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Thursday, July 19, 2018

A voyeur’s apologia

Ideas, clearly, are what your letters deal with. That you counsel an “examined life”, the tough task of speaking truth to power and unravelling the hypocrisies, fallacies, and ethical lacunae of our times is certainly advice well taken.

Written by Aakash Joshi | Published: December 23, 2017 12:22:38 am
Letters to a Young Philosopher, in parts, makes for the best kind of nostalgia; memory is inextricably tied to discovery.

Book: Letters to a Young Philosopher
Author: Ramin Jahanbegloo
Publication: Hachette
Pages: 352
Price: Rs 599

Dear R,

Reading part of the correspondence with your “young philosopher” friend provides both the pleasure and guilt of being a voyeur. Watching you deploy your considerable erudition to guide a young person in search of answers to the big questions — political evil, patriotism, democracy — and the bigger questions — love and death — provides those of us, who have lost the time to read so soon after being young philosophers ourselves, something that even the most renowned institutions of higher learning fail to. Perspective. Letters to a Young Philosopher, in parts, makes for the best kind of nostalgia; memory is inextricably tied to discovery.

Your honesty, even jadedness on matters of love, for example, carries a sort of sad, wistful wisdom that is only enhanced by the ease with which you bring in the resources gained through a life of the mind to bear on the most simple and essential of matters.

But the voyeur, sitting as he is on the outside, can never be truly satisfied. Perhaps, he picks at nits because he craves now to read the questions that your young friend asked beyond the quick summaries you provide in your responses. Is the young friend merely a receptacle, a shishya in the paradigm of the gurukul, who is there to absorb your lessons? That is, perhaps, an admirable quality.

But it is very much at odds with the Socratic tradition you so admire. And if he is indeed an interlocutor, readers certainly deserve to know how he responded, questioned and criticised your advice and how, together, the master and student engaged in a discovery of ideas.

Ideas, clearly, are what your letters deal with. That you counsel an “examined life”, the tough task of speaking truth to power and unravelling the hypocrisies, fallacies, and ethical lacunae of our times is certainly advice well taken. Yet, through the book, there is an admiration of the individual, the brilliant men and women with the courage to question, without a look at the conditions of possibility for them to do so.

Put another way, are philosophers born or made? You write almost disdainfully, in parts, about the masses and the mediocre, of the herd mentality of the sheep. Could Plato have written as he did had he been born a slave? Would Wittgenstein be able to unravel the foundations of the discipline if he were not a man of his time and place? Should the mediocre not question, or learn to do so?

There also appears on your part, at least at first reading, a hearkening back to a time before money and technology dominated our lives. But beyond an ethical dismissal, should philosophers not engage deeply with these questions? Doesn’t a world of AI, robots with a private language and people becoming cyborgs, deserve the attention of those attuned and trained to excavate the roots and implications of these developments? Even money, so common and complicated, is becoming increasingly abstract. More than the economist, the philosopher is likely suited to unravel its transformation and the consequences that will carry, to provide both an ethics and epistemology for the greatest collective fantasy of all time.

There have, of course, been other introductions to philosophy, from Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World to Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy. But those lack the contemporary relevance of your letters, and navigate through people rather than ideas as you do. Despite the finality with which the correspondence ends, your letters have achieved, even for a nit-picker, what one imagines is their purpose — to imbue the reader with the desire, even ability, to ask questions. For both those with a past interest in the “big ideas”, or just someone looking for insight, your letters ought to be read.

Perhaps, another volume will be forthcoming, a sequel of sorts, where you can guide young readers to how contemporary thinkers are dealing with problems new and old.

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