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Philosophy For All

Anja Steinbauer on an ambitious new attempt to do philosophy in public.

Philosophy For All? If you want ‘philosophy for all’, I am definitely the wrong person to talk to”, a famous phenomenologist recently snapped at me as soon as I had introduced myself. Fortunately, many experienced philosophers, a number of them very eminent, do not share his view and have lent great support to the project of “Philosophy For All”. However, I can well understand his scruples: Popularising philosophy is often seen as entailing corruption of philosophical content and over-simplification of complex issues. Philosophical debate must not become the playground for uninformed and opinionated chatter. When this happens, ‘philosophy’ becomes a mere caricature of itself. However, popular philosophy can mean genuine philosophising: Philosophy For All (PFA) has set itself the aim of approaching philosophical problems in a non-technical way as far as possible to enable everyone to participate in the debate. However, at the same time we want to provide a basis for serious philosophical activity by encouraging an interest in history and methodology of philosophy. The PFA is an organisation open to everyone interested in philosophy. It especially seeks to bring together professional and non-professional philosophers. Since it was founded in May 1998, both academic philosophers and those with a hobby interest in the subject have made the PFA into a vibrant forum for an active exchange of thoughts.

Philosophy as an activity can be especially rewarding and fruitful when shared with others, vibrant philosophical debate an exciting and stimulating experience. – If you agree, come along to one of our “Kant’s Cave” meetings: On the first Wednesday of every month we meet in the upstairs function room of a pub, where a professional philosopher gives us a talk, after which everybody joins in the debate. Kant’s Cave speakers have included philosophers from London, such as Alfons Grieder, Head of the Philosophy Department at City University, as well as international guest speakers, such as David Fischer from North Central College Illinois; topics range from the philosophy of science and aesthetics to Existentialism and medieval philosophy.

Philosophy is brought to life by asking questions. They don’t always have to be new questions: Rethinking questions great philosophers asked and allowing them to inspire our own philosophical outlook is an important aspect of philosophical activity. Unfortunately, the history of philosophy is often treated as a supermarket in which we can adopt a passive consumer-attitude and shop for answers. Hegel calls this supposed storeroom of answers the “gallery of follies”. – It is one of the objectives of the PFA not to simply stroll along the aisles of a philosophical supermarket, picking up ready-made and hygienically packed solutions from the shelves. Instead, we aim at informed discussion, in which we allow philosophical questioning to disturb us and perhaps even challenge beliefs that we may have long taken for granted.

One of my favourite PFA activities is therefore a series of philosophy debates, focussing on modern and 20th century issues, such as the problems of virtue-vs. duty-ethics and of personal identity. The debates, each chaired by a different philosopher, take place at the Mary Ward Centre, an adult education institution in London which particularly encourages philosophical education. Head of the Humanities Department John Vorhaus, himself a philosopher, has been greatly supportive of our activities: “Philosophy is today as popular as it ever was, and I am delighted that the PFA are holding a series of philosophy debates at the Mary Ward Centre.” More co-organised PFA and Mary Ward events are planned for the near future.

Has it ever struck you that philosophy is often regarded as an exclusively Western undertaking? To many, “philosophy” seems to equal “Western philosophy”. Yet “globalisation” – no matter whether desirable or not – has become an undeniable reality. We can no longer afford to ignore other cultures, and it seems a waste to miss out on the opportunity to inquire into new ways of thinking. The PFA seeks to take a wider outlook on the enterprise of philosophy: exploring different philosophies may ultimately give us a deeper, and perhaps a more complete, picture of what philosophy is or can be about.

A reflection of this endeavour is a round-table event organised and co-sponsored by the PFA. In December we invited four distinguished representatives of different traditions of thought – the Western Analytic and Continental, the Indian and the Chinese – to participate in a round table discussion on “World Philosophy: One or Many?”. As Ted Honderich (UCL), Alexander Piatigorsky (SOAS), Rupert Read (UEA) and Paul Thompson (SOAS) debated the topic, we learned about their different philosophical orientations, their reservations or hopes concerning the idea of a more global approach to philosophy.

Another effort to get an insight into philosophical traditions other than our own is represented by our Introduction to Indian Philosophy Class and our Chinese Philosophy Workshop. Joseph Sen, teaching Indian Philosophy, communicates both his knowledge and enthusiasm, and recently a great scholar of Indian thought, Trevor Leggitt, gave the PFA an impressive lecture, inspiring us as much with his wisdom as with his profound scholarship. The Chinese philosophy workshop has become a continuing PFA activity. We are currently discussing ideas of life and death in the Daoist tradition of thought. The workshop is open for anyone to join in at any time.

An original PFA initiative which has stirred much attention, is our series of philosophical walks … “Philosophical walks”?? It is almost impossible to give a homogenous definition of what they are, as each one turns out to be a unique experience, determined by size and composition of the group, philosophical interests – as well as the weather. PFA secretary and indefatigable walks organiser Andrew Dodsworth explains: “Philosophical walks aren’t ambulatory lectures, simply walks during which philosophical discussion can take place due to the common interest of the walkers. Or not, if you’d rather just look at the scenery.” Looking back at the history of thought, much philosophising seems to have been done on the move, the obvious example being Aristotle and his students discussing ideas while wandering up and down their colonnaded walk. Andrew believes that “…philosophy and walking do seem connected somehow; perhaps the combination of fresh air, steady rhythmic movement, and the feeling of space does something to stimulate the brain.” Try it – it works!

We are hoping to put on more events in the future, the possibilities seem boundless, and we are far from running out of ideas. A projected activity for next year is the setting up of more specialised interest discussion groups, such as a “Feminism Forum”. We are particularly committed to giving our members – and anyone who wants to come along – a range of choice, reflecting the richness and multifacetedness of philosophy itself. All this activity takes effort, and we need more volunteers – versatile people with a good knowledge of philosophy who are prepared to give time and effort to a good cause and who don’t mind doing lots of photocopying!

© Anja Steinbauer 1998

Anja Steinbauer is President of Philosophy For All, and is completing a PhD at Hamburg University on aspects of contemporary Chinese philosophy.

For more information on Philosophy For All:

Visit their website: http://members.aol.com/hronir/pfa.htm Phone or fax them on 0181 675 5539 or e-mail to pfa@city.ac.uk.

If you are in the US, and you are interested in the idea of Philosophy For All, you could also contact Prof. Laurence Houlgate, e-mail: lhoulgat@oboe.aix.calpoly.edu.

Chinese Professor Speaks to Philosophy For All

Professor Ouyang Kang is Dean of the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University, China. At the end of August, he stopped over in London on his way home from the World Congress in Boston. He was responding to a request from PFA president Anja Steinbauer to address the PFA. In front of a large audience at King’s College London, he described recent philosophical and political developments in the People’s Republic.

Setting the scene, Ouyang Kang said that since the 1930s, the leading philosophy in China had been Marxism. Some Marxist philosophers, indeed, thought that it should be the only philosophy in China. They opposed other Western philosophy as being capitalist, and traditional Chinese philosophy (such as Confucianism and Daoism) as being feudalist. Until the 1970’s, Chinese philosophy textbooks followed much the same lines as those in the USSR.

In 1978 an anonymous article entitled ‘Practice is the only judge of truth’ appeared in a daily newspaper in Beijing. It argued that all systems of knowledge, including Marxism, should be judged by how they performed in practice, and if necessary modified accordingly. The article sparked widespread debate and marked the start of a major thaw in the intellectual atmosphere. Many philosophy books have since been imported and translated, including the works of Wittgenstein.

As a result of the article, many Chinese philosophers abandoned orthodox Marxist tenets and instead developed Marxist philosophy in a more pragmatic direction – to try to make it work in practice. However, this development has been based on constant references back to Karl Marx’s own works. Professor Ouyang believed that “we should understand Marx’s ideas from his own words.” The words he liked best were those inscribed on Marx’s tomb at Highgate Cemetery: “Previous philosophers have only explained the world; the problem is to reform the world.” Marx’s system is generally known as dialectical materialism, but he himself apparently never called it that. He called it practical materialism or communist materialism. In his Economic and Political Manuscripts, Marx looked in detail at why workers suffer under capitalism; they lose their craft skills, and hence their individuality and self-respect. They are treated simply as beasts of burden and their labour as a commodity to be traded. The people who point out Marx’s concentration on the subject are known as the subjective movement in Chinese Marxist philosophy. They place great emphasis on the individual human being and on putting humans at the centre of philosophical research. According to Prof. Ouyang’s interpretation, the focus of traditional Chinese philosophy has always been on the group, the collective, rather than on individuals. So it seems from Prof. Ouyang’s talk as if Marxist philosophy is, bizarrely, turning into a force for individualism in Chinese society!

Answering questions from the floor, Professor Ouyang said that the most important development had been the growing independence of philosophy as a field of academic research rather than a type of political activism. Another questioner wondered whether, if Chinese Marxism carries on changing in this radical way, there might not come a time when it can not longer be called Marxism at all?

R. Lewis

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