Loaded Logic

Can teaching classical philosophy bridge cultural divides?

There are two ways of doing philosophy. Most professional philosophers at anglophone universities take an esoteric problem in one sub-field of philosophy (e.g., ethics, epistemology or metaphysics), criticize what a handful of peers have written on the topic and defend their own view. They publish articles in academic periodicals that make use of abstruse language, imaginary scenarios and mathematical formulas that baffle non-experts. Another way of doing philosophy is more traditional: the philosopher discusses and critically evaluates ideas about the world and the meaning of life that are supposed to shape the way we think and live. They write accessible essays and books that engage a broad public and learn from ideas expressed and valued in different societies and cultural traditions. McGill philosopher Carlos Fraenkel does not deny the value of the first approach, but he persuasively shows the value of philosophical work that engages the broader public and other cultures.

His new book, Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World, opens with a foreword by Michael Walzer, who is perhaps the most influential exponent of what we might call “public philosophy.” The book’s genesis was an article Fraenkel wrote for Dissent magazine (then co-edited by Walzer) with the book’s title. The article was unforgettable: Fraenkel, an atheist of Jewish descent, goes to extraordinary lengths to discuss classical and medieval philosophy with young Palestinians in East Jerusalem (aka the Occupied Territories) who are also devout Muslims. What emerges is an exchange of views that is both respectful and heated, while helping reveal the participants’ most fundamental disagreements. The article was a hit, and Fraenkel wrote another essay for Dissent about teaching Maimonides to Muslims in Indonesia.

The book’s first two chapters are revised versions of the two Dissent essays. Now he has added descriptions of other encounters: teaching philosophy to high school students from poor neighbourhoods in Brazil, introducing Spinoza to lapsed Hasidic Jews in New York who publicly maintain their faith, and debating issues of identity and culture with members of the Mohawk First Nation community near Montreal. Fraenkel deliberately selected locations riven by conflict that might benefit from an effort to transform tensions into a “culture of debate.” Each of these episodes is beautifully described, and the results are utterly captivating. He ends the book by putting forward and defending his own views about the importance of diversity and debate for the philosophical enterprise.

Fraenkel is a philosopher, not a novelist, and his students are not depicted with the same level of emotional depth as in, say, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nonetheless, his students do occasionally come to life, particularly the ultra-orthodox Jews who struggle between their privately expressed doubts and outward conformity to their community’s religious norms. One gets a good sense of the almost heroic, but entirely reasonable, decision to live with that tension.

The book’s main interest lies in the ideas discussed rather than the people making them, and different parts of the book will appeal to different readers. My favourite was Fraenkel’s description of his interaction with Mohawk First Nation members, if only because I learned much about a community I knew hardly anything about (even though I grew up in Montreal, only a few kilometres away). Fraenkel talks to a Mohawk chief who argues for restoration of nationhood after 500 years of colonial oppression. In the pre-colonial era, the Mohawk nation was organized according to the ideal of the “Great Law of Peace.” Reviving the ideal in a contemporary context, however, requires new answers to fundamental questions: “how to reconcile modernity and tradition, what it means to live well, who should rule, and who counts as a Mohawk.” Fraenkel and his interlocutors debate these questions with great sensitivity and insight. And Fraenkel himself was transformed by his encounter with the Mohawk community: once familiar buildings and sites in Montreal are cast in an entirely different (almost ominous) light when viewed from the perspective of members of an oppressed and dispossessed community. Teaching philosophy is not a one-way street: the teacher should also be prepared to have their own beliefs and values challenged and improved, and this chapter comes closest to showing how the “teacher” learned from the process of teaching philosophy in unfamiliar contexts.

Several questions did come to mind as I was reading this book. Fraenkel shows the value of practising philosophy in different contexts, but he does not argue that philosophy should be done differently in different cultures. According to Walzer, “Fraenkel aspires to an Athens where the people don’t kill Socrates but imitate him.” But is Socrates really the right model to be imitated at all times and places? A Socratic approach that values truth seeking above all may seem odd in China. For one thing, Confucians value good practice and balk at talk of metaphysical theories of truth, similar to modern-day pragmatists. Confucius himself corrects mistakes, which points to a latent interest in truth-related activity, but it is not central to his vision. And the way of carrying out philosophy may also justifiably differ from context to context. In China, the culture of debate has been heavily influenced by Confucian values of modesty, civility and indirectness; the assumption is that criticism works best in a context of mutual trust and harmonious relations. A Chinese Socrates, with his rude critiques that needlessly antagonize his interlocutors, may not have been put to death, but he would have been dismissed as an eccentric crank who should have spent more time caring for family members.

That said, Fraenkel does draw on a wide array of thinkers, including Arabic thinkers, when talking to his students. Clearly he shows great sensitivity and respect for different cultural traditions. But what is the point of building “on local traditions of debate and reflection?” Is it just a strategic matter of appealing to thinkers who might engage the emotions of his students so that they come to appreciate the virtues of philosophical debate, or is there a deeper reason to respect the cultural traditions of his interlocutors?

These are not purely academic questions. For example, respecting the traditions of others may lead to the conclusion that there are justifiable limits to debate. Fraenkel affirms that the “only nonnegotiable ‘liberal’ principle is freedom of expression.” So should Canada change its law banning hate speech? And what about the controversy over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons?

Of course, nothing justifies the cold-blooded murders of journalists. But perhaps there are good moral reasons to respect the widely held Islamic view that the prophet Muhammad should not be depicted in pictorial forms. What gives free speech advocates the moral authority to knock down a cherished Islamic belief? I am reminded of Chinese communists who organize beer festivals in predominantly Muslim parts of China: Muslims are not forced to attend, but it still seems like an unjustifiable “in your face” attack on their beliefs. Perhaps free speech liberals need to re-evaluate their own “infallible” belief in the universality of the freedom of speech. The most compelling virtue of Teaching Plato in Palestine is that it brings such fundamental, but often overlooked, questions to the fore.