Philosophy and freedom: How to be a philosopher in today's cynical world

Ramin Jahanbegloo @CatchNews | First published: 20 October 2016, 13:10 IST
Philosophy and freedom: How to be a philosopher in
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We live in a time of widespread ethical relativism that has created an attitude of "anything goes" for the new generation. It's also a time that is witnessing widespread public scepticism about the critical role of philosophy.

Much of the public has come to believe that a Socratic commitment to the pursuit of truth is a waste of time and an idealistic way of living in our globalised world. Philosophers are presented as insignificant inventors of concepts whose sole aim in life is to struggle to get tenure-track job in North American and European universities.

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As such, the claim that philosophy is a liberating activity is likely to be met with cynicism and derision of the masses.

Missing traits

As for the philosophers, they hold that citizens in today's world are no more trained in virtue and excellence, and therefore the average human being is socially unable to resist the temptation of irresponsible power. As a result, it would be hard not to see that the political incompetence and ethical ineptitude of our contemporary civilisation have slammed the door on the face of what Vaclav Havel called "living within truth".

For Havel, "living within truth" is the basic existential starting point of ethical commitment to the questioning of the public good. This moral courage to take responsibility is also the courage to raise philosophical questions about the destiny of our democracies. It goes without saying that democracy without its complement of courage to ask philosophical questions falls short of being a democracy.

A crucial study

As such, for the past 2,500 years, the central concern of philosophy has been the art of questioning and a critical mode of thinking suggested by the idea of freedom and its social and political organisation. But why do philosophers care about the problem of freedom? Why is freedom the most important question for a philosopher to tackle?

The answer to these two questions can be seen most clearly by examining the consequences of neglecting the issue of freedom. It goes without saying that freedom is the creative force behind philosophical thinking in the same way as philosophy contributes to the understanding and progress of the concept of freedom.

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Philosophers, therefore, try to understand freedom as comprehensively and as critically as they could by making a contribution not only to its definition, but also to its realisation. Hegel's remark is as true today as it was nearly 200 years ago when he affirmed that "no idea is so generally recognised as indefinite, ambiguous, and open to the greatest misconceptions (to which therefore it actually falls a victim) as the idea of freedom: none in common currency with so little appreciation of its meaning."

The philosophy of freedom

Freedom is a concept that has not only been poorly understood but also intensely misused. This dual unfortunate condition of freedom brings in the forefront of all philosophical discussion the idea that philosophy is a struggle for freedom as the idea that an important part of being free is thinking philosophically.