Due to unforeseen circumstances, Gary Cox had to pull out of Tuesday’s Cafe. We hope to have Gary back soon to talk to us about existentialism. Tuesday evening saw Steve Brigley lead an improvised session on the above theme instead, with enthusiastic participation from the audience, giving us an opportunity to step back and reflect on our views of philosophy and its importance.
Each café table group agreed up to four key points to present back in the plenary discussion. Some of the key ideas were that philosophy:
- Offers tools for change
- Re-defines horizons of inquiry
- Critical questioning
- Challenge/build frameworks
- Explore consciousness/psyche
- Apply theoretical approaches to real world problems
- Thought experiments
- Justification on objective grounds
- How to live – meaning of life/ ethics
- Rationalisation of knowledge areas
- Love of wisdom
- Questions everything
- Understanding history of thought
- Tools to explore questions of life and death
- Logical thinking to solve life’s problems
- Clarifies language/ideas, aids mutual understanding
- Make sense of self, society, the human condition
- Basis for society, law, politics
- A priori inquiry (not empirical)
- Metaphysics and epistemology
- Intuition and imagination
- Philosophy as a practice
- Philosophy as an ‘empty book’
- Question reality, compare perspectives
Reviewing these points, many felt philosophy has the power to transform how we understand our lives and how we live (6, 9, 14, 17). This reminds us of the dictum ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ (Plato in the Apology). Philosophy may even inform political and social change (1, 14, 18). For Plato, the philosophical examination of life is a rational activity: philosophers are lovers of wisdom (11) whose powers of reason give them unique knowledge of ‘the Good.’ Plato went so far as to outline an ideal state ruled by philosopher kings (never fully implemented, though some monarchs in 18th century Europe flirted with philosophy).
Philosophy conducted by reasoned argument offers a method to interrogate human existence, one which brings logical thinking, critical scrutiny, scepticism, and conceptual clarity to our reasoning on a range of issues (3, 6, 15, 16, 19). It may also allow room for intuition (e.g. having a hunch that an argument is ‘fishy’) and imagination, as in ‘thought experiments’ and novels (7, 21).
Philosophy may provide foundations, define limits and advance understanding of other areas of inquiry and social practices (2, 4, 8,10). John Locke claimed that, by clarifying concepts underpinning the sciences, philosophy would support the advances being made by scientific giants like Newton. On his view, the philosopher is ‘an under-labourer removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge.’ But is Locke’s view too narrow? Winch argues that philosophy has its own agenda, in which the relationship of thought and reality – how we make sense of, and know, ourselves and the world (5, 17, 20, 24) – has always been central. Indeed, we can learn a lot from the history of thought and the diverse traditions in which philosophical practices are grounded (13, 22).
In this Café, a familiar opposition emerged: between those (e.g. linguistic philosophers) who view philosophy as a self-contained practice that ‘leaves everything as it is’ (Wittgenstein) and those (e.g. Marxists and existentialists) who feel it should engage with and even transform the individual and society. Should philosophy interpret the world or try to change it (Marx)?