We All Are Worldly Philosophers

How should we live, how should we treat others, and how should we govern our society. Normative questions like those keep philosophers busy. To that extent we are all philosophers. Our society is a reflection of our collective philosophizing on those concerns. So therefore for society to change, our answer to the question — “What’s the right thing to do?” — has to change.

Depending on which society you find yourself born in, the answers differ radically. A jihadist’s answer will be to kill the infidels, a libertarian’s answer would be to promote personal and economic freedom, a Buddhist’s would be to seek liberation from the endless cycle of birth and death. Economists — a.k.a. worldly philosophers — spend their time essentially answering those question. Development is a philosophical pursuit.

Which reminds me. Have you ever wondered why people always have an opinion on what needs to be done to fix this or that economic problem? Other problems — such as what to do about national defense, or treat cancer, or environmental pollution — they will happily leave alone. But when it comes to economic development, we all have something to add to the matter. That is so because we are all natural born philosophers and as argued before philosophy informs economic development. Though we all are not very good at it, we are all worldly philosophers.

The good thing is that we can learn to do philosophy better. People have spent figuring out answers and we can learn from them. Unfortunately, as a student in the Indian education system, I was not exposed to it. Only after leaving engineering school — I studied mechanical engineering and followed it up with computer science at the post graduate level — did I study philosophy informally.

I think even young children should be introduced to philosophy. After all, they are born curious and if they are shown the joys of asking and answering questions, they would achieve their potential as philosophers. This is important because our collective wisdom determines whether we live in the good society. The good society is an emergent phenomenon which arises out of how we think.

What brought all this to mind was the reaction of the people to what Anna Hazare & Co were up to. I could not avoid the conclusion that if more people had thought through the matter, the circus would not have come to town. It is not that these people are stupid. They are merely untutored. (That makes me an elitist. I am. So there.)

It is never too late to learn how to think. Fortunately for us, we live in the age of virtually unlimited information. You can finds whatevers you wishes on them interwebs. I recommend this course from Harvard by Michael Sandel. Go watch, listen, ponder and learn.

Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do?

Episode 01 “THE MORAL SIDE OF MURDER

Episode 02: “PUTTING A PRICE TAG ON LIFE

Episode 03: “FREE TO CHOOSE

Episode 04: “THIS LAND IS MY LAND

There are 13 episodes in all. Thank you.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

4 thoughts on “We All Are Worldly Philosophers”

  1. I came across your post via @acorn (Nitin Pai) on Twitter. I really enjoyed your perspective. Even more, I enjoyed your writing style. It had a sense of empathy to it.

    Like you, I did my undergraduate work in Mechanical Engineering followed by more of the same in post graduate level. I came to the study of Philosophy informally; on my own. I wish I had done it sooner.

    I have watched the Harvard lectures you had posted & found them extremely engaging. Best part, they’re available for all to view for free.

    Regards,

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  2. “Unfortunately, as a student in the Indian education system, I was not exposed to it. Only after leaving engineering school — I studied mechanical engineering and followed it up with computer science at the post graduate level — did I study philosophy informally.”
    __

    Atanu,
    As a Hindu living and growing up in India, how could you have not been exposed to philosophy? Isn’t Hinduism a way of life? And weren’t there Ram Lila or other religious plays that you witnessed?

    I guess you must be referring to a formal, structured and academic (i.e. bookish) study of philosophy, and especially works of western philosophers (Plato, Mill, Socrates, German philosophers et al). Otherwise, your comment leaves me scratching my head, because most of us consciously or sub-consciously imbibe the philosophy that we grow up in; and in India, there’s no dearth of exposure to such philosophy, be it Hindu, Sikh, Jain or Buddhist. So many philosophers, from Aurobindo to Ramana Maharishi to BKS Iyengar live(d) and breathe(d) in India and demonstrated their philosophy by walking the walk, instead of simply intellectualizing from an armchair.

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  3. BTW, Atanu, I do agree with your broader point of not being exposed to different philosophers and their works in college. But then again, I doubt that engineering colleges in the US introduce their students to such philosophy. Perhaps if instead of Engineering, you’d studied Arts or Liberal Arts, you’d have definitely come across a more formal and academic introduction to philosophy.

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  4. Thanks for the pointer to these lectures. Thoroughly enjoyed these 12 hours.

    As you rightly said (and as @Kaffir specifically pointed out of us Indians) we do philosophy everyday. Every time we make a decision, we ask what is right and what is wrong. Most times we do it in a subconscious manner. I have observed that this intuitive way of doing everyday philosophy results in lots of self-contradictions – in one case we take decisions based on a certain principle while in some other case we choose exactly the opposite one. And I see two main reasons for this –
    1) We do not apply the basic principles while arriving at our decisions but simply go with our intuition of right/wrong.
    2) This intuition is susceptible to our various psychological inclinations which may not themselves be consistent.

    The first step I guess we need to take to rectify this is that we need to think through the basic principles in a coherent manner and try to remove the contradictions as much as possible.

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