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Speech at a Reception for Philosophy Ireland

Áras an Uachtaráin, Saturday 19 November 2016

Dear Friends,
A chairde,


Tá áthas orm féin agus ar Saidhbhín fáilte a fhearadh romhaibh chuig Áras an Uachtaráin. Tá muid beirt ag súil go mór le tráthnóna de phlé bríomhar a thabhairfidh ábhar machnaimh dúinn. Is mian linn beirt ár mbuíochas a ghabháil le hÁine Mahon, atá ní hamháin ina ceann feadhna ar Philosophy Ireland, ach ina crann seasta ar theacht le chéile an lae inniu chomh maith. Go raibh maith agat a Áine, agus go raibh maith agaibhse ar fad as teacht anseo tráthnóna.

When Sabina, as patron of Philosophy Ireland, suggested that we hold a special event, here in the Áras, to mark World Philosophy Day, and that we do so by bringing together some of the people who are passionate about advancing the teaching of philosophy in Ireland, I immediately and wholeheartedly welcomed the idea.

As President of Ireland, I fully support Philosophy Ireland’s commitment to developing the practice of philosophy in Irish schools, in our universities, and in the wider community.

The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower our children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected and uncertain world. As a training into how to think and reason, enquire and question, philosophy is, among its many gifts, a gift of skill – a skill that can be taught and acquired, and a gift that can enable all those who share in it to better understand and withstand such inflammatory passions as are currently swelling in so many quarters of the globe. A new politics of fear, resentment and prejudice against those who are not “like us” requires the capacity of critique which an early exposure to the themes and methods of philosophy can bring.

Indeed the great relevance of philosophy to our contemporary circumstances stems from it being, not just a prodigious well of human knowledge, but also an intellectual method of a particular sort – one that sharpens distinct critical capacities in those who study it, old and young. Philosophy is a form of reasoning that is grounded in an ability to identify assumptions, question given certainties, and articulate concepts in a rigorous fashion. It is a project that will never be fully completed, a set of questions that are not meant to ever receive absolute, or unitary, answers. Philosophy at its best is, in other words, an inquisitive state of mind – a willingness to get to the root of human problems, whether of an existential, metaphysical, or of a moral-ethical kind.

As all of you here know so well, the practice of philosophy is often a path to a deeper ethical consciousness – a journey into fundamental life questions, such as that of knowing what it is that makes us human. How does death orient our lives, as finite beings? What type of relations should we sustain with other beings, both human and non-human, and with the natural world, of which we are but the custodians? What are the implications of our shared humanity, and the nature of our responsibility, individual and collective, towards the other, the stranger? Without forgetting, of course, Immanuel Kant’s famous four questions: “what can I know?”, “what should I do?”; “what can I hope for?”, “what is the human being?”

As public intellectuals, philosophers are, it is my conviction, indispensable guides in deepening and enabling the project of democratic consciousness. We only need to think of the huge role that such important thinkers as Jürgen Habermas, for example, have played in renewing the public conversation on democracy and in grappling with both the shortcomings and the great possibilities encapsulated in the contemporary European project.

Habermas has been such an important voice, throughout the last fifty years, in reminding us tirelessly that without the constant exercise of public deliberation, without citizens being constantly ready – and enabled – to submit their arguments to rational disputation, democracy will collapse. As one recent article in The Nation put it:

“The ideal that most animates Habermas is a belief in the possibility of a genuinely critical and self-reflexive form of modern consciousness that can serve as the groundwork for politics.”

I believe that the virtues of reflection, of critical reasoning and of ethical enquiry are ones that have gained renewed urgency in the present moment, as humanity is faced with unprecedented challenges of a global kind – from climate change to mass migration. If we are to achieve the delivery of, for example, what we have agreed internationally in 2015 as to climate change and sustainable development, we need no less than a change in consciousness as to the implications of our interdependence and our shared vulnerabilities.

How should we, as a society, navigate the political changes flowing from a new and highly erratic state of international relations? How might we, together, and each of us according to our own means and capacities, contribute to foster – as Jürgen Habermas encourages us to do – such a “reflective” atmosphere in our classrooms, in our media, in our public space, as will enable citizens to discriminate between truthful language and illusory rhetoric, between constructive critique and cynical posturing – between, in short, the demands of ethical reason, moral action and the appeal of negative passions?

Should we not as democrats, all of us, be concerned that an anti-intellectualism that has fed populism among the most insecure and excluded, has now evolved such a word as ‘post-truth’, with such grave and immense implications?

The dissemination, at all levels of society, of the tools, language and methods of philosophical enquiry can, I believe, provide a meaningful component in any concerted attempt at offering a long-term and holistic response to our current predicament. This was the thinking behind the “President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative”, which I launched almost three years ago with a view to encouraging debate across all sectors of Irish society on the values and principles we must debate so as to prepare for our living together at this turn of the 21st century.

It was, I know, a similar spirit which presided over the formation of Philosophy Ireland, just over a year ago. It is my great pleasure, therefore, to have this occasion to welcome you here this afternoon, and to be able to tell you in person how much I value the work you are doing to promote philosophy in Irish schools, but also in prisons, in youth centres and in community groups across Ireland, in shared discourse where it is struggling to come into being.

I am aware that one of the aims of Philosophy Ireland is to bring together the efforts of various networks of people who may not usually have the opportunity to work together – educationalists, teachers of philosophy across primary, secondary and third-level education, as well as teachers who work in non-educational settings, and indeed so many others who are deeply committed to advancing the value of philosophy in Ireland. I am delighted to see representatives of all these groups gathered in this room, and I hope that you will continue to have an open dialogue across institutions.

In response to the introduction of philosophy as an optional short course on the reformed Junior Cycle, Philosophy Ireland has also made it one of its central objectives to provide adequate training and support to those secondary school teachers who have agreed to take on the new and such important task of teaching philosophy to their students from September 2017.

The nature of the curricula and pedagogical methods we employ in our schools reflects the kind of humanity our society seeks and wishes to nurture. In that regard, it seems to me that “Philosophy for Children” – the P4C approach – embraced by Philosophy Ireland offers an engaging path to a humanistic and vibrant democratic culture.

By inviting children to generate and articulate their own questions in response to an initial stimulation, and then to go on to explore those questions thoughtfully and collaboratively, the P4C approach nurtures the reflective and critical capacities that are so essential to active citizenship. Then too, the “ground rules” established in the classroom as a prerequisite for any informed and respectful dialogue – the quality of attention required from students, the invitation to listen in silence before taking a turn to speak – are building blocks of a thorough and very concrete acclimatisation with pluralism, with democracy itself.

These are communicative skills of particular relevance to generations for whom the Internet has opened up some great possibilities. But if it has, it could also, alternatively, precipitate a fragmentation of the public space into discrete information niches within which one may never encounter dialogue, let alone contradiction, or even genuine mediation. The emergence of digital echo-chambers in which people are not allowing themselves, their beliefs, or indeed their prejudice, to be challenged, has become a matter for considerable discussion as a response to recent events in the United States and the European Union.

There are, nowadays, so many ways of accessing information on the Internet without ever coming across the informed contribution of professional journalism. Meanwhile, journalism itself is under ever-increasing pressure, losing its capacity for thorough and meaningful enquiry as it seems constrained to adjust itself to what is deemed palatable by its own fragmented constituencies.

For democracy to function in an authentic way, however, one must have pluralism – lest we become ensnared in a web of moving, phantasmagorical shadows, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave.

It is so important, then, that our children, all of our citizens, be encouraged to think critically rather than merely reproduce the information pushed towards them by proliferating media sources. It is so important, too, that our children learn to articulate their thoughts and provide justifications for them, and that they find ways of disagreeing without resorting to violence, whether verbal or physical.

Language is, as Jürgen Habermas has taught us, a fragile and cooperative project that comes alive only in the space within subjects, and it is vital that we inspire our children to use what he calls “the unforced force of the better argument.” Sustaining such a principle is what distinguishes democracy from tyranny, free will from oppression.

May I, therefore, wish you all the very best in all of your endeavours and collective ventures in the classrooms of Ireland. My hope is that our young people’s encounter with philosophy during the three years of the Junior Cycle will spark in them a desire to pursue further their intellectual journey in later years. This, of course, would be greatly facilitated by the inclusion of philosophy as a subject in the Leaving Certificate. Even an excellent version of ‘Politics and Society’ is not an adequate substitute for the teaching of philosophy as a stand-alone subject.

There is, available to all, but ignored by too many, such a rich legacy of philosophical writings, handed down to us from the beginnings of history. It would be so foolish not to invite Irish students to draw from that well. It would be so wrong to deprive them, for example, of the reflections of Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism, of those of Émile Rousseau on the social contract, those of Guy Debord on the Society of Spectacle, those of Adorno on science, technology and society, or of the thoughts of Aristotle on friendship.

Living as we do under the empire of utility, it seems all the more necessary for educators to open the minds and hearts of their students – and parents those of their children – to ideas and ideals beyond any instrumental vision of the self and other. Without misplaced compunction about the moral stance of ‘the Moderns’, we might do good in reminding our young people, for example, of Immanuel Kant’s injunction to:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end but always at the same time as an end.”

Neither should Irish students, or students of political economy anywhere else for that matter, encounter the economic teachings of Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, without also becoming acquainted with the philosophical framework in which those economic teachings are grounded, namely Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. We are seeing everywhere, everyday, the very real and damaging consequences of a truncated reading of Adam Smith, which abusively equates rationality with the pursuit of self-interest, and omits Smith’s insights on the role of “humanity, justice, generosity, and public spirit [as] the qualities most useful to others.”

Finally, in our seeking of an adequate ethic for the challenges of our times – an ethic which would address the global reach of our actions, and which would protect the right of future generations to dwell in harmony on our shared planet – one might find inspiration, for example, in such writing as Hans Jonas’ articulation of a new ethic of responsibility binding together humans, animals and nature. In his “Philosophy at the End of the Century”, a philosophy that has lost nothing of its pertinence amidst the ecological crisis of this new century, Hans Jonas invites us to look anew at, I quote:

“one of the oldest philosophical questions, that of the relationship between human being and nature, between mind and matter – in other words, the age-old question of dualism.”

Hans Jonas’ attempt at healing the separation between psyche and physis proclaimed by Descartes, and at returning the human to a meaningful place within nature, as a recall of old patterns of wisdom, of ancient mythic systems, is but one illustration of the many ways in which philosophical ideas can so fruitfully nurture our responses to some of the great challenges of our time.

Dear friends,

An exposure to philosophy – as method and revelation, as rational exercise and imaginative journey – is, may I say it again, vital if we truly want our young people to acquire the capacities they need in preparing for their journey into the world. They will be wiser travellers on that journey if they know to use as their compass the critical abilities, the openness to pluralism and the ethical awareness that an openness to philosophy can bring.

All of you, teachers, educationalists, professors, have such an important role to play in encouraging your students to be at once bold and responsible explorers, rather than the passive receivers of cultural and political messages – to be, as Raymond Williams put it, the arrow, not the target.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.