The South China Sunday Morning Post (Hong Kong), July 5, 1998, ++++++++++++ The New Age Sage Rage Want to know the meaning of life? Plato rather than Prozac is what you may need by Alex Lo If Stephen Palmquist had his way, Hong Kong would be full of cafes where philosophers and ordinary citizens met to discourse on the meaning of life. Instead of Prozac and psychotherapy, troubled people would go to philosophers for counselling and learn dialectic to resolve their problems rationally. Ten years into his academic career and five books later, Mr Palmquist wants to take philosophy back to the marketplace where it originally started, at least in the West, more than 2,400 years ago in Athens. "The biggest change in philosophy was with Socrates when a society tried to extinguish it by putting the philosopher to death," he says. "But philosophy is now generally recognised as an appropriate and necessary part of any education at most universities around the world. "This can be taken as a different kind of marginalisation. Society says, 'This is where you philosophers can do your thing. Now try not to disturb the peace by confusing other people with your strange talk'. "Many philosophers around the world are now trying to take philosophy out of the academy and return it to the marketplace--to make it relevant to everyday life again." What Mr Palmquist is talking about is a new movement known as Philosophical Practice, which is all the rage in Europe and North America and may soon be coming to Hong Kong, thanks to people like him. This is the unlikely dream of a philosophy teacher at Baptist University. Money-crazed Hong Kong seems like the last place for discussions about virtues, ideals and the nature of good and evil. But stranger fads have started here in the past decade. If New Agers, and self-help and business gurus are earning big bucks by claiming to take care of our spiritual well-being, then philosophers--those lovers of wisdom--are perfectly entitled to take a share of the pie. "I have organised group discussions addressing philosophical issues with people who are not academics or students, and I find the experience much more rewarding than lecturing in university," Mr Palmquist says. Started in Germany in 1981 by the philosopher Gerd Achenbach, the movement has evolved into a major fad, spreading to the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Scandinavia and South Africa. The movement sends philosophers back to the so-called marketplace, which usually means the corporate world. Business schools and large companies are now paying them top dollar to ponder on the nature of corruption, industrial pollution and the moral implications of the excessive salaries of bosses. Hospitals are hiring them to conceptualise ethical dilemmas in medical practices. They are paid to worry about problems that frequently inspire story writers for such US television series as *ER* and *Chicago Hope*. For instance: A parent can only donate one kidney but both of her children need such a transplant to live. How do you decide which child should get the kidney? Others are setting up counselling practices, like psychologists and psychotherapists. The idea is that Plato, rather than Prozac, is the solution to many of life's problems and moral dilemmas. In the place of "the talking cure", you have a Socratic dialogue. Instead of digging into your unconscious, philosophical counsellors appeal to your intellect and invite you to work out your presuppositions that may be mentally blocking your way to see your situation clearly. You are encouraged to analyse your belief systems to see if they hinder or enhance your understanding of yourself and the world. Mr Palmquist gives an example. "This one is taken from a real case. A man was abused and abandoned by his father as a child. "Twenty years later, the father wants to reunite with his son. The son goes to a philosophical counsellor and wants to find out what a son's duties are and the possibility of forgiveness in his case. "That's very different from going to a psychotherapist, who would probably make you work out your unconscious guilt feelings." According to Louis Marinoff, an associate philosophy professor at New York's City College and a leader of the movement in the United States, many people who go to philosophical counsellors are "refugees from psychotherapy". In his Internet web page, he says many of them are tired of wallowing in their emotions and want to confront their problems on a more rational basis. In New York, the state assembly is presently considering a bill that would certify such practitioners. If passed, clients could claim insurance the way they would after going to a doctor or a psychiatrist. Another feature of the new movement is the so-called philo cafes. This is happening mainly in France where there are about 100 such cafes, according to an estimate in *The New York Times*. Inside these cafes, a philosopher holds court. Customers take part in discussions about anything and everything under the sun, but they are required to defend any position with reasonable arguments. Mr Palmquist believes this could take off in Hong Kong too. "I think there is a place for that in Hong Kong," he says. "It seems a pleasant way to spend your time while having a cup of coffee." So far there has been no taker offering a share of the night's profits at a restaurant with him. Not surprisingly, skeptics doubt whether Mr Palmquist's grand plan will ever advance from its conceptual stage, even though, as he points out, Philosophical Practice could take in not only the ancient Greek philosophers but also their Chinese counterparts. Pointing to Sun Tzu's *Art of War* (whose strategies can be applied in business to defeat the opponent) among others, he says, "the idea of philosophy as a way of life to be lived, rather than a body of doctrine to be learned, fits more naturally into much of the Chinese tradition than it does into some of the more abstract and theoretical parts of Western tradition." However, Eva Man Kit-wah, a fellow associate professor of religion and philosophy at Baptist University, is not convinced of Hong Kongers' appetite for philosophy, let alone philo cafes. "Hong Kong doesn't have the cultural atmosphere for that," she says. "A philo cafe in Hong Kong would probably attract a lot of weirdos and lonely and mentally unbalanced people. Look at City Forum in Victoria Park." Ms Man, who is also the vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Philosophy Society, thinks Hong Kong people are too prejudiced against philosophy to want to hire its practitioners as consultants or counselors. "Most people think philosophy is too abstract, useless and impractical," she says. "Psychology, yes. It would help me sort out my problems, most people think, but philosophy, forget it." Still, Ms Man admits there is interest in philosophy in Hong Kong. The existence of the Philosophy Society, which is now 12 years old, is proof of that. The society has more than 100 members and is expanding. Most are not academics but people from all walks of life with a personal interest in philosophy. One of its members is Robert Lee Shiu-keung. By day, he is a senior assistant director of public prosecutions at the Department of Justice. Every few weeks, he feels the urge to have a Socratic dialogue and goes to attend a meeting for mental refreshment. "I am not a philosopher. But ever since a professor in my university recommended that I read Karl Popper, I have been hooked on philosophy," he says. "I still read philosophy books, though I have a busy work schedule." One of the goals of the society is to bring philosophy to a wider public, according to its chair Man Si-wai, an associate professor of educational administration and policy at the Chinese University. "We want people who find philosophy interesting to take part. We don't just want philosophers and academics," she says. The aim, then, is not so different from the Philosophical Practice movement, except the society is non-profit-making. Every month, the society and the Urban Council organise a seminar at City Hall in Central for members of the public to discuss a philosophical issue with topical relevance. Subjects include feminism, sex education, politics and the individual, and the changing roles and identities of different professionals in Hong Kong society. Occasionally, more than 100 people attend a meeting, leaving only standing room, so obviously ordinary people find the subjects interesting enough to want to spend an hour or two of their time in discussion with strangers. The venue is perhaps not as trendy, but the purpose is more or less the same as a philo cafe. "Everywhere I go, I always meet people who find philosophical questions interesting," Mr Palmquist says. "There is something about human nature that compels us to ask philosophical questions. "Classic metaphysical questions such as 'Why is there something instead of nothing?', are really an articulation of a feeling many people have experienced in their search for meaning." Such questions are by their very nature unanswerable. But as Mr Palmquist's hero, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant says, only humans ask such questions and we affirm our humanity by asking them. Unlike religion, ideology and New Age spirituality, philosophy does not give answers but asks questions. The danger, as Mr Palmquist readily admits, is that by taking philosophy back to the marketplace, it becomes a kind of consultancy for a fee. The ancient Greeks had a word for that: sophistry. Before the advent of lawyers, a sophist was a teacher of wisdom who, for a fee, would teach anyone the dialectical skills to make a dubious argument sound reasonable and a weak position seem stronger. The irony is that Socrates acted like a sophist in Athens in order to discredit the sophists. So Philosophical Practice may be the ultimate revenge of the sophists, who may now be disguising themselves as philosophers. But if New Age mumbo jumbo and wacky management training are now everywhere in Hong Kong, you may as well count philosophy in too. So get ready for the new philosophers. They may be marching into your office and your home soon. ++++++++++++++++ For more about Steve Palmquist please visit his home in cyberspace




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