Society must not shun philosophers
A friend of mine once told me a joke: A job hunter, a philosophy major, went here, there and everywhere in his search for employment, but in vain. Having run out of options, he swallowed his pride and took up the offer of playing a bear in a costume at a zoo. He was locked up in a cage, where he was supposed to imitate various bear-like movements to entertain visitors.
To his horror, another bear appeared in the cage and started approaching him. He panicked and was on the brink of collapse when the bear said: "Don't be afraid. I'm also a philosophy major."
Funny and somewhat ridiculous, the joke does reveal an essential truth. In a society geared towards immediate gains, philosophy seems unable to produce tangible benefits. For the majority, philosophy seems virtually useless.
It is no wonder that enrolment on philosophy courses at colleges and universities has declined sharply. Some have suggested that admissions to philosophy departments be cut dramatically. Some go as far as to suggest that undergraduate philosophy be scrapped.
A number of scholars say declining enrolment is a positive development as the nation does not need many philosophers, just as it does not need so many mathematicians or theoretical physics scientists. Something must have gone wrong if philosophy becomes a popular major, they argue.
Is this really so? Not necessarily.
As a matter of fact, a noisy, bustling and restive society needs philosophy. The younger generation's lack of faith shows our urgent need for outstanding philosophers that can lead trends in ideas and thoughts.
At the same time, we need large numbers of philosophy-enlightened workers and educators. We urgently need spiritual and ideological support now, more than at any other time. This is of vital importance to the continuation of our national spirit and cultural heritage, which help make our nation what it is.
This branch of learning, which hardly delivers short-term benefits, is bound to falter once the government's support is removed. Under such circumstances, philosophy has naturally become a synonym for triteness and uselessness in the eyes of many people.
Is Chinese society really saturated with college graduates specializing in philosophy? Of course not.
In our middle schools and universities, the demarcation between philosophical education and politics is very blurred. The probing of truth and reason in a dialectical way, and the challenging yet enjoyable pursuit of philosophical thinking, have been replaced by dry preaching of empty arguments, which is compounded by the cramming approach to teaching.
To redress this dire situation, large numbers of excellent philosophy teachers are called for.
In a society in which ideas and thoughts go largely ignored, gifted thinkers' enlightening appeals often get lost amidst the sea of desire for material comfort. Some philosophers comply with the "irresistible" trend. This means nothing but the termination of philosophy.
In academic circles that are eager to see instant results, parroting is the order of the day. "Academic junk"pieced together from materials found among heaps of musty old papers is turned out in large quantities, but nobody bothers to read it.
By contrast, a lot of social problems are waiting for philosophical answers and theoretical discussion. But faced with real life, our philosophers are unable to engage in metaphysical thinking and analysis. They even lack the ability to make rational judgments on sophisticated social problems. Some of their points of view sound plausible but simply do not work. As a result, many pieces of work are intellectually demolished even before they are leafed through.
History offers us a precedent in this regard. Germany, which lagged far behind Britain and France, rose quickly in the late 18th and 19th centuries because philosophy flourished during that period, among other things. Philosophy was so popular at the time that Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" could be found in young ladies' boudoirs. It is from this fertile soil that a galaxy of great names emerged, which still have a profound influence on our world today - Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx.
The great ancient Chinese civilization was created because our ancestors attached great importance to rational thinking. Ancient philosophical ideas were at the core of the governance of ancient kingdoms and dynasties.
There is no shortage of examples. A wise inaction smoothes the way for efficient actions, which was purported by Taoism; moral codes come before legal punishment, which was touted by Confucianism; legal justice defies social strata, put forward by the Legal School; and so on.
The argument that a nation does not need many philosophers or philosophy majors just as it does not need many mathematicians and theoretical physics scientists is questionable.
In fact, a country needs large numbers of mathematicians and theoretical physics scientists - and even more outstanding philosophers.
This is where the driving force of a nation's creative thinking lies and where the basis for the continuation of the Chinese Civilization will be found.
The emergence of new philosophy masters is of course not something that can be taken for granted. But what we can do is nurture philosophers and philosophy teachers, strengthening mathematics, physics and philosophy education - the most fundamental disciplines.
The author works at the Department of Philosophy, Capital Normal University
(China Daily 10/28/2005 page4)
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