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

Ramin Jahanbegloo | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:46 IST

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.

Philosophers still have a lot to contribute to the democratisation of democracy

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.

As we can see, the problem of freedom arises within every consideration of the nature of philosophical questioning itself. If the point of nature of philosophical questioning is to think the concept of freedom, so that human beings can conform to it, some account must be given of how human beings could have strayed from that questioning in the first place, and how it might be possible to return.

A mode of questioning

In other words, philosophy is not only a mode of questioning about the idea of freedom and its social and political applications, but also a mode of thinking and interrogation on the absence of freedom.

In other words, to the extent that we are free to think then we can switch to a broader examination of the process of thinking itself. We can, therefore, speak of freedom as philosophy's non-identical twin in the project of questioning and challenging the thinkable.

To posit philosophy as a finished and exhaustive knowledge would be as if we defined and practiced freedom as the repetition of the same. The theological covering up of the philosophical interrogation goes hand in hand with the loss of the creative and revolutionary nature of freedom.

To be sure, an individual who has already entered the philosophical questioning cannot avoid the explicit and free interrogation of positing other modes of thinking and other forms of the thinkable.

It is fascinating to note that the philosophical questioning is a mode of thinking that can create cracks in the surrounding walls of the instituted thought.

Philosophy as critical interrogation, therefore, takes place in the gap between free and creative thought and political potential of creating new institutions. It is here that we might begin to understand why philosophy is the ongoing task of bringing freedom into political life as a lived corrective to complacency and conformism.

An essential task

It is the civic task of philosophy to resist to the very idea of a conformist and unquestionable theory of democracy. To demand that the democratic organisation of a society be founded on a non-dissenting attitude is, therefore, to declare politics non-thinkable and to put an end to the freedom of thinking otherwise and of thinking anew.

In other words, there cannot be a democratic society without a democratic questioning or to say it more clearly without a philosophical questioning on the nature of democracy.

There is little point in talking and writing about philosophy without having to reflect on the nature of philosophy itself. This is the reason why, the function of the civic philosopher, as a person whose mind watches the cruelties and injustices of the world should be maintained, even if the concept of civic philosophy has lost today its political strength. The philosopher cannot be replaced by the tenure-track academic even if the temper of the time suggests it.

The main task of philosophers is not to create iron cage bureaucracies but to destroy them

Let us not forget that the main task of philosophers is not to create iron cage bureaucracies but to destroy them.

Philosophers, thus, have still a lot to contribute to the democratisation of democracy. They will certainly be useful to human societies, as long as humans continue to believe that philosophy is not a futile word. In a way, the civic task of philosophy today lies in the struggle between thinking and what has become unquestionable in our political and cultural institutions.

Whatever the price that philosophers will have to pay for their empty hands in the battle against these thoughtless and servant making institutions, we can always hope that philosophers continue to hit the targets that no one else can see or wants to see.

As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says: "The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees."

Edited by Aleesha Matharu

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First published: 20 October 2016, 1:10 IST