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Home >Opinion >Book Review | Teaching Plato in Palestine

Philosophy has been a subject of suspicion. Its power to pose uncomfortable questions is well-known. In ancient times, hemlock was the preferred remedy to end the danger. In modern time a better option has been found: banishment to the ivory tower.

Carlos Fraenkel, a professor of philosophy at McGill University, is a rare practitioner of the subject. He believes that a closer engagement of philosophy with everyday life can help answer many troubling questions. It would be easy to say that his quest is futile. But Fraenkel is devoted to both reason and hope. His peregrination across four continents is testimony to his faith in the culture of debate. His book Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World is an interesting combination of a travelogue, classroom observations and some acute deductions.

But are matters so simple that debate alone could lead to the truth? The crucial step in this process, that of reconciliation after truth has been discovered, has to the acceptance of the findings of a debate. Is the world ready for that? There is plenty of reason to be doubtful. In reality, the process of debate ends at some kind of uneasy relativism: that there are “others" out there. If that is the ultimate goal of philosophical inquiry, then that goal can be reached. But if what is at stake is the examined life, then the world is not ready for that quest. Philosophy, by its nature, is a corrosive enterprise, very good at dissolving accepted truths including religious belief, and for the most part the ability to accept it is a cultural attribute. This is not as controversial as it sounds. Fraenkel’s adventures offer proof of this.

Consider the first stop on Fraenkel’s philosophical journey, Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. The university is intellectual home to Palestinians and is led by Sari Nusseibeh, a well-known intellectual, who has invited Fraenkel to give a series of lectures there. Of all the peoples of the Middle East, it is perhaps the Palestinians who are intellectually the most vibrant producing a host of writers and thinkers, including the famous Edward Said. It is surprising, then, to read the acute resistance these students display to the ideas of al-Farabi (850-972), an Arabic philosopher and interpreter of Plato. Such is the power of revealed ideas for this group that there is little room for a Socratic examination of religious notions. Fraenkel is too gentle a scholar to cast doubts in explicit sentences. He leaves no doubt where these Glaucons and Adeimantus’ stand: in the grip of revelation (pages 24-26). At a remove from the Middle East, in Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, he encounters similar beliefs.

The polar case is Brazil where, interestingly, philosophy has been included in school curriculum by law. The argument being that philosophically educated students will make for better citizens. This is only possible in settings such as populist Brazil where there is no single revealed religion or text that is susceptible to philosophical damage.

The intermediate—and interesting case—between domination of revelation and openness to philosophy is that of a group of orthodox Jews Fraenkel lectures in New York. Judaism is a revealed religion that leaves little scope for Socratic probing. Yet, Fraenkel’s listeners, successful professionals for the most part, have lost their faith: life’s innumerable exceptions to divine law have shaken them to an extent that they accept philosophical interpretation. But all this is done secretly: at night they want to be philosophers but in day-time they want to be members of their orthodox community. It is too much trouble to give up on their community but intellectual coherence demands a degree of disbelief in religion.

How does one interpret all this? Why is it that two religious communities with exceptionally strong religious traditions show such different attitudes to philosophy? This is a controversial topic that Fraenkel does not address in a full-blooded manner. It is not the product of elision but of his intellectual outlook. In the final chapter, this philosopher reiterates his belief in a culture of debate and a shared search for truth, contrary to religious exclusivity of truth. He says that “…we can consider ourselves lucky to live at a time when societies are becoming increasingly heterogeneous and multicultural, and globalization forces us to interact across national, cultural, religious and other boundaries..." (page 149). One has to tell this Protagorean scholar, as gently as one can, that people cling to their beliefs tenaciously. Some of the worst sectarian bitterness and warfare known to man in the last 100 years have come well after barriers that he mentions were demolished.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint.

Comment at views@livemint.com

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