UNESCO World Philosophy Day

Thursday 15th November marks UNESCO world philosophy day. This is a day wherein philosophy is celebrated throughout the world. Many departments of philosophy host special events or celebrations to mark this day.

It is right and just that we take a day to celebrate philosophy, for whilst the designation of ‘philosophical’ can often come across as quite negative (‘that’s all just philosophical’), there is an importance to philosophy that often goes unnoticed.

I think the importance to philosophy is illustrated by a famous story said of Thales. Thales was walking along one day and as he was looking at the sky observing the heavenly bodies, he fell into a well. We naturally think that Thales was quite foolish and absent minded for falling into the well, that he could not see beyond the end of his nose and look where he was going. But let’s consider this.

Thales was no fool; he was said to have predicted an eclipse. In order to do this he had to go through the painstaking observations of the heavens and abstract from that the principles of their motion and position in the sky, and then from that deduce where the heavenly bodies would be at a future date. This is a task many today would find challenging, never mind a few thousand years ago. Clearly Thales was a very intelligent individual, so what does his falling into the well have to say about the importance of philosophy?

Thales’s intelligence is revealed precisely in his missing the well because he was observing the heavens. He moves his attention away from the here and now and focuses on those realities without which there would be no here and now at all. Such a shifting of attention can make Thales comes across as stupid, unconcerned with everyday life, useless to the community; but in fact he is thinking through and trying to understand what the community in their everydayness take for granted. And this is what the philosopher does; in pursuing the different branches of philosophy, he goes beyond the concrete particular to consider that without which the concrete particular would be unintelligible. The philosopher is of service to the community precisely because it is he who understands being and its intelligibility.

The same thought can be drawn from a famous parable in Plato’s Republic. In the Republic, Plato, through the character of Socrates, outlines the myth of the cave. He asks us to imagine prisoners trapped in a cave from birth, unable to move so that they can only see the wall in front of them. Behind them is a fire and between them and the fire their captors parade objects from the outside world so that shadows appear on the wall before the prisoners. Not knowing any better, the prisoners naturally assume that the shadows are real things and that the talk of the captors comes from the shadows. However, a prisoner escapes and exits the cave. Immediately he is dazzled by the light and can only come out on a moonless night. Even in such darkness he can see that objects have more reality, more depth to them, than the shadows of the cave. Eventually he can come out in the light of the moon and see even more to the objects than before. And ultimately he can stand the full light of day and see objects in all their luminosity. This prisoner cannot return to the safety and confines of the cave; for not only is it not the real world, his eyes can no longer see in the darkness. His fellow prisoners would naturally assume that his journey outside the cave has damaged him and given the chance they would kill him.

There are many interpretative levels to this parable. The primary one is illustrative of Plato’s philosophy of the Forms or Ideas such that our everyday reality is founded upon the reality of the Forms, and it relates to the Forms like the shadows of the cave relate to objects outside the cave.

But there is a salutary lesson here for the study of philosophy. To study philosophy we must escape the cave of everydayness; and the first time we do this it is dazzling (it’s not easy studying philosophy!). We can only glimpse philosophy bit by bit. But the more we turn to it, the more we become accustomed to its light. Once we are at home with philosophy we are no longer at home in the cave, and indeed if we as philosophers try to return to the cave, we are shunned and avoided – we just don’t make sense to people anymore. We are like Thales, looking at things beyond and not focusing on the everyday; to many we seem to be of no use; like the escaped prisoner, our eyes are blinded to everyday reality.

However, the study of philosophy allows us to see the reality behind the humdrum of the everyday. We see things are intelligible and capable of being understood; indeed we offer accounts for precisely how all of reality can be understood and thereby justify what many sciences take for granted. We offer accounts of what it is to engage in action and what kind of action we ought to engage in; thus philosophy is pivotal for thinking through how one ought to live and act. Philosophers are critical in their thinking and do not take for granted something simply because some authority says it is so; indeed logic is the special domain of the philosopher. Through the application of logic and critical thinking, philosophers look for justification for any belief on offer. Indeed, when it comes to God and religion, philosophers engage with these issues and offer systematic defences of the existence of God and the truths of religion. In short, the pursuit of philosophy enables the philosopher to pursue a life lived well. This may not be of immediate utilitarian benefit, but it is something of everlasting benefit, since the life lived well is something that remains even when all utilitarian benefits are gone, and this is because the philosopher living that life remains throughout the comings and goings of riches and poverty.

Philosophy is worth the pursuit and effort that it takes to study it, and whilst many will not study it systematically at a high level, all are capable of engaging with the works of the great philosophers and getting something from them. In doing so, one will find that one becomes more reasonable in one’s thinking and better able to step back from arguments and disagreements in order to take a critical view of matters. Whilst philosophy may not have an explicit utilitarian benefit in the way that business studies might, the ability to adopt a calm and reasonable attitude to vexed issues open for public discussion is certainly a valuable consequence of the study of philosophy in this day and age.

Dr Gaven Kerr