On a Friday afternoon, while the rest of the world breaks for the weekend, a small group of scholars and students assemble in the fourth floor of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Art building for a Philosophical Colloquium. The topic the week is Truth; the week before, God.
What perhaps sets this gathering aside from traditional lectures is that professors and students alike sit side by side, contemplating the ideas and arguments set forward by the great thinkers of the world. Is there an equation that can determine Good versus Evil? Can we distinguish between falsehood and a lie? Is Mother Nature a ‘lying bitch’, and might Voltaire be wrong in believing that language was created specifically so that we could tell lies to one another? Discussions prevail, questions persist, and answers are placed together with great frailty until, ultimately, someone pulls out the Post-Modern Card.
“And then everything just falls apart.”
Despite being a Political Science student, my thoughtful gazes and wrinkled brow gained me acceptance into the world of metaphysical pondering, as well as the ‘after-philosophy party’ in the University pub. Twenty minutes later, with pints in hand and book bags crowding the back wall, the Departmental Chair, Rockney Jacobsen, smiled proudly and began a toast in the way only a philosophy professor can. As it turned out, this week we not only contemplate truth, but celebrate the nights of lost sleep of WLU and U of T professors.
“Co-conspirators and environmental criminals,” Rockey jokingly began, holding up the books just recently published by Dr. Neil Campbell, Dr. Byron Williston and Dr. Andre Gombay. He continued noting their personal contribution in deforestation of the rainforests in Brazil and in global warming in order to produce books with a few blank pages in the back.
“And we expect at least two more books next year! Keep up the quota.”
Where is Philosophy going?
Among those being congratulated is Byron Williston, the organizer of the Philosophy Colloquium. As the last meeting focused around the works of Michael Tooley, a representative from the school of thought of atheists, I posed the ‘God’ question.
“Oh, ‘what about God?’” responds Williston to my questions, half smiling, “God has a very standard, traditional place in the history of a whole lot of things in philosophy.”
Although reluctant to state where philosophy is going, Williston explains how philosophy differs from the sciences in how philosophers perceive the history of their respected disciplines.
“Scientists are not interested in the history of their discipline because they see it as a history of mistakes. We do think of ourselves as answering some of the questions that we pose.” Williston brings up current issues, such as human rights, to explain his position. “To answer the ‘free will’ problem, we find it necessary to go back and look at what Plato and Aristotle were saying.”
Rockney Jacobsen, better known as Rocky amongst the faculty and students, considers the question of where philosophy will be going in the next fifty years.
“I’ll tell you something about philosophers. One thing you can be very confident about philosophers, they’re extremely bad prophets. If some philosopher answers that question for you, you can be pretty sure they’re a bad philosopher.”
“You can kind of foresee who’s important now: what are they doing? You can imagine them causing waves to ripple off into the next century. But the point in fact is, there’s been lots of times in the history of philosophy when someone looked like they were going to make a big noise in a few centuries from now, and people lose interest in them in five years. There are people in the history of philosophy who go almost unnoticed and are rediscovered a century or two later.” Rocky laughs at the statement, and proudly holds up the new books published by members of his department.
Freedom, Determinism, and Responsibility: Readings in Metaphysics Mental Causation and The Metaphysics of Mind: A Reader: Passion and Virtues in Descartes.
I nod appreciatively, afraid to reveal that the titles scared me as much as attempting to comment on these topics that I know nothing about. Rockey points to the cover of one, a picture of a ball of string placed under a glass jar.
“Now, isn’t that a nice cover?” he asks, and I have to smile. Some things are universal.
The Things Boys Talk About
“We don’t believe in time,” one of the philosophy students jokingly admits, “Time was created by the Swiss to sell watches.”
“I’m not sure why, but the best people tend to come from the philosophy department,” admits Nick Ray, a fourth-year philosophy student at Wilfrid Laurier University.
“Humanity needs humility, and philosophers are going to be the one to do it.”
The philosophy students sitting around the table are far from intimidating; dressed in earth tones and varying shades of grey, all are acceptant of the fact that philosophy is a pretty funny discipline. Jeff Whitfield, this year’s recipient of the Fred Little Memorial Award, explains his experience with philosophy.
“I began because I started asking myself the questions, like, meaning of life, the deeper meaning of the world. It seemed like it answered a lot of the questions I have been asking myself, which kind of reversed in later years because it ends up leaving you more confused than you began with.”
“We’ve given up on the profound,” admits Nick, “We’re not looking backwards, we’re not looking forwards, we’re one of the first disciplines that are looking in the moment.”
As I packed up my bags to leave I ran into Dr. Andre Gombay, the Professor Emeritus from the University of Toronto. During his lecture on the Truth, I noted the way he stood in front of the classroom, comfortably holding out his hands and closing his eyes while he expressed a direction of thought he wanted us to follow. For an individual questioning the profound morals and methods of man, he was a remarkably calm and light-hearted person to converse with, interested in what most of the students were studying.
“Political science,” I reply, explaining, like so many others students, how I wanted to find order and meaning in the ways human beings conducted themselves. Considering the nature of my response, Dr. Gombay holds onto a thought for a moment before remarking on a book that changed his life.
“There’s this one book by Nietzsche, the ‘Genealogy of Morals,’” he begins with a laugh. “It makes you really think, ‘oh, I shouldn’t act this way at all.’ But we do.” He holds his hands up, and I laugh. Even the greatest thinkers of our time can’t explain why we act and think the way we do, and the greatest learn to laugh at the simplicity of it all.