Sunday May 19, 2024

The great torpor

By Aziz Ali Dad
November 27, 2016

In Pakistan, those who love wisdom are almost extinct. Gone are the days when the country had conferences on philosophy and engagements with philosophical questions that kept thinking minds active. Now the discipline of philosophy has become just a phantom limb in our country.

The question arises here is: what makes philosophy an anomaly in the overall education system and society of Pakistan? In order to understand this phenomenon, we need to study certain trends and attitudes in our society towards life which create everything except philosophers. To declare philosophy moribund in our country does not mean it is equivalent to the extinction of a species. The purpose is to explore the socio-cultural and religious ethos and knowledge arrangements that kill the inquisitive spirit in an individual.

Among the different reasons for the lack of philosophy here is the tendency to find refuge in the security of comfort – whether economic, social or intellectual. Unlike other disciplines, philosophy seeks to disrupt normal habits of thinking about life by forcing one to search for answers to questions that may not be answered in his lifetime. This makes philosophical thinking incongruent with time and space.

That is why Martin Heidegger deems that “all essential philosophical questioning is necessarily untimely”. Only by becoming untimely does philosophy become timeless, and the questions it raises remain intact beyond time and space. However, for a complacent mind it is easy to become timely than untimely, for the latter entails an excruciating excursion into realms that are mentally demanding and may cause alienation from mainstream society.

The overall social outlook and intellectual mindset in Pakistani society never questions received knowledge and given certainties for fear of losing realities.

As a consequence, society goes into comfort mode and never questions the existing order of things or ways of seeing. Such a mindset always seeks answers that cannot be questioned. A mind that dares not tread untrodden paths to explore new vistas becomes a prisoner of its timeless answers. Philosophical investigation stems from a ruthless questioning spirit, not a quiescent state. A sluggish mentality proves to be fertile ground for ideas frozen in time but living in a different space. Hence, our society’s tilt towards narratives which ‘provide answers that cannot be questioned’.

A society that builds its whole edifice on unquestionable answers is more vulnerable to nihilism than one that experiences existential crises and its attendant angst after losing certainties. Such an unquestioning society faces its ultimate nemesis when it faces existential questions at the moment when its mind is in a state of torpor. When the solid land of the old worldview disappears because of a great cataclysm in thinking, then the ideas that are built upon it also collapse. This pushes society further deeper into the dark abyss of nihilism.

Nietzsche realised the potential dangers that can follow the death of metaphysics. To ward off the looming menace of nihilism, he re-evaluated the values and demonstrated the rottenness that pervades the mind of society. He attempted to create a new self that is healthy and life-affirming through his superman.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan instead of soul-searching, exploration of a deeper malaise and creation of a new self through philosophical rigour, the intellectual scene is dominated either by the closed mind of a mullah or ubiquitous commentators on electronic media. This has nourished a mindset that seeks very easy solutions to very complex challenges through absolute answers of the clergy, conspiracy theories and pseudo-intellectuals.

With the disappearance of meaning from the worldview, the very words produce an inverse effect. The inversion of meaning is symptomatic of the failure of the system of thinking to explain new realities. The primary reason for the collapse of the system of thinking is an anachronistic mindset wherein old lenses are used to comprehend emerging realities. When a society faces intellectual deficit to make sense of the reality of time, then monsters steer the course of society. This explains the rise of radical forces, provincialism of thinking, pseudo-intellectualism and terrorism in Pakistan.

Ideally, the untimely thinking of philosophers and thinkers fills the intellectual void. Tragically, in Pakistan this is filled by media anchors and analysts who bombard us with their opinion around the clock. Now people deem themselves philosophers by filling weekly news pages and haranguing people on TV channels at the same time. They do not have the capacity to write a thesis with a sustained argument to develop alternative narratives. The dominance of such facile intellectuals has reduced the space for deconstructive thinking.

We have media commentators and columnists who have more than half a dozen of books to their credit, but these are really just compilations of published articles. Although these books are a good record for historical research, their value in terms of philosophical discourse is negligible. Such analysts cannot produce a sustained thesis on any one dimension by exploring it in depth, yet they have the temerity to call themselves intellectuals. This is why our society relies on their histrionics and glib talk garbed as knowledge. One can imagine the depth of their whole works in comparison with ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote a single book of 84 pages in his lifetime while serving as a soldier in the trenches during WWI.

This is not to deny the role of the media today, but to show a gap within our thinking where we have skipped the philosophical phase in the intellectual and directly jumped into the phase of media and entertainment. A society that has a deficit of required intellectual and literary resources lives a precarious life with a facile understand of self, society and state. Being averse to engaging our mind in the excruciating process of thinking, we lull ourselves by wallowing in appealing to answer and entertainment and avoiding harsh realities.

Given the propensity in our society to romanticise everything, poetry and media-savvy analysts have become great tranquilisers for our minds. As a result, we rely more on infotainment and poetic answers to prosaic realities. And, hence, our failure to develop any narrative regarding different disciplines.

We have ignored philosophical investigation for the last seven centuries. Now we are preparing our mind for a great torpor to spend this millennium in oblivion. Martin Heidegger said “the biggest thought of our century is that we are not thinking.” This aptly encapsulates our intellectual scene and state.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.