Philosophes sans Frontièrs

By Robert SinnerbrinkJanuary 21, 2017

Philosophes sans Frontièrs

Teaching Plato in Palestine by Carlos Fraenkel

AS ACADEMIC PHILOSOPHY becomes ever more specialized, a number of philosophers have sought to bring philosophizing out of the ivory tower and into the street. Specialized cafes, book clubs, and “philosophy of everyday life” courses, like those in Alain de Botton’s School of Life enterprise, all point to the same cultural and social desire for high-quality intellectual conversation. In Teaching Plato in Palestine, Canadian-Brazilian philosopher Carlos Fraenkel pushes this democratizing impulse in a radical direction, traveling to some of the more conflicted communities across the globe with the aim of showing how philosophy can contribute to what he calls a “culture of debate.” His fascinating experiences as an itinerant philosopher, discussing classical philosophical texts (Greek, but also Jewish and Islamic) with students from Palestine and Makassar (Indonesia), Hasidic Jews in New York, high schoolers in Brazil, and members of the Mohawk community in Canada, demonstrate how philosophy can educate citizens and cultivate an ethos of mutual understanding. If one ever needed a book to suggest to those skeptical about the social benefits of philosophy, Teaching Plato in Palestine would be one to recommend.

The volume emerged out of Fraenkel’s experiences as a doctoral student working on Arabic and Hebraic texts while studying in Cairo. He soon discovered there was more to philosophy than analyzing arguments and devising objections. Muslim students he met became concerned with saving his soul by converting him to Islam, while Fraenkel, in turn, wanted to “save them from wasting their real life for an illusory afterlife” by converting them to a secular worldview. The result was a lively philosophical exchange over arguments for God’s existence, which did not lead to any definite conclusions (or conversions) but did prompt Fraenkel to pose two questions: Can philosophy be useful beyond the academy? And can it contribute to the transformation of conflicts over diversity into an ethical “culture of debate,” that is, a practice of rational discussion over conflicting values in a divided world?

Fraenkel explores these questions through five philosophy workshops he organized between 2006 and 2011 at culturally and politically contested locations, from East Jerusalem, Indonesia, and Salvador da Bahia to the Akwesasne Mohawk community. In each case, participants were invited to discuss key philosophical texts and to engage in Socratic dialogues concerning the relationships between religion and metaphysics, morality and politics, and exploring questions of social justice, democracy, and self-governance. The result is a fascinating display of philosophy in action, demonstrating what it means to examine one’s beliefs and question one’s opinions through philosophical dialogue and critical debate.

Fraenkel’s experiment begins at the Al-Quds University, where he co-teaches a seminar with Sari Nusseibeh, enthusiastic advocate of the idea that philosophy can “save the Middle East.” Fraenkel’s seminar focuses on Plato’s political thought, examining how medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophers built on the Platonic work to interpret Islam and Judaism as “philosophical religions.” Bringing a historian’s eye to the discussion, he finds his students eager to examine these texts for relevant lessons that might be drawn for their world — a point brought home unceasingly by the reality of border checks across Jerusalem and Gaza, and the ever-present threat of violence.

A recurring issue throughout is the tension between a commitment to religious faith and pursuing the philosophical maxim of leading a rationally examined life. As Fraenkel remarks, while most students accept the idea of examining religious views in a Socratic manner, “their commitment to the truth of Islam leaves no room for confusion.” Some of them attempt to turn the tables on their teacher, asking Fraenkel how a secular citizen could live an examined life; according to one student, many Westerners are moral relativists who equate freedom with individual choice but also view “all choices as equal.” While acknowledging that relativism makes questioning futile, Fraenkel points out that such interrogations should also be applied to the Islamic faith, which leads to a rather one-sided discussion of the differences between Sunni and Shī‘ite Muslims. The debate ends inconclusively but prompts Fraenkel to remark that one way beyond dogmatically asserting the superiority of one’s moral beliefs is to explore the shared traditions between the West and the Muslim world in order to “conduct an open discussion on an equal footing.” Despite the ongoing conflicts in Israel, Fraenkel leaves his students to ponder how philosophy might help resolve these moral-political disputes via ethical questioning and rational discussion.

His next seminar is at the Alauddin State Islamic University in Makassar, Indonesia. With its large majority Muslim population, the country offers a striking case study in coming to terms with democracy (since the fall of Suharto in 1998), while pursuing its “long-standing commitment to religious pluralism, modernization, and the construction of a national identity.” The students, coming from the Faculty of Islamic Studies, focus on the relationship between ethics, politics, and religion, examining texts by Plato and Aristotle, as well as medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophers “who creatively adapted the Greeks’ conceptual framework to their own purposes.” Once again, historical and contemporary perspectives blur as the Indonesian students raise questions such as whether democracy is simply a “Western concept,” debating economic prosperity versus democratic freedoms, and broaching the topic of revealed law (sharī‘a) versus secular law. Despite his students’ dogmatic dismissal of non-state-sanctioned religions (like animism or Bahá’í), Fraenkel’s seminar shows how philosophy might equip citizens to respond better to the challenge of reconciling Islam and religious pluralism, even though philosophical questioning of religious beliefs clearly marks the limit of such debates.

Fraenkel’s encounter with a Hasidic philosophy “debating club” provides another fascinating perspective. Gathering in a hip SoHo lounge bar, a group of strict Satmar and Lubavitch adherents engage in clandestine philosophical discussions in a manner recalling the “double lives” lived by the Marrano Jews in Spain. Starting with Plato’s Apology and Euthyphro and concluding with Nietzsche’s writings on nihilism, Fraenkel’s Hasidic students took considerable risks in pursuing their “underground” philosophy seminar. As Isaac, a Satmar, explains: “From the point of view of our community, […] studying these books is much worse than having an extramarital affair or going to a prostitute. That’s weakness of the flesh, but here our souls are on the line.”

This experience of everyday heresy, however, turns out to be conducive to philosophical reflection. Maimonides’s famous Guide for the Perplexed is a favorite topic, even though the students had to read it in secret. As Fraenkel points out, Maimonides’s reinterpretation of Jewish “beliefs and practices in light of views derived from Greek and Muslim philosophers collides with today’s ultra-Orthodox idea of the Torah’s purity and self-sufficiency.” The Hasidic group members mostly reject Maimonides’s approach to “reconciling Torah (revelation) with madda‘ (reason),” preferring to maintain the two in opposition by leading double lives. Nietzsche’s death of God proves ambivalent for the group: it’s an experience to which the Hasidic “heretics” could relate, yet a philosophical provocation they were unwilling to endorse. Despite rejecting Nietzsche’s recourse to egoism and solitude, they find his philosophical and moral provocations fascinating.

A different angle emerges in Fraenkel’s encounter with high school students in Itapuã, Brazil. The experience takes on a personal note for Brazilian-born Frankel, who spent time in Germany as a boy after his Marxist parents fled the military dictatorship (1964–1985). Philosophy had been eliminated from Brazilian high schools by the dictatorship but was reintroduced in 2008 as a compulsory subject meant to cultivate the intellectual skills necessary for good citizenship. Brazil’s high school philosophy curriculum — “the world’s largest-scale attempt to bring philosophy into the public sphere” — is a massive experiment in democracy that many hope will “provide a path to greater civic participation and equality.” Learning how to exercise one’s own reason as an arbiter between conflicting interpretations, Fraenkel remarks, shows how “philosophy could help to extend and refine the debate that naturally arises in a pluralistic society from conflicting interests, values, and worldviews.” Whether Brazil’s experiment in teaching its youth philosophy will yield a more engaged citizenry and a better democracy remains an open question; for Fraenkel’s students, it offers a path toward more critical engagement with the social and economic tensions defining this dynamic, pluralistic society.

Fraenkel’s final encounter is with members of the Akwesasne Mohawk community, one of the largest Mohawk reserves in North America. Questions of self-governance and indigenous dispossession loom large for these participants. Although skeptical of what philosophy might offer their political struggles, the Mohawk participants were interested in how it might contribute to the “Great Law of Peace,” which helps define “the political and cultural ideal that today’s Iroquois nations strive to revive.” The questions confronting the Iroquois are certainly difficult: reconciling tradition and modernity, deciding who should rule, and agreeing on what defines Mohawk identity. Of all the groups Fraenkel encounters, the Mohawk are the most wary about philosophy, but they still articulate their views on self-governance with clarity and conviction. While not yielding definite conclusions, their workshop clarifies many of the difficult issues they confront, suggesting new ways of approaching their more pressing practical problems.

The latter part of the book offers a defense of the idea of a “culture of debate,” turning the conflicts over diversity into an opportunity to acquire a deeper understanding of cultural forms of disagreement. Drawing on his remarkable case studies of a philosophy without borders, Fraenkel argues, along with Charles Taylor, that the deeper “sources of the self” that ordinarily remain concealed in everyday experience can be opened by division and disagreement. This can provide productive conditions for developing an intellectual culture of debate. Although driven by a desire for truth, or the conviction that one is right, it is important, Fraenkel insists, to be “fallibilists” about one’s deepest beliefs. As al-Ghazālī put it in Deliverance from Error, we should endeavor “to break the bonds of taqlīd” (imitation, custom), questioning the authoritative beliefs and values we inherit from the contingent circumstances of our upbringing. Debates across boundaries (of value, morality, and belief) are particularly well suited to breaking these ideological bonds of opinion, and the way to do this ethically is via a reasoned culture of debate, “an institutional framework in which diversity and disagreement can be transformed into a joint search for the truth.”

Defending a fallibilist approach may seem reasonable to a secularist, but how to convince a religious believer, who does not assume her beliefs are corrigible and open to rejection? Fraenkel points out that all major religions involve disagreement over interpretations of doctrine, and that there is an element of contingency in the beliefs and values we actually do hold. This suggests that interpretations of religion may be fallible but, as he notes, does not entail “that religion itself could be wrong.” Revealed truth, after all, is supposed to be a matter of faith rather than reason. As Fraenkel admits, his arguments from the diversity of interpretations and the contingency of beliefs may not convince a religious believer, even though the idea of a culture of debate remains compatible with the notion of divine wisdom.

Fraenkel also addresses the challenges of multiculturalism, criticizing both the liberal model of tolerance and laïcité (we are all citizens in public, mutually tolerating each other, but can pursue our own private moral and religious beliefs) and pro-diversity multiculturalism (we should celebrate cultural and moral diversity as an intrinsic good). The culture of debate represents for him a “third way” between these poles, rejecting accounts of multiculturalism that either disregard or else “equally value beliefs and values that differ from our own.” Differing views should be taken seriously and subjected to rational debate, rather than dismissed or celebrated in a relativistic manner, always keeping in mind the fallibilist maxim that one’s own views may also turn out to be flawed. Such an approach would encourage a more robust form of pluralism, one committed to testing moral and cultural claims through rational debate, which implies a fallibilist notion of (moral) progress. For such a pluralism to work, however, participants must share a commitment to the values of rational debate, and an acknowledgment of the fallibility of their own claims — they need, in short, to be philosophers, a difficult demand in a world riven by ideological and political strife.

The challenge for Fraenkel’s “culture of debate” model is that it takes disagreement as a means of uncovering the deeper “sources of the self,” but it also takes these deeper beliefs to be fallible and modifiable by means of rational debate. Practicing the latter, moreover, requires philosophical skills and intellectual values that must themselves be cultivated as a precondition for participating in such a culture. The main tension here lies in taking our most strongly held beliefs as both “deep” sources of the self that are revealed through disagreement, and as “surface” opinions that can be modified via rational discussion. What happens when philosophical critique is directed at existentially defining beliefs or binding values (like religious faith) that serve as deep cultural sources of identity? Fraenkel’s own case studies, for example, always reached a point beyond which questioning could not proceed, and debate came to an inconclusive end. Religious belief does not seem very amenable to being construed as a fallibilist view, open to revision through rational discussion — especially when it also serves as a community-defining deep source of social identity. As Plato and Nietzsche both observed, nihilism is the shadow of rationalist critique.

Fraenkel’s commitment to democratizing philosophy is both authentic and admirable. His book reminds us that philosophy is a practice of educating citizens, a dialogical quest for mutual understanding. It is a timely reminder that engaging others over disputed values and beliefs requires not only skill in argument but also an openness toward different views and a commitment to the shared pursuit of truth. This remarkable experiment in practicing Socratic dialogue in a divided world proves that we need philosophy now more than ever, especially when ideology and nihilism threaten to undermine any ethical culture of debate.


Robert Sinnerbrink is senior lecturer and ARC Future Fellow in Philosophy at Macquarie University, Australia.

LARB Contributor

Robert Sinnerbrink is associate professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is the author of Terrence Malick: Filmmaker and Philosopher (Bloomsbury, 2019), Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience through Film (Routledge, 2016), New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2011), and Understanding Hegelianism (Acumen, 2007/Routledge 2014). Photo from Macquarie University.


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