Pagan University – The Ritual of Graduation

Graduation is a pagan ritualYesterday I took part in a pagan ritual. No, I did not dance naked around a camp fire or undertake an invocation of ancient gods. The heathen ritual I took part in was a contemporary university graduation to receive my MBA degree.

The pomp and circumstance of the academic dress and procession seem to be innocent reminders of ancient traditions to add gravitas to the moment of graduation. The ritualistic aspects of the ceremony and the continuous doffing of the at the chancellor are, however, all part of an elaborate pagan ceremony.

One particular moment, the conferring of the degree, can only be described as magical. Not magic in the sense that the ceremony has an ethereal atmosphere, but magic in the literal sense of the word. The conferring of the degree is in its very essence a mystical moment.

All graduands were standing and the Chancellor conferred the degree upon us. Even though she did not use any incantations nor did she invoke any occult forces, the conferring of the degrees is a moment of magic. It is only from that point forward that I could by right call myself a Master in Business Administration. Even those who decided not to attend the ceremony did not escape the magic powers of the Chancellor, as also they had their degrees conferred upon them by the power invested in her.

It seems rather strange that a rational organisation such as a university uses archaic and irrational practices to finalise several years of intense rational work. Although the purpose of academic education is to hone rational thinking skills, the process is concluded in an irrational moment.

Although it might not be sensed by contemporary graduands as being just that, there is no significant difference between the conferring of the degree and the activities of a witch doctor or priest bestowing a blessing.

Given the fact that the vast majority of graduands chose to attend the ceremony, rather than being provided with their degree  through the mail, shows that no matter how rational we think we are, we all require a magical and non-rational moments.

Schools of Thought: Anglosaxon versus Continental Philosophy

I have now completed 75% of my undergraduate and can almost see light at the end of the tunnel. I started studying in 1996 at the Open Universiteit of the Netherlands, where I completed my first year.

I recently re-read some of the course material, as I was working on some Wikipedia articles. Reading the Dutch philosophy course notes, I realised the great difference between continental and analytical (Anglosaxon) philosophy.

The Dutch material is all about hermeneutics and refers to philosophers such as Friedrich Schleieremacher and Heidegger.

The Australian course is much more analytical and I am supposed to ‘untangle’ arguments in order to bit by bit analyse the text. There is no reference to the ‘melting of horizons’ of Gadamer or anything about the historicity of philosophy. Ancient philosophers are treated in exactly the same manner as contemporary texts.

The rational approach is I think sometimes too simplistic. By following strict logical rules you can only describe certain truths, those that form part of the logical tree that grows from the axioms one has chosen.

But, it can be argued that there are truths which do not form part of that tree, ones that can not be described by logic. The analytical philosopher would probably try to resolve this problem by introducing another axiom, so the tree covers more aspects. Kurt Gödel has shown that in number theory, it is impossible to find an axiomatic system that can derive all known truths.

Although his evidence is only applicable to number theory, many have argued that it should also be applied to all other forms of axiomatic system.

Philosophy is not a science, it is not a rational program aiming to unearth eternal truth by thinking very very hard. Philosophy is an art-form, a language game to describe the world. The more I study philosophy in the analytical tradition the more I realise that I am a continental thinker. I am the wolf in the sheep’s-pen.

Only if one thinks more crazy than the philosophers can you solve their problems (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1949).

The Philosopher and the Mystic: On the role of logic as the pathway to truth

A portrait of Indian philosophy saint Adi Sankara.

A portrait of Indian philosophy saint Adi Sankara.

Academic philosophy and mysticism do not go hand in hand. One of the first subjects in any philosophy course in the analytic tradition is logic. Students are taught the strict rules of reasoning, as applied by philosophers for about 2500 years. Students are also taught that every philosophy must comply with these rules.

These strict rules of logic are many times at odds with what mysticism teaches us. One of the foundation rules of ‘proper thinking’ is that there can be no internal contradiction, e.g. either A or not A—there is no third option. Mysticism, however, unites the dualism of opposites into a wider embrace, a higher truth.

As I wrote earlier, academic philosophy is forced through the politics of funding by governments to stick to the accepted rules of scientific logic. Mystical philosophy can therefore not be taught at university level, besides in neutral, non engaging, exsanguinated way.

One of the questions to be asked is whether philosophy can be merged with mysticism. Can the philosopher and the mystic be one and the same person?

In classical Indian Philosophy, tension between religion and reason is not as pronounced as in the West. Reason and religion were in a constant debate, which has led to a philosophy with clear strands of mysticism.

Philosophy and mysticism have been separated in the Western tradition since the beginning of philosophy. Early Greek philosophy contained some kernels of mystic thought, but slowly but surely, mysticism has disappeared from the philosophical landscape.

Can a truly mystical philosophy exist? The problem with mysticism is that anything seems to be allowed and every utterance can be true, as there are no rules concerning how to determine what is true and what is not. But maybe, the strict rules of logic accept to little as true knowledge? Many people find strength and inspiration in the mystic realm. The big question to be asked next is what is truth anyway? Isn’t truth just whatever complies with basically arbitrary rules?

Academic philosophy: Does it play a role in society?

Academic philosphy

Philosophers on strike.

I have been studying philosophy at university level for eight years now. See my previous Blog, The Philosophy Race, on why I have been so slow. On the odd occasion, however, I doubt whether I should actually continue studying. Studying a university degree and having a full time job is quite a task, which does not leave much time for philosophical reflection outside the curriculum. The ‘train’ relentlessly keeps on going and there is simply no time to stop along the way and explore some side avenues.

Sometimes I am also disenchanted with academic philosophy as it tends to be extremely technical and tedious. Although I understand that issues can become complicated and convoluted—specially with 2500 years of history behind them—a philosopher should be able to break free from these bounds and create new philosophy.

There are thus two kinds of philosophy. Passive philosophy: the reflection upon what has been written and the subsequent academic analysis of this; and active philosophy: the creative process of producing new philosophy.

One of the problems of contemporary philosophy is that it is part of academia and therefore dependent upon government funding. To be be able to continually justify this funding, academic philosophy has become almost like a science, rather than a creative art.

Looking around the media landscape we see pop stars and movie actors proclaiming their philosophy on many subjects. It is interesting to note that one of the first major philosophers also was an artist—Socrates was a stone mason—proclaiming his philosophy to his fellow Athenians. Academic philosophers of today still use his thoughts as a source but are a long way from his influence upon society.

But Socrates was not loved by most of the Athenians, as he was sentenced to death because he supposedly had a negative influence on the youth of Athens. Are academic philosophers afraid to come out of their ivory tower and join the social debate? Why should we rely on pop stars, actors and politicians as our beacons in life? Philosophy should go back to the market place!

Thus spoke Zarathustra and left his cave, glowing and strong like a morning sun (Friedrich Nietzsche).