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Philosophers on Philosophy
Emery Cournand describes his own philosophical odyssey.
Several years ago, at the age of 46, I was going about my normal decadent life as a single unattached male when a strange incident changed my life’s direction. An acquaintance whom I had met over the internet made me an offer to stay with her. The lady was interested in pursuing a romantic relationship, yet I was not physically attracted to her in any way. Upon explaining my feelings – or lack of feelings – to her, she insisted that the offer to stay stood anyway: that she had enough room and that the relationship would be purely platonic. This forced me to reconsider my situation. More than half my active life had gone, and I was still single, had no children, was stuck in a dead-end job, and was still living with my parents. Why was I still in my parents’ house? The truth was hard to admit, but I was forced to concede that it was because I had sacrificed everything in the hope of someday making a great escape from my native island of Trinidad: over the years I had spent my money on long vacations aboard, and I had refused to purchase property because I was afraid such acquisitions would chain me forever to the island.
Her actual offer was for me to stay with her in Geneva to obtain a temporary position at the UN. As I would not have to pay for accommodation, being employed even at a very junior level for a minimum of two months would most likely have earned me at least the equivalent of my annual salary as a public servant in Trinidad. In December of 2005 I received a call from the UN concerning a position that was available. However, by the time I had settled my affairs and arrived in Geneva in January, the UN was in a process of restructuring, and no positions were available. I had taken four months accumulated vacation, three of which I now spent in Geneva seeking employment. It was during my general research while sending out applications that I found out that I could do a BA in Philosophy through the University of London’s distance learning programme, and I applied to do so.
One of my major passions had been the study of Oriental Philosophy. I had also played with the idea of studying Western Philosophy academically, but the subject was not available at any of the institutions in the English-speaking Caribbean. (In the Caribbean, original thinking is viewed more as a hindrance than a help in one’s progress in life.) It also seemed to me that whereas Oriental Philosophy revolved around principles, Western Philosophy was a minefield of politics. It revolved around egos and cultural pride. There was also the misconception spread by certain pan-African intellectuals that Greek philosophy, as the foundation for Western thought, was really a corruption of a stolen African legacy, implying that as a subject Western Philosophy was not bona fide, and did not warrant serious consideration. Then there was the story of ‘Super’. ‘Super’ was, as the name implies, a larger-than-life student from my high-school. The rumour (which I never confirmed) was that he had gone to the USA to study philosophy, and had ended-up jumping off a building in Manhattan, the implication being that the subject-matter was the source of his demise. This increased my apprehension. After all, who was I to think that I could be better than ‘Super’?
In spite of my apprehensions about the subject-matter proving to be fairly accurate in terms of the big egos and the cultural pride and prejudices, studying Western Philosophy proved to be fascinating in many ways. Of particular interest was the war between the empirical school of the English-speaking world, and the Continental school of Western Europe. Adherents of the empirical school believe that philosophical discussion should be framed by what has been proven by science. Continental philosophers on the other hand believe that science is just one factor in the equation of life: that the effects of history and culture are just as important. Adherents of the Continental school say that in spite of the fact that Kant showed how we’re deeply dependent on the mind to access reality, the empiricists still act as though unreconstructed experience is enough to lead us to the truth.
I have found that I am deeply attracted to the Continental school. One reason could be my ongoing interest in Oriental philosophy, which, like Continental philosophy, is more rational than empirical. The Continental school has been always aware of its shortcomings, and has tried to compensate by being more rigorous in its approach. However, empirical philosophers in general have had a bias towards materialism and hedonism. Thus while claiming intellectual victory because of the many advances in modern science, they constantly place the artificially-created materialistic and hedonistic needs of the individual, and the industries spawned to nurture and cater for these artificial needs, above the general well-being of the community, with little or no consideration for their effects upon the environment. Thus, while swearing to their objectivity, empiricist philosophers constantly pander to a destructive capitalist agenda. The difference is due to the fact that the empiricists do not address the dynamics of the human condition, which they see as merely the result of genetics and the manner in which chemicals affect the brain, with the result that today, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the many scientific advances, humanity’s position on Earth is even more precarious that it was a hundred years ago. It is my opinion that the idealism of Continental philosophers is what is needed to make us turn from our selfish and self-destructive path, so that we could truly benefit from our scientific advances.
So here I am years later, back at home in Trinidad. What value do I now place on my studies? Socrates said that wisdom was a question of adequate knowledge: that if we knew all the relevant facts, we could not help but act in an ethical manner. Previously, to me the world was a beautiful but cruel and unjust place. Today I understand a little bit more about how it came to be this way, and as a result I am less angry. Things now seem a bit less mysterious. Without changing my convictions, my thinking has been substantially improved and refined, not only in philosophy, but in other areas. Ideas previously hidden deep below the surface are now bubbling forth, not with the violence of a volcanic eruption, but with the effervescence of fine champagne.
© Emery Cournand 2012
Emery Cournand’s sole intention, like that of Socrates, is the intellectual corruption of the already corrupted youth of modern civilization.