Can a ‘good’ education dispense with Philosophy? This question would have been regarded as obsolete until the second half of the 19th century when the study of the ‘humanities’ constituted the very core of European education and the building of the moral and social ‘virtues’ were still associated with the Renaissance idea of ‘the new man’. The promotion of a strong scientific culture became firmly established in Germany where technical colleges sprang up with the view of training new generations of engineers and boosting German industrial innovation.
Far from fading away, this trend has become the hallmark of German education as the study of technical skills is far more likely to be preferred to the choice of ‘liberal arts’ subjects. In their teens, would Kant or Marx have chosen ‘vocational training’ instead of musing over the moral and political issues which inspired their respective philosophy? Philosophy is taken with a ‘pinch of salt’ by German educational institutions and the Abitur programme only offers it as a possible option alongside Theology. I have personally come across German IB students whose excellent IB Philosophy results were surprisingly frowned upon by prospective German universities. So why such a degree of suspicion towards a discipline which owes so much to its German ‘giants’?
Perhaps, this attitude is a reaction to the ‘metaphysical extremes’ reached by the likes of Hegel and Heidegger. Against his best wishes – and intentions – Nietzsche himself got blamed for pointing the way out of the ‘traditional’ ways of ‘thinking’ and of course thinking ‘philosophically’. Here lies the very issue dividing philosophers and non-philosophers. What does thinking ‘philosophically’ actually mean? How to explain cricket without watching a game or having a first-hand experience of it? It is easier to condemn than to try and understand.
For many, philosophy is a waste of time and time investment as its potential benefits seem vague, not to say, spurious. Why is it, then, that in a world dominated by technology and business, Philosophy is still taught and enjoyed by young and old students all around the world? Man is simply the only animal which is conscious of its finite nature and is capable of asking himself questions about his place in the universe as well as among his fellow-beings. Philosophy is this attempt to lift us above our ‘here and now’ and clarify our personal doubts and wonderings from the objective point of view of eternity – Spinoza’s sub species aeternitatis. Any education worthy of the name must take into account this fundamental urge to go beyond the superficial aspect of reality and probe the validity of long-held ideas and beliefs. In this respect, Philosophy provides the best tools to undertake this systematic work of critical inquiry!
For more thought on the subject, listen to Nigel Warburton in conversation with Martha Nussbaum: