Thinking about thinking

Staying In

Philosophy can help us unpick our assumptions and navigate the world

Book review
Bríd Conroy

With it’s beautiful cover, perfect hand-holding size and straight-to-the-point title, ‘What is Philosophy for?’ by Mary Midgley (published by Bloomsbury), called out to me. So, yes, I have an interest in philosophy, but truly understanding the role of philosophy in modern times – and taking philosophy out of the world of academia – is by no means an easy quest. Midgley, however, does just that.
She opens by explaining that philosophy is not a matter of solving one fixed set of puzzles, it is about exploring the many different ways of thinking that can be helpful as we try to understand an ever-changing world. And indeed as we navigate this world, there is no one way to pitch our sail.
On an individual level, the left side of our brains are obsessed with detail, while our right sides are the over-viewers.
The left side seeks immediate satisfaction and is the driver of and driven by ‘determinism’; causes perceived to be outside of our control. Philosophy can be seen as a method of finding balance between the two sides.
In the wider context, philosophy is vital to the business of looking at life as a whole, in finding the wider contexts that make sense of our immediate problems.
Midgley herself studied at Oxfordduring the Second World War, in the company of Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot. All four philosophers found themselves in a world with men absent, in a place where finally women’s voices could be heard.
A new book entitled ‘Metaphysical Animals’, by Clare MacCumhaill and Rachael Wiseman (published by Chatto & Windus), tells the story of these four exceptional women. Both authors came to our monthly Philosophers Hat Club at the bookshop, and I asked them what  they see as the role of philosophy in today’s society. They both underscored the importance of having public representatives engage with philosophers, and the importance of each of us spending time thinking about ‘big issues’ and exercising that right side of our brains.
In relation to issues like what is freedom, we need to be asking things like, freedom from what? Freedom for what end? And for whom?
Philosophy is not an end in itself. It is a way of explaining the relationship between different ways of thinking. Studying past philosophers helps us understand the theories and viewpoints that have influenced us as society evolved. It also helps us to challenge any inbuilt assumptions that may no longer be relevant to today.
Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy, spoke not only of the danger of an ‘unthinking’ human existence, but also of the even bigger danger of ‘unexamined’ thinking. Socrates himself did not teach a fixed philosophical doctrine.
He acknowledged his own ignorance and sought to engage with his pupils in searching for truth.

Philosophy in Westport
As part of Westival this year, we will be holding a philosophy session with Galway-based philosopher Lukasz Krzywon, in the spirit of Socrates, in Savoir Faire, Bridge Street, Westport on Friday, October 28 at 5.30pm, accompanied by a glass of wine.
Later on that evening, Krzywon will chair a philosophical discussion at Grove House on the theme of ‘What do we owe the future?’. The discussion will take place within the theoretical framework of ‘longtermism’ – the view that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time. (Can humans act wisely in response to global challenges? What values are required to create sustainable future? Where can we draw inspiration from to leave the world a better place? What we owe the future?) Come along, take part and discover what philosophy is for!
If you fancy some further reading on the history of philosophy and what it’s all about, I’d recommend ‘A Little History of Philosophy’, by Nigel Warburton (published by the Yale University Press), and ‘Simply Philosophy’, published by Dorling Kindersley (DK).

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia  – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.