I STUMBLED upon and bought Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly (2013) at a bookshop in an airport recently. It was not that there were no other appropriate books on the subject available there at that time; it was just that the title precisely expressed my preoccupation with the subject of clarity of thought for this column.
The author delves into cognitive biases — the simple errors we make in daily thinking. The book covers human reasoning, the assumptions that we make about the world and ourselves.
In his introduction, Dobelli, a Swiss, who describes himself as “a novelist, sailor and pilot”, reminds that the failure to think clearly, or what is called “cognitive error”, is a systematic deviation from logic.
And this deviation implies moving away from optimal, rational, reasonable thought and behaviour.
This brings me to Professor Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak’s Perspective column (Learning Curve, Oct 19) with the heading In Praise of the Spirit of Inquiry.
His argument, in support of studying for its own sake, called for a reassessment of the value of “useless knowledge”.
Interestingly, he cited two newspapers — Britain’s The Telegraph with a story titled Study for its Own Sake (Oct 9), and a local daily’s headline R&D Syok Sendiri.
And I have to ask: “Where would universities be if there is no syok sendiri?”
The reason why I am raising this theme is precisely because knowledge generation, in its most pristine form, is the lifeline of the university.
Dzulkifli emphasised that the generation of knowledge is the raison d’etreof universities. “Without new knowledge, education in universities can be easily outdated.” He mentioned C.S. Lewis ad J.R.R. Tolkien spending hours “poring over Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology”.
Recently I was invited to speak on the topic The Role of Philosophy in Developing Societies to the Bachelor of Philosophy, Law and Business students at the College of Law, Government and International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia. The programme was introduced in 2013.
At the talk moderated by Dr Munif Zarirruddin Fikri Nordin, formerly the coordinator who remains a dedicated driver of the programme, I told the 19 undergraduates that I am not a philosopher, and would not presume to be one. But I underpinned the significance of thinking clearly and being conscious of one’s thoughts, and other thought systems.
I was asked a litany of questions ranging from the definition of philosophy to the work of philosophers. What will students from the programme (with a one third philosophy component) be when they graduate? How will their knowledge and its utility be measured? And who measures them?
By raising questions on the choice of a suitable job, occupation or profession, our utilitarian obsessed society has found ways to demolish “philosophy” and demean it as worthless.
Even academics and professors have frowned upon the programme. What can it contribute to the progress of the nation? One of the functions of universities is to look to the future. Market surveys tell us our present needs.
And philosophy as a field of study has never quite make it in market/industry surveys for curriculum design. This is because the field of philosophy has been perceived as the past and the future — never the present.
Thoughts on philosophy in higher education have never been appropriated. Philosophy has been (re)presented to us as the Greco-European expression of logic, aesthetics (not only of beauty), ethics, knowledge and reality, and conceptions of God in metaphysics.
Its periodisation into ancient, medieval and modern (and post-modern) for example is peculiar to the European (later Euro-American) experience.
Metaphysics, logic, epistemology and other modes of inquiry also exist in other religions and civilisations, and we would have to appropriate them as such. Strangely, philosophy, as the first academic field, has no place in our universities. There is no progress (of the field in Malaysia), and association with human and societal advancement.
When Zainal Abidin Ahmad (Pendita Za’ba) taught at University of Malaya (in Singapore) in the early 1950s, he had initiated a philosophy department (it was stillborn). Later, in the early 1980s, the International Islamic University had set up a philosophy department.
The question in the minds of many was: Would students enrol? Who would want to study philosophy, and why?
I do not want to prescribe where philosophy graduates will precisely fit.
They can be employed anywhere and in any capacity that demands systematic (however we take it to mean) thinking, and a clear notion of causality. Then there is rationality (irrationality and arrationality) and intuition — what to do and, at the same time, what not to do.
One can become academics in philosophy (or other fields in the humanities and social sciences), planners and analysts in organisations (public, private and non-governmental), managers, stockbrokers, social advocates, chief executive officers (CEOs), and of course writers, journalists, intellectuals and scholars.
The world has seen philosophy graduates becoming CEOs.
Even if there are no students enrolled in a philosophy programme, it would be wise to have a department of philosophy, with a few lecturers functioning as custodians of the field, servicing a few electives, supervising postgraduate students, and perhaps, bearing some unwelcome wisdom on campus.
In this sense, Malaysian universities are quite far behind their counterparts in the region. We ignore Plato’s The Myth of the Cave at our own risk. Philosophy will not go away. Its lack of progress is an illusion of our minds and runs deep in our psyches.
Without the field’s advancement, we would not be labouring in our own small territorial interests.
This brings us back to the “uselessness of things”. Tun Muhammad Ghazali Shafie studied ancient Welsh Law at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth, far away from Malaya, between 1948 and 1951.
Many will assume that the course did not have much utility for nation-building.
But had he not been in close epistemological proximity to the system in United Kingdom, Malaysia would not have morphed into a modern nation state — a federation of states.
The clarity of thought in Muhammad Ghazali Shafie, civil servant, politician, statesman and thinker who served as Home Affairs Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister between 1973 and 1984, moulded and advanced a territory that we call “Malaysia” today.
The picture of Plato on the cover is courtesy of ourcivilisation.com A. MURAD MERICAN NST Learning Curve 26 OCTOBER 2014 @ 8:01 AM