"I think what’s so relevant about philosophy today, is how it works in tandem with other disciplines, such as evolutionary psychology or cognitive science. Philosophers today contribute to contemporary society by asking tricky questions, clarifying difficult concepts, and drawing out moral and political implications from empirical investigations."
Jonathan Salem-Wiseman, (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.), has a talent for communicating complex ideas with clarity and passion. As a philosopher with extensive teaching experience, he lends his talent to SCS, instructing our course The History of Western Philosophy: Ancient and Medieval Thought. We sat down with Jonathan to discuss why philosophy is relevant-and exciting- in 2019.
SCS: Why do you think Biblical, Ancient Greek, and Roman responses to basic philosophical questions still stir curiosity in so many people?
JSW: I think it’s because they were the true, intellectual pioneers. The ancient writers were the first people who wrote long texts that raised, and attempted to answer, deeply human questions. Questions like ‘what is happiness?’ ‘what is justice? or ‘what happens when we die?’ These questions can’t be easily answered by straightforward appeals to experience; they require thought and reflection. I try to show that the ancient philosophers aren’t just relics or museum-piece curiosities, but individuals who had tremendous insights into their world and ours. So I think it would be arrogant to assume we have nothing to learn from their wisdom.
People have always been curious about being human, about the cosmos, but the ancient philosophers were the first people who had the capacity to lay out big questions in writing, and that has shaped our understanding of things ever since.
SCS: In your course, you explore topics like ‘are human beings inherently good or evil? Self-interested or altruistic? Isolated individuals or social creatures? Moral agents or just calculating animals?’ Why do you think there is still so much curiosity around these topics?
JSW: I think curiosity around such topics belongs to the human condition. On the one hand, we are biological creatures, yet we are also creatures who are deeply shaped by time, place, and culture. What we do, how we live, and how we organize and treat one another is not governed by a universal instinct. We are malleable animals—but not entirely! We are creatures who have lived very different lives in different times and places in human history. Human nature is hard to pin down, which means big questions cannot be easily answered. Hence our ongoing curiosity and disagreement.
What always complicates the matter, is that compelling answers can be given for contradictory arguments! To me, this is what makes philosophy thrilling. It’s also what can make it disconcerting; we need to be ok with open-ended questions and a lack of certainty.
I think being comfortable with discomfort is something we tend to accept and embrace more easily today, whereas most ancient communities were closed, deeply religious, and xenophobic. In 2019, we are more open, tolerant, and multicultural, so different ideas aren’t considered a threat in the way they were centuries ago. We realize there are going to be different answers offered by reasonable people for these types of big questions. Today, we are able to have open, free-wheeling philosophical discussions, and this, to me, is what makes philosophy fresh, exciting, and relevant.
SCS: What can the study of philosophy tell us about ourselves and contemporary society?
JSW: I think what’s so relevant about philosophy today, is how it works in tandem with other disciplines, such as evolutionary psychology or cognitive science. Philosophers today contribute to contemporary society by asking tricky questions, clarifying difficult concepts, and drawing out moral and political implications from empirical investigations. We no longer work in a silo; philosophers make meaningful contributions within a much larger tapestry of research.
SCS: Tell us about the leaners in your classes– what is their motivation for taking our courses?
JSW: What I love about continuing education, is the opportunity I get to teach all kinds of learners. My classes are very diverse, and everyone is there because they are deeply interested in the subject matter. I’ve taught retired teachers, mid-career engineers, publishing executives, and undergraduate students. They all have an interest in philosophy, yet many had put that interest on the back burner due to the busyness of life. Now, they are making the time to pursue their interest, which I think is fantastic.
My learners also enjoy the laid-back nature of my courses. They can learn, grow, and explore without the worry of marks, requirements, or meeting strict deadlines. I think they appreciate the freedom of the class; to learn without pressure. Some are more outspoken, and some are quieter, but they all enjoy the open atmosphere and comradery of a small and engaging classroom.
SCS: Do you think people have misconceptions about philosophy, and if so, what would you tell them to make them more curious?
JSW: I think a common misconception is that philosophy is just word play, or just opinion, and some people may have an attitude of ‘what’s the point, there are no answers anyway’. But what I try to show, is that those claims are themselves philosophical in nature; you can’t dismiss philosophy without, paradoxically, getting philosophical! There’s no real way of getting around philosophy; we just need to do it thoughtfully.
I also want to debunk any misconception that you need to come to my class with prior knowledge or expertise. I encourage my learners to begin from where they are. All you need is a willingness to explore, and an eagerness to embrace a variety of perspectives. Ancient writers are contemporaries if we read them carefully, and it’s my job to bring everyone into the conversation.
Jonathan Salem-Wiseman, (B.A, M.A, Ph.D.) is a philosopher with extensive teaching experience at Humber College, the University of Guelph-Humber, and York University, where he completed his doctorate. His areas of expertise include 19th and 20th century Continental philosophy, social, and political thought, ethics, and aesthetics. Jonathan is an interdisciplinarian by nature and training, with an oft-noted talent for communicating complex ideas with clarity and passion.