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Philosophy succeeds when curiosity, thinking combine

Bernard Williams’ “Essay and Reviews: 1959-2002,” a collection of popular essays, is a stimulating read for anyone who cares about the condition of the world.

With characteristic clarity, insight, and humor, the author tackles a wide range of topics as diverse as philosophy, religion, science, the humanities, and pornography (he once chaired a committee on obscenity and film censorship).

Williams once stood at the pinnacle of intellectual distinction. He was appointed to a chair of philosophy in London at the age of 34 and later held chairs in Cambridge, Oxford, and Berkeley. He was provost of King’s College, Cambridge, from 1979 to 1987. He died in 2003.

As Michael Wood observes in his forward to the book, “Williams always wrote as a philosopher in his own ample sense, insisting that philosophy is doing its job wherever curiosity and thinking come together in any serious or cogent way.”

In this age of overspecialization, academic philosophers have a tendency to be narrowly confined to their own fields.

They inquire for the sake of inquiry, and pride themselves on their flight from reality, or their opacity.

They should concern themselves with the larger intellectual, political, or social scene.

Good education should first afford us the first principles, or a view of this life and universe.

Thus the second book of the Confucian canon, the Doctrine of the Mean, intends to inculcate the principle of moderation. Most of the troubles today can be traced to a departure from that principle.

The I Chang, or the Book of Changes, another book of the Confucian canon, affords learners a vision of the mysterious workings of the nature, or universe. Anyone who drew their education from these classics found them deeply edifying, inspiring, and satisfying, for these principles are of great use when applied to the management of daily affairs.

Questions in life cannot be easily hypothesized, analyzed, logically characterized, or straightforwardly answered by yes and no. In other words, they are not easily answerable in light of the sciences, where the processes, theories and conclusion admit of no doubts.

Educators today have become superadapted at churning out trained personnel in an assembly line in response to the dictates of the mechanical, or digital, society, but they have yet to come up with a set of curricula that could turn out socially, culturally, and ethically responsible beings.

In this transformation, our once-strong historical sense has been much vitiated.

As Williams observes, “All our ways of thinking about the world are conditioned by a given historical context of conventions, manners, and interests.”

When our students cannot think on their own two feet, our perception of good citizenship does not venture far beyond adherence to legal or traffic rules.

As a consequence of systemic downplaying of ideological leanings and niceties for decades, in some countries politics have effectively turned into a self-serving enterprise.

As Williams believes, politics necessarily involves ideas, and political ideas need the surroundings, the criticism, and the life provided by other ideas; and that some people are able to bring those ideas imaginatively into the thoughts of those who are going to live under that politics. I find it particularly relevant to cite Williams’ deliberation on the “Two Faces of Sciences.”

As he observes, what may be frightening is not so much the evil uses of technology as the evil consequences of its supposed good uses, with the alarming consequences they may entail.

It is sufficient here to just mention our wholesale environmental degradation.

“There is the fear, at least, that inherent in the impetus of scientific advance itself is a certain necessity that those means which are possible will be discovered, and those means that have been discovered will be used,” he writes.

There is in present society a genuine cultural enthusiasm for the idea of science itself, and obsession with technological solutions.

That is a superstition deeply embedded in many of us — not just the technocrats — who believe that technological progress is all, and that “a toughminded utilitarianism is the only acceptable social philosophy ...”

True education should enable us make informed judgment about the condition of our world, and that ability should precede any specialized training.


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