Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Should philosophers be politically active?

I've been thinking about this question in response to a comment from a colleague of mine (who works in the School of Social Sciences) that philosophy, the way it is done in the Philippines, doesn't seem to be sufficiently "applied."

Here's an excerpt from one of my two responses to him:


I was thinking about how to express better what I said about philosophers feeling that philosophy isn't necessarily an "applied" area of the humanities, because I don't think I expressed it very well. So I'm going to try again, and I apologize in advance if this is a little long ....

I suppose it's something like this. A good economist (I think) presumes that economic development is good, and looks for an economic theory that will best lead to economic development. A good political scientist (I'm presuming) already has certain presumptions about his vision of what effective politics is, and looks for the political theory that will best actualize that vision. A good catechist presumes certain doctrines about God and faith, and looks for the best theological framework to explain those ideas to catechumens in a way that the catechumens can apply those ideas to life.

Many philosophers believe, however, that if a philosopher wants to do philosophy, he has to be "free" enough to be able to question the very notion of "economic development" (not just what it is, but even whether it's actually desirable) or "effective politics" or the presumptions about God and faith.

If he espouses the "application" of only one particular economic or political theory, then that binds him to that theory and stifles the philosophical freedom to question the very premises of economics/politics. As a colleague of mine said, once "application" becomes the "end-goal," you're no longer doing philosophy, but ideology or indoctrination (which is okay if you're, say, a catechism teacher or a political activist, but that isn't philosophy).

(Actually, sometimes I get uncomfortable with the way political debates are handled in school, because I do feel that sometimes they tend to be of the "indoctrinating" type rather than the dialogical type ... but maybe that reflects a failure of us philosophers more than anything else [something I'll talk about again later on].)

This doesn't mean that the philosopher believes his philosophies shouldn't be applied; rather, that the application of philosophies is not necessarily the task of the philosopher himself. The philosopher's job in society is to think about ideas that other people take for granted as "truth" and question/challenge the premises of those ideas, while it's the task of other people to "apply" the theories that they individually choose to subscribe to. Many philosophers feel, however, that the good philosopher himself should never "subscribe" with finality or permanence to any one philosophy because the premise of philosophy as an activity is that the philosopher never has the final answer; he/she always has to be willing to question the ideas he (or others) have previously held.

This also doesn't mean that philosophy has nothing to do with real problems. I agree with you whole-heartedly that philosophy shouldn't just be about dropping names of dead white men (or women), and I strongly believe that any philosopher worthy of the name is motivated by *true* questions (i.e., questions about concrete reality, or tungkol sa talagang nagmemeron, as Fr. Ferriols would say).

That having been said, I personally do think it's wonderful and admirable and important when philosophy-trained people go out and do find practical "applications" for the philosophies they've chosen to espouse for the time being ... however, I also tend to agree that those activities aren't part of philosophy anymore and aren't necessarily intrinsic to the philosophical activity.

The only "application" (if you can call it such) that I do think is an intrinsic part of philosophy is the activity of dialog: I think every philosopher has the responsibility to promote dialog and questioning, and to encourage all people (especially the people whose "jobs" are more "active" than contemplative) to stop every now and then and be willing to critically question their ultimate presumptions.

Through Google, I found this link (PDF) to a document written, coincidentally, by a philosopher who has come to our school a few times to give talks, Fr. Patrick Riordan.

No comments: