Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The ways of the “philosophy of common sense”

Serhii SEKUNDANT on how to learn to distinguish the truth from lies and drop the stereotypes of totalitarian mentality
16 January, 2018 - 11:09
Sketch by Viktor BOGORAD

Societal interest in philosophy and its more a more noticeable presence in public space raises the following questions: can philosophy become if not the motive force then at least a factor of social transformations in a country? What efforts should the professional community make to this end? Does the philosophical perspective really offer a more comprehensive and unbiased assessment of the ongoing processes? In search of answers to these questions, Den/The Day continues a series of philosophical dialogs with a well-known Ukrainian researcher Serhii SEKUNDANT, Associate Professor, Doctor of Sciences (Philosophy), head of the Department of Philosophy and Common Humanitarian Knowledge at Odesa National Illia Mechnikov University.

 “INDUCING PHILOSOPHICAL THINKING IS ONE OF THE FACTORS THAT CAN CHANGE A NATION”

Mr. Sekundant, we have seen the development of public philosophy in Ukraine in the past few years. Philosophers deliver public lectures and debates in the media, including the newspaper Den/The Day. The journal Filosofska Dumka has even devoted one of its issues to this. What do you think is the mission of a public intellectual in Ukraine today? What prospects and perhaps risks does this trend open?

“Public philosophy is rather a rare phenomenon. It is usually political scientists and sociologists who go public, whereas the philosopher is a more profound person and, therefore, the public finds it more difficult to apprehend him or her. But this trend really exists and is rather new for Ukraine. Andrii Baumeister, Oleh Khoma, Oleksii Panych, Mykhailo Minakov are just a few names that came to my mind. It is a very useful phenomenon, and I can only welcome it. But I don’t know if the audience will grasp what these people want to put across to it. The point is that audiences are accustomed to ‘non-philosophical’ communication. The philosopher is supposed to disclose the root causes of the phenomena we come across. And it is a great art to speak about profound things in simple terms. Luckily, people endowed with this talent do occur, albeit rarely.

“There has always been a problem of failing to understand things, including philosophy. Sometimes it seems to me that many philosophers became great only because they did not manage or, maybe, did not want to understand their predecessors. For example, Kant seems to have read neither Wolf nor Leibniz in detail.

“It is a question of an important historical factor, not of risks. But for an extensive popularization of philosophy among the masses, the formation of such philosophy-minded nations as India, Greece, and – in the Enlightenment era – Germany would have been impossible. In the 18th-century Germany, almost every provincial newspaper had a huge philosophical section. German burghers were thus discussing philosophical problems and gradually got accustomed to philosophical thinking.

“Some Kyiv philosophers complain that too many philosophy departments have come up in Ukraine today, which is a profanation of philosophical education. It is partly true, but, on the other hand, the more people are involved in the philosophical process and thinking, the better. It is one of the factors that help change the nation.

“For the totalitarian past is still weighing upon our society – people are afraid to think independently. We are very dependent and have a lot of complexes. This is illustrated, in particular, by the quality of dissertations, most of which are rather superficial and distracted from real problems. At the same time, the interest of the broad masses in philosophy is supposed to promote transformation of academic philosophy which customarily popularized the postulates of Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet era and is still eschewing the pressing problems of man and society.”

“WE HAD A CHANCE TO GO A DIFFERENT WAY IN THE 1990s, BUT WE MISSED IT”

Do you think philosophy has had a strong impact on the identity of a contemporary human being? Is it true that the formation of certain philosophical ideas can become an important historical and cultural factor for not only intellectuals, but also society as a whole?

“German philosophy was very academic, scholastic, and, in general, distracted from real practice. But in the era of Enlightenment, philosophers deliberately turned to rather broad masses of the population. In the 17th century, German thinker Christian Thomasius developed the ideas of ‘court philosophy.’ The new philosophy was to be of practical use in life. Incidentally, this occurred well before the French Revolution. The thinkers of that epoch knew that the grassroots needed some ‘simple truths.’ This philosophy appeals to common sense. Unlike to, say, Leibniz, Thomasius was known to the general public. It was later Christian Wolf who began to popularize his philosophy that comprised a mathematical method and the ideal of strict thinking. Philosophy was being simplified – abstract speculations were giving way to a simplified logic, a simplified, albeit based on common sense, theory.

“Today, too, Germans always appeal to common sense in conversations. Soviet people, on their part, lived in ideocracy, in an ideologically-overburdened spiritual atmosphere. We still continue to think in these categories and cannot see where there is or there is no common sense. Our society is bereft of normal legal awareness. The right to a fair trial is a natural human right. If this right is not exercised, there is in fact no state. If courts pass judgments ‘by a phone call,’ no reforms will be possible. It is absurd and unclear to Europeans why Ukraine has been unable to establish an anticorruption court in the past four years. I’ve spoken a lot with Germans – they find it difficult to understand why we are not fighting for our rights, why this is not a top-priority problem for society.

“As our awareness is overburdened with false stereotypes, such a simple ‘philosophy of common sense’ is badly needed today. It would be a very good idea to include the postulate on natural human rights, drawn up by European philosophers in the 17th-18th centuries, into the school curriculum. In this connection, society should have a demand for academics who study the modern history philosophy. Among them is also Andrii Baumeister who focuses on medieval philosophy, for Thomas Aquinas was a very systematically- and adequately-thinking person. If a philosopher adheres to these principles of common sense, if he is a religious and ethical person, his teaching has rather a sobering impact on society. We are so much used to fearing, deceiving, and lying that we have stopped distinguishing between the truth and the lies, between real and fake reforms. This is the result of the absence of common sense.

“Profound truths are very simple. But, to understand them, one must often have a certain insight. An individual should understand that he or she cannot be an instrument in someone else’s hands. The Kantian imperative says: it is your life, and you must not waste it to satisfy someone else’s ambitions. And our politicians are usually oligarchs for whom a party is just part of the business empire. They control the media, courts, police, and the prosecution service. It is Kuchma who created this system. We had a chance in the 1990s to go a way other than that of Russia, but we missed it. The Czechs invented voucher privatization, but Kuchma, the premier at the time, carried it out according to the Russian not the Czech, scenario. When he came to power, he introduced ‘manual control’ of the Prosecutor General’s Office. Serhii Horbatiuk says this has never occurred before. And now Kuchma represents Ukraine at international negotiations. Sometimes the impression is that we are living in a totally absurd country.”

A few primitive translations of philosophic classics appeared recently on our book market, and still more new books are expected soon. At the same time, a lot of utterly weak translations still remain on library shelves. When do you think we will be able to see high-quality publications of basic philosophical texts in the Ukrainian language? Will the newly-established Ukrainian Institute of the Book be able to help speed up this process?

“Low-quality translations are a problem indeed. Incidentally, this also concerns Russian-language texts.

“Undoubtedly, there should be a certain culture of translation. The translator must convey the inner sense of the text. To do so, he or she needs to understand the context very well. He or she must know very well not only the grammar rules of the language, but also the philosophy and the terminology of a certain period. Therefore, to become a good translator, one must work in a certain narrow field for many years.

“The philosophers who call for external control over the work of translators may be right to some extent. But this facility’s prerogatives should be confined to reviewing only. If one has decided to translate a book, we must not forbid them to do so. At the same time, no one can forbid other experts to criticize a superficial or weak translation. It is also up to everybody to agree or disagree with this criticism.

“Translation is always a creative process. All the well-known thinkers were guided by their personal vision and interpretation of their predecessors’ philosophy. Should we reproach them for this? I don’t think so. Maybe, if Kant had read Leibniz and Wolf attentively, he wouldn’t have been the one we know – there would have been neither Critique of Pure Reason nor any other works.”

“MOST OF THE UKRAINIAN INTELLECTUALS ARE REACTIONARY”

Do you think Ukraine and Ukrainian society are today an organic part of Europe (Europe as a cultural and historical phenomenon, not a set of bureaucratic structures)?

“The mentality of Ukrainian society is quite dissimilar. In contrast to us, residents of the country’s south and east, Western Ukrainians have a European mentality. Kyivans and residents of Central Ukraine have a mentality and culture of their own, also close to European. It is totalitarian mentality that prevails in the south and east – so it is very difficult to drop the stereotypes of totalitarian awareness. And the point is not in the absence of a wish but in historical determinism – this is handed down from generation to generation. As for me, the possibility of traveling to the West played a crucial role: I have visited Germany many times.

“Today, the situation is particularly sad in the provinces – people are very fearful there. Incidentally, there is in fact no such thing as provinces in Germany. But in Ukraine, like in Russia, this difference is very essential. Nevertheless, I think the Ukrainians are a European nation. In Odesa, too, there are European-minded people, but they are in the minority – most of them are intellectuals.

“We must go to Europe. But when the president begins to create a police state and allocates money not for the army but for the police and other institutions that are supposed to protect the ruling clan, this brings us closer to Russia than to Europe. One can unconsciously act in favor of his enemies against whom he is ostensibly fighting. In my view, the leadership that is killing education and research is a more formidable enemy than Putin. Instead of ensuring national security, the SBU defends the interests of oligarchs, particularly the local and regional ones. Saakashvili did not exaggerate when he said that Odesa is today controlled by bandits, interclan rivalry is rife, and corruption is all-embracing. Unfortunately, in Odesa Poroshenko has sided with local oligarchs Kivalov, Trukhanov, and others who were taking overtly pro-Kremlin attitudes on the eve of the second Maidan. Patriots are being imprisoned today, while wrongdoers are being freed.

“All these facts make me think that the FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service. – Ed.] is controlling Ukraine as before – and it is not an exaggeration. The leadership is trying not only to keep the criminal oligarchic system intact, but also to restore the Russian model in Ukraine. And this model is an authoritarian dictatorship of criminal oligarchy, when one person, Putin, has created and controls all the criminal oligarchic groupings by way of the FSB. Putin would like to see the same system in Ukraine because it is much easier to influence a country from the outside if it is run by an authoritarian leader. An attempt to pull off this kind of deal in the US failed – American civil society did not allow doing this. Once it became known about Trump’s ties with Russia, he had two options left – either an impeachment or renunciation of all his commitments to Putin.

“One of the functions of philosophy is to promote a normal civil society in Ukraine. But, unfortunately, most of Ukrainian, as well as Russian, intellectuals are reactionary. It’s beyond my comprehension that a philosopher, if he is an honest person, can support outright corruptionists. Intellectuals must think independently. This kind of people can be counted on the fingers of one hand today, while the rest are afraid. They are afraid to lose the job, they fear that somebody will gain a ‘wrong’ impression and an official will punish them. It is philosophers, rather than artists and musicians of the Vakarchuk type, who should determine the society’s way of thinking. But, to be able to do so, they should be taken out of ‘serfdom.’

“Yes, reforms are really being carried out: the current parliament has passed more laws on this country’s democratization than all the previous ones combined. But this is not enough, for the reforms do not work. We need an anticorruption court, and there must be an inescapable punishment for corruption-based crimes. Even in Russia a former economy minister was imprisoned, whereas in Ukraine corruption is ostensibly being fought, but nobody was put behind bars. It’s just a simulation.”

“I BELIEVE WE WILL NEVER RETURN TO THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE”

What was the year 2017 like for you personally?

“The best news for me and our department is that the philosophy and history faculties have been merged in one. Every cloud has a silver lining, you know. Merging history and philosophy opens up vast prospects to us. The history of philosophy in Europe has long been the basis of philosophical education. You can’t possibly understand philosophical problems, think creatively, and offer rational arguments unless you know the history of philosophy. Our former dean, a chemist by education, was unable to understand why specialization was needed at the philosophy faculty, and the majority of our faculty’s academic board members backed him in this. I hope historians are aware of why students need to know history in general and the history of philosophy in particular. Whenever people gain independence, they always find new opportunities.

“I am an optimist by nature – like Leibniz, I am sure that we are living in ‘the best of all possible worlds.’ At the unification ceremony, our rector, Ihor Koval, quoted Winston Churchill quite to the point: ‘an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.’ It is in this key that one should interpret critical remarks in our conversation.

“Undoubtedly, the current leadership has done what all the previous ones failed to do. There is certain progress, and it would be wrong to slow it down – I believe we will never return to the Russian Empire. In spite of all the alarms, I don’t think Russia will try to continue its advance and seize Ukraine. If people knit together on the basis of the rejection of and hatred for others, they are sick people in a sick society. Unfortunately, today’s Russia is predominantly a sick society. Ukraine must not become a similar one. As a separate nation and state, Ukraine needs its own values – more exalted than those of imperial awareness.”

The Day’s REFERENCE

Serhii SEKUNDANT graduated from the Philosophy Faculty and the Candidate and Doctor of Sciences School of Moscow Mikhail Lomonosov State University. He began to work at Odesa Illia Mechnikov State University in 1982. Successfully defended the Candidate of Sciences dissertation “The Problem of Proving Scholarly Knowledge in the Methodical Philosophy of Hugo Dingler” in 1983 and the Doctor of Sciences dissertation “The Normative and Critical Foundations of Leibniz’s Epistemology” in 2015. Teaches the courses “Philosophy of the East,” “German Classical Philosophy,” “The Problems of Indian Philosophy,” “The Philosophical and Methodological Problems of Historical and Philosophical Research,” “Phenomenology of Husserl,” “Contemporary Concepts of the History of Philosophy,” and “The Theory and Practice of Argumentation.” The sphere of academic interests: the history of philosophical methodology, logic and epistemology; the theory of argumentation; philosophical and methodological problems of the history of philosophy; researching the nature of philosophical and religious knowledge; the making and the specifics of ancient Indian philosophy and religion; a comparative analysis of the philosophical and religious tradition in the East and the West. Author of over 100 scholarly publications. Author of two individual monographs: Critique and Method. The Problem of a Critical Method in 17th-18th-Century German Philosophy (Kyiv, Dukh i Litera, 2012) and Leibniz’s Epistemology in its Normative and Critical Foundations (Odesa, Pechatny Dom, 2013). Member of the Philosophy Faculty’s Academic Board, co-organizer of the international school of religious studies “Vaishnavism Across the Centuries,” director of the German Philosophy Research Center at the Philosophy Faculty of Odesa National Illia Mechnikov University. Winner of the National Philosophy Prize 2016 (established by the Hryhorii Skovoroda Institute of Philosophy, the Ukrainian Philosophical Foundation, and the N.V. Panina Sociological Center) in the Maria Zlotina nomination “For Best Philosophical Monograph.”

(To be continued)

By Roman GRYVINSKYI, The Day
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