Utility of Philosophy

This is an awesome passage from one of Michael Sandel’s lecture which I want quote here –

  • Philosophy is a distancing even debilitating activity.
  • One of Socrates’s friends Callicles tries to talk him out of philosophizing. Callicles says that Philosophy is a pretty toy if one indulges in moderation at the right time of life. But if one pursues it further than one should, it is absolute ruin. Callicles says, take my advice, abandon argument learn the accomplishment of active life, take for your models not those people who spend their time on these petty quibbles, but those who have a good livelihood and reputation and many other blessings.
  • Callicles has a point because philosophy distances us from conventions, from established assumptions and from settled beliefs. Those are the risks, personal and political. And in the face of these risks there is a characteristic evasion. The name of the evasion is cynicism. Its the idea that we didn’t resolve, once and for all, either the cases or the principles we were arguing when we began. And if Aristotle, and Mill, and Kant and Locke haven’t solved these questions after all these years, who are we to think that we here can resolve them. Maybe it is just a matter of each person having his or her own principles and there is nothing more to it, no way of reasoning. This is the evasion of cynicism.
  • To which Sandel offers the following reply: it’s true these questions have been debated for a very long time, but the very fact that these questions have recurred and persisted may suggest that though they are impossible in one sense, they are unavoidable in another. And the reason they are unavoidable and the reason they are inescapable is that we live some answer to these questions everyday. So cynicism, just throwing up your hand and giving up on moral reflection, is no solution. Emmanuel Kant described well the problem with skepticism when he wrote “skepticism is a resting place for human reason, where it can reflect upon its dogmatic wanderings but it is no permanent place for permanent settlement”. “Simply to acquiesce in skepticism”, Kant wrote “can never suffice to overcome the restlessness of reason”.
I think Callicles is right. I think Nandan Nilekani had also made this point when he said that solutions to India’s problems should not be ideology based but solution based.
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