Sunday, February 22, 2004

Philosophy and the Adventure of Thinking

Philosophy and the Adventure of Thinking

Looking through my collection of books yesterday, I discovered my yellowing paperback copy Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. I bought it during my university years and it was this book that taught me what little I know about philosophy.

On the title page of the book, I had scribbled the year of its purchase: 1987 and I jotted down a quote by Bertrand Russell which I had copied from one of his biographies. It must have inspired me as a student then and it is probably worthwhile for me to repeat it here:
"I must, I must, before I die, find some way to say the essential thing that is in me, that I have never said yet--a thing that is not love or hate or pity or scorn, but the very breath of life, fierce and coming from far away, bringing into human life the fearful passionless force of non-human things...I want to stand for life and thought--thought as adventure, clear thought because of the intrinsic delight of it along with the other delights of life."
Bertrand Russell was not only one of the eminent philosophers of the 20th century, but a social activist and a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature for his huge body of work which includes mathematics, politics and social commentaries. He led a controversial but colourful life, marrying four times in his 97 years of life.

During those students years of mind, I was immensely interested in subjects like philosophy, even though I was an engineering student and I considered Bertrand Russell, my philosophy guru. I saw philosophy as the purest form of human learning, untainted by dogma and unhindered by rituals. Like what another noted psychologist-philosopher William James said: "Philosophy is just Man thinking".

The only obstacle to learning philosophy is the fallibility of the mind itself; we tend to fall back into our old habits of thinking which inevitably restricts our understanding of the world. The greatest adventure of humankind, I think, is the adventure of the mind--"thought as adventure...because of the intrinsic delight of it".

Science, mathematics, economics and other branches of human learning are but specialized branches of philosophy. In philosophy, we attempt to understand Understanding itself. (What is Understanding?) We seek to examine the very instrument by which we examine the world--the human mind and the act of thinking.

Philosophy might not have any practical application in my present line of work. But those years studying the subject on my own have helped to polish my thinking skills and made me see thinking as an adventurous pursuit. To quote a Cartesian cliche: "Cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am).

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