Did you know there is a World Philosophy Day proclaimed by Unesco? It is celebrated each year on the third Thursday of November. Unesco tweeted about it yesterday, saying philosophy is not limited to the academy, and that it belongs to everyone, inspires everyday practice, and has the power to transform societies.
That’s just lovely—except that in Pakistan, philosophy is not found in the academy, does not inspire every practice and has not transformed society. Everyone does, however, purport to own one as we have all developed our own ‘philosophies,’ albeit without having arrived at them after some measure of reading and reflection.
There are people among us who were privileged enough to go abroad for higher studies. But upon their return, these people tend to only regurgitate what they read in their textbooks and have the temerity to call this their ‘philosophy’.
These are the people who open discussions with the bald assertion, ‘My philosophy is…’ and proceed to paraphrase one outdated philosopher after another, often without even having read their original texts. Alas, these poor souls don’t possess the spirit of Pyrrho, to be quick to question and slow to believe, the bedrock of scepticism, which tempers any urge to assume certainty of knowledge.
Since many Pakistanis go to America for higher studies, most of them inevitably ascribe to the moral philosophy of the divinity of market forces pushed by the likes of Smith and Friedman. Those who may have gone to non-mainstream UK universities tend to be influenced by utilitarianism as espoused by Bentham and Mill and others whose thinking also drives the modern economy.
The Pakistanis who later travel (or perhaps study) in Europe, often emerge worshipping productive efficiency, scientific management etc. informed by philosophers such as Weber (who was, however, more of a sociologist) and August Comte. For nearly all of these, it is somewhat also cool to name drop Amartya Sen and Karl Marx, though of course it is cooler to quote Foucault.
As a result of these excursions, the ‘philosophies’ of Pakistan’s educated, industrial, political elite produce a cocktail consisting of American consumerism, Scandinavian welfare, East Asian ‘developmental state’ and now, of course Chinese state-led capitalism. This brew is sometimes spiked with a dash of Iqbalian thought and Islamic economic theory to appear more palatable to local taste buds.
But what is Iqbalian economic thought? Everyone can proffer up a couplet or two of his and most people also proudly quote his concepts of ‘khudi’ and Two-Nation theory. But Iqbal the philosopher, who by the way also wrote on economy, is not studied to the degree that is reflected in public discourse, if not in public policy. The irony is that Iqbal has been placed on such a high pedestal that a critique (without which philosophy cannot breathe) of his thought may render one a traitor: just how unphilosophical that would be in a country, ‘dreamt of’ by a philosopher.
The state of Islamic economic thought is similar. Discussions on what it is invariably boils down to Zakat, hoarding, Islamic finance, and perhaps a handful of specific topics but not much more.
Proponents of Iqbalian and Islamic economic thought have not even covered the basics of economic philosophy, which as per textbook definition popularised by Daniel Hausman, consists of inquiries into “rational choice, appraisal of economic outcomes, institutions and processes, and the ontology of economic phenomena and the possibilities of acquiring knowledge of them.” They have also not even offered actionable philosophical ideas on other broad areas such as political philosophy and philosophy of science, which cannot be divorced from economic thought.
For those wondering why they are reading about World Philosophy Day in an economic publication, consider this: the modern conception of humankind has reduced it to an economic being, which is precisely why economic and political philosophy cannot be dispensed with.
Consider also the realities of Pakistan. This is a country that faces or has faced a clash of religious and political ideologies; it is a fragmented society split into diverse, but often warring tribes with varying customs, and it has a chequered economic history in a land that has been abruptly pushed into a rapidly globalizing world without being prepared for it. On top of this, is a gathering storm of daunting challenges in the shape of climate change, the fourth industrial revolution, big data and their ensuing ethical concerns.
Pakistan has a choice. Either it continues to live with a ‘who am I’ crisis while leaving philosophy, sociology and other normative pursuits to the under-achievers—those who couldn’t get good grades—or it can prioritise reading, debate and discussion on the discipline of philosophy, especially in terms of how religion, politics, philosophy influence economic policies and decisions, and how in turn, economic decisions influence them. It may also, as some practical minded people suggest, simply adopt any global thinking off the shelf and adhere to it in all respects (as if that’s very easy), because clearly the country’s own philosophical cocktail isn’t quite doing the trick.
If nothing else, Pakistan can at least promote critical thinking because fundamentally, philosophy is about thinking critically without any necessary compulsion to ascribe to any ‘ism’, or school of thought. Iqbal the philosopher might just have liked this.