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Should Our Philosophers Really Be Our Guides?

31/07/2016 4:38 AM IST | Updated 06/09/2016 8:51 AM IST
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Our philosophers have often led desolate, isolated lives, sidelined by society and shuttered away from the world. Many of our philosophers haven't been able to live up to the ideals they preached about. Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote of the Übermensch or Superman, according to which a person must strive to attain their strongest self with immense power and abilities -- an idea that inspired many leaders including Barack Obama -- suffered from a mental collapse on the streets of Turin in Italy and spent the rest of his life in an asylum. Similarly Ludwig Wittgenstein who has written the most authoritative philosophical works on language and communication such as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations had a stutter and would often storm out of a room if he didn't like what people were saying. Machiavelli, too, expounded on building a successful state after having lost his political relevance and retired after being released after three weeks of rigorous and humiliating imprisonment. The list is long.

I believe much of philosophy should be taken with a pinch of salt and not as ultimate truth.

Perhaps, our philosophers reflected on the aspects of life they found themselves deprived of, and their teachings essentially stemmed from a personal experience of "what not to do" or "how not to be". Which brings me to the question -- how seriously should we take our philosophers?

A person finds comfort in philosophy for it provides a perspective, an answer to our problems. Yet, are we to seek solutions from those who have got it right or those who have not? That is the big question.

A teacher of mine used to say, "Either you gain success or you gain perspective." While I certainly know of people who have been unfortunate in finding neither, I would agree that an intelligent person at least gains perspective out of failures. In a way, the learning that comes from failure is a consolation price. Yet, learning through failures can be a stepping-stone to success and what better way to succeed than to learn from others' failures? Or better yet, gain knowledge from a person who has failed and gained perspective, but has not had enough living years or will left to recuperate. Perhaps if we were to ask Bill Gates on how to get rich, he may give a naïve suggestion as simple as "just listen to your heart".

Yet there are experts who have given meaningful and useful advice for others to follow in their footsteps. Warren Buffett is an example and his letters often contain conservative yet sound advice that has supposedly helped many to get richer. Yet, Buffett warns us not to trust experts and so does the Nobel Laureate and decision-making theorist Prof. Daniel Kahneman. So whom do we trust?

Buffett warns us not to trust experts and so does the Nobel Laureate and decision-making theorist Prof. Daniel Kahneman. So whom do we trust?

I believe much of philosophy should be taken with a pinch of salt and not as ultimate truth. A more sure-shot way of understanding the workings of the world is through personal experience or research, although even these can be susceptible to inconsistencies. Moreover, many questions are not amenable to the scientific process of research. A researcher cannot tell you for sure if resigning from an office was a good decision or a bad one. Time often reveals the answers to such questions, which are nevertheless still open to interpretation and may not serve to crystallize life truths -- some decisions may be right in our particular case given the specific circumstances while they may not be good for others or even ourselves in different situations.

Creating principles in life is a tough task and is often subjective. Also, being overly attached to certain principles may in fact lead to folly. Hit and trial is perhaps the only way to break on through to the other side.

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