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Philosophy and Humanism in a Cynical Machiavellian Age of GeoPolitics

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“Philosophy is not something to be used scornfully or as insult, but for honor and glory. People are beginning to think wrongly in that philosophy should only be studied by very few, if any at all, as if it is something of little worth. We have reduced philosophy to only being useful when being used for profit.

I say these things with regret and indignation for the philosophers who say it should not be pursued because it has no value, thus disqualifying themselves as philosophers. Since they are in it for their own personal gain, they miss the truth for its own sake. I’m going to say, not to brag, but I’ve never philosophized except for the sake of philosophy, and have never desired it for my own cultivation. I have been able to lose myself in philosophy and not be influenced by others who try to pull me away from it. Philosophy has taught me to rely on my own convictions rather than on the judgments of others and to concern myself less with whether I am well thought of than whether what I do or say is evil.”–Pico della Mirandola (from his “De Hominem Dignitate” on the Dignity of Man)

The above quote on philosophy by the Neo-Platonic Italian Humanist Pico della Mirandola is perhaps more relevant today, the era of cynical Machiavellian geo-political realities, than it ever was, perhaps even more so than during the first century of the Renaissance in Florence. Today, as in the past, many go about full of pious pronouncements on the intrinsic value of philosophy, how the rejection of philosophy is in itself a philosophy of sort; they even declare themselves devotees of philosophy, but, alas, there are precious few among them who are willing to die, like Socrates, for their ideas or what they truly believe in, with the possible exception of ideological fanatics of various persuasions who confuse the advocacy of mindless outrageous actions and revolutions for serious thinking; and this despite the fact that in many schools in the West philosophy continues to be part of the Liberal Arts curriculum.

Unfortunately, the Liberal Arts curriculum, like philosophy, is more honored in words than in deeds and so the struggle between the two worlds continues; that is to say, the positivistic world of science and the humanistic world of the arts as C.P. Snow taught us in his celebrated book The Two Cultures. On the other hand, a Leonardo Da Vinci, that quintessential Renaissance man, conceived no such dichotomy: he was both a great artist and a great scientist and was able to synthesize and harmonize the two cultures. How did we get to this sorry stage?

I happen to teach introductory college philosophy courses to beginners in philosophy. The first thing I have to disabuse those students of, is the notion that philosophy is some kind of esoteric difficult subject for a few specialists and connoisseurs to be put to rest once and for all once graduation requirements have been fulfilled. In other words, the notion that it’s a subject one has to bear and suffer for a while, so to speak, for the sake of a degree, not one that could be greatly enjoyed and profited from, both intellectually and morally, for one’s whole life-time.

I begin in a negative mode by having them read an essay of mine titled “What philosophy is not” where I make the point that philosophy is not a mere tool of rhetoric and logic with which to win arguments, persuade people to do one’s bidding, and become a “successful” politician. Socrates is of course mentioned as the father of western philosophy and the very antithesis of that sophistic utilitarian stance. He famously said in the Athenian agora that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The point is then stressed that the subject of philosophy as an academic discipline, despite Plato’s enduring academy, does not begin, and it certainly does not end, esoterically in academia; rather, it is first born with Socrates exoterically in the public square in ancient Athens, in the midst of the drama that is human life, from cradle to tomb. Socrates is considered the father and the first martyr of philosophy because he was a man willing to die for his principles and beliefs. It is basically a reflection on the meaning of life, one’s own and that of humanity, hence history is always to be considered an essential component of philosophy, so that we don’t end up re-inventing the wheel.

I then touch on Boethius’ (the second great martyr of philosophy) “The Consolation of Philosophy” to impress upon them that when everything else fails intellectually and existentially, philosophy remains a constant, a reliable consolation, like the sun shining in the sky, ready to encourage us, despite it all; but of course, to get to see the sun one needs first to get out of the cave of ignorance. Plato’s myth of the cave is then introduced and discussed at some length.      

Eventually we get to the discussion of Pico della Mirandola, a great devotee of philosophy, if there ever was one. He was an Italian Humanist from the 15th century who understood thoroughly that the Renaissance was a harmonious synthesis of faith and reason, something already theoretically mapped out by the great scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas a century earlier. It would be enough to look at a painting like Primavera by Botticelli, or the David of Michelangelo to be convinced of that. The harmony between Greco-Roman and Christian culture is unmistakable. The David is not just a perfect naked Greek statue aesthetically pleasing, it is also portraying the moment of faith in a Biblical event. Nowhere in Greek sculpture one will find the face of a David and the spirituality it exudes. Primavera of Botticelli, likewise, is not just a Greek goddess; she is also a Raphaelite Madonna. The synthesis may not be perfect, but it is extraordinary. This is a synthesis that modern man preoccupied with geo-political considerations has all but forgotten.

Kenneth Clark in his famous video series “Civilization” dedicates a whole one hour segment to the discussion of Italian Humanism which admittedly was based on the famous slogan by Euripides that “man is the measure of all things” but he also mentions Pico della Mirandola’s “On the dignity of man” which is based not so much on the paradox that everything changes constantly and the only thing that does not change is man’s capacity for change, but on the fact that the transformation of man is first and foremost a moral transformation requiring constant intellectual and moral effort and having perfection as its ultimate goal; a perfection which turns out to be a transcendent reality (hence the neo-Platonism of Pico), and aiming at the very divinity of God symbolized by nature which he created. For a neo-Platonist, poetry, at its best, always points to the transcendent. St. Francis of Assisi “Canticle of Creatures” written in the 13th century is exemplary in this respect and that is the reason he is the patron saint of ecology and respect for animals.

So it turns out that while it may be true that man is the measure of all things, as contemporary secular humanists like to insist upon, one needs first to understand what exactly is the nature of man and the goal toward which his nature tends. As it turns out, ultimately the human vocation, its very purpose (telos) and destiny, is a mystical vocation; something that Aristotle and Plato, two non-Christian philosophers, certainly intuited when they postulated a theoretical “isle of the blessed” on which to contemplate the True, the Good and the Beautiful, but which humanists such as Pico (and Thomas Aquinas before him) actually accomplished by the harmonization of reason and faith.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

WHO and Future Frontiers of Global Pandemic Governance

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The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the deep fissures among the countries with regards to governance of the pandemic .The uncoordinated and the haphazard  knee-jerk reactions and policy nostrums is indicative of the abysmal sclerosis of the governance mechanisms of the WHO .While  with the advent of the hyper-nationalism and  kindred predilections  of the countries in  protectionist initiatives global governance across the issue areas has witnessed a diminishing efficacy or outright floundering, it is however in the health issue that the governance mechanism aimed at containing pandemic has unraveled  deplorably.

The global efforts aimed at grappling with the unwieldy virus can be termed as a debacle as the hitherto infrastructure that   framers of institutions have forged had met with outright disregard  in favor with a  harkening back to the 19th century  protectionist attitudes where each country guided by their parochial interest had  jealously guarded national sovereignty in order to safeguard their goals. The countries who were bound together through   the robust bond of globalization had reacted to the pandemic with a spirit that is antithetical to the underlying rationales of globalization .Especially, European nations  had maintained more sophisticated and intricate collective cooperation  and n in effect had spawned a federal European identity. However, during the outbreak of the pandemic they had resorted to measures which is unbecoming of their collective identity and was emblematic of a realpolitik reckoning of state interest.

As with Europe, pandemic had unraveled the prolonged vacuous rhetoric of the country apropos international cooperation and global governance. While United States deem itself as the lone custodian of the liberal world order and underscore the necessity of cooperation in order to safeguard the collective freedom of the country, however at the beginning of the pandemic and throughout the turbulent pandemic period the preeminent country in the world had denigrated the global governance efforts in favor of its arm-twisting tactics and notoriously browbeaten India to secure crucial medical supplies. Besides, at the height of the pandemic far from concentrating collective efforts to halt the unceasing onslaught of the pandemic, United States had embroiled in bickering with the China over the origin of the Covid-19 virus and wielded mud-slinging and other measures to denigrate its prime geo-political adversary.

The victims of great powers’ unabashed skirmishes were however the less developed countries who hinge on global governance and collective cooperation in the pressing situation .However ,any consensus had been impeded due to the barrage of recriminations  by both the United States and China. This wrangling had deflected the elite attention from the containment of the pandemic and provided ground for further aggravation of the global pandemic. Moreover, the  reaction of the countries  to the Covid-19 was  haphazard and  had been lacking in any coherent collective will in facing the  pandemic.

The slipshod management of the global health crisis had been a characteristic of WHO despite the fundamental pillar underlying this paramount organization being the management and prevention of the world health crisis. Since its inception, however, WHO had fared miserably in its bid in containment of the numerous public health crisis .The earlier debacle of WHO was marked by dilatory response or unsolicited response. Moreover,  WHO failed to mobilize due response in the face of pressing threats to global health. This is a consequence of the organization’s lack of coordinated effort and deficiency of any coercive capabilities.  While WHO is entrusted with the paramount responsibility of managing international and collective response against public health crisis ,it is however devoid of any mechanism that and aren’t mandated to coerce its constituent states to abide by its regulations. Therefore, WHO and its efforts at countering the health crisis are often rendered futile due to the stubborn attitude of the countries and due to the unwieldy nature of global governance.

Therefore, the efficacy of the paramount institution that has been envisaged in order to shield the world from a disastrous public health crisis is increasingly hamstrung in want of a coordinated and refined mechanism. Against this backdrop, the surfacing of ominous novel variant Omicron has jolted the already fragile economic recovery in the  world and run the risk of wiping the hard-earned gains  in the wake of vaccination efforts. The current woe and resurfacing of the pandemic points towards the callous stance of the developed countries with regards to vaccination. While developed countries had inoculated their domestic population, they however is shilly shallying  about mounting a coordinated global effort in confronting the global pandemic. This has meant that a excruciatingly slow vaccination rate in the African region. The fact that this virus had originated in Africa is indicative of a ominous message and suggest that due to dilatory vaccination  efforts globally bulk of the developing and lower developed countries remain outside the vaccination and the virus are mutating incessantly through these unvaccinated population are growing more virulent .

Moreover, until a substantial percentage of people come under the ambit of vaccination, it will be remain herculean task of extirpating the Covid menace. However, there are paucity of sincere efforts from the has undermined WHO’s overtures aimed at a coordinated vaccination program had faltered due to the callous and apathetic attitude of the developing nations. Besides, the profit-guzzling pharmaceuticals companies had found a windfall of endless profiteering from the plight of pandemic and in effect weaponized pandemic as a means to monopolizing their vaccines and other medical goods and safeguarding this inordinate market dominance under the questionable TRIPs .

Against this backdrop, the world requires   a well-coordinated, hierarchical, top-down and systemic institution with the capacity of the managing the global health crisis with efficiency .Besides, the new governance mechanism need to be modeled on other organizations that wield capacity of sanction and can exert pressure on the government if any country doesn’t abide by its dictates. Besides, rather than inefficacious and toothless organization , an  efficient management of global health crisis is required in order to persuasively deal with the global health crisis. A treaty needs to be formulated with all of the countries entrusting their partial sovereign power to the organization and should abide by the injunction of the organization. Moreover, an overhaul of infrastructure of global health governance is presupposed in order to confront the pressing challenges of the  imminent health crisis.

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Partnering with persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world

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As the world observes the International Day of Persons with Disabilities today, we honour the leadership of persons with disabilities and their tireless efforts to build a more inclusive, accessible and sustainable world. At the same time, we resolve to work harder to ensure a society that is open and accommodating of all.

An estimated 690 million persons with disabilities, around 15 per cent of the total population, live in the Asia-Pacific region. Many of them continue to be excluded from socio-economic and political participation. Available data suggests that persons with disabilities are almost half as likely to be employed as persons without disabilities. They are also half as likely to have voted in an election and are underrepresented in government decision-making bodies.  Just about 0.5 per cent of parliamentarians in the region are persons with disabilities. Women with disabilities are even less likely to be employed and hold only 0.1 per cent of national parliament positions.

One of the main reasons behind these exclusions is a lack of accessibility. Public transportation and the built environment in general — including public offices, polling stations, workplaces, markets and other essential structures — lack ramps, walkways and basic accessibility features. Accessibility, however, goes beyond the commonly thought of physical structures. Barriers to access to services and information and communication technology must also be removed, to allow for the participation of persons with diverse types of disabilities, including persons with intellectual disabilities and hearing and vision impairments.

The COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns has exacerbated existing inequalities. Many persons with disabilities face increased health concerns due to comorbidities and were left without access to their personal assistants and essential goods and services. As much of society moved online during lockdowns, inaccessible digital infrastructure meant persons with disabilities could not access public health information or online employment opportunities.

Despite these challenges, persons with disabilities and their organizations were among the first to respond to the immediate needs of their communities for food and supplies during lockdowns in addition to continuing their long-term work to support vulnerable groups.

ESCAP partnered with several of these organizations to support their work during the pandemic. Samarthyam, a civil society organization in India led by a woman with disabilities, has trained many men and women with disabilities to conduct accessibility audits in their home districts. With these skills, they are becoming leaders and advocates in their communities, working towards improving the accessibility of essential buildings everywhere.

Another ESCAP partner, the National Council for the Blind of Malaysia (NCBM), is working to improve digital accessibility by training a group with diverse disabilities in web access auditing, accessible e-publishing and strategic advocacy. NCBM hopes to support participants in forming a social enterprise for web auditing and accessible publishing, creating employment opportunities and enabling persons with disabilities to lead efforts to improve online accessibility.

Women and men with disabilities have been leaders and champions to break barriers to make a difference in Asia and the Pacific. Today, ESCAP launches the report “Disability at a Glance 2021: The Shaping of Disability-inclusive Employment in Asia and the Pacific.” The report highlights some innovative approaches to making employment more inclusive, as well as recommendations on how to further reduce employment gaps. 

Adjusting to a post-COVID-19 world presents an opportunity for governments to reassess and implement policies to increase the inclusion of persons with disabilities in employment, decision making bodies and all aspects of society. Accessibility issues impact not only persons with disabilities but also other people in need of assistance, including older persons, pregnant women or those with injuries. Implementing policies with universal design, which creates environments and services that are useable by all people, benefits the whole of society. Governments should mainstream universal design principles into national development plans, not only in disability-specific laws and policies.   

As a global leader in disability-inclusive development for over 30 years, the Asia-Pacific region has set an example by adopting the world’s first set of disability-specific development goals in the Incheon Strategy to “Make the Right Real.” Meeting the Incheon Strategy goals will require governments to intensify their efforts to reduce barriers to education, employment and political participation.

At ESCAP, we know that achieving an inclusive and sustainable post-COVID-19 world will only be possible with increased leadership and participation of persons with disabilities. To build back better — and fairer — we will continue to strengthen partnerships with all stakeholders so together we can “Make the Right Real” for all persons with disabilities.

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Remote Learning during the pandemic: Lessons from today, principles for tomorrow 

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Education systems around the world reacted to COVID-19 by closing schools and rolling out remote learning options for their students as an emergency response.  New World Bank analysis of early evidence reveals that while remote learning has not been equally effective everywhere, hybrid learning is here to stay.

Going forward, for remote learning to deliver on its potential, the analysis shows the need to ensure strong alignment between three complementary components: effective teaching, suitable technology, and engaged learners.

“Hybrid learning – which combines in-person and remote learning – is here to stay. The challenge will be the art of combining technology and the human factor to make hybrid learning a tool to expand access to quality education for all,” emphasized Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education.  “Information technology is only a complement, not a substitute, for the conventional teaching process – particularly among preschool and elementary school students. The importance of teachers, and the recognition of education as essentially a human interaction endeavor, is now even clearer.”

The twin reports, Remote Learning During the Global School Lockdown: Multi-Country Lessons and Remote Learning During COVID-19: Lessons from Today, Principles for Tomorrow, stress that three components are critical for remote learning to be effective:

  • Prioritizing effective teachers: a teacher with high subject content knowledge, skills to use technology, and appropriate pedagogical tools and support is more likely to be effective at remote instruction.
  • Adopting suitable technology: availability of technology is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective remote learning.
  • Ensuring learners are engaged: for students to be engaged, contextual factors such as the home environment, family support, and motivation for learning must be well aligned.

The reports found that many countries struggled to ensure take-up and some even found themselves in a remote learning paradox: choosing a distance learning approach unsuited to the access and capabilities of a majority of their teachers and students.

“Emerging evidence on the effectiveness of remote learning during COVID-19 is mixed at best,” said Cristóbal Cobo, World Bank Senior Education and Technology Specialist, and co-author of the two reports. “Some countries provided online digital learning solutions, although a majority of students lacked digital devices or connectivity, thus resulting in uneven participation, which further exacerbated existing inequalities. Other factors leading to low student take-up are unconducive home environments; challenges in maintaining children’s engagement, especially that of younger children; and low digital literacy of students, teachers, and/or parents.”

“While pre-pandemic access to technology and capabilities to use it differed widely within and across countries, limited parental engagement and support for children from poor families has generally hindered their ability to benefit from remote learning,” stressed Saavedra.

Despite these challenges with remote learning, this can be an unprecedented opportunity to leverage its potential to reimagine learning and to build back more effective and equitable education systems. Hybrid learning is part of the solution for the future to make the education process more effective and resilient. 

The reports offer the following five principles to guide country efforts going forward:

Ensure remote learning is fit-for-purpose. Countries should choose modes of remote learning that are suitable to the access and utilization of technology among both teachers and students, including digital skills, and that teachers have opportunities to develop the technical and pedagogical competencies needed for effective remote teaching. 

Use technology to enhance the effectiveness of teachers. Teacher professional development should develop the skills and support needed to be an effective teacher in a remote setting.

Establish meaningful two-way interactions. Using the most appropriate technology for the local context, it is imperative to enable opportunities for students and teachers to interact with each other with suitable adaptations to the delivery of the curriculum.

Engage and support parents as partners in the teaching and learning process. It is imperative that parents (families) are engaged and supported to help students access remote learning and to ensure both continuity of learning and protect children’s socioemotional well-being.

Rally all actors to cooperate around learning. Cooperation across all levels of government; as well as partnerships between the public and private sector, and between groups of teachers and school principals; is vital to the effectiveness of remote learning and to ensure that the system continues to adapt, learn, and improve in an ever-changing remote learning landscape.

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