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Philosophy: A love of wisdom

Constellations, Issue 4

Margaret Devadason and Alistair Yap

Oct 11, 2019 | News

What is Philosophy?

The word “philosophy” traces its roots back to the Greek word philosophia, with philo meaning love and sophia meaning wisdom. A literal translation of philosophia would be “love of wisdom”. While this may not be the first definition that springs to mind when we consider the nature of philosophy as a modern discipline, it certainly contributes to our understanding of the field.

We may well ask what about philosophy, in particular, ties it to the idea of loving wisdom. Surely all academic fields are predicated on a love of wisdom in one form or another: what is it that differentiates philosophy? In other words, what is it about philosophy’s relation to a love of wisdom that is unusual or unique? And what does such a perspective offer the world at large? There are many different possible answers to these questions, and philosophy is a broad field that encompasses a diverse range of concerns. Multiple philosophers, asked to explain their discipline’s unique connection to wisdom, will almost certainly give a similarly diverse range of responses. As Associate Professor Teru Miyake, the head of NTU’s Philosophy department, puts it: “there are people in philosophy working on all kinds of different subject matters, and there are all kinds of different styles of doing philosophy”. Assistant Professor Olav Vassend adds: “philosophy is a big tent”. This discipline has room for a wide range of perspectives and pursuits.

Within the Philosophy department at NTU, faculty are working on projects ranging from Dr Melvin Chen’s investigations into the ethics and real-world application of Artificial Intelligence to Assistant Professor Andrew Forcehimes’ work on normative ethics, which has a connection to the real world that he describes as “tenuous at best”. Other faculty members occupy positions between these extremes, from Assistant Professor Winnie Sung’s engagement with Chinese philosophy which explores the ways in which historical thought may bring new perspectives to modern life, to the work of Prof. Miyake and Prof. Vassend who work in the field of the philosophy of science, probing assumptions about scientific truth and inquiry and that other fields may overlook.

This diverse range of interests and approaches is united by the pursuit and love of wisdom.

Philosophy for the World

Alongside its wide range of perspectives and interests, the field of philosophy embraces multiple ways of relating fundamentally theoretical questions to the real world. As one might expect, these can and do vary from philosopher to philosopher.

For Prof. Miyake, the study of philosophy is remote from the real world in that “philosophers are typically not concerned with headline-grabbing issues”. However, he notes that philosophy nevertheless has a significant amount to contribute to real-world problems by providing the means through which one might understand them. Philosophy gives us a set of tools—specific vocabularies, concepts, and frameworks—through which we can engage with issues of urgent concern.

Prof. Forcehimes proposes a clear division of labour between philosophy and science. He suggests that it is the philosopher’s job to address an issue “to exactly the point where, to put it bluntly, the sciences can take over”. At the same time, he acknowledges that the issues of the real world and the concerns of philosophy are often inextricably linked. This is especially true in the case of his own field of normative ethics, which examines standards for right and wrong. By contrast, Prof. Vassend suggests that there are ways of using philosophy to approach scientific questions and vice versa. Active dialogue between philosophers and scientists may lead to fresh new perspectives on the world.

Dr. Chen actively pursues collaborations with scientists in his work with Associate Professor Chew Lock Yue (School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences). Their research aims to develop an algorithm that can approximate causal reasoning, with potential applications in the field of healthcare. This approach indicates that philosophers are equipped with skills in critical thinking and problem-solving that can help us to engage with very tangible issues in the wider world.

Prof. Sung’s research is partially concerned with refining our understanding of the vocabularies, concepts, and frameworks offered by philosophy and how they have changed across cultures over time. For example, our modern, Anglophone understanding of “sympathy” may be concerned with having a painful feeling for another individual, while a Classical Chinese understanding of “sympathy” may be understood as having a painful feeling for another person who is essentially related to oneself . “These insights,” she proposes, “can be used to jolt us to reflect on some fundamental assumptions, such as our relation to others, that we might have unreflectively adopted because of the context we live in.”

Five different philosophers offered five different standpoints. This response reflects the diverse perspectives and opinions to be found in the department, and more broadly, in the discipline. It is up to individual students to consider different competing and overlapping perspectives and to weave their own path.

Philosophy for the Self

As well as engaging with big issues such as AI, science, and history, philosophy is also concerned with the inner world. It offers a way of seeing and understanding the world that is fundamentally different from the perspectives offered by other subject areas.

Prof. Forcehimes invokes Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea that the challenge of philosophy comes with a fundamental change in mindset that involves a willingness to overcome “resistance of the will”. His research into normative ethics highlights the fact that philosophy generally lacks absolute markers of success and therefore “compounds the uncertainty and makes the struggle to overcome wishful thinking harder”. The unavoidable nature of ethical questions “makes the uncertainty feel especially terrifying”. In the course of philosophical inquiry, we often confront a tension between the desire to come to a complete understanding of the truth, and the knowledge that such an understanding is almost certainly impossible.

Assistant Professor Olav Vassend argues that philosophy offers a principled engagement with broad questions. By engaging with areas that other disciplines may have overlooked or taken for granted, philosophy may well find real-world application. Beyond this, modern day issues such as refugee crises and climate change are closely linked to “moral questions and decisions about the kind of people we should or want to be”. Philosophy thus provides methods through which we may approach such issues.

For Dr. Chen, the philosophical perspective “begins in wonder”. He says, “one who studies philosophy does not quell one’s wonder or subdue one’s curiosity”; instead, philosophy encourages us to question our assumptions, to withhold judgment, and to seek the truth fearlessly and relentlessly. For Prof. Sung, studying Chinese philosophy reminds us to be sensitive to how things may differ from our preconceived notions, particularly in terms of how we relate to one another. And for Prof. Miyake, beyond providing ways to to rethink our presuppositions, philosophical training invites us to develop “a healthy respect for opposing viewpoints”.

Whatever angle one takes, the perspectives offered by philosophy have ripple effects, from the personal level of an individual to the larger scale of the political realm. In the words of Prof. Miyake, concepts such as “democracy, human rights, justice […] lie in the background of so many of our most pressing real-world issues, and they were first debated, and continue to be debated, by philosophers”. The ability to “identify and construct good arguments, and conversely, to identify bad ones” is perhaps one of the most important things a student might gain from the study of philosophy.

Prof. Forcehimes suggests that studying philosophy may help to fulfill our “duty to believe important truths and avoid falsehoods”; a person acting in consideration of such a duty may well have a significant positive impact on the world around them. For Dr. Chen, the question is simple: “In the age of fake news, climate change denial, and post-truth politics,” he says, “I can recommend no better antidote than the philosopher’s toolkit”.
What Philosophy has to Offer

Where can a love of wisdom bring you? The work of philosophers range from the very real and tangible to the very abstract, and alternating between inward and outward perspectives.

Studying philosophy will challenge your preconceptions and help you to develop ideas greater than yourself. It is a fiercely diverse field, but its practitioners can still find common ground. There is a place for philosophy everywhere in the world, and a place for almost anything within philosophy if you take the time to create it.

For Prof. Vassend, philosophy provides a framework in our search for truth, while for Dr. Chen, philosophy gives us the tools we need to support us in our innate desire to understand ourselves and the world. Prof. Sung suggests that the study of philosophy is a means to becoming “more reflective about ourselves and the world around us.”, while Prof. Miyake expresses his appreciation of the field’s incredibly diversity and engagement with different subject areas.

In a recent article for the New York Times, Assistant Professor Preston Greene provides a philosophical perspective on the idea that reality as we know it may be a sort of computer simulation. Rather than taking the approach of many scientists, in trying to find evidence that can prove or disprove the notion, Prof. Greene suggests that even in the pursuit of knowledge, our enquiry should be tempered by the question of whether the benefits of gaining such information would outweigh the possible risks.

To love wisdom, then, is also to understand its potentially destructive nature. Philosophy teaches us not to seek the truth for its own sake but also to improve our own lives and the world we live in.