Philosophy: what's the big idea?

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

By Jude Mckechnie

I want you to imagine that you get to look at all the things that you hold in your head. As if it all sits in a room which you are about to enter and wander through. I can’t claim credit for this project: a 20th century French philosopher, Jacques Lusseyran, recommended it to prevent The pollution of the I. He argued that if a person wasn’t to end up, filled to bursting, with the bric-a- brac of a saturated world; they had to wade through all the bits they’d acquired from living within it and de-clutter. You find that some of the objects you’ve gathered there are chosen; others you’ve picked up through your experience of life, and wanted or not, they impact your way of seeing. When you venture into your head, there is always a flurry of quotes and images, a muddle of random things you’ve read, jumbled thoughts kept tucked away and forgotten like receipts in pockets. These things are collected and stumbled upon; often only discovered during a process of emptying out. It is also a place for storing people - so imagine your room is full of photographs. The peering eyes of those heroes, who you might’ve had pinned to your walls in your teenage years, looking back at you. All those people who have forged how you see the world, end up taped to your life haphazardly, not only heroes but villains too. They cling to you, some part of them and the way they envisioned life, inscribed upon your own. That is why it is important to meander through your own head space of miscellaneous things. What has been given to you and left behind by others is always a curiosity. The tokens of a life lived in amongst other people, the debris of events out with your control, mapping out how you navigate the world. I try to do this little act of checking myself to make sure I am questioning why I think as I do. Looking around my thoughts, I spy every person who gave me a piece of life advice to carry with me. All those things which shaped my point of view. Every lecturer is there too, their PowerPoint slides projecting over all their monologues. Many great thinkers have a corner of my head. Their place there is the product of hours spent trying to work out that which I did not know, which is a project I’m never finished with. It took me some time to realise that the great thinkers which I had been fed like school meals throughout my education, were on the whole; all privileged white men. Only a handful of philosophers covered in my years at University, were not members of a privileged academic elite. Sadly, this revealed that the study of philosophy had been dominated by a highly educated, privileged few. These philosophers reproduced narratives of dominance, becoming the gatekeepers to knowledge which barred entry to others. This was not only a problem with philosophy but all scholarly and creative pursuits. The concept of genius seemed to apply only to men; I find it hard to think of anyone else who has been ascribed this title in the history books. The academic elite passed on their learning to those who looked like and thought as they did already. It is why they have been at the forefront of negotiations and the figureheads of defining moments throughout time. Their 'radical ideas' have been published in books, seeping into the minds of the crowd. If knowledge is power then power has previously been bestowed always to the men of this world who could afford it. Power reproduces itself through education. For what we believe as a truth then impacts how we exist in this world and what we demand and expect from it in relation to ourselves. By teaching their beliefs as facts, and excluding voices which ran against their views, the 'brightest minds' sowed dogmatism. Philosophers, by possessing knowledge and the capacity to transmit their own views out into the world; reinforced their own position as the most powerful in society. A lack of accessibility to ideas and widespread inclusion to philosophical debate always creates an environment where people don’t question their reality or their biases. The masses are kept from the conversations happening about how the world should be; further nourishing inequalities which keeps people from realising their potential or their options. I ask myself: what leads a person to think that they are more entitled to safety and to happiness than anyone else? What leads someone to think that a person on benefits is a scourge on society when billionaires skip out on paying their taxes? What leads someone to walk past a homeless man in the street and assume that they’ve reaped what they’ve sown? What ideas are at work if a person can treat another one differently because of the colour of their skin? What does it say about how society thinks of women if so many can objectify and commodify them? I ask these questions and I wonder what questions we all ask ourselves every day and whether we get to an answer. Because there are other questions to ask too! Like, when are the masses supposed to question their reality in their excessive working week? When are they going to deconstruct their judgements and prejudices? Where are they supposed to go to find answers to their questions - who even knows where to begin? We are all being heckled by the noise of the powerful and shamed by the ideas that they use to shape how we relate to ourselves and to each other. It is a brutal, aggressive domination of ideas which makes us feel parameters and rules, categories and boundaries, curl around and fence us in. What the world needs now is people to ask these questions. That is all philosophy is: people asking questions. Everyone should be able to ask and have access to answers coming from all perspectives. Then, they must be given the space to make up their own mind, and encouraged to think for themselves. Philosofemme believes that to dismantle the oppressions and inequalities in society, space must be given to people who have been historically exempt from the discussions taking place in philosophy and academia. People from under-represented and stigmatised communities have been shackled by social norms and insidious discrimination which has marginalised some of the greatest thinkers; forcing them into the footnotes of history books. However, they are out there, if one knows where to look. It is a treasure hunt to find the intricate histories and philosophies of those who society has often not wanted to see, or more specifically, has suppressed and turned a blind eye to. The creative and academic work of those who have gone against the grain, refusing to be defined by their background or the prejudice of others, is out there. The density of opposition to their work, and the respect it is due, is astounding but not all encompassing. The privileged do not have a monopoly on thought. The ideas that have been instilled by ‘great men’ have given us this world - one which compounds fear of the other, breeds arrogance and entitlement and vilifies vulnerability and makes difference divisive. It is not a world I want to live in. I want instead to entrust it to people who want to redraw the parameters of our interactions with each other, with ourselves and our planet; for the benefit of all of us. The illusion that some people are more worthy of being heard than others has silenced many. Yet, we should all be included in the social and intellectual exchanges which shape the world we exist in. If we were not impeded by economic or social barriers, what would life look like? What would the chorus of ideas and perspectives from the downtrodden and the overworked, the suppressed and the discriminated against, add to this world? A few men have been the mechanics of our society and its thinking for too long. I believe they do not have more to say than you. They are not more important than you. There is value in difference, each of us interpreting life in our own ways. It is the expression of this, the sharing of it, that has the ability to create a more unified and introspective society. A society which understands and empathises with those who have been dealt a different lot. Lastly what I’ll say is this: what I found when I dared to trek through my own worldview, was that it was polluted with ideas about my body, about my worth, about right and wrong, about other people; that were put there and which I suffered from greatly. These ideas about the world affected how I thought of and treated myself and the people I interacted with. I walk through my mental head space, my room of experiences, and I try and throw out the trash which was put there to make me fall into line, to control my image and my possibilities, to make me work harder for less and to doubt myself. Ideas which made me feel at times that what I was entitled to was more than what I demanded for others. I accepted things I felt in my core were wrong because I was told that that’s how things were done, ‘that’s life!’ Well no. I don’t want to accept the things that need to change. Time and time again we see the same inequalities, the same oppressions, the regurgitating of the same prejudices. This is because right there at the centre of history, as its driver and its creator, the same group of people are leading the charge and writing its pages, acting as the hand which moves the pieces on the board. That has to change! And with it maybe the world will change too. Maybe it’ll be one that represents and includes you.

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