Do ancient philosophers have answers to Egypt's current challenges?
CAIRO — "Stop philosophizing" say Egyptians to indicate their irritation and boredom when they are treated to a long didactic monologue. To that end, a group of philosophy professors from the American University in Cairo (AUC) started a project in 2017 that aims to change the common belief that philosophy is didactic, boring, elitist and irrelevant to daily life.
"Philosophy in Arabic" is a series of lectures and workshops on philosophy that are held at AUC and open to students and members of the public. Videos of the lectures are also shared on Facebook. The project aims to simplify philosophical thought and show how philosophy can be applied to the issues of daily life.
The lectures and workshops, which kicked off in July 2017, have celebrated their first anniversary with more than 4,100 followers on Facebook. The professors' attempts to get the students and the public more interested in philosophy also attracted the attention of the local and international media, such as London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Cairo 360 website.
The organizers, most of whom are philosophy professors at AUC, said that the starting point of the project was to rekindle the public interest on philosophy through a series of weekly lectures and workshops. These sessions are advertised on Facebook, as there is no budget for publicity.
Initially, the lectures were only attended by philosophy students from AUC or other universities. But gradually, the public interest increased on both the Facebook page and in the lectures, particularly after the videos of the lectures were posted online. Today, at least half of the participants are members of the public who wish to learn more about philosophy.
The lectures have catchy titles such as "Is philosophy haram?" "What is freedom?" "What is diversity?" and "What is tolerance?" They include discussions on the events of Egypt's January 25 Revolution projecting philosophical ideas in the context of the revolution.
Commenting on the success of the workshop in attracting the attention of the media and social media users, Yousra Hamouda, who has a master's degree in philosophy from AUC and is the mastermind behind "Philosophy in Arabic," told Al-Monitor that the initiators' criteria had been, from the start of the project, attracting people from different cultural backgrounds and age groups. She said that many young women actively participate in the online discussions that follow the seminars.
Hamouda said that the lectures offer a general introduction to philosophical topics such as the concepts of identity, freedom, sense of belonging and religion, with an overview on philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, a 19th-century German philosopher known as the father of modern philosophy; Roger Garaudy, a 20th-century French philosopher who converted to Islam; and Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, a 12th-century Arab thinker.
Hamouda explained that the lectures aim at bridging the gap between the different views of philosophers and what is happening on the ground in modern times. The participants are invited to come up with scenarios of what, for example, Ibn Rushd would think of the January 25 Revolution and other major events.
Wafaa Wali, one of the organizers who has a master's degree in philosophy from AUC, told Al-Monitor that some people believe philosophy is complicated, not relevant to daily life and limited to only an elitist group of people.
"We have been battling against this kind of stereotype, stressing that philosophy is entrenched in the daily lives of people," Wali said. She presented a lecture titled "The Philosophy of Education," discussing the ideas of German philosopher and critic Friedrich Nietzsche's definition, outlook and criteria of success for an education system. Wali then moderated the discussion of why a good education system is key for the Egyptian people and what that system should be.
Fatima Mansour, a student at AUC's faculty of education who attended the forum on education, told Al-Monitor that she had enjoyed the session because she plans to work in the field of education after she graduates. After she was introduced to Nietzsche's ideas on education, she became more convinced of the rigid curricula taught at schools to be in direct conflict with the real education experience, she told Al-Monitor. "Didactic education and rigidity … fail to give students a real opportunity to learn and deprive them of learning through their own experience and trial and error," she said.
Sharif Salem, a lecturer at the AUC Department of Philosophy, told Al-Monitor that while the initiative aims to simplify philosophical concepts, it does not intend for students to just memorize definitions or to learn philosophers and their ideas by heart. On the contrary, he said, "Philosophy in Arabic" aims to help students reflect and develop their own ideas on current questions and challenges using philosophy as a tool, just like the great philosophers did in the past.
"It does not matter if students do not reach accurate answers; philosophy teaches them how to establish a method of thinking to deal with most aspects of life," Salem said.
Mohammed Ibrahim, a student at the faculty of engineering who attends the lectures, told Al-Monitor that he enjoyed the lecture on the concept of freedom. He said that he now realizes that equating freedom with lawlessness or breaking laws is a common misconception. "This is wrong not only because [not being bound by laws] leads to chaos, but also because the law is the only guarantee for everyone to have the minimum basic rights. Without laws, people would have free rein to do whatever they want, but this would be at the expense of the rights and freedoms of marginalized groups. The traffic law, for example, restricts the freedom of some to speed, but guarantees the safety and security of everyone else," he said.
Hassan Abu al-Magd, a philosophy student who attended the same lecture, told Al-Monitor that the concept of freedom was discussed in relation to the January 25 Revolution and subsequent events. He said that the lecture shed light on the importance of philosophy in the reconciliation between ideals and reality.
He also spoke of the pros and cons of direct and indirect suffrage, saying, "For example political freedom must be exercised through the ballot box. Everyone must cast their vote, then let their elected representatives rule. A direct vote on each and every decision may not lead to chaos but would slow the process of decision-making. This was what led to the collapse of Athens during its war with Sparta. Plato's ideas about direct democracy and that the people are the source of all authorities were undermined," he said.
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