Philosophy: in defence of mind-work

It is easy to turn every discussion into a ding-dong and every news item into an occasion for blame

 

It is the nature of public debate in our society to frame every statement as a confrontation, which is why President Michael D Higgins remains an enigma. In criticising “polemical abuse, aggression and anger” on social media in a speech this week, was he making a reference to the Fine Gael figure at the centre of disciplinary action for tweeting, among other things, that the President’s wife, Sabina Higgins, was a “vile woman” because of her views on abortion?

By joshing in the same address about the “rhetorical flourishes” of the in-vogue Emmanuel Macron, was Higgins making a serious point about the French president’s policy failings in Europe? And by warning – at what was an event to mark World Philosophy Day – against an overemphasis on science and technology in schools, was Higgins taking a swipe at the Government’s common refrain that we need more graduates tailored to meet the needs of multinational employers?

The President’s habit of avoiding Punch-and-Judy fights is not just a requirement of office, although that does play a part. It is something he believes in. Though it may seem indulgent at times to use 100 words when 20 will do, Higgins’s penchant for verbal perambulations is, at heart, an exercise in dialectical reasoning – the balancing of opposing views in one’s mind at once. It’s a relatively alien practice in the Anglo-Saxon world but not so in continental Europe, where philosophy is widely taught from a young age. For this reason, the President has thrown his weight behind the introduction of philosophy in Irish schools, and has hailed the founding of the Irish Young Philosopher Awards.

Rushing to judgment is an impediment to deep thought. A blame culture shirks what Higgins calls the “mind work” that is necessary to change our society for the better. With a nod to Pope Francis, the President warned against scapegoating politicians for our own “indifference” to suffering. It is easy to turn every discussion into a ding-dong, and every news item into an occasion for blame. It’s much harder to take responsibility for one’s own thoughts and actions.

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