On teaching philosophy in Saudi Arabia

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
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Philosophy’s relation with societies has not always been cordial as philosophy has been resisted by society from the very beginning as a process that seeks to create wisdom, a spark of continuous amazement and a never-ending flame over gloomy questions. Some have confronted philosophy because they believed it led towards misguidance.

It’s said that Imam al-Shafi ruled in favor of striking philosophers with leafless palm branches and with shoes. However, if it hadn’t been for Aristotle’s logic, al-Shafi would not have been able to write ‘Al-Risala’ which is the most important book in the history of establishing the principles of jurisprudence.

It’s been 70 years since philosophy has been taught in the Arab world. Results have not been satisfactory mainly because teaching it relies on memorization techniques or sanctifying information. Philosophy sessions did not allow students to think freely and ask whatever questions came to their minds

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

Teaching philosophy in the kingdom

These days, amid the current social transformations in the kingdom, there have been calls in the media for the education ministry to devise a plan to begin teaching philosophy in high schools and universities. This is an important call as teaching philosophy is essential at the level of education. Several Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and even some Gulf countries, teach philosophy. Teaching philosophy is a necessity in education. However, there are few points in this regard that pertain to obstacles and problems in the teaching of philosophy.

Philosophers have propounded theories since the days of minor Greek academics, until universities and teaching halls were established. Teaching halls transformed philosophy’s trajectory over three centuries for Hegel, Schopenhauer, Schelling, Fichte, Feuerbach, Habermas, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, Rawlsand and others. However, philosophy does not take the word “teach” well, and this is where confusion rises from observing philosophy’s effects and from teaching it.

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The philosophical field consists of a series of questions, dialogue and discussions. During philosophical deliberations, everyone is equal and ‘truth’ is absent. Education’s structure requires a minimum level of facts for repetition and promotion. This does not apply to philosophy — whose history consists of 2,500 years of conflict over varied issues like the fire, the universe, the sun, astronomy, existence, language, time and death.

Philosophy is not about any one subject to be taught, as each theory is a philosophy on its own. Philosophy is a subject of possibilities, mistakes, experiments, confrontations and failures. When some philosophical waves were populistically tamed, they became famous but this fame soon decreased, as seen with existentialism, logical positivism and analytic philosophy and other waves that intersect with philosophy like structuralism.

Freedom of thought

It’s been 70 years since philosophy has been taught in the Arab world. Results have not been satisfactory mainly because teaching it relies on memorization techniques or sanctifying information. Philosophy sessions did not allow students to think freely and ask whatever questions came to their minds. I think Arab and Islamic societies reject this and it’s sometimes even strictly punished. Philosophy sessions at schools need an atmosphere where students can freely ask any question and respond to theories or reject them. This environment is what makes philosophy a developed field. Only then we can notice reasonable results from teaching philosophy.

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Gilles Deleuze, an influential French philosopher who passed away in 1996, first taught at high schools then became a lecturer at Sorbonne. He has videos on YouTube which show how he conducted a philosophy class. Students gathered around his table and did not stay in their allocated seats. Sometimes, he sat with his legs crossed on the table and students did not sit at all.

His book ‘What is Philosophy?’ is regarded a classic reference in renewing philosophical definition, which he wrote with Félix Guattariis. In addition to its famous definition of philosophy, as a creation or production of concepts, the book also tackles the distinction between philosophy and science. In the book, Guattari and Deleuze say: “The object of science is not concepts but rather functions that are presented as propositions in discursive systems.

The elements of functions are called (functives). A scientific notion is defined not by concepts but by functions or propositions. This is a very complex idea with many aspects, as can be seen already from the use to which it is put by mathematics and biology respectively… Science does not need philosophy for these tasks.” Martin Heidegger says: “Science does not think.” This is not a condemnation of science, and it does not aim to derogate the scientific field. However, the aim is to note differences of the overlapping between these two fields that have two different structures and tasks. Philosophy as Deleuze puts it has “a permanent genealogical task.”

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This is why philosophy sometimes resists classifications and categories which suffocate it via scientific definitions or confinement to classes. Philosophy is an ally of rebellion. It’s with the wind, waves and fire and not with stillness, stagnation and ashes. Teaching is rigid when you examine its roots. What actually enhanced the inclusion of philosophy at schools and universities in America and Europe was some philosophers’ amazing success at discussing the philosophical concept and meaning and developing their lectures based on their discussions with their students in class.

This is what German philosophers did as they mastered the technique of transforming a teaching hall into an arena to create, examine and overlap theories even in the public domain. This is what Gadamer, Heidegger’s student, who has been acquainted with prominent German philosophers, noted in his book ‘Philosophical Apprenticeships.’

The journey of philosophy

In brief, teaching philosophy requires a free atmosphere - colleges in Islamabad, Kabul and Tehran teach philosophy, but it’s important to liberate the atmosphere from oppressing knowledge. To do so, one must begin with teaching eastern philosophies of India, China and the ancient east.

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Then they must transition to the Socratic stage, Plato and Aristotle, Stoicism and Epicureanism and up until the Middle Ages and teach about Augustinus, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and Nicholas of Cusa. Then comes the Renaissance, the beginning of establishing the theory of knowledge beginning with the Baconian method developed by Francis Bacon and all the way to Descartes, Leibniz, Hobbes,Locke, Berkeley, David Hume, Smith, Pascal, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Then there’s Kant and German philosophers who followed up until Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Dilthey.

The 20th century witnessed the rise of philosophies that are important to be discussed in academies and high schools, like phenomenology developed by Husserl, analytic philosophy developed by Russel and the philosophy of language developed by Wittgenstein. This is in addition to the philosophies of difference which was known as the postmodern wave.

As such, the process will take a possible and preliminary educational path which, despite its scarcity, one can base work on towards establishing and deepening questions. And as Deleuze puts it: “Concepts are flat surfaces without levels, orderings without hierarchy; hence the importance in philosophy of questions.”

This article is also available in Arabic.
Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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