Publish at February 09 2022 Updated February 17 2022

Philosophy against the ambient relativism

Fighting anti-intellectualism by asking students to think

In the realm of social networks, opinion is king. All have their vision as much on the weather as on geopolitics. This can lead to the idea that, digitally, we are replicating the agora of Ancient Greece where citizens debated about things. Moreover, probably the great Greek philosophers who inspired us would have found themselves on platforms sharing content.

Figures like Protagoras would feel at home there, while Socrates and Plato would be rather devastated by the fate of online rhetoric. Indeed, it seems that most Internet users have adopted a philosophical position on the networks: relativism. Thus, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion and it has the same weight as that of others. A posture that could explain the current rifts we are witnessing.

From the anti-thought

In Plato's Phaedrus, the latter tells the story of the Egyptian god Thoth who offers writing to men. However, the experience does not go as the deity wished. People who are not very well educated with this new way of communicating start to use it in any way they can and to share nonsense. This brings conflicts rather than a possibility to share knowledge. This is why Plato hated relativism, among other things.

Or, this "everyone thinks well what they want" approach may be in the air, but it mostly hides a primary anti-intellectualism. If the truth depends on one's perception, then how can we even debate?

This protective stance so as not to doubt can be found, certainly online, among adults but also among high school students. When asked to engage with questions about global themes, they were stuck. Relativism had taken away all chances to think about the possibility of some more universal answers. Marco Jean, a philosophy teacher at Cégep de Saint-Laurent, says this approach is sociologically disastrous: do we really want a society where even the most unhinged can do whatever they want? After all, if there are no longer any notions of right and wrong...

The Philosophical Cure

So what is the cure for this ambient relativism? More than ever, for Monsieur Jean, it is through the teaching of philosophy. Not only at the post-secondary level (or end of it) but from the beginning of school life. Indeed, nothing prevents a teacher from adopting philosophical activities. Philosophy circles are very easily organized. Just pick up a book that will generate questions. After they read, they stand in a circle to get each student involved. They then declare questions that the reading has given them. A vote will result in the central one that will be the topic of discussion.

Using fictions known to learners or "memes" among teens works and can lead not only to introducing philosophers but also reflections on different elements of life. As part of what English speakers call caring thinking, caring or mindful thinking would be a new educational goal in which the inclusion of philosophy fits beautifully. Not to mention that it does not need to be taught or used only in schools. Experiments in day hospitals and educational homes appear to lead to positive impacts on children who are asked to think.

Because in reality, young people love to be asked to think. In fact, France was planning from the start of the 2021-2022 school year to add philosophy to the vocational streams of volunteer high schools. Students participating in the pilot projects affirm their joy in feeling they can express their thoughts fully, question them and exchange with others.

Another piece of good news is that enrollment in graduate philosophy programs in Canada is reportedly up slightly. Is this a sign of a greater attraction to the art of rhetoric in a world of multiple ethical questions? It is true that covid-19 has raised even more debates that the human science of thought seems cut out to answer.

However, let us remain cautious about this philosophical revival. Particularly when public authorities, such as those in Quebec, want universities to be more in line with the needs of "the market". This means, for example, more artificial intelligence specialists and, inevitably, fewer "thinkers." Yet the very topic of artificial intelligence is a pool of ethical questions that will need to be reflected upon.

Photo : geralt on Pixabay


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