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Impediments to philosophy

15 min read

Aziz Ali Dad

The 20th century was unique because of the drastic changes and ruptures it witnessed in every sphere of life, including knowledge. It seems that during the last century creativity of the human mind burst forth with immense energy, enabling mankind to take giant leaps in the fields of science and technology and produce knowledge. This was achieved because of the specialisation in different fields of natural sciences and emergence of new disciplines in human sciences.

Paradoxically, the progress in knowledge occurred in tandem with gradual marginalisation and emasculation of philosophy. Most of the subject’s sub-disciplines evolved into autonomous disciplines. Hence, the mother of all sciences was divided and stripped of its significance. Commenting on the state of knowledge in the modern age, Will Durant laments that, “All that remained was the scientific specialist, who knew more and more about less and less, and the philosophical speculator, who knew less and less about more and more.” It resulted in fragmentation of the perspective that harmonised the self with society and the world under a holistic schema or order of thinking.

These developments and division of knowledge into specialised disciplines alarmed thinking minds, who realised the ramifications of philosophy’s deposition on the self, society and the world. At the turn of the century, American philosopher John Dewey realised that philosophy had become sidetracked from the main currents of contemporary life. The reasons for this isolation and irrelevance were both internal and external. The exogenous and endogenous factors turned philosophy into a phantom limb of the academia and society. To reinstate its position in society, Dewey in his book ‘The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy’ figuratively advised philosophy to “take, with good grace, its own medicine.”

To cater to this medicine we need to answer the question: what are the impediments to philosophy in the world of today? The trouble in answering this question is that philosophy raises more questions than it provides absolute answers. For philosophy, answering is tantamount to suicide. By questioning anew, philosophy perpetually rejuvenates itself. It is this aspect that makes it different from science and religion, for the former has explanatory power that cannot be rejected and the latter provides answers that cannot be questioned. This difference compels philosophy to go against the grain of the dominant mode of thinking.

To diagnose these impediments it is important to analyse the existing mode of thinking and understanding in society and then locate the space or absence of philosophy in the social imagery. Unlike in Pakistan, prestigious universities in developed countries have philosophy departments. Over the centuries, the West has produced minds that contributed to the overall intellectual development of the world. In Pakistan, old public universities offer the course of philosophy, but the newly established public and private universities shirked their real duty of alleviating society’s philosophical poverty.


As a result, our society faces dualism wherein we accept material modernity and modern free market but reject philosophical discourse that underpins the modern knowledge system. The intellectual deficit in a traditional society like ours is filled not by an alternative philosophical discourse but with feelings and emotions – in abundance in our society. We avoid thinking because it tests our mind’s capacity to explore intricate issues, whereas succumbing to feelings and emotions is easier. Our society tends to judge because its inability to think does not allow it to understand. We wallow in emotions at the expense of thinking.

“In Pakistan we have doctors but without any philosophy”

This suppression of thought is then manifested in the shape of split personalities. For example, we have expert physicists, biologists and chemical engineers, but their minds continue to be enchanted by the dominant worldview. To avert the perils of such a mindset, it is indispensable to make philosophy a part of the curriculum in colleges and universities. Even in the US, there is a growing realisation that the doctoral curricula produce narrow-minded specialists rather than critical thinkers. Gundula Bosch in her article ‘Train PhD students to be thinkers, not just specialists’, published in the prestigious journal Nature (on February 14, 2018), emphasised on “the need to put philosophy back into the doctorate of philosophy: that is, the ‘Ph’ back into the PhD.” In Pakistan we have doctors but without any philosophy.

The most common accusation levelled against philosophers is that they sit in an ivory tower and have no relevance to common people and society. This perception is further buttressed by stereotyping the philosophers as impractical people oblivious to the reality. But contrary to this perception, the subject has practical application. In reality, philosophy endows a philosopher with an approach that transcends the level of opinion upon which people base their judgment. Although opinion enables them to navigate through life, it gives birth to bad faith, wherein they avoid the stark reality and accept sugar-coated lies. This fallacy stems from the dominant definition of ‘practical’ that only includes things that are tangible or instrumental.

Under the influence of instrumental rationality, we tend to think in terms of what can be done with a discipline or what can the discipline do for us. This does not mean that we must not put our learning to use, but before applying the knowledge gained from any discipline we ought to first internalise it and then externalise it. Otherwise, our status will be reduced to a mere conduit of knowledge.


“Our society faces dualism wherein we accept material modernity and modern free market but reject philosophical discourse that underpins the modern knowledge system”


What the definition of instrumental rationality does not take into account is the process of internalising ideas and the changes resulting in how we see things. In contrast to other disciplines, internalising and analysing are integral parts of philosophy. Martin Heidegger exquisitely illustrates this difference when he says, “It is absolutely correct and proper to say that ‘you can’t do anything with philosophy’.” But it is only wrong to suppose that this is the last word on philosophy, for the rejoinder maintains: “granted that we cannot do anything with philosophy, might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us?” Here, Heidegger sheds light on some of the deeper flaws in our concept and practice of knowledge. So it can be said that philosophy is an act of undoing oneself, which in turn gives birth to a second innocence that fills one with wonder and propels them to explore humans and the world anew. No wonder why Plato declared, “wonder is only the beginning of philosophy’.

“A society without philosophical thinking can only have a monologue and no cultural dialogue regarding the self, society and world”.

It is because of this internalisation and reflection that the subject plays a major role in initiating a grand cultural conversation. A society without philosophical thinking can only have a monologue and no cultural dialogue regarding the self, society and world. To give birth to a cultural conversation, there is a need to create space and build institutional structures and make social arrangements for philosophical minds to interact and converse.

Those who claim that philosophy today does not have any matter that can be reflected upon are wrong. Contrary to these claims, rapid transformations and developments in the world, under the influence of science, technology and communication, have unfolded an unchartered territory of thinking. The transformation is so fast that redundant frameworks fail to explain our material reality or existence in the world. Today, we live in a world where prosaic views, profane activities and virtual reality, and not sublime or divine rules, influence us. Nevertheless, technology can only determine our path but cannot explain it.

Today’s world is inundated with doom and gloom. The death of ideologies, art, history, environment, ideas and religion has turned our world into a graveyard. To resurrect our moribund humanity, hopes, dreams and mind, philosophy has to rise to the occasion to fuse disciplines of social science and humanities and create a utopian perspective that defines the world prospectively and not retrospectively.

Such a perspective will offer hope and dreams of extraordinary things, and enable the modern civilisation to participate in a carnival of possibilities instead of indulging in narratives of death and dead ends.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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