Philosophy matters: how the world thinks

Sunday 3 November, 10:0011:30, Exhibition Hall 1Moral dilemmas

It is often said that as the world becomes more globalised and integrated, the result is further erosion of diversity and a loss of distinctiveness in how we live. On the other hand, when it comes to the question of human thought, many believe that different societies or cultures retain unique ways of thinking. Those ways of thinking are a product of specific historical circumstances and philosophical traditions, which means they are less prone to change than other customs and habits.

In his latest book, How the World Thinks: a global history of philosophy, philosopher Julian Baggini explores how distinct branches of philosophy flowered simultaneously in China, India and Ancient Greece. He attempts to get inside these different traditions and the thought patterns which shape them. For example, many celebrate the West as rooted in the rational and deductive, while, in other cultures, divisions between pure reason and spirituality and emotion are said to be less pronounced. Even if there is some truth in this, is philosophy simply a description or systematisation of how people think or does it actually prescribe the way people think, too?

One area of debate is where our values come from and the extent to which contemporary social needs, political desires and cultural attitudes in the West, East Asia, the Muslim world and Africa have developed out of the longstanding philosophical histories of their regions. When confronted by questions such as what accounts for a tradition of individualism in the West, what makes secularism a weaker force in the Islamic world than in Europe, or why China has resisted pressures for greater political freedom, does philosophy tell us about the culture of a society, or vice versa? How have ideas across the world shaped the places from which they emerged? What is the influence of thinking on our cultures, our ideals and how we see ourselves?

Few would dispute the idea that gaining greater knowledge of how others think and creating a dialogue between differing philosophical traditions could be a useful step to greater human understanding. However, today, universalism is often interpreted as the elitist privileging of a ‘Eurocentric’ outlook, or simply a bland uniformity where common rules or norms are imposed on everyone, regardless of cultural difference. In such circumstances, is the celebration of diversity best understood as a relativistic retreat from engaging with ‘the best which has been thought and said’? How can we develop real engagement between different cultures and places if we reject universal values or stay within our philosophical comfort zones? Can different ways of thinking be woven into a single, but complex narrative that helps us understand global history and the world today? Are we all just grappling with the same conundrums, but in different ways and, often, with different answers?