Isaiah Berlin and the Vexing Issue of Liberty

When Isaiah Berlin died in 1997, his conceptions of liberty and value pluralism were to be read within the dying tradition of totalitarian politics, as implemented by Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. For the Russian-born thinker whose family escaped to England in 1921, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx were directly responsible for a warped interpretation of freedom enabling the state to force its citizens to conform to its own needs and ethereal collective aspirations.  His answer was a more realistic solution that ...

On the Dangers of Sophistry

In a world where the concept of ‘truth’ is being questioned daily to the point that it is regarded, by some, as a flexible commodity to be abused in the name of short-sighted self-interest, it is to be wondered whether philosophy is still of any use in an intellectual landscape blurred by so many claims and counterclaims. Socrates found himself in the same situation as ours when he could only deplore the lack of rigour and clarity of his philosophical ...

For a Global Approach to Philosophy

All philosophies tend towards the same goal: the acquisition of wisdom, be it through transcendental meditation, spiritual contemplation or rational investigation. In a world open to all sorts of false claims, dangerous reinterpretations and approximations of so called ‘new truths’, philosophy, often under attack from malevolent quarters, has never appeared so urgently needed to repair our dented certainties and restore our belief in the power of objective reason and personal self-enlightenment. In his ambitious work Taking Back Philosophy. A Multicultural Manifesto (Columbia ...

Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’ Relation

In an age where identity is being questioned in the light of the latest technological advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, Martin Buber’s thought is a welcome reminder of how our relation with others remains the deepest and most solid foundation of our morality and humanity. Steeped in Jewish theology and culture, Buber (1878–1965) was one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century as he transcended his own Jewish faith to encompass the Christian tradition and offer the ...

Religious Knowledge?

The very notion of Religious Knowledge is, for many, an oxymoron (a combination of mutually contradictory terms) or at best a category mistake (something described in terms of a conceptual category it does not belong to). Be that as it may, the IB introduced Religious Knowledge Systems into the new TOK syllabus in 2014 and it deserves serious attention for at least two reasons. In my experience the academic exploration of religion in schools is far too often neglected, distorted ...

Oligarchy and Democracy (Part 2)

Plato regards the descent of political regimes into tyranny as a gradual process in which each type of government is transformed into an even more unjust or imperfect state. The oligarchic man is the son of the timarchic man who has lost his reputation and fortune ‘in some political disaster’. Reduced to poverty, his son neglects the dialectic power of reason which he uses instead to further his selfish materialistic ends. In his craving for money, the oligarchic man ‘is ...

Oligarchy and Democracy in Plato’s Republic (Part 1)

In Books VIII and IX of The Republic, dedicated to imperfect societies, Socrates undertakes a systematic political and psychological survey of the forms of government following the demise of his perfect state, doomed to extinction like all human creations. It is gradually replaced by a new regime, inspired by Sparta’s principles of ‘honour’ and ‘worth’ (or ‘time’ in Ancient Greek), in which war becomes the main preoccupation of rulers chosen among ‘the simpler, hearty types’ instead of the intelligent Guardians ...

On the sources of political authority

Authority without expressed consent is nothing short of autocratic power or as the Ancients called it, tyranny. On the other hand, to preside over a politically educated, active citizenry is true democracy. If authority is the ultimate justification for exercising power, sovereignty remains the very foundation of its legitimacy. It is in the name of popular sovereignty that revolutions erupted in America, France and Russia. The very moment the legitimacy of a political leader is undermined, authority soon erodes to ...

Descartes on the dangers of false opinion

On the onset of his quest for pure and truthful knowledge, René Descartes decides to ‘overthrow’ all his former opinions since the latter may be built on sandy foundations. However, for fear of finding himself in a mental no man’s land, the philosopher sets for himself the rules of a ‘provisional morality’, the first being ‘to obey the laws and customs of my country’, a precept immediately followed by the injunction: ‘holding constantly to the religion in which, by God’s ...

Russell on the elusive knowledge of the Self

In ‘The Problems of Philosophy’ (1912), Bertrand Russell pays tribute to the French philosopher, René Descartes, for performing ‘ great service to philosophy’ by introducing a rational method of doubt in the search for truthful knowledge. He doesn’t identify any apparent difficulty in the Cartesian assumption that everything outside my own thoughts, feelings snd sensations, could be a mere fantasy. However, he brings his own realist interpretation to bear on the argument, when he comments that, despite the logical possibility ...