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We shouldn’t let philosophy die in Uganda

One of the oldest disciplines in formal education is philosophy. Most other disciplines are known to have been birthed by philosophy.

It is partly in recognition/acknowledgement of the fact that philosophy constitutes the zenith of knowledge that the highest degree in any field is a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD - Philosophiae Doctor) as an attestation to the most basic definition of philosophy - ‘love of wisdom’.

Most universities now actually require that, at PhD level, students from all disciplines take courses on philosophy of science in order to ground themselves in some of the most fundamental principles of being/reality, knowing, and method.

Early Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle are known to have delved into subjects that literally traverse most disciplines. Aristotle, for instance, wrote on logic, politics, physics, botany, ethics, psychology, etc.

The same is seen in Plato’s works. Thus, the twentieth century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was sent into concluding that the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

Of course this has raised doubts from scholars such as John Henrik Clarke, Yozef Ben-Jochannan, and especially George James of the famous ‘Stolen Legacy’ who argues that most of what is attributed to Greek philosophers was in fact stolen from Egypt. I will reserve that passionate subject for another day.

For most disciplines emergent from philosophy, the umbilical cord has not yet been cut. That is why we still have subjects such as philosophy of religion, philosophy of economics, philosophy of development, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of law, and so on.

Mainstream philosophy has been left with sub-disciplines such as ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, logic, cosmology, philosophical anthropology, axiology, continental philosophies, theodicy, political philosophy, and epoch histories.

Whereas it doesn’t necessarily follow, all these are crucial in cultivating critical thinking skills and enhancing imaginative capabilities that are very important in facing everyday questions and dilemmas.

Among the first things we were taught in philosophy is to never take anything for granted and to constantly ask ‘why’ – to search for ultimate explanations of things.

This exercise is a sine qua non for both personal and societal development. For, as Socrates puts it, ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’.

Whereas practical skills are very important, I think that the most critical element of education is to teach one to think independently and to be able to question things. Education should not be exclusively aimed at making a living; it should also be about opening our minds to be able to face life questions.

Imparting skills that are specifically meant to do a particular job, as is the major preoccupation of our education system, could be counterproductive in the long run. What happens when the jobs we are trained for change, which is an increasingly real phenomenon in our fast-changing world?

We have privileged natural sciences while underrating humanities, and by so doing, we create imbalances in disposition among the products of our education system.

It is rather absurd that one of the consequences of our particularistic job-oriented education has been the killing of disciplines such as philosophy. The question is always: what will you do with a degree in philosophy?

It has been said that ‘philosophy bakes no bread’. But, as Professor Olu-Owolabi Kalawole has said in ‘My people perish for lack of philosophy’, “behind the processes of bread baking… is the mind of a thinker who conceived the very act of bread production …, though the connection between the two may be so remote as not to be easily discernible”.

There is a pervasive misconception by which philosophy is understood to be an exercise of abstraction and hair splitting not concerned about real-life issues. Thus people like William James have said “there is only one thing a philosopher can be relied upon to do, and that is to contradict other philosophers”.

Whereas this can be said of some philosophers’ works, it’s blatantly false as a generalisation. Works of many philosophers have informed ideology, socio-political trends, and policy in so many ways.

Consider works of Karl Marx, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, John Dewey, John Stuart Mill, Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Senghor, Julius Nyerere, and many others.

It is, therefore, painful to watch philosophy as a discipline die in Uganda because it is judged with a capitalistic mindset and misunderstood.

Apart from major seminaries, Makerere is the only university that teaches philosophy in Uganda. Yet even here it’s only a track in the arts, not an independent discipline! And whereas it is only taught there, the numbers of students taking it always tend to be the smallest – worse at master’s level!

Partly, as a means of survival in a hostile environment, the philosophy department has resorted to coming up with interdisciplinary courses that blend philosophical disciplines with other practice-oriented fields.

But these usually die in their infancy, often hit by the axe of reform in opportunistic response to government’s hostility towards the arts and humanities.

As some have argued, Uganda’s philosophers certainly have a duty to demonstrate the relevance of philosophy through their own outputs and public engagement.

When debates like that on homosexuality are raging in the country, the voice of Uganda’s moral philosophers should be heard in critical distinction from the emotive sentiments that often fly around.

It is this way that philosophers such as Noam Chomsky, Achille Mbembe, Odera Oruka, Martha Nussbaum, Peter Singer, Michel Foucault, Michael Sandel, Jurgen Habermas, and others, have marketed the discipline. On some occasions, this has happened even in Uganda, but considerably less than it should be.

I am not suggesting that everyone studies philosophy, but that the discipline deserves more attention and promotion. It would also be a good idea that subjects such as critical thinking and ethics cut across all disciplines.  

The author heads the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd