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Philosophy, humanities and the national question in Nigeria

I began that article with an anecdotal note about my early and still abiding love for the philosophical enterprise and how I believe that philosophy…

I began that article with an anecdotal note about my early and still abiding love for the philosophical enterprise and how I believe that philosophy and philosophers have remained too invisible for too long in the national discourse. I also noted that philosophy, according to Plato, cannot be too silent in national affairs because the philosophers, by reason of the imperative of philosophy, have an active role to play in ensuring social order and national development. One of my central arguments, therefore, is that contrary to UNESCO’s recognition of the worth of philosophy for ‘the development of human thought, for each culture and for each individual,’ Nigerian philosophers stand indicted for generally failing to insinuate themselves into the Nigerian national context as their most immediate philosophical laboratory that generates issues, problems and concerns. This same argument also indicts us the policymakers as we seem to buy into the disciplinary fallacy that philosophy and philosophers are not relevant to national development, compared with the sciences.
RIGHT OF REPLY: I considered that these arguments constitute a very simple challenge to the humanities in Nigeria to stand up to the urgent call of relevance. The feedback I have received, largely from core professional philosophers and academics stimulated me to further reflect on the subject matter, hence this piece, which in view of its length, is structured into three parts. Let me first appreciate Mr Jonathan Ifeanyi and Professor Maduabuchi Dukor who both considered my article significant enough to merit some hard-hitting comments and observations. In ‘Ibadan school of classics and the question of relevance’ (Ifeanyi) and ‘Philosophy, more than bread on table’ (Dukor), both in their various concerns identified what they considered not up to par in my indictment of philosophy and the humanities. Both of them also had some insinuations about my being a layman. Unfortunately, I found Ifeanyi’s intervention on behalf of Classics more enlightening than Prof. Dukor’s. I suspect that Prof. Dukor just confirmed my fear that Nigerian philosophers are not public-friendly especially when they hide behind some kind of highfalutin ‘philosophese’ that ordinary laymen find difficult to follow.
For the professor, ‘[Olaopa] has interpreted philosophy upside down hence our task is to…stand philosophy and its praxis erect.’ He then went on, by a far stretch of unfair and unjustifiable parameter, to compare my interrogation of the relevance of philosophy to David Hume’s infamous denigration of the Black race and the eventual colonisation of Africa. This comment is interesting for me especially coming from a Professor of Philosophy who: (a) consistently speaks about ‘philosophy and praxis; and (b) equally laments, from the beginning of his response to my article, the government’s lukewarm attitude to the ‘celebration of wisdom and its pristine praxis.’ Furthermore, Prof. Dukor also calls attention, funny enough, to the ‘poverty of philosophy’ in Nigeria. He then calls on Nigerians, who operate largely behind what he called the ‘veil of ignorance,’ to ‘read more of Plato’s Republic for national transformation agenda, for reflective and critical approach to issues of religious and ethnic matters, for transcendental apperception of leadership rather than the hitherto narrow and circular leadership syndrome.’
On his own, Ifeanyi’s worry also hinges on the issue of relevance, and particularly that of Classics, his first degree discipline. One good pointer about Ifeanyi’s response is that he said my queries about philosophy also echo his especially about Classics and the humanities in general. But then he attempts to draw a significant lesson from an interview he had with a professor of Classics many years ago about the relevance (or irrelevance) of Classics and the humanities. That lesson came at the end of his article:
Finally, the motto of Classics Department in the premier university reads: “viverecogitare est”-meaning “to think is to live.” As I pondered over this, I reasoned that the question of relevance of courses in the humanities, and especially classics, comes to many only because they “think” to live instead of living to think. But I have also observed that learned people don’t ask such a question at all.      
Learned people do not ask the question of relevance? That is very strange! Robert Heilbroner, the US economist, notes that ‘Less and less are we able to locate our lives meaningfully in the pageant of history. More and more do we find ourselves retreating to the sanctuary of an insulated individualism, sealed off in our private concerns from the larger events which surround us.’ It is so easy to see how Ifeanyi rejoiced in Professor Tatum’s outline of classical studies but it seems to me that he fails to see the import of the professor’s point. Or maybe he saw it but didn’t know what implication to draw from it. This is because Mr Ifeanyi agrees with me that Plato’s assessment about the need for a philosophical intervention in political and national affairs is exactly what classical studies is all about. Yet, he went on to submit that learned men don’t ask the question of relevance!
My worry with Ifeanyi’s submission goes deeper. In the quote above, he seems to draw a tight dichotomy between ‘thinking to live’ and ‘living to think.’ Is that dichotomy a legitimate one? Isn’t that distinction at the root of the many troubles of the humanities today? According to Cicero, ‘Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens and to place it in cities, and even to introduce it into homes and compel it to enquire about life and standards and good and ill.’ Why do we think Socrates brought philosophy down from its esoteric ruminations about metaphysical issues? Essentially because we just don’t live to think alone, however much that is good for what Professor Tatum calls ‘the formation of the self.’ We also significantly convert our thoughts to the issues of life and existence. Living to think and thinking to live constitute, for me, two significant sides of the same coin. When we fail to see it this way, then we make the same mistake that Prof. Dukor and many other philosophers make that philosophy does not bake bread.
I know Dukor and Ifeanyi meant well. Both are dedicated to the overall status of the humanities in a world that thought them useless. The fate of the humanities on the globe today is not envious. In fact, the humanities are endangered. And it would be wrong to keep quiet in the face of a perceived misinterpretation of the humanities’ essence. Yet it would be utterly wrong if we think the humanities should not contribute to the need to ‘bake bread’ or the collective effort to build a virile nation in Nigeria. I suspect that I am on the same page with Prof. Dukor and Ifeanyi. However, and this is really crucial: it doesn’t appear as if my interlocutors understand the urgency of what is required of the humanities. The humanities will eventually die unless we begin to rethink the issue of relevance. In this regard, my argument against the Nigerian philosophers still stands: I consider them surprisingly invisible essentially because they have, for long, refused to face up to the relevance of their intellectual enterprise in the national scheme of things. Socrates drank the hemlock because the Athenian states could not face up to his critical scrutiny of Athens’ so-called democratic experiment. Plato wrote the Republic because he believes, among other things, that the philosopher cannot escape living in the polis, and hence that his responsibility must be assessed by the extent to which he is able to use his critical capacity to make that polis a better place to live. We can therefore ask the critical question: Are there Nigerian philosophers who can dare to be like Socrates? Are there Nigerian philosophers who could stand to be counted like Gani Fawehinmi, Wole Soyinka, Claude Ake, Yusuf Bala Usman and several others who dared not only to query the theoretical foundation of our national existence but invaded constructively its fissures, social formations and forces.
INTELLECTUAL REBRANDING OF THE HUMANITIES: In this second part, I attempt an outline of the crucial challenge that the humanities face in Nigeria and a plausible methodology for responding to this challenge. The third part, sub-titled ‘Need for Marketing and Prodigal Projection of the Humanities’, will be dedicated to a strict advocacy of some policy recommendations that can kick-start specific pedagogical transformation to jumpstart the already waning national interest in the humanities.   
Imagine you’re a marketer. Further imagine that the public perceives your product as not worthy of spending their hard earned cash on. What are you supposed to do? There are three options available to you. First, you could move on to another product the public will like and buy. Two, you could lament the public’s lack of insight in failing to see the significance of what you have to sell. Third, you could repackage your product in a manner that will convince the public of its worth. Globally, and since the dissolution of the significance of the liberal arts as a broad educational programme which prepares the students for existence, the humanities and the sciences have been involved in a protracted intellectual war. And the sciences are winning both the battles and the war.
The sciences are winning because they are perceived to be relevant. They pursue knowledge not for knowledge sake. Rather, science transmutes knowledge into technological breakthrough and we see the consequences all around us: television, telecommunication, transportation, computers, the Internet, better healthcare, and even the food we eat! Science has become a brand that sells anywhere. When a student enters the university to study medicine, engineering, dentistry, nursing, laboratory technology, nutrition, radiology, biochemistry, microbiology and even mathematics or physics, the parents don’t worry as much as they do when their wards gained admission to study Yoruba or Linguistic or Religious Studies or Classics or Philosophy or even History and English Language. No wonder my poor parents thought I was foolish or ignorant when I insisted I wanted to be a philosopher! Their most immediate thought, like most good parents, was: how does being a philosopher put food on the table? If you don’t consider that a legitimate query, then you make yourself as unrealistic as the ostrich.
And yet the humanities have placed their relevance, for far too long, on their supposed formation of the human self, of human character, and of the scrutiny of human cultures and societies. These are noble and sublime subject matters and concerns. And it is in precisely this shape that the humanities are facing the most crucial challenge on the globe. In other words, the humanities have been selling a product that has lost its allure for a long time. And the idea of an intellectual rebranding has not occurred to many humanist scholars. This isn’t any longer the Renaissance period, the heyday of the humanities. We now live in the Age of Capital! Everything boils down to its cash value. No discipline can afford any longer to be insular or glory in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Such a discipline will atrophy. And the humanities are weakening faster than their custodians can understand. While students want to study disciplines that will add value to their life prospects, nations want disciplines that will facilitate the onerous task of nation building. It seems logical therefore, within this context, that such nations will massively fund those disciplines they perceive as being relevant and starve those that seem irrelevant.

To be cont’d next week

Dr Tunji Olaola is Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Communication Technology, Abuja. Nigeria. He can be reached at [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>; and [email protected]

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