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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