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We need philosophers in countries like Nigeria in the 21st Century

World Philosophy Day has been set aside to highlight the importance of philosophy in different regional contexts. It defines philosophy as “the study of the nature of reality and existence, of what is possible to know, and of right and wrong behaviour”. Wale Fatade asked Tony Okeregbe to explain why philosophy remains relevant today.

Why study philosophy?

Philosophy has always been the driver of ideas that shape human history. As a critical, rational inquiry into the ideas people live by, philosophy transforms society in the course of socio-economic, political and cultural evolution.

The British philosopher and social commentator Bertrand Russell spoke of philosophers as

both effects and causes; effects of the social circumstances and the politics and social institutions of their time; causes … of beliefs which mould the politics and institution of later ages.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle outlined three kinds of knowledge: theoretical or scientific knowledge (knowing why); technical knowledge (knowing how); and prudence or practical wisdom (deliberation and decision-making).

Philosophy is an inquiry about “knowing why”. The capacity for raising questions about “why” makes a huge difference in individuals’ development and social progress.

When philosophical knowledge emerged in Greece, the capacity to raise questions that upset personal idiosyncrasies gave birth to a critical way of thinking. This changed the course of history by popularising organised rational inquiry. It affected the way humankind made choices and the way society evolved. The philosopher Socrates referred to the stinging power of the gadfly as a metaphor for the productive capacity of philosophical thinking.

It is this intellectual heritage pioneered by ancient Greek thinkers that formed the course of study known as academic philosophy. As an academic discipline, it is a systematic study of the general and fundamental principles about existence, knowledge, values, mind, reason and language.

What are the benefits of studying philosophy?

One of the most fundamental benefits of philosophy is that it creates a questioning mind. This is a mind that is able to seek the truth by questioning assumptions and conventional views that are often taken for granted. The ability to do this comes from an inbuilt capacity for rational scrutiny called methodic doubt. Philosophy enables humans to acquire the ability for constructive doubt, sound reasoning and clear thought.

Closely related to the above is the view that philosophy frees people from ignorance and reaffirms autonomy of the will. Any logical thinking by an individual is an expression of the freedom of the will.

A third benefit is that philosophy creates an attitude of being attentive to other people’s views, whether or not we accept them. Being receptive means listening to others and allowing them to exercise their freedom. In this way, we learn better and we know ourselves and our shortcomings.

By refining thoughts, philosophy fights intolerance. Tolerance and intolerance are learned behaviours.

What career options are available to philosophy graduates?

The primary skill philosophy gives graduates is the ability to analyse and construct ideas through sound arguments and to present such arguments in a systematic and convincing manner. It provides graduates with skills to enable them to think for themselves and raise deep questions. It also helps them to analyse and communicate ideas clearly and logically.

So philosophy graduates could work as journalists, writers and investigators in law enforcement. They could also be teachers, marketers, ethical officers, paralegals, recruiters, policy makers, or civil servants. Graduates of philosophy also pursue careers in law, politics, advertising, public relations, media, psychotherapy and banking, among others.

Does Nigeria have its own tradition of philosophy?

There is no national philosophy in the same way as one speaks of French rationalism or German idealism. But the different nationalities that make up Nigeria have their own traditional mode of thought or traditional philosophy. Despite their multiplicity, these traditional philosophies fall into what is called African philosophy.

It’s different from Western philosophy in that it is viewed as “mythical religious conceptions, world views and ritual practices” lived by African people. Furthermore, Western philosophy relies on ethnographic findings to define what it views as authentic African philosophy. It is also regarded as a communal thought system rather than the philosophical thought of an individual.

Does Nigeria need philosophers?

Nigeria is beset by economic, social, political and moral problems. Apart from the fear of poverty, poor succession management and reluctance to develop indigenous capital, there is a trend in value orientation from order to disorder. These problems challenge the Nigerian scholar of philosophy to develop and foster ideas that will become raw materials for homegrown policy formulation.

Nigeria’s problems are partly the consequence of lack of ideas, and partly the lack of will and commitment to make ideas actionable.