Monday, October 25, 2010

The Civic Task of Philosophy

Ramin Jahanbegloo
October 13, 2010

As the UNESCO Philosophy Day nears its opening in one month in Tehran, it is time to reflect on the civic role of philosophy in today’s world. We live in a time of widespread ethical relativism which has created for the new generation an attitude of "anything goes", and, not unconnected with this, in a time of widespread public skepticism about the critical role of philosophy. Much of the public has come to believe that a Socratic commitment to the pursuit of truth is a waste of time and an idealistic way of living in our globalized world. Philosophers are presented as insignificant inventors of concepts whose sole aim in life is to struggle to get tenure-track job in North American and European universities.

As such, the claim that philosophy is a liberating activity is likely to be met with cynicism and derision. It is interesting to note that twenty-five hundred years ago Aristophanes, in his play, The Clouds, portrayed Socrates as an amoral Sophist who teaches Athenian youth to cheat through cunning arguments. However, Aristophanes’ dark comedy did not dissuade philosophers to address and put into question some of the basic beliefs of man’s existence in the world.

Among the central concerns of philosophy has been the challenge posed by the idea of freedom and its social and political organization. Why did philosophers care about the problem of freedom? Why is freedom the most important question for a philosopher to tackle? The answer to these two questions can be seen most clearly by examining the consequences of neglecting the issue of freedom. It goes without saying that freedom is the creative force behind philosophical thinking in the same way as philosophy contributes to the understanding and progress of the concept of freedom. Philosophers, therefore, tried to understand freedom as comprehensively and as critically as they could by making a contribution not only to its definition, but also beyond to its realization. Hegel’s remark is as true today as it was nearly 200 years ago when he affirmed that “No idea is so generally recognized as indefinite, ambiguous, and open to the greatest misconceptions (to which therefore it actually falls a victim) as the idea of freedom : none in common currency with so little appreciation of its meaning.” Freedom is a concept that has not only been poorly understood but also intensely misused. This dual unfortunate condition of freedom brings in the forefront of all philosophical discussion the idea that philosophy is a struggle for freedom as the idea that an important part of being free is thinking philosophically. As we can see, the problem of freedom arises within every consideration of the nature of philosophical questioning itself.

If the point of nature of philosophical questioning is to think the concept of freedom, so that human beings can conform to it, some account must be given of how human beings could have strayed from that questioning in the first place, and how it might be possible to return. In other words, philosophy is not only a mode of questioning about the idea of freedom and its social and political applications, but also a mode of thinking and interrogation on the absence of freedom. The mutual enframing of the problem of freedom and the problem of philosophical interrogation points to the possibility that these are two, complementary parts of a more fundamental problem: How is human action or human experience of politics shaped by the intertwining of philosophy and freedom? Rather than concurring with Kant and Sartre that our humanity resides in our freedom, perhaps we should recognize that to create the political is to embody the permanent tension between the institutionalization of freedom and the philosophical interrogation.

To the extent that we are free to think then we can switch to a broader examination of the process of thinking itself. We can, therefore, speak of freedom as philosophy's non-identical twin in the project of questioning and challenging the thinkable and practiced reality. To posit philosophy as a finished and exhaustive knowledge would be as if we defined and practiced freedom as the repetition of the same. The theological covering up of the philosophical interrogation goes hand in hand with the loss of the creative and revolutionary nature of freedom. To be sure, an individual who has already entered the philosophical questioning cannot avoid the explicit and free interrogation of positing other modes of thinking and other forms of the thinkable. It is fascinating to note that the philosophical questioning is a mode of thinking that can create cracks in the surrounding walls of the instituted thought. Philosophy as critical interrogation, therefore, takes place in the gap between free instituting thought and instituted thought. It is here that we might begin to understand why philosophy is the ongoing task of bringing freedom into political life as a lived corrective to the theological.

It is the civic task of philosophy to resist to the very idea of a total theory of reality. To demand that the political organization of a society be founded on a total and complete theory is, therefore, to declare politics non-thinkable and to put an end to the freedom of thinking otherwise and of thinking anew. In other words, there cannot be a democratic society without a democratic questioning or to say it more clearly without a civic questioning on the nature of democracy. The civic questioning is not restricted here to what Martin Luther King called “the thin paper” of democracy, but signifies the critical dimension of civic action that actively and practically forms and educates individuals. And herein resides the sphere of conflict between philosophical interrogation as critical questioning of established norms and meanings and as a mode of thinking positively oriented to freedom and democracy, and an onto-theological closure of all forms of questioning and expressed by a form of what Cornelius Castoriadis calls an “instituted heternomy”. This entails the further assertion that where Gods rule, there is no philosophy.

There is little point in talking and writing about philosophy without having to reflect on the nature of philosophy itself. This is the reason why, the function of the civic philosopher, as a person whose mind watches the inhumanities and injustices of the world, (and most of the time in the name of philosophy), should be maintained, even if the concept has lost today its political strength. The philosopher cannot be replaced by the tenure-track academic even if the temper of the time suggests it. Philosophers have still a lot to contribute to the democratization of democracy. They will certainly be useful to human societies, as long as humans continue to believe that philosophy is not a futile word. In a way, the civic task of philosophy today lies in the struggle between critical thinking and fanaticism. Whatever the price that philosophers will have to pay for their empty hands in the battle against thoughtless tyrannies and hegemonic dominations, we can hope for the victory of an inclusive democratic thought.

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