Colgan: Some more big ideas on Big Ideas

I wish to broaden the philosophical landscape sketched by the authors in the Big Ideas special issue (Western News, May 7).

Probably the most important thing to understand about philosophy is its remarkably unique character as a discipline because of its absence of ‘common ground’ – which actually defines the fields of science and the humanities. Since philosophy deals in foundations, the very roots of all human ideas, philosophy must be perspective; there is nothing that all philosophers need to commonly accept to ‘do philosophy,’ even the idea of truth itself.

For instance, the opening article (“Better we understand science, better we understand ourselves,” Western News, May 7) makes a ‘common ground’ claim when the author says the world is “not a human creation.” Many subjectivists disagree, especially those who borrow from Immanuel Kant’s epistemology.

For example, most people believe that human beings hold bias in how they perceive the world, including that we see the world through human faculties (our eyes, for one), and organize perception data via human consciousness. While many philosophers wrestle with Kant’s dictum of whether we can know anything ‘in itself,’ the more pertinent question is whether this matters, whether this ‘human perception’ of the world limits us in any way. Since we know about the bias, can we not account for this bias? Success or failure in this can be determined by how predictive we can be in our actions in reality – can we consistently build successful bridges, or will we reach a limit and become victims of an unknowable, malevolent force?

Some of the articles (“Placing a proper value on parenting” and “Engaging in debate over future food systems,” Western News, May 7) fail to account for their political roots.

For instance, Parenting does not ask whether procreation or children should be political footballs, but assumes this political stance as ‘common ground.’ The more essential question is the nature of our rights: If they are granted by the government, then we all are subjects to the state. The alternative is a natural rights view, where individuals are sovereign at birth, and when forming together, grant a government certain duties.

In the latter political framework, the question addressed in Food systems is not an issue, because human beings are not assumed to be political pawns. The issues in food are similarly sourced, not in a metaphysical sense of just ‘how food is,’ but rather are contingent on already present political regulations governing food. Therefore, we cannot hope to understand political issues unless we delve closer to the roots of the operating political framework. Indeed, it may even lead us to ask whether social issues are not simply the product of the very political system we assume; philosophy must delve deeper and reveal these assumptions and refrain from the stasis on thought imposed by our ‘common grounding.’

Another article (“Tiny, happy people faring well, Western News, May 7) asks whether a concept of happiness (or faring well) can be attributed to children in response to Aristotle, who took the contrary view. However, the position given to Aristotle is unfair and not his own. Aristotle believed children could not ‘flourish’ because they could not be willingly virtuous nor moral actors, both requirements of an Aristotelian wellbeing. Aristotle was not speaking of the biological issue of being healthy or feeling well, he was speaking ethically, more generally, in terms of a person’s satisfaction with their being. Medicine already provides what the author is seeking in terms of a child’s health or psychological contentment implicit in being “satisfied with one’s life,” but how would such an introspective question be answerable by a child? What one needs is mindful awareness of experiences in action and the agency and knowledge of alternative reactions to answer it?

For the article on mental illness (“Knowing yourself – and your mental state – in new ways, Western News, May 7), I only wish to echo its main thesis: Our conceptual frameworks matter, always and forever true. To determine mental illness requires an organization of proper and improper behavior, but even more importantly, how this is determined. For instance, a subjectivist conceptual framework would make ‘society’ an arbiter of behaviour, attributing deviations from a ‘code of living’ as mental illness (or sin as has been historically ubiquitous). An objectivist framework would ground mental illness in the individual’s success in perceiving and thus surviving in what is commonly experienced in reality, physical and social. Is mental health merely a medical phenomenon, or does it also include proportioned agency and thus morality (choice)?

Andrew D. Colgan
PhD candidate, Education
MEd, BEd, BSc