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The ‘spiritual opium’ of the people – could philosophy provide answers in a city fuelled by doubt?

[Sponsored] Most professors are thrilled to oblige when you ask them to explain what makes their subject so useful. But philosophy doesn’t try to be so clear-cut in its answers. “An MA degree in philosophy is, so-to-speak, useless!” exclaims Prof Leo Cheung, Chairperson of the Department of Philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

It’s an unexpected admission for an academic who has spent his entire working life pursuing philosophy – a subject which tackles the fundamental nature of knowledge and existence. But Cheung and his colleague Prof Lau Kwok-ying, director of the MA in philosophy programme, have more than sheer utility on their agenda when it comes to the aim of this particular course.

philosophy

Photo: PxHere.

Lau and Cheung are on a mission to encourage Hongkongers with a desire to tackle the big questions to join their part-time, taught MA in philosophy at CUHK. “When I say useless… by that I mean philosophy is not a technical subject like engineering,” Cheung continues.  

“In the present era, Hong Kong and the world at large is in crisis. And during a crisis, people also like to ask ‘How?’ ‘How and why?’” – Leo Cheung.
“It might not give direct benefit to your professional development. Our sole purpose here is to promote philosophy to society at large. The reason many of our students choose to do [the MA] is purely that they are interested in philosophy.”

Many fundamental philosophical debates stem from outright intellectual curiosity, but many others arise from practical concerns. Professors Cheung and Lau argue the subject offers orientation in life and lends itself particularly well to residents of Hong Kong – a city in political and social flux.

“The demand for philosophical learning had increased for some years since the 1990s,” says Lau. “A lot of questions were raised. Between 2000 and 2004, we worked to put together this programme for these kind of candidates, who don’t have a background in philosophy.”

cuhk philosophy programme

MA students and teachers at a second-hand bookstore in Taipei.

Prof Cheung explains that there are at least two origins of philosophy. “One is the sense of wonder – when we look up at the stars in awe, we respond with ‘Why? Why is there something, rather than nothing?’,” he says. “And the other origin is crisis. In the present era, Hong Kong and the world at large is in crisis. And during a crisis, people also like to ask ‘How?’ ‘How and why?’”

Lau explains that, throughout the history of human civilisation, people have yearned for philosophical solutions during times of tribulation. “For example: the question of independence versus autonomy,” he says. “Is independence equal to autonomy? That’s what is happening now in Catalonia… In class, we talk about related ideas such as autonomy, liberty or freedom. We have to clarify all of these theoretical issues. Philosophers tackle these kind of problems – not by making any appeal to faith or belief – philosophers want to find a reason why. And having found a reason, then you can hopefully find a useful, rational way to solve these problems.”

Let’s take this to siu yeh

The two-year MA course at CUHK is aimed at people who have no previous academic experience of philosophy, and is designed to fit around full-time employment, with classes taught during evenings and weekends.    

Prof. LAU Kwok Ying

Prof. Lau Kwok Ying.

The enthusiasm that runs through the department for the course material is both palpable and contagious. “At first I was a sociology major, but after taking a philosophy course in the second year of my undergraduate study, I couldn’t get enough of it,” explains Kwok. “Philosophy changed my life. It’s a sort of spiritual opium because you become addicted to it.”

Increasingly, people want space and distance to think more before being pushed to react to things, because some actions are irreversible. Twenty years ago, we didn’t feel this need, but now we feel it” – Lau Kwok-ying.

And it’s not just the teachers who feel this way. Cheung recalls a student, who – after gaining her MA – decided to quit her job as a Hong Kong civil servant and move to Germany. “She’s now living in Germany, learning German and applying for a bachelor degree in philosophy at a German university,” he says. And the reason? “She has a simple desire to learn to read the works of Friedrich Nietzsche in the German language’,” explains Lau.

The class often heads out together for siu yeh (late night supper), over which they talk about everything from the works of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to local politics and the merits of the latest Thor movie. “We regularly have these kind of gatherings with the students,” says Cheung. “It’s usually a continuation of the discussion we’ve been having in class – sometimes it goes on until midnight!”

A programme of cultural tours, including recent trips to northern Taiwan and Kyoto, Japan, add to the diverse range of learning experiences available to students, who themselves hail from a range of backgrounds. “Our students are teachers, social workers, journalists, barristers – we even have a judge at the moment,” says Lau. “Afterwards, we are happy to hear from students that training in philosophy has helped in one way or another in their profession. Learning to see problems from a plurality of perspectives helps in finding different ways of tackling issues.”

Information overload

Innovation prompted by the dawn of the information age continues to transform the modern model of society at an unprecedented pace, and questions over our value judgements and principles are called into play at an increasing rate.

A CUHK Philosophy classroom.

A CUHK Philosophy classroom.

“I think that flooding of data and information makes philosophy more important,” says Cheung. “Philosophy can help us to analyse information critically. For one thing, there are just too many pieces of information nowadays. You need a critical mind, a critical spirit, to sort out the fake news.”

Lau points out that taking a philosophical outlook also helps to place distance between our thoughts and our mechanical reactions when faced with a non-stop barrage of information. “Philosophy helps us to reflect,” he says. “Increasingly, people want space and distance to think more before being pushed to react to things, because some actions are irreversible. Twenty years ago, when we began to think about organising this programme, we didn’t feel this need – but now we feel it. Everybody says ‘we are going too fast’.”

Whether one wishes to pursue philosophy academically or not, the kinds of questions that are brought up on the course are unavoidable. “Things like how Hong Kong society should go forward, particularly in the era of globalisation and the rapid development of technology – you can’t avoid these kind of questions,” says Lau. “In the media, especially the electronic media, over the last five or six years there has already been a lot of popular philosophy everywhere.”

Prof. Leo Cheung Kam Ching.

Prof. Leo Cheung Kam Ching.

There’s a difference between rhetoric and rationale. Tackling the thorny subjects of the day with a sound basis in philosophical understanding is not just illuminating, but also rewarding. “We do classes that focus on very famous but difficult philosophical concepts: the work of Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger,” says Lau. “We guide students through it, and even though everyone might not get an A-grade – some might get an average grade – they are always proud to achieve this as it’s famously difficult.”

Aspiring to such cerebral heights is laudable, if not somewhat intimidating, we dare to suggest? Unsurprisingly, Lau disagrees. “Those who are intimidated by philosophy are those who dare not to think for themselves,” he says. “Those who dare to think for themselves and by themselves will not be intimidated.”

Click here to learn more about the MA in Philosophy. Social media image: Ho Sin Tung.

The ‘spiritual opium’ of the people – could philosophy provide answers in a city fuelled by doubt?