A Tale of Four Philosophers

by on Thursday, 24 October 2013 Comments

I teach in a School of Philosophy that occupies four floors of a very tall university building. Each of these floors is graced with the statue of a famous philosopher. In ascending order: Marx, Confucius, Plato and Kant. Within the school, the saying goes like this: Marx occupies the lowest floor because he speaks of the infrastructure - of the material basis of life, society and production. Confucius follows, for his realm is the one of ordinary life and moral conducts. Plato is the one who deals with Concepts. And Kant is at the top because he is concerned with the Sublime...

One will note that no woman is offered as a model. Philosophy remains very much a male-dominated discipline. I also noticed that, except for Kant, all philosophers exhibited here display a most majestic beard. Confucius, Marx and Plato have very different beard styles, but the abundance of their facial hair seems to function as a marker of their wisdom. The ethereal nature of Kant's Sublime mat explain for his different fashion statement... In any case, these four figures give students and visitors a very institutionalized view of what Philosophy is about: it is a serious and technical discipline – a male thing – that needs to be taught and transmitted with due solemnity.

Fortunately, my colleagues' teaching style is often much more inventive, fun and varied than you would think when just looking at these ghostly statues. And, even if women are indeed a tiny minority among us, the department head is a woman. If I make an attempt at self-criticism I should also note that, to the best of my knowledge, I am one of only two professors who are displaying a beard. Therefore, we are probably the ones who perpetuate stereotypes on what Philosophy is about...

But I do want to break stereotypes! Although I very much admire the writings of canonical philosophers, I also believe that their study does not constitute an end in itself, but rather a mean for learning how to think by oneself, ask questions coming from an acute contact with the Self and with the contemporary world, and give answers anchored in one's experience and personal language. And I also believe that the study of ancient texts is only one of the ways to gain in inner freedom and acuity of thought. For instance, teaching philosophy to little children, letting oneself be surprised by their questions and answers helps one to progress in this direction. Pondering slowly over one's life discoveries, or entering into a new cultural context, so as to learn to see the world from the perspective of the Other are also channels through which to develop a truly philosophical mind.

Philosophy is first about slowing down – and it is about not taking anything for granted. Sometimes, when we reflect about the differences in lexicon and syntax that exist from one language to another we experience that our worldview is a construct, a product of our language and education, and we are led to dig deeper, to ask ourselves what the language we use reveals and hides about the nature of the reality we are living in. In other words, everyday life and dialogue provide us with endless possibilities to think philosophically, as long as we are ready to give some time to our fugitive thoughts and intuitions, to ponder over them, and to share and discuss them with like-minded spirits. When I teach philosophy, I try to make my students realize that they have the power to liberate their thinking from clichés and mental habits. If they experience Philosophy as fresh, novel, stimulating, they will be ready to exchange with Marx, Plato, Confucius or Kant not as you do with majestic father-like figures but rather as friends and mentors. The reflective and creative power shown by the thinkers of the past is the one still hidden within us, and the words and concepts they have used for expressing their fundamental experience are transmitted to us so as to awaken our capability of creating images, notions and thought experiments that truly resonate with our world and our time. Philosophers need to grow wise, but they are never allowed to grow old.

Painting by Bendu

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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