WORLD Philosophy Day is annually observed on the third Thursday of November. This year, it fell on the 16th of this month. As it is, we attend to our daily rituals oblivious to the mother of all knowledge, and the secular source of humanitarian values.
Since establishing World Philosophy Day in 2005, the United Nations World Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) underlines the enduring value of philosophy for the development of human thought, for each culture and for each individual.
The complexities of the times call for reflection on humility, to be engaged in reasoned dialogue, and to transcend prejudice for a sustainable and peaceful world. This shows the importance of the discipline of philosophy that encourages critical and independent thought. Unesco reiterates that it does not own World Philosophy Day. The Day belongs to everyone, everywhere, who cares about philosophy.
In Malaysia, we do not teach philosophy in the universities, nor in schools. There are no philosophy departments. I have alluded to this in an interview by one of the national dailies some years ago. Then I had said, all top global universities have a department of philosophy. We want to be in the top one per cent, but we have even killed history.
To be fair, courses on philosophy of science and philosophy of art are taught in the related departments in Malaysian universities. The logic is simple. One cannot be granted a Degree in Fine Art, or some aspects of visual or performing arts without a course in the philosophy of art. But science faculties in Malaysia do not offer any semblance in the likes of the philosophy (and history) of science. The Science and Technology Studies Department, under University of Malaya’s Science Faculty, delves into and has a programme on the history and philosophy of science. Much of the interest in that area is dependent on individual academicians having such orientation and the extent of their advocacy.
I was instrumental in introducing and teaching a course titled Introduction to Philosophy in the Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation at a public university more than a decade ago. My attempts at introducing a course on philosophy and modernity in another university did not materialise due to the apathy (and perhaps fear) of what it would produce of students.
Then, I had argued on the importance of teaching philosophy in the context of the natural and the social sciences as an exercise in reasoned and informed thinking on the major challenges of our time.
And as an extension, the universities can organise cultural events, dialogues, debates, seminars and workshops with the participation of scholars, scientists, artists, students, teachers, the media, civic organisations and the public.
My allusion to World Philosophy Day is to engage us in the problematique of philosophy. My problem with philosophy as knowledge is how it was introduced and transmitted to the modern world.
In a book published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012 titled The Gaze of the West and Framings of the East (editor Shanta Nair), I discussed this problem of philosophy in the chapter titled Representations of Philosophy: The Western Gaze Observed (pages 79-92). In that chapter, I described the representation of philosophy and identified the problems as such within the Orientalist-Occidentalist mode.
In that context, I had made pertinent observations on the representations of philosophy from the vantage point of the non-European worldview. The state of theorising and narrating philosophy much manifests the Western gaze, taken to be universal. Philosophy (read Western) is unique to Europe and the Occidental world, and not necessarily universal.
I had asked a series of questions such as “Is there a single Oriental philosophy?”. Can we assume that both the Occident and the Orient have a similar conceptualisation of difference and experience as to warrant the thinking about philosophy as comparable, or even thinkable? Is being a common experience on both sides of the divide?
In the mainstream narrative, we find that the West has produced and reproduced philosophy and to that end, the mind and logic that dominate and inform us about ourselves and existence. The history of philosophical thought has always been discussed and dominated by the Western tradition through early Greek philosophers and their ideas have since become the foundation for the study of philosophy today.
For example, in philosophising the Other by the West, one may note that the ways of thinking, idea of logical thought and roots in the Malay tradition are relatively neglected, and underexplored. Scholars of philosophy, either from the East or West, have never put serious attention into it.
The book From Africa to Zen: An Invitation to World Philosophy (1993) does not include the Malay world and their philosophy. Malay philosophy and the Malay worldview as such exist outside the frame of Western consciousness.
It is quite normal to conceive of philosophy as being ‘Western” (and inherently Christianised) so much so that any scholar (in Malaysia, for example) who partakes an interest in the subject, and promotes it in the appropriate arena, is seen as imbibing a Western value and subscribing to an Occidental ethic. In the 2012 book, and in preparing for my contribution to the chapter, I searched the word “philosophy” through the “universalised” search engine Google and a list of 142 million entries appeared; and for “Eastern philosophy”, 3.660 million. For both searches, the Internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia tops the list. I have used Google and Wikipedia for the purpose of illustrating in itself how the West has come to dominate various discourses on knowledge production and philosophy. The Internet and Google are classic examples of Western technologies representing also the non-European world.
Terms such as “ancient”, “medieval” and “modern” are now used almost universally, regardless of appropriateness. Islamic and Indian philosophies as a category will almost always reside under the Medieval period. An example is manifested in a 2004 book titled One Hundred Philosophers by Peter J. King, an academic philosopher at Pembroke College, Oxford. The book is divided into six sections, namely Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, 19th century and 20th century. Under “Medieval”, the book identifies such figures as Adi Samkara, al-Kindi, al-farabi, Ramanuja, al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd together with European philosophers as Pierre Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, William of Okham, Machiavelli and Franscisco Suarez.
Another classification in Wikipedia’s entry on the history of “Western Philosophy” is as follows:
For a long time, history and philosophy were divided into such categorisations. Bernard Lewis, a commentator of Islam, who has been most of the time dubbed an orientalist, argues that the term “Medieval Islam” does not mean Medieval Islam but that period in Islamic history which corresponds to the Medieval period in European history and philosophy. We are aware that the periodisation of the world, and periods of philosophy and intellectual history were invented by Europeans in Europe to classify the different phases of European history, which is then imposed, or self-imposed upon the rest of the world.
And then there was the Nietzchean voice through the mouth of Zarathustra, that “God is dead”, at least for the Western world.
Hence, no God and echoing John Lennon’s Imagine, released in 1971, “And no religion too”. Imagine renders a Nietzchean worldview and at the same time manifesting the gaze of the West in resonating Eastern religions and philosophies. We see philosophy emancipating with no god and no religion. I had used Lennon in the 2012 chapter to illlustrate the juxtaposed domains. It is the Other philosophy, the Eastern one, with all its sacred and spiritual avatars, that has also inspired Lennon’s lyrics.
It gave Lennon, as one commentator put it, the escape from “provincial, Western-European-British-Liverpudlian thought”, and penetrate the deeper areas of the soul. When “God is dead”, the worldview adopted by the West is inclined toward change. We may remember Bob Dylan’s The Times, They are A-Changin’, released in 1964. The dominant philosophical system was formed by the gathering together of various cultural objects, values and phenomena into artificial coherence — meaning subject to change with the change of circumstances.
Happy World Philosophy Day, everyone. May our souls be joined together, “and the world will live as one”.
The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at email@example.com