Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Philosophers Do Not Get It?

As I was scanning through today's newspapers earlier on, I took a slight double take at statements made by Mr. Ronald Wong, a law student at NUS and a co-founder of The Parables Company, in the weekly "Bookends" section, which features interviews with people about the books they are reading and their favourite books.

Commenting on "A History of Western Philosophy" (by Bertrand Russell), Mr. Wong stated: "This study of man's pursuit of knowledge and quest to fill his soul speaks volumes about his longing for a paradise. But it is strange how most philosophers got it wrong, yet we still place them up on a pedestal. Still, it is a pleasurable read" (emphasis mine).

Hmm... Reading the above remark by Mr. Wong, especially the statement in bold, I cannot help wondering what he meant when he said that "most philosophers got it wrong".

Who are these "most philosophers" he is referring to? And what is the "it" they have supposedly gotten wrong?

Well, although I may be mistaken, I would guess that, looking at the statement he made before the statement in question, Mr. Wong was implying that philosophers were not able to properly discern humankind's "longing for a paradise".

Yet, leaving aside the question of whether humankind really long for a "paradise" (on that note, it is also unclear what Mr. Wong meant by "paradise"; did he, with his evident religious background as a Christian, mean it literally or figuratively?), I cannot help but wonder how Mr. Wong can be certain that the philosophers have gotten it (whatever "it" may be) wrong? Also, who then, in Mr. Wong's opinion, has gotten it right? Himself? Can it not be the case that the philosophers gotten it right and Mr. Wong mistakenly thinks that they have gotten it wrong?

I do not know about you all but to make a statement about how "most philosophers got it wrong" strongly suggests a sense of intellectual arrogance, if not smugness.

That aside, I also take issue with Mr. Wong's suggestion about how people place philosophers "up on a pedestal" despite them supposedly getting it wrong.

Well, although I may be wrong about this but I would think that while it is true that some philosophers are respected for properly discerning the "truth", a more important reason why people have great respect for philosophers is that the latter have relentlessly employed intellect and reason to try to find out the "truth" and in the process of doing so, offered various key insights into a myriad of issues. Some, like the pre-Socratic philosophers, may have been mistaken about there being a single element upon which everything is based on but it remains admirable that, unlike their contemporaries, these philosophers used their intellect and reason.

To end off, I think I need to say that it may be the case that Mr. Wong's words were misrepresented and/or that I misinterpreted them. If so, I apologise. Yet, of course, my grievance was not targeted against Mr. Wong but rather against the attitude that philosophers have gotten it wrong.

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