WHT Scholar Arvind Jayakumar describes his experience at the 2016 Robin Hambro Moral Philosophy Seminars
It’s been less than a week since I bid adieu to the gates of the beautiful Harris Manchester College, after a Seminar on Moral Philosophy that was hosted for us by the Weidenfeld Hoffmann Trust. The seminar actually began on the day I moved into Oxford. I had spent a morning lugging a couple of heavy suitcases through a bunch of stairs and constantly wondering who on earth would insist for a compulsory attendance to a Philosophy seminar? In the normal world, wasn’t philosophy something one avoids like the bubonic plague? Isn’t philosophy the home of the uncool? After all, the general (unspoken) mood of the new scholars to the prospect of Philosophy was best captured by a brilliant young doctor from Botswana when she said – “Socrates is just an old b****r!”
The seminar’s progression, however, did something profound. Somehow, I believe that many among us can acknowledge that the experience shifted something within us. Yes, true to the name, we discussed the ideas of writers from Socrates to Edmund Burke, Isaiah Berlin to Niemöller, Rousseau to Averroes. Bring in references to a Malcolm X, a Sayyid Qutb or a Nelson Mandela, cross references from Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, Mahatma Gandhi or Bertrand Russell. Link all this to post-modernism, David Hume or Nietzsche. A normal person’s brain would normally have turned into a poached egg by the end of this.
But it didn’t. I think that in retrospect, we realized that Philosophy is made real by experience, memorable by fantasy, and wonderful by stories.
Reality came from Professors of the highest pedigree gently guiding us through the readings and carefully prodding and challenging our preconceived notions. It came from realizing the presence of a ready support system of affiliates and members of the Weidenfeld Trust, who truly care for our well-being. It came from tying words written by “old buggers” with real-life experiences generously provided by, well, the living.
Fantasy came from Oxford. Well, it is Oxford. Show a new entrant at Oxford a packed Sheldonian with a generous sprinkling of Lords, Ladies and Knights, University Dons and a genuine English choir with opera for even 5 minutes – it’s pretty much a personal (internet) meme moment for life.
And the stories. It might be intellectually engaging to reference great writers, or gape open-mouthed at the ceiling of the Sheldonian, but there is something far more powerful in listening to the aforementioned doctor tell you that she comes to Oxford after having lost a father to a deadly disease and is losing her mother to the same disease and still, somehow, wants to still go back and fight this disease in Africa. Or an extraordinarily committed nanotechnologist, who lost both his parents and somehow, still wants to build a pharmaceutical ecosystem in his home country that would benefit his people. Or the mythical feminists that love to travel – who have witnessed and experienced sexual violence in their home country, in different forms, and somehow, are challenging it instead of letting it go. Or women, who have witnessed social and environmental injustices first-hand and somehow, got themselves to work with supreme court judges or government officials to get policy working, run field programmes in war torn countries or even, in one memorable instance, walk into a refugee camp in a country run by a military junta. A couple of peers who began with something small and scaled it into a youth movement or a forum for engagement. There’s even a person who was a tank commander in the military, and somehow, is researching international diplomacy aimed at bringing peace to one of the most influential and longstanding conflicts in today’s world-affairs.
This is not even a fraction of the stories I’ve heard here. And that isn’t even a fraction of the stories I haven’t heard yet. How many places in the world can allow for this to happen? The philosophy seminar succeeds in showing us ourselves to ourselves, with the same sense of newness and amazement as introducing ourselves to some of the great traditions of Oxford.