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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Philosophy 101

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Plato, one of the earliest Western philosophers, wrote in The Republic a parable more than two thousand years ago about what philosophy really is.  The title was Myth of the Cave and describes a scene where a group of prisoners are chained in an underground cave.  These men can only see shadows on the back of the wall.  This seems like reality because they have only seen this since they were children.  The entrance of the cave has a fire that casts the shadows on the wall.  When the men talked their voices echoed off the wall making it seem as though their shadows are talking.  After one of the men was freed and forced to walk toward the entrance behind him, the burning flame of the fire would be so painful and blinding.  This new reality would be hard to grasp and he would remain believing that the shadows and inside the cave were more real.  He would be confused by the world we call reality.  Little by little he would get used to the outside and start questioning the nature of real objects.  He would, in fact, begin to understand how the world and universe work and eventually know what was casting the shadows on the cave walls.  Should or would he go back to tell the other prisoners his newfound knowledge?  If so, how would they react?  If at last the prisoner was brought back into the cave, he would see the shadows differently since he had a better understanding.  The other prisoners would think his eyesight had been ruined from exiting the cave.  They would never want to be freed  and would fight and even kill to remain in the cave.  The truth is that the ascent out of the cave into the upper world is where true knowledge is gained in our minds.

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In the parable, philosophy is an activity, hard work, freedom, and helps to examine our basic assumptions. By studying different views and theories of philosophers, one will learn how to “do” philosophy.  This will help the student (me) understand what philosophising is about.  The hard work of going out of the cave symbolises the questioning and thinking about different concepts of our universe.  This can lead to one having views differently than the masses.  Thirdly, philosophy is freedom or breaking free from what has always been thought to be truth.  Last, philosophy looks at our basic assumptions of human existence.  A woman named Perictione that is believed to live around the same time as Plato expressed that philosophy is the search for truths about the entire universe and our own selves.  Philosophy also looks at norms surrounding religion and beliefs.

Although both Plato and Perictione wrote parables that represented Western philosophy, philosophy concerns all races and cultures.  However, Western philosophy is what has shaped us to how we believe and think today.  Also, in addition to Western philosophy, we must look at world philosophy in that it helps us to look at oneself and reality in a different perspective.  Women have also made major contributions to philosophy and cannot be excluded from being studied.

Another way to consider philosophy is to look at three broad questions: “What is knowledge?”, “What is real?”, and “What is right and good?”  These categories are grouped into knowledge (epistemology), reality (metaphysics), and values (ethics).

Epistemology looks at the meaning of truth, logic and linguistic concerns, and the foundation of knowledge.  Stenstad makes a comparison in her passage that shows the opposing view of feminine ways of thinking and the male view of truth.  She believes that the feminist approach to knowledge and truth is the best route when looking at philosophy.  As opposed to the man’s point of view of one truth, there may be many opposing insights considered true and equally valid.

Metophysics or reality looks at whether everything in the universe is determined by outside causes or are humans able to choose for themselves.  Determinism says that all things occur in accordance to a pattern or law.  Paul Henri d’Holbach claims that everything is predetermined and we have no control over our destiny which many Gambians subscribe to.On the other hand,  Viktor Frankl asserts that man can decide what his existence will be.  The Hindu idea of Karma combines the idea that humans can have their futures both determined and free in the present moments.  The Hindu philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan writes in his passage that we carry our past with us but are constrained by our previous actions.

Ethics allows us to attempt to understand and evaluate moral values and principles.  Mahatma Gandhi advocated and practised non-violence and had the views that no living thing should be harmed while evil should be resisted.  In an opposing view, Harry Browne concludes that everyone should have selfishness.  James Rachels questions Browne’s view by looking at why one should feel selfish while helping others.

In examining a philosopher in action, we must look at the father of Western philosophy and Greek thinker Socrates.  Although he wasn’t the first Western philosopher, studying his thinking is the best way to understand the nature of philosophy. He was born in 469 BCE but began to question the conventional beliefs that were held when he was younger as he matured.  He would question fellow men about their beliefs.  When bad things began happening in Athens, the people blamed Socrates for the problems saying his probing leaded to its demise.  He was sentenced to death because of it.  Socrates thoughts are documented in the Dialogues written by his disciple Plato.

In 2011, many held demonstrations against governments for injustices.  Arabs held illegal demonstrations to protest government regimes and succeeded in overthrowing some governments.  “Occupy Wall Street” in several cities was for the bottom one percent against the rich and the inequality that it caused.  Other cities in other countries took up the cause using illegal tactics to protest the gap between rich and poor.  The first time that illegal tactics were used for protest was in the 1960s when protests broke out against the segregation laws in America.  During the 1970s, people protested the war in Vietnam.  In the 1990s, thousands protested against  the Gulf War while in 2003 people demonstrated against the war in Iraq.  Other illegal occupations have been against environmental issues.  Each time arrests of people have led them to say their conscience was more powerful than the law when looking at these issues.

As suggested by Plato, philosophy allows us to achieve freedom.  Other philosophical traditions have implied that wisdom will lead to freedom but to a higher level than Plato suggested.  Buddhism embraces the idea that every living thing is reincarnated based on past actions, karma, or how inferior or superior its previous actions were.  Buddha thinks that by lacking knowledge, the cycle of life continues without merit.  In the end, he believes that when ignorance is overcome the law of action would stop.  This was his true knowledge and led to his freedom.

Philosphical soul-searching will not only allow one to see the big picture of why he or she is in the world and how it all works, it will allow for the person to be a better self and achieve higher things.  Philosophy exposes one to ways of thinking.  Views of different philosophers allow us to see that there are different views rather than our own that can be accepted by others.  Philosophy can help cultivate self to achieve freedom.  In another way, philosophy can help us hone in on our reasoning skills to navigate all that is thrown at us in life’s journey.

Does philosophy have any value to women?  Feminist philosophers Janice Moulton and Genevieve Lloyd say that philosophy is rooted in male aggression, domination, and bias.  They suggest that working together will change these views and distortions.



Alhassan Darboe is a US-based Gambian journalist.

He was the winner of the maiden Black History Month Essay competition organised by the American embassy and worked as a journalist with Today newspaper.


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