Sunday, 9 May 2010
I don't think therefore...
They're going to close the philosophy department at Middlesex university. It's not making enough money, the head honchos figure. The fact that, like hospitals or schools, universities aren't in the business of making money doesn't seem to have struck them. To their credit, eminent philosophers from all around the world, including Noam Chomsky, have petitioned that the university have a rethink. It is an outstanding philosophy department, they say. If it's closed it will be a loss not just to Britain but to the rest of Europe and the rest of the world.
I think their argument is a little flawed. It shouldn't matter whether a university has an A* philosophy department or a philosophy department that scrapes a C+ rating. Any self-respecting university should have a philosophy department - the best they can make it. Why? Because philosophy informs everything in life. It looks at questions like why we're here, what's the best use we can make of our time while we are here, and what makes for a society that encourages good use of limited time. You can't get much more useful questions than that.
There are, of course, people who don't want to encourage thoughts about such things. Like politicians. In fact, in politics the word 'philosophy' has become a dirty word. You must be a a non-philosophical pragmatist (yes I know it's a contradiction in terms, but that's how the enemies of philosophy talk). And so we have parties whose only boast to the electorate is that they would run things better than the other lot. With them it's not a question of what the purpose of the machine is, or where it's taking us, or whether it wouldn't be far better to put in place another machine entirely. It's a question of being able to oil the machine and keep it humming merrily along.
Take political parties in Ireland. What does Fianna Fail exist for, other than grabbing power when the opportunity arises? Or Fine Gael? Or (God help us) Labour? In the north, the unionist parties declare their allegiance to the crown, and that's about it. Alliance's philosophy is that we should be nicer to each other. And the SDLP believes that...Well, on TV today, according to Alastair McDonnell, they believe in a united Ireland. Before the election they were pretty quiet about it, but now they are Irish nationalists. Perhaps the only party in Ireland which can lay claim to a political philosophy is Sinn Fein, who argue for equality, justice and national unity - in short, republicanism. For their pains they've been pilloried, denounced as doctrinaire, out-of-touch and lots of other barbs which suggest that anyone with a political philosophy is a fascist.
Naturally it's in the interests of those who control society to keep people from thinking about the shape of the state. The more you can convince them that we've arrived at Nirvana, and the only thing now is to keep the big machine chuntering along without too many breakdowns. That way, you'll have the ideal: willing workers without a thought in their heads.
Asking big questions about the organisation of the state and how that fits in with one's vision of how life in general - those should be at the heart of the third-level education given to thousandes of young people here. If we had a philosophically-literate population, those in power wouldn't get away with the talent-show rubbish that passed for politics in Britain during the leaders' debates and the low-level cunning of their present negotiations. Here in our own dear statelet, we might hear less howling when people like the Shinners put forward for discussion alternative models of government.