Philosophy and the Public

Philosophy can teach us one of the most important lessons needed today – to learn to listen as well as speak in a way that make others listen

There is a paradoxical relation between philosophy and the Indian public. Philosophy, both as a discipline and practice, has been consistently ignored over the last few decades. It was not always so. There were many respected departments of philosophy in universities in Mysore, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Jaipur, among others. Over time the strength of these departments declined and now there are very few meaningful programmes in philosophy in our universities. What is paradoxical is that in this same time period, the public engagement with philosophy has increased. The amount of adult learning of philosophical texts by ‘lay persons’ has grown quite significantly. The increase among students who are interested in philosophy but who are not part of philosophy departments has also grown. The state of philosophy today says something not only about the nature of philosophy but also about the nature of the contemporary world.  

Philosophy, from its earliest origins whether in India or Greece, was always a form of public discourse. The aims of philosophy were about addressing individual and social concerns, which included questions of the nature of the real, knowledge, truth, freedom, soul, god and so on. If there was a method which characterised these enquiries, it was that of debate, which  was essential to all philosophical practices. Indian philosophical systems are characterised by their special approach to debate, which included a detailed classification of the types of debates, typology of clinchers and fallacies, and so on. The textual practices in these systems also exemplified this well since every text would present the view of the ‘opponents’ first. Moreover, debate had a very specific meaning and structure. These were rules of arguing for a position: using the right methods of inference (logic) elucidated with the right examples, and making an argument without fallacies. Thus, debates in philosophy were not mere assertion of beliefs but were about arguing for positions with well-defined structures of reason. This is the method that science borrows from philosophy.  

Varun Bhatta in discussion with students at Philosophy Summer Camp in Tumkur. Photo: Barefoot Philosophers

Another important function of philosophy was that it illuminated the foundations of all human activities. It is in that sense a mother-discipline. Every act of ours, as well as every discipline such as science or art, is based on certain presuppositions and assumptions. When we are busy doing something or working within a discipline, we do not necessarily have the time or the wherewithal to understand what we are doing. For example, we could be very proficient in speaking and writing in a language but we may not be aware of the meaning of language, how speech differs from writing, the linguistic structure within each language and so on. Understanding language in this foundational sense is not necessary for a proficient use of language. So also with other acts. Scientists can do excellent science without being aware of the various presuppositions that are necessary for science to be possible. Philosophy of language or philosophy of science are the disciplines which try and make sense of the activities of language or science respectively. This approach to wanting to understand something in its completeness, and not just in its limited use, is another crucial aspect of philosophy.  

While there are other aspects to the practice of philosophy, I restrict myself to these two essential elements of philosophy, namely, debate and foundational understanding, mainly because these are the core elements needed to revive philosophy today. These are also the elements that are absolutely necessary for meaningful public reason to be available to the larger society.   

Professor Sarukkai in a discussion with students of Kattaikkuttu Sangam, Kanchipuram. Photo: Barefoot Philosophers

Consider what has happened to the skills of debate today. Whether in the public arena or within the academic domain, debate has become secondary to ideology. By ideology, I am referring only to the practice of holding on to opinions or beliefs even when there are counter-evidence and counter-arguments to them. This ideological problem has completely polarised the country into binaries of left-right, brahmin-dalit, hindu-muslim, urban-rural etc. But, on the other hand, it is true that it is impossible to act without some ideological foundation. The philosophical approach to this problem is to accept that we should be aware of the ideological presuppositions that we hold and from that to come up with reasonable arguments that can convince those who do not subscribe to our views. The task of convincing others has to be through dialogue and an openness to elements of right and wrong in different positions. This ‘non-violent’ approach of resolving contradictions is a necessary requirement of a democratic, public space. The lack of this in today’s society is all the more painful because of the long history of this tradition of debate in Indian intellectual traditions, exemplified particularly strongly in the Jaina school.  

What is the state of the public space today? One might say that TV news today is filled with debates but what happens in these shows is nothing like a debate. There is no structure of reason and argument by which one can present one’s views. As all of us have realised for long that debate today is judged purely by how loud one can shout in comparison to the other. Public debate on any topic, even during the mega debate-mela also called the elections, has become a series of accusations and counter-accusations. It is impossible for anybody to take a position and communicate the reasons for the same because there is no space of silence where we can listen to the other. Our contemporary society has become a society of speakers and we don’t do enough of listening. What philosophy can teach us through its use of debates is to learn to listen as much as learn to say something in a way that can make others listen.  

One would have thought that a society so obsessed with teaching science would have done this job better. But this has not been possible because science, particularly in India, has become another form of ideology and not another form of public reason. Science teaching has focussed so much on content that the students do not learn the ‘how’ of science. Focussing on the how (how something is said) and not only on the what (the content of what is being said) is a special philosophical practice. Philosophy and history of science have shown the way to understand the how of science but in India these disciplines have been completely marginalised by a dominant ideology of science.  

Student discussing the notion of fairness with Professor Sarukkai during Philosophy Summer Camp in Chennai. Photo: Barefoot Philosophers

One way out of this morass is to more actively teach philosophy starting from school. For those who think teaching philosophy in school is too far-fetched, I must mention that I have been doing a series of philosophy for children camps for the last year and more. The students for these camps are chosen from different schools. I was pleasantly surprised to see the number of children (and supporting parents) who wanted to do these workshops. I have done this not only in Bangalore but in many other places, both urban and rural. We have done this in Kannada and Tamil also. The impact of these workshops, in my view, has been significant and I am beginning to believe that such approaches to enquiry and learning should become a part of all school education. In continuation of this, we have also started an online site to enable public philosophy (, where we encourage access to philosophy for a larger public as well as having a kid’s corner to inspire young kids to think and write critically and reflectively. Once we get more support, we will extend this to different languages. 

 I am convinced that a meaningful engagement with philosophy is a must for any civilisation that aspires to certain ideals. But for this to be possible, we need to bring about some fundamental changes. Reducing philosophy to texts alone, using philosophy as a form of exclusion rather than inclusion, creating unnecessary demarcations on what constitutes philosophy and what does not, making a fetish of language in which the texts are written are some of the ways by which we create walls around the practice of philosophy. Teaching themes from philosophy, drawing as much from the critical traditions of Indian philosophy including the Buddhist, Jaina and Nyāya schools as from other philosophical schools in the west, would go a long way in creating a habit of critical and compassionate reasoning among the public.  

Finally, we should realise that in the context of human societies, forms of questioning and enquiry identified with scientific reason cannot be the best model. Social reason is created through conversations, dialogues and disagreements in the public domain about things that we feel passionate about. This form of reason needs not just logical analysis but more an ethical rationality which incorporates ideas of respect, dignity, equality and compassion along with instrumental forms of reasoning.  

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