Has Philosophy lost its utility?
Since its inception in 2002 by the UNESCO, the third Thursday of November is celebrated every year all over the world as World Philosophy Day. The objective and spirit behind this celebration is to uphold the value of philosophical reflection and its contribution to human welfare and general well-being.
In the wake of last year’s celebration of World Philosophy Day, and particularly in the context of today’s fragmented, strife-ridden world, the moot question is — “Has philosophy lost its utility today?’’ If we use the term “utility” with regard philosophy, in what sense is that? This can be explicated with the help of an analogy: a child asks his mother for a coin to buy a candy, and his mother gives. Here the mother’s utility is not assessed in terms of her supplying the necessary resource to obtain the desired end (candy). Her utility or value goes far beyond that. She is enveloping her child with love and care; and the child, through the mother, tastes the beauty, warmth, and glory of life. The point underscored through this analogy is that the utility of Philosophy is not to be narrowed down to any particular subject, for the scope and value of Philosophy is much wider, more comprehensive, and holistic — it is concerned with the very sustenance of life in its truest sense. Nothing can progress without thinking, and thinking is the very concern of philosophy. This point gets reiterated by the fact that till today all over the world, in any area of study, be it Physics, Chemistry, Economics, Politics, or Literature, the doctoral degree remains Ph.D., which unpacks as Doctor of Philosophy.
The different areas of concerns of Philosophy, for example, the nature of the universe, the standard for justice, the validity of knowledge, the correct application of reason, the criterion of beauty, etc., have been assigned to different branches of Philosophy, namely, metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, logic, aesthetics, and so on. What is common to all these pursuits is “thinking”. In Indian heritage, Philosophy is fittingly called “darshan”, meaning to see things holistically with the vision of the mind’s eye. An ophthalmologist after treating the eye ailment of an eminent philosopher once jokingly commented—“I can make a philosopher see”. The philosopher, in turn, retorted—“Yes, only with my outer eye”.
There is no denial of the fact that it is the faculty of thinking that makes the human race stand apart from other living beings. When addressing the issue of the utility of Philosophy, we have to look at the most important change in today’s world—we are driven by consumerism, competition, and haste. In an important religious meet, one of the delegates observed—“In today’s world we are moving in ultra high-speed trains with available facilities never seen before, but we do not know where we are going and why”. We do not have either the time or the inclination to stop and think. Today almost everything, from the smooth running of an underground metro, to how a patient’s life is to be handled, and - sadly enough - to what proportion of love and indulgence a parent should give a child, is controlled and dictated by algorithm, and that is precisely the basis of what we today glorify as Artificial Intelligence. This means that we are collating what is already known to us, and with that know the data we are constructing in flow charts. We have today unknowingly departed from harnessing one important possibility that is pregnant with potential, namely, the possibility that “we don’t know that we don’t know”. It is only Philosophy that teaches and inspires us to delve into and knock on the door of the unknown, to which we often remain oblivious. Instead of simply systematically organising what we know, that is, the data in hand, Philosophy teaches us to ask questions and apply reasoning to different areas and issues.
We thus find philosophers asking questions about matters which other studies take for granted. For example, Physics assumes the reality of space and time, but Kant asks metaphysical and epistemological questions about these entities. Rene Descartes applied universal methodic doubt to the world which all ordinary people take for granted. Only then did he arrive at clear and indubitable truths. If we do not understand the concept of “freedom” itself, any Constitution or political governance that aims to confer freedom and human rights, becomes vacuous. Philosophy raises important questions in the areas of today’s technological and economic determinism, and explores the causes and solutions to the different crimes; Philosophy asks equally significant questions in the spheres of ecosystem, environment, animal rights, the true core of religion, an understanding of which can alleviate religious warfare, and myriad such issues. Philosophy is thus the art of asking extraordinary questions about ordinary matters, and the value of this art is unequivocal in the development of human thoughts and actions.
The need and utility of pursuing Philosophy is greater today than it was at any time before. As seeing is becoming more and more all-pervasive, involving preoccupation with the smart phone screen, or the T.V. screen, or screens of other digital wonders, it is Philosophy which can restore the balance by making society “see” in a different way too.
Philosophy has its utility and it also transcends its utility as a valuable study per se. Philosophy enables a better understanding of the world, and thereby can serve as the well-spring of sustained peace and progress. What our world awaits today is philosophical rearmament.
(Views expressed are strictly personal)