On Sunday, 16 April 2017, I sent a letter to The Straits Times Forum page for hopeful publication. By Friday, 21 April 2017, the letter had still not been published. Here is the letter:
I refer to the recent discussion on teaching philosophy in schools (Philosophy focus can come in handy, April 2; Think carefully about philosophy in schools, April 13; Wrong to dismiss philosophy as ‘armchair reasoning’, April 15).
Everyone runs, sings and writes; but only some are runners, singers and writers. In the same way, everyone thinks – but training makes the thinking better. The only discipline that explicitly teaches the art and science of rational and rigorous thought is philosophy, specifically the branch called logic.
If we want our students (and adults) to develop the skill to think rationally and rigorously, one excellent way is to expose them to some logic. The default is that people learn to think by imitating everyone around them. They adopt the good and bad habits – with no inkling of the difference.
The first benefit of studying philosophy is learning to think rationally and rigorously.
Philosophy is unique in being characterised by dispute. Hardly any two philosophers completely agree in what they think to be true. Yet when one reads the classic philosophers, one finds their arguments utterly persuasive – though leading to utterly contradictory conclusions.
Several benefits arise from this experience. One becomes less dismissive of views unlike one’s accustomed or favoured view, more aware of subtleties and nuances in the issues discussed, and more aware that one could be wrong.
Many (perhaps most) controversial issues today are ethical issues. Should robots (when they gain rationality) be accorded rights? Should the autonomous car be programmed to crash into the lamp post or the jaywalkers? Should we allow people to openly carry guns?
Philosophy is the only discipline that explicitly discusses how to rationally and rigorously think about such questions – in the branch called ethics or moral philosophy. (The ethics modules in other disciplines tend to acquaint students with ethical decisions that have been made by either the law or the relevant regulatory body.)
There are thus many benefits in studying philosophy. The next question is: Is school time a good time to expose people to philosophy?
If students are not exposed to rational, rigorous and diverse thought about controversial topics, they will osmotically absorb the ideas they find around them – whatever the quality or truth. That cannot be a better alternative.
But here is a cautionary note.
Socrates, the father of western philosophy, was sentenced to death in 399 BC – for “corrupting the minds of the young”.