WRITTEN BY R. NANJAPPA                        

Post No. 8185

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By R. Nanjappa

Philosophy as academic discipline

Philosophy has become an academic subject, but is almost totally neglected in India. 

Bangalore University closed down the philosophy stream in the graduate courses

in 2014 because there were no students. The situation is not any better in other places.

Those who still study it do so privately, as part of their religious studies or for the love

of it. This is a reflection of the tastes and preferences of the new India- young India,

opting overwhelmingly for science, engineering, medicine, commerce and other

market-oriented courses.

Come to think of it, this may not be bad after all!  Our universities are so low in

standards, so poor in faculty, so wretched in library and allied facilities, and so strongly

exam-oriented, and so eager to carry out hidden agendas, that no subject in the

humanities or social sciences is taught well. They touch nothing that they do not

spoil. In that sense, at least philosophy has escaped mutilation at the hands of

half-baked faculty.

In the West too, philosophy as an academic discipline has degenerated into vain

semantic disputes, engagement with irrelevant issues- issues not related to human needs,

or providing a solution.

What philosophy is about?

What is philosophy, anyway? The word originates from the Greek word “philosophia” which

means ‘love of wisdom’= philo+sophia. Pythagoras is supposed to have coined this word.

In the ancient world, this wisdom was taken to concern the origin and nature of the

cosmos, and man’s place in it. As this is a fundamental aspect of human existence, there

could not have been a time when thoughts about these aspects were not present. But they

might not have been expressed in clear terms . (Just think: we all watch TV and use the

computer or the mobile phone. We sure have a reason for dressing the way we do. We

surely think about them. But do we all theorise?) In the Western tradition, formal

philosophical tradition is supposed to have begun in the old Greek islands in the

6th century BC.

Philosophy was an important subject in the ancient world- a major subject after theology,

medicine and law which were the ones which were formally and rigorously taught in the

schools. Every subject other than the three was included in philosophy- science (physics)

was called ‘natural philosophy’.Somehow, we see its influence even today: the highest

degree awarded by a university for academic studies is called ‘PhD’  or D.Phil

(Doctor of Philosophy), though the recipient might not have studied philosophy at all!

Over the centuries, this term has come to be applied in many senses, depending upon  

the method, the subject matter or the purpose. As an intellectual discipline, it could relate

to any subject covering its basic principles (eg. philosophy of sports, corporate philosophy,

etc). By itself, it means disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, employing

the method of rational inquiry.


Socrates and Plato

We see this demonstrated best in the dialogues of Plato, especially featuring Socrates.

We notice some stunning features. Socrates said that ” the unexamined life is not fit for  

a human being.” (Apology,38a). So, departing from the ancient philosophers, who inquired

about the cosmos, Socrates made man and his life the centre of his enquiry. 

He said, “Know Thyself” . Thus self – knowledge was the essence of Wisdom. Second,

through his enquiry he sought to find  the basis of the “good life” -Virtue- and sought its

basis on rational foundations, and not on the Nomos or traditional conventions,

or in the command of the gods. Third, he did not  advocate dogmatic he did not

propound a ‘system’. He surely had some fundamental ideas, but he did not state them in

a cogent theory or rigorous logical framework.. People say that in many of the dialogues

no conclusions are reached! It is not their defect, but designed strength. Socrates (and Plato

through all the characters in his dialogues) expresses many points of view on the issues

discussed. Even when Socrates may be showing their absurdity, as in Euthyphro

while discussing piety or holiness, he does not want to force his conclusion on us- it will

be then just belief, which can be changed by persuasion or better skill in argument or

language; he wants us to imbibe the wisdom or knowledge by thinking through ourselves!

We may say, in our Indian way, that he wants us to ‘intuit’ the conclusion, based on all

the rational arguments we have had, and serious reflection upon them.

It is also important to note that Socrates does not deny or denigrate the conventional

standards followed  by the society in the ordinary business of life. He himself was ‘

religious’ in that sense, honouring the traditional gods. Xenophon records that he even

asked people to seek divination where a problem evaded solution through their mental

efforts. This gives an important clue to his approach. We may say, in general terms, that

the Socratic point of view is:

  • purpose of life is happiness
  • happiness depends upon the good life
  • good life is based on virtue
  • virtue is based on wisdom
  • the ultimate wisdom is self-knowledge
  • self-knowledge is to be attained through examination of one’s life
  • this involves some detachment from the normal activities.


It is important to remember here that this word ‘happiness’ was used in a more profound

sense in the ancient world, than at present. For us moderns, happiness is pleasure, derived

from sensation, feeling or emotion or some event or material satisfaction, or even aesthetic

pleasure. For the ancients, happiness meant the total outcome of the whole of life: how

one’s life has been lived. So it involved values, choices and intention as determining

the quality of life. We may now realise why they attached such importance to happiness,

and made it contingent on virtue!

In the Kathopanishad, this point is brought to the notice of Nachiketas by Yama

(who also judges how one’s life has been lived): human beings face a choice between

Preyas (what is pleasant) and Shreyas (what is beneficial or good).It is for him to choose.

In the Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna to

 tell him what is for his good- he does not seek victory! 

Yatshreyahsyannischitambruhi   tanmae.
Tell me what is decidedly good for me, as determined by you.  Gita 2.7

While we have to follow the norms and conventions of the society – it is our obligation as

a citizen of the city- our enquiry into knowing ourselves is an entirely different and

independent and individual activity. But there is no contradiction or conflict of interest

involved. This higher wisdom is the ultimate foundation of virtue and worldly happiness!

But there is a possibility that the State may not facilitate this. That is why there is some

discussion about the ideal state, with philosopher kings. (But this is not the central theme

or major issue. The main concern is with morality.) Scholars have suggested that Plato

was so affected by the way the rulers of Athens put Socrates to death that he detested

democracy. Socrates himself is regarded as being not a votary of democracy. It is generally

true everywhere that  democracy does not support excellence, and brings down standards.

Ancient India solved this problem in an effective way, by recommending ‘detachment’,

both as a mental discipline all through life, and in actual practice at an appropriate

stage in life.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato by Raphael.

We thus see here, in the very beginning of what the West regards as the rise of formal

philosophy, that its concern was the highest possible for human conception: how man could

exceed himself by knowing himself! Animals do not seek self-knowledge; ordinary human

beings do not, either. It is only the awakened individuals who do so. The purpose of

philosophy is therefore both to awaken the individual  to this higher purpose, and

provide him a method to do so! This is the essential philosophical task, and this alone is

the specifically human endeavour worthy of our efforts. Socrates established it- by his life

and death!

As philosopher A.N Whitehead said:

So far as concerns philosophy only a selected group can be explicitly mentioned. There is no

point in endeavouring to force the interpretations of divergent philosophers into a vague

agreement. What is important is that the scheme of interpretation here adopted can claim

for each of its main positions the express authority of one, or the other, of some supreme

master of thought- Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant. But ultimately nothing

rests on authority; the final court of appeal is intrinsic reasonableness.

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it

consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought

which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of

general ideas scattered through them. His personal endowments, his wide opportunities

for experience at a great period of civilization, his inheritance of an intellectual tradition

not yet stiffened by excessive systematization have made his writings an inexhaustible mine

of suggestions.    Process and Reality,p39. (Free Press,1979).

But these  footnotes  do not always annotate the text, but often direct our attention

elsewhere. Over the centuries, Western philosophy has lost sight of the basic concerns

expressed by Plato and taken up other  issues which do not concern man’s soul and its

immortality or his  need for wisdom through self-knowledge.

to be continued……………………………..

tags– philosophy, need-1