answer, and in fact philosophers have grappled with this question for a long time. One thing we can be rather certain is this: Philosophy is not a professional discipline in the same way as medicine or law is. Doctors and lawyers are very practical people; they know exactly what they are doing and what results get from that. But what about the philosopher?

Medicine and law become practical by answering to the immediate needs of the people, namely their sickness and their disputes with their neighbors. Philosophy, on the other hand, does not answer such immediate needs. The basic question of philosophy, one that also preoccupied Thales, is: What is the basic constitution of reality? Thales’ answer is only the beginning. One might think instead that this question is a scientific one, and physicists are better equipped than philosophers to provide an answer. Perhaps it is so, but the “basic constitution” here goes much deeper than the typical physical science would have it. In the views of some philosophers, the basic constitution of reality is not material at all. On the contrary reality as we perceive it is made up entirely by the mind. The whole reality is but a projection of some mind and most of us think of it instead as “hard rock.” This is something no physicist has tackled seriously yet.

So philosophy is a kind of asking questions and searching for answers, where the questions are very general, pointing to the deep seated desire of us human beings to look for ultimate meaning behind all things. Another philosopher, Martin Heidegger, asks a very poignant question: Why is it that there is something rather than nothing? This question points directly at our place in the world, our own reflective, meaning-finding characteristic. To ask this question and other philosophical questions is the predicament of us reflective human beings.

So we can say that philosophy is a kind of activity consisting of asking very general question and searching for answers. Since the questions are very general, answers are not easy to be found. It is understandable, then, that philosophers always disagree with one another. I think this is the most visible character of philosophy in the eyes of the general public. This is also reinforced by the way philosophy is taught in colleges. Teachers today almost always refrain from giving their own viewpoints and their own answers to philosophical questions, preferring instead to let the students believe that there are “no right or wrong answers” in philosophy. I myself, I have to admit, am also guilty of this. But to let people think that philosophy has no right or wrong answers is very dangerous to the health of philosophy, and could be the single most devastating reason for society to scrap all of philosophy to the junkyard of history.

Philosophers in ancient times certainly did not believe that philosophy admitted of no right or wrong answers. All of them believed that their views were correct, and each was at pain to refute the others’ argument. Perhaps teachers of philosophy should try to bring back this ancient passion of firmly believing that one’s version is “the truth” back to our classrooms. In fact, of all of the famous philosophers in the pantheon, not a single one actually believed that philosophy admits of no right or wrong answers.

So how could one account for the fact that there is no question in philosophy that has been answered definitively so that there is no need for any search for answer any longer? This is the predicament of philosophy as mentioned earlier. But the fact that all previous attempts to provide definitive answers in philosophy have failed should not lead us to conclude that there are no rights or wrong answers.We need to believe that there are right and wrong answers; otherwise philosophy will be nothing more than hot air.

This last point leads us back to our initial question. Philosophy’s being a very general discipline that asks foundational questions, and its method of finding answers through debates and discussions, makes it highly relevant in today’s world. Asking and searching for answers to very general questions not only helps us gain a bird’s eye view so that we can comprehend things better, it is also practical because it trains us to be able to imagine, to see things which are not there at the moment. Furthermore, debates and discussions encouraged by philosophy helps students to grasp the point or the main idea of talks and passages quickly and to hone one’s reasoning skills. This can be useful, if anything, in the courtroom. In fact many lawyers have had their first training as a philosopher.

So what, then, is philosophy? It’s an attempt by us human beings to find meanings in the world, deep meanings, superficial meanings, all of them. The ancient character of philosophy of asking very general questions and searching for answers through debates and discussions makes it relevant in today’s world. It is all the more so when no other disciplines care to do this important task, appearing to let philosophy take it up, which we philosophers should not let pass by. And on the World Philosophy Day, we are now reflective and re-emphasize this important mission of philosophy when it serves us all in society.

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