Philosophy for progress

The subject is attractive to those who feel constrained by the system of learning they grew up in.

May 29, 2016 05:00 pm | Updated May 30, 2016 03:07 pm IST

Vijay Tankha

Vijay Tankha

It may not be a lucrative career option, but for questioning minds it holds infinite riches. Dr. Vijay Tankha, head of the philosophy department at Delhi University’s St. Stephen’s college, talks about the discipline and lauds the faculty of doubt. Excerpts from an interview:

How would you explain the discipline of philosophy to someone who doesn’t know much about it?

A standard way of looking at it is that philosophy is a discipline which looks at other disciplines. One of the primary activities of philosophers is to look at a certain set of questions. But a lot of them relate to either the way questions are to be asked, or questions about other disciplines: what is science, what is art, and so on. So, in that sense, philosophy is to a large extent, but not entirely, a theoretical activity. It is more about asking questions than answering them.

What is unique about this branch of knowledge?

An old self-definition of philosophy is that it does what other subjects don’t: look at assumptions which other subjects simply assume. So, for example, biology isn’t going to look at what it is to be human, except in terms of biology. Philosophy deals with questions which are not the business of the special sciences. And as one modern philosopher put it, “it is the logic of the sciences.” It looks at the way science itself approaches problems. But it also deals with practical activities such as business. You can look theoretically at the ethics of business, say medical ethics. When is it right to terminate a life? This has to be asked. There’s no simple answer to it. Philosophers typically engage with questions which otherwise cannot be answered. The moment a question can be answered definitively, it no longer belongs to the realm of philosophy. And even as disciplines detach themselves, philosophy can still come back and look at them. You can have the philosophy of biology, of psychology, and so on.

Is the motive of philosophy to critically look at subjects from a moral standpoint?

Not just moral, it could be a logical standpoint, too. Logic is an independent and highly-developed branch of philosophy and has many practical applications. In fact, computer language could not have been developed without philosophical logic. All computer languages are based on logical discoveries.

So is it fair to say that philosophy has a share in actual technological advancement?

Absolutely. For instance, even something as mundane as high-speed electrical switching is based on refinements in the use of logical symbols. So, at the fine edge, there is often little difference between the disciplines of, say, mathematics and philosophy, or physics and philosophy. And, increasingly, studies of the nature of consciousness and cognitive theory are looking at both the biological as well as the philosophical aspects of these problems.

For students, what is the appeal of philosophy? How does the discipline aim to mould its students?

I think it is a fantastic exposure to the intellectual culture of different traditions. Philosophers have contemplated, as it were, the problems of human beings. Here are first-class thinkers talking about things that concern everyone. And not only do you get to discuss them, but also critique them, and, thereby, also develop your own critical faculty. One of the lessons you get to learn from philosophy is not to take any lessons from philosophy; it teaches you not to take what anyone says at face value.

Philosophy is attractive to those who feel constrained by the system of learning they grew up in and feel that they want to discover things for themselves. That’s how progress is made, even in science. Progress comes from criticism and creativity. That’s what we would ideally like to encourage in our students.

An engineering student may aim at building a bridge one day. A medical student may one day heal someone. As far as studying philosophy goes, is there any such practical consequence, apart from teaching and research?

There are many areas in contemporary institutional and corporate life where you need somebody with training in philosophy, whether it is corporate social responsibility or different areas of applied ethics. The aim of philosophy is to make you appreciate the abstract. These are transferable skills; you can learn these sharp techniques of argumentation and apply them to any field. Whether it’s advertising or law or journalism, you can apply them there. We have students in practically every field. Also, many students from other disciplines who studied philosophy as additional papers got interested in the subject and took it up for an M.A. Students, when they come to college, don’t know about it. It is an interest they discover when they are exposed to it.

Can you talk a bit about the B.A. course structure?

The three-year programme consists of 18 to 20 different papers. Broadly divided into Indian and Western philosophy, the course covers thinkers from ancient to modern times. It gives a good idea of the six systems of Indian philosophy. Students get an in-depth understanding of the wide-ranging subject. For example, logic teaches you deductive and other techniques and assembles larger issues as composites of smaller ones. It is good training for young people.

Is it fair to say that philosophy is not a lucrative option for students, career-wise?

Many join the so-called lucrative courses. But even there, one often finds a big gap between what one thinks and what the reality is. Many think an MBA is the way to go, but find that unless you do an MBA from a premier institution, your degree is, career-wise, not worth the same as others. So, it is not simply a question of what you do, but also where you do it from. At the undergraduate level, I think philosophy is as good as any other subject for future careers. And it may change one’s attitude about money or job satisfaction. I wouldn’t recommend philosophy for somebody who wants to quickly finish a degree and start earning to support a family.

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