The riches of philosophy
'Philosophy is for the rich. In our country people are starving to death.
They have to walk hours for water. We don't have time for your philosophy.
We have better things to do.'
The speaker was a smartly dressed young man, who had come to a philosophy talk I was
giving at the university of Hyderabad. Though he had come, many of his fellow students were absent.
Protests had rippled through the bamboo-lined avenues and around the lakes of the Hyderabad campus
since the death of Rohith Vemula, and many students were spending their energies on things other
than study. I don’t know why the young student came. But his opinion, that philosophy is for the rich,
I’ve heard elsewhere. Only today, I heard a senior philosopher say much the same, though more quietly,
and with a trace of embarrassment.
Yet the idea that philosophy is for the rich is confused. It’s either simply false, or something to be fixed.
Perhaps it is supposed to mean that most philosophers have been rich.
This is true of both Indian and Western traditions of philosophy:
Swami Vivekananda and Bertrand Russell were born aristocrats; Nagarjuna is
said to have been a brahmin, and an advisor to the king; and even though Boethius
wrote his 'Consolation of Philosophy' whilst destitute in jail, he had been fabulously
rich before his downfall. But the same is true of almost any venerable topic, and any tradition.
Outside of the elite, few of our predecessors wrote down their ideas, and fewer of those writings
were preserved. In this sense, philosophy is for the rich as much as mathematics, engineering,
and physics are.
But I suspect that the earnest young man meant that philosophers discuss things only of interest to the rich.
The questions philosophers ask sound so abstract and removed from everyday life: What is a person? How
do scientists work out what is true? Is there free will? What does it mean to live a good life? But if
they seem like questions that only the privileged ask, perhaps that is because we haven’t spent much
time talking to anyone else. Put bluntly, privileged people may imagine the poor as simple beings,
interested mostly in practical matters. In my experience, both personal and professional, this is entirely untrue.
Some people dismiss philosophical questions with impatience. Others come to philosophy already having
asked the questions themselves, and craving answers. But whether you walk with the privileged or the
rest of us, you find these attitudes mixed in the same proportion. Or, if anything, there is more
eagerness amongst the non-privileged. This is true in my birth country, the United Kingdom,
where folk living on the streets will crowd a philosophy class, eager to test their ideas about
authenticity or knowledge. It is also true in this country. I’m fortunate to work with students
from both extremes of society’s hierarchies. In philosophy, our less privileged students reliably
do better than our privileged students given the same assessments, marked blind. Such students will
come burning with their own questions: ‘is poverty an injustice?’, ‘what’s the point of art?’,
‘what is the point of suffering?’ and many more. This idea that philosophy only asks questions
for the rich cannot survive an hour on our campus. Each day I am refreshed by the realisation
that we are driven to philosophy by questions that arise whether you are rich or poor, from east or west,
simply because you are human.
However, there is another way to understand the claim that philosophy is for the rich; and on this reading the claim is both true and tragic.
In our country today, almost only the rich get a chance to pursue their philosophical questions at a
college, or with any help at all. Questions burn in countless hearts unheeded, simply because money
or resources are needed and philosophy is not seen as a reliable way to obtain them. This is doubly
sad since trained philosophers are tremendously useful in both companies and in society.
Not the answers to the questions; knowing the point of art won’t necessarily improve your company’s
bottom line, or help settle water disputes in a rural community. Instead, it’s the skills gained
when answering the questions. Philosophy trains you to have sharp mathematical ability alongside a
clarity of writing and thought. It gives you long practice working with those who you disagree with,
testing unnoticed presuppositions, finding solutions that no-one else can see. Despite any sneers to
the contrary, philosophers are useful in a boardroom. Philosophers are useful in a famine, useful in
an NGO or in the civil service, as leaders in the social sector are increasingly coming to see.
Once enough of us see that, philosophical education will no longer be open only to the privileged,
and will become a place open to all who want to train for challenges unknown.