Philosophy and (Un)Common Sense

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by Claudio Grass, Claudio Grass:

Interview with Jakub Bożydar Wiśniewski

In today’s world, dominated as it is by the ephemeral, the superficial and the inconsequential, it can be hard for a rational, dispassionate observer to make sense of what is going on – politically, socially, economically and philosophically.

It is that last aspect that gets the least “oxygen” in mainstream media, in public education and in pretty much all debates and disagreements we grapple with as a society. Perhaps the very discipline of Philosophy, academically speaking, has grown too “foreign” and intimidating for most citizens, or maybe the idea of tackling problems that are greater than or exclusive to ourselves or the “here and now” has tumbled to the very bottom of our list of priorities. Both explanations seem plausible, given the current state of public education and discourse, as well as the fact that the media, social and otherwise, have convinced the body politic that short-term goals, spite and rent-seeking are legitimate means to any end.

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Whatever the case might be, the fact remains that one of thorniest problems of our time is our inability, as a society and as a voting and taxpaying population, to consider the big questions of our time in any greater context other than that which affects us directly, right now. Ultimately, this the reason why so many people act, argue, vote and / or behave against their own interests.

Interestingly enough, there is a fix for this predicament and it’s been around for quite some time: it’s the set of tools that Philosophy has to offer. Of course, these days, there’s probably only a handful of people who can even define the word itself (“the love of wisdom”) and even less who see any practical value in exploring this field. Debating, or even pondering, “bigger ideas” can seem like a secondary concern when there’s a war on, when there’s a global recession, or when there are practical, tangible problems to solve, like putting food on the table.

Nevertheless, as Pericles (or whoever really uttered the original quote) would argue paraphrastically at least, “just because you don’t take an interest in the bigger ideas, it doesn’t meant that they won’t take an interest in you”.

It was with this understanding of the importance of Philosophy and of those “bigger ideas” that I turned to Jakub Bożydar Wiśniewski, assistant professor in the Faculty of Law, Administration, and Economics at the University of Wroclaw, Fellow of the Mises Institute and affiliated scholar and member of the Board of Trustees of the Ludwig von Mises Institute Poland. Jakub holds an MA in philosophy from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in political economy from King’s College London. He also has a very rare talent for explaining vague and seemingly inaccessible ideas in a concise and straightforward manner and a knack for clarifying why these ideas are important to everyone, everywhere.

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Claudio Grass (CG): If you could put it in the plainest possible and most practical of terms, what is the use of philosophy in this day and age?

Jakub Bożydar Wiśniewski (JBW): The use of philosophy is to see reality for what it is, especially on the most fundamental level. In today’s day and age, this amounts primarily to peeling away endless layers of sophistry created by the ideological gatekeepers of the ruling powers. The importance of this task cannot be overstressed, since living free of such sophistries is a necessary condition of virtue formation and thus the pursuit of existential perfection.

CG: In most Western nations, philosophy, at least taught in any valuable depth, is not part of the core public school curriculum. And even when it is, fundamental ideas like the concept of natural law are excluded. What are the gaps you see in public education in this regard and what do you think could change if they were filled?

JBW: Since natural law is fundamentally a set of logically deducible propositions, a course on formal and philosophical logic would be a most desirable addition to every public school curriculum, even if it were only to be subsumed as part of another subject, such as mathematics. It would also be highly advisable to include classical texts belonging to the natural law tradition (works of Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, etc.) in the curricula of language subjects.

If such additions were to be introduced, students would become familiar with the notion of a natural order of immutable principles, which cannot be overruled by any political act or whim. This, in turn, could make them far less susceptible to political populism and far more appreciative of the potential of responsibly used individual liberty.

CG: Could you give us a “layman” summary of the core arguments and ideas separating natural law and positive law?

JBW: Natural law is a structure of normative principles that can be derived from a careful introspective and deductive examination of human nature and all of its inherent features. As such, they can be said to hold universally and provide an indispensable framework for peaceful and productive social cooperation under all sorts of circumstances.

Positive law, on the other hand, is ultimately grounded in the idea that norms of social order derive from the will of the entity that holds the monopoly of violence in a given territory. As one can easily notice, the latter view reduces legal principles to justifications and rationalizations of imposed institutional coercion, which leads inevitably to the blunting of society’s moral sensibility. By the same token, it goes hand in hand with a self-reinforcing spiral of ever greater incursions into the sphere of individual liberty, which are either not recognized as such or explained away as consistent with the “spirit of the law”.

In sum, insofar as positive law deviates from natural law, substituting expropriation for the protection of private property and paternalism for the protection of bodily inviolability, it becomes institutionalized lawlessness.

CG: Looking at the last couple of centuries of the development of our Western civilization, many would argue that there was some point, most likely fairly recently, that we slowed down from intellectual, political and social progress, screeched to a halt and then started reversing course. Almost like we forgot what the Enlightenment taught us. Would you agree with this assessment and what is your take on the root causes of this phenomenon?

JBW: I generally agree with this assessment. Giving a satisfactory answer to the question about the root causes of the phenomenon in question could fill a whole series of books, so my reply here is of necessity very brief.

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