On philosophy

February 7, 2016

When I was a language assistant in France, many years ago, I borrowed a school philosophy textbook and read it. It was an eye-opener, a revelation: sixth-formers were expected to follow a basic outline course in philosophy! The book was a great help with the remainder of my university studies, and I still occasionally go back to the notes I made from it, as a basic starting-point. Why didn’t we get to do this in England?

I’ve never made any systematic study of philosophy; some aspects still give me a headache when I try to think about them. And yet it’s fascinating stuff, and for me it has always, inevitably been linked with a spiritual journey, and has therefore overlapped with a more than passing interest in theology; aspects of theology are also capable of making my brain hurt…

As humans, we are uniquely conscious of our eventual and inevitable mortality; the question of how to face this bravely, with awareness, is surely the key to much of our species’ thinking through the ages. How do we seek to live well, to feel satisfied and even contented in what we do and achieve in our limited allocation of mortal time? How do we accept our approaching end? What is there to think and believe about the nature of the world, the universe and its purpose – if there is one?

My limited acquaintance with various thinkers hasn’t produced any magic answers. The wisdom of different cultures has varied through time: the Greeks and Romans seem to have sought to accept and become resigned to our lot; the Chinese look at how to live a good and virtuous life (which I find helpful most of the time). Christianity and Islam, being more religious than merely philosophical belief systems, urge followers to think of the possible hereafter and its rewards or punishments, and have ended up creating temporal systems with enormous amounts of power over both followers and non-followers. And more recently, as our scientific knowledge has advanced by leaps and bounds (though perhaps further in the minds of non-scientists than with scientists themselves) has emerged a tendency to shrink God and the religious or spiritual, or even to seek to eliminate them completely; science becomes the god instead… and yet, such an approach has just as many limitations as what it seeks to replace, if not more, as well as apparently permitting the pillaging of the planet along the way.

Having long had a very logical and rational streak in me, I have striven to understand a solely material world and failed: there is, for me a higher plane which for need of a better word I call spiritual; there are higher things and more complex questions than our limited intellects can fathom.

Philosophy also posits the possibility of perfectibility, which brings us back to the utopian yearnings I wrote of a few days ago. There is a very powerful drive to individual fulfilment, which is inevitably at cross-purposes with our social nature which seeks to co-operate with our fellow-creatures for our greater good. It appears to me that sometimes Western philosophy is very limited in its outlook, in the sense that it originates from, and reflects that currently very powerful part of the world that calls the shots for everyone on the planet; the individualist strand is justified (justifies itself) and achieves a hegemonic position, as supposedly leading to the greatest wealth and profit, determining the political, social and economic lives of everyone. Where that leaves me is – are we asking ourselves the right questions?

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