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In Good Faith: How philosophy became impractical

Once upon a time, the love of wisdom was not just something confined to the realm of academia. It was a way of life.

Written by K.P. Shankaran | Published: October 23, 2017 12:45 am
Philosophy, Philosophy schools, origin of philosophy, Greek philosophers, Locke, mahatma gandhi, indian express, express column “Philosophy” (pure theory) is now confined to university departments. Outside of universities there is no real urge to understand its significance. (Photo for Representational Purpose)

Philosophy literally means love of wisdom. While every one may understand what love is, the word wisdom may need some explanation. Wisdom, according to the Oxford dictionary is “the quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgment”. The Cambridge English dictionary also describes wisdom in more or less the same terms as “the ability to use knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgment”. That both these dictionaries carry the idea of “good decisions judgment” in their definition of wisdom is significant. The love of wisdom is not just of “knowing that” but more importantly it is a love of practical knowledge. What kind of a practical know-how is the object of this love? I believe it is the know-how that transforms a person from her baser state of being to an ethically higher state of existence.

The word “philosophy” is of Greek origin. It is undeniable that the Greeks developed distinctive styles of self-transformation and also deployed theories and arguments to defend these styles. Similar developments happened in Chinese and Indian civilisations. These two civilisations also, much earlier than the Greeks, developed and cultivated mechanisms for self-transformation technologies and deployed arguments and theoretical discourses to back them up.

Even though these technologies of self had a close family resemblance with their Greek counterparts, European “philosophers” from the 17th century CE, like John Locke, were inclined to question and subsequently even deny the contribution of these ancient civilisations and tried to project philosophy as a unique achievement of Europe. This is not particularly surprising if one considers the level of historical scholarship available to thinkers like John Locke. But that alone is not the reason for their dismissal: What the likes of Locke understood by philosophy had nothing do with the idea of philosophy as love of wisdom which was central to all Greek philosophers. When Locke and his tribe started using the word philosophy, it had totally lost its association with wisdom and transformed itself as synonym of pure theory.

This transformation happened when Christianity became a state religion and closed down the Athenaeum academy in 529 CE. Philosophy was no longer a way of life. It was replaced by a new religious way of life — Christianity. Transformation-of-self technologies associated with the Greeks were all appropriated by Christianity and these were circulated as Christian spiritual practices. The theoretical parts of philosophical practise were used to develop a theology for Christianity. From then on, philosophy in Europe only referred to a theoretical activity, at times serving the interests of religion and occasionally fulfilling secular interests.

Until recently, the history of the metamorphosis of philosophy as a way of life into a purely theoretical activity had not been told. It was Pierre Hadot, the French historian of Greek philosophy, who vividly described those events in his brilliant book What is Ancient philosophy (2002).

But the damage had already been done. Philosophy soon got defined as the study of fundamental problems such as existence, mind, matter, values, knowledge, truth etc. Consider this famous definition of philosophy by Bertrand Russell: “Philosophy consists of speculation on matters as to which definite knowledge, has, so far, been inascertainable…” Russell was defining, albeit unselfconsciously, “philosophy”(pure theory) not philosophy (way of life).

As mentioned earlier, since 529CE there had been attempts to read Greek philosophical texts as instances of pure theory. But this way of treating Greco-Roman textual traditions is a product of the gross political violence that was unleashed on the cultural traditions of Greece and Rome. What has therefore been described as philosophy in contemporary encyclopedias and dictionaries and what is taught as philosophy in universities, is not what the Greeks understood as philosophy but a new discipline that emerged after the great violence perpetrated on Greek culture by the European Christians.

“Philosophy” (pure theory) is now confined to university departments. Outside of universities there is no real urge to understand its significance. There was a time, during the era of European colonialism, when “philosophy” was triumphantly presented as Europe’s supreme contribution to human kind by well-known academic figures like the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. The Indians and the Chinese, meanwhile, desperately searched in vain for its equivalent in their respective traditions and apologetically invented excuses to account for the absence of what the Europeans called “philosophy”. But their cry — “we too have philosophy” — continues to resonate. In one sense this is true — philosophy as way of life still exists, as Gandhi’s life and teachings demonstrate.

The writer taught philosophy at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University.

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  1. Carlos Paz de Araujo
    Oct 28, 2017 at 5:24 pm
    The love of Wisdom that question even what you believe is wisdom. Wisdom of science, wisdom of religion, wisdom of the social contract,,,,etc. -And, the wisdom of accumulated wisdom. Yes, that is a good program. But, what it has become is a bit like sharpening knives and nothing to cut. It became the language of clever tools and exquisit discourse. Is that wise?
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      Jaya
      Oct 26, 2017 at 8:17 am
      The philosophy has it,s definite role in politics,ecology,technology and science etc.Dalit philosophy played an important role in India.
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      1. Hari Subramanian
        Oct 24, 2017 at 3:28 am
        Philosophy is not a way of life. Practice in life exposes a part of philosophy, will-nilly. Confusion with way of life arises due to a mix up of philosophy with religion. Indeed they are different. But I agree with the author that philosophy is sought only in universities as a kind of pure knowledge. Scenario is much like mathematics, rather pure mathematics. Urge to rush to applications without knowing fundamentals that create them is the reason. We can understand philosophy through science also. Please read my book Life-Mind-Truth and Consciousness, Understanding Philosophy through Science. I have put it up in google plus for public. Those using google account will have them already.
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          Jaya
          Oct 26, 2017 at 8:23 am
          There is a philosophy of science,technology,politics and ecology dian Dalit philosophy has played an important role .The philosophy of mind opened the avenues in neuroscience,neurobiolo.gy
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          pankaj
          Oct 23, 2017 at 8:50 pm
          doesn't seem like in good faith, shows neither the courage to speak anything clearly nor intention to be honest.. seems like someone who has been reading missionary clerks of philosophy who were never willing to go beyond their religious/cultural periphery in search of anything, belongs to same group for whom philosophy starts in Greece (u see his ambivalence reflects his inability to see the truth).. .............. Philosophy started in India, while greeks called Indian Brahmins/sages wise philosophers ( this guy needs dictionary meaning of wisdom to understand what wisdom is), Indians themselves called philosophy as "Darshan" people busy in philosophy of one type as Darshnic. Indians, as Voltaire said, are first philosophers but as Schopenhauer says are seeking depth of truth not clerical verbiage that west relied on and as he said were more honest and humble in their search of truth than western philosophers.
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            pankaj
            Oct 23, 2017 at 8:57 pm
            The word "Darshan" which means "seeing" or vision itself was used to reflect different ways underlying reality its importance can be seen by different people. So Yoga took a leap to understand what is the maximum possibility came with a unique idea beyond capabilities of western mind till German philosophers could read Upanishads, presented an idea of God as infinite bliss gave a theory of how to become one with that infinite bliss. While west is rapidly adopting this theory both in practice thoughts, the indian pseudo liberals still have no idea what it means because they never studied it, they studied the clerical philosophers of west (because they learnt English even if they want they cannot read the Indian sources at best they have to read what Germans wrote at worst what British biased missionary type clerical philosophers wrote).
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              pankaj
              Oct 23, 2017 at 9:08 pm
              The other Darshans "Vedanta" tried to bring the practical but seemingly tough world of Yoga to the theory of reality as "the infinite one thing/God" that exists to make it acceptable at intellectual ground. Yoga of Patanjali YogaVashishtha of Vashisht then tantra-yoga created practical but not so feasible path to understanding reality for a common man, Vedanta made all that an easy to appreciate philosophy. Vedanta became the basis of German idealism but Yoga's philosophy of God realization is what west is now in love with. They started with Yoga as mere relaxation exercises, then added meditation now are producing much more disciplined yoga prac ioners than Indian. Whoever has done it with sincerity needs no one else to prove its importance, it is one of rare philosophies that can be verified at individual level.
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                Jaya
                Oct 26, 2017 at 8:26 am
                The Darshanas include Non Vedic philosophies of Buddha and Mahavira and Charvaka.Charvak philosophy was materialistic.
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