Interview to the member of
Cultures, Civilizations and Ideas course,
at Bilkent University, Ankara,
Dr. Geoff Bowe
Interviewer : Dear Prof. Bowe, you are staff member of the Cultures, Civilizations and Ideas course. Can you describe its structure and its aims?
Answer : The Program in Cultures Civilizations and Ideas began in 1999 in order to offer Engineering Students at Bilkent a more broadly based education. Currently the courses we offer are required courses for the Faculty of Engineering, as well as English Literature and communication and Design Students. The courses are interdisciplinary with an emphasis on philosophy, literature, and critical thinking. In addition our faculty members offer electives in other faculties, and some of us, including myself, are joint appointed in the Department of Philosophy. We all do interdisciplinary humanities research, and the program runs humanities colloquia and symposia.
I : Moreover, you are member of the editorial board of Journal of Global Humanities. Can you illustrate its main activities?
A : The Journal of Global Humanities is a biannual international journal published by Global Scholarly Publications. The journal has three headquarters, Beijing, the Middle East and USA. Every submitted article undergoes a peer review evaluation. The journal depicts and furthers the reality of the globalization of knowledge. Globalized communication and economics has implications for the nature of higher education and politics and educators need to be involved in this process. The journal establishes a forum in which scholars based in China and the Far East, the Middle East and the West can communicate with one another.
I : Your first and main interest in Greek philosophy led you to platonic approaches to several topics. One of these refers to Plato’s education philosophy into discussions of contemporary moral issues. Can you mention the central idea of that approach?
A : This work was done when I was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Athens, Greece. My idea was that government regulation or self-regulation regarding environmental issues leads only to egoistic attempts to circumvent the regulations. Cases in point are examples of what my former professor Laura Westra calls environmental racism – the process of multinationals establishing pollutive factories in less regulated developing nations. Plato’s notion of education in the Republic is a matter of making the mind look at things in a different way, and of providing psychological and cultural stability. In the Republic you will recall Plato believes that with such an educational approach the need for regulation and laws is greatly reduced. The central idea, then, is that education understood as “turning the mind in the right direction” is a better alternative to legislation.
I : Plato’s “paideia” is a famous concept of his. We should not forget that a society is developed when it gives weight to education and it does not disregard that the children of today will be the politicians, the managers, the scientists of tomorrow. What do you think of the present education systems in western countries? Are we sure that education is an important voice for most of governments?
A : My great fear about education in the west is that it has become far too concentrated on providing potential employees with job skills. In my own country, Canada, which has a publicly funded education system, this means that the taxpayer actually pays for companies to externalize the cost of training employees. That is companies use the universities to provide the skills they want their employees to have. This is done at the expense of liberal education and denies those who would benefit from liberal education the opportunity to obtain it, as a result of financial necessity. This has a detrimental effect on the nation’s ability to think and reason well, both ethically and politically. As for the voice of the educated, I recently read an opinion piece in a Saudi newspaper in which the author claimed that free speech in America amounted to very little when governments pay little attention to what people actually say. I think he is right about that, and I am not sure that the kind of democracy America represents, and purports to bring to other regions of the world, is actually all that desirable.
I : Still on education, some of your recent applied ethics research was cited in policy study on liberal education commissioned by the Canadian government. Can you illustrate it?
A : The Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences sponsors a research project on liberal education. The authors of this project refer to a paper of mine which employs a historical survey of attitudes towards nature and value. In that paper I make the traditional distinction between instrumental and intrinsic values and I add a third type of value – the Market Value. I tie this third value to the emergence of classical economics, which defined market values as natural and providential, such that faith in the 'invisible hand'--letting the market decide--was justifiable. Market values have the ability to grade instrumental values. In other words, the price to be attached to instrumental values is determined by market values. Intrinsic values cannot be graded in the same way because, in their pure form, they cannot be partitioned into priceable components. Once we partition something that is intrinsically valuable, the market can assign instrumental worth. I develop these ideas in the context of the valuation of nature's 'indivisible whole', saying that "the more we commit ourselves to an ideology that sees value only in instrumental parts, the further we lose sight of the intrinsic value of wholes" (1999:4). The authors of the study claim that the ideas are equally applicable to the domain of the liberal university, and the liberal arts.
I : One more platonic approach of yours concerns the environmental education. Can you describe that kind of approach? What is the relation between environment care and education?
A : In a paper I published in a collection of essays on Greek Philosophy and the Environment, I made mention of the “platonic” way in which the Canadian government established a national “blue box” recycling program. There was no legislation passed regarding the use of the blue box to recycle domestic waste. It was purely voluntary, but an overwhelming portion of the population, unsupervised, and under no threat of legal consequence, embraced the use of the blue box. The reason they did so was because of public education about the importance of recycling, which the government achieved through the media and schools. It points to my previous idea that if we are taught to look at things in the right way, legislation is not necessary, and can often be counter-productive.
I : Talking about ethics, the logic connection between human acting and ethics allows Jonas to assert that, just because of that connection «it should be clear that the changed nature of human acting requires a change in ethics too». Do we have to re-think ethics or the Greek philosophy can still help us (see Aristotle’s right middle)? What is your position?
A : All philosophy, ancient or modern is food for thought. I don’t agree with everything the ancients say about ethics, nor do I agree with everything the “moderns” or “post-moderns” say. If we think that one ethical position or one philosopher, or one philosophical tradition can give us “all the answers” we are making a huge mistake, I think. What is more important is that we approach ethical problems with a liberally educated, unified mind, one which has a sense of the complexity and variety of peoples thoughts, cultures and opinions, and the education and grounding to assess problems intelligently.
I : Toulmin affirms that ethics has reborn thanks to medicine which had the merit to call it out from the vain meta-theoretical reflections and invite it not to evade bioethical issues. How do you judge that affirmation?
A : Philosophers have always been good at defining the parameters of problems and offering solutions. One of the reasons for this, however are those vain theoretical meta-reflections. I think that a co-operative relationship between philosophers and those with technical expertise in areas with ethical concerns would yield productive results.
I : One of the questions that we use to ask concerns the outlook of the future of philosophy. Prof. Mordacci (interviewed by us) affirms that its future is in risk if no innovation is operated to the academic courses and no valid connections are established between philosophy and biomedical and psychological sciences. What is your opinion?
A : Again I think that the theory and history of philosophy are invaluable as food for thought, and as discipline for the mind, in addition to being intrinsically fascinating. It is impossible to think at a purely abstract level all the time, and it is a mistake to think that philosophers do so. One cannot really claim to have understood any text in philosophy if one does not see its implications in the contemporary world. Perhaps what philosophers need to start doing is being more vocal and confident about their opinions, which after all are not groundless, but indeed grounded in the richest and most profound intellectual heritage that exists.
I : As last point, I refer to you for a politic question. Robert Kagan asserts that Americans and Europeans will never think in common again; there is a different philosophic view, come out after the end of soviet menace: Europeans would live in a sort of post-historical paradise, the permanent Kantian peace, while Americans would be plunged in history, in a Hobbesian world, where still “homo homini lupus est”. We would love to know your opinion.
A : Hobbes borrowed the phrase homo homini lupus est from Plautus, and interestingly enough, Freud uses it in elaborating man’s aggressive instinct in Civilization and its Discontents. The variety of proponents of the phrase and what it implies suggests that the nature of man in general is perceived by many to be at heart aggressive and this assessment is not limited to any one culture or era. The United States lacks the history and intercultural context that Europe (or even Canada) benefits from, and with the latter comes a more sophisticated understanding. It is a question of maturity – ethics and politics must be organically grounded in education and experience; it seems to me that the United States needs time to grow, but it also needs education, and philosophers have a very important role to play in this regard. Hence the concerns I have regarding the direction of education and ethics in the west, and the U.S. foreign policy which so called “old Europe” is right to point out is wrong headed and ill-conceived.
I : Dear Professor Bowe, we thank you very much for your cordiality. We are glad to have interviewed you and we hope to have you as welcome guest of our journal again. Also we invite you for a possible and interesting meeting in Italy and we wish you to enjoy our hospitality a day. We think that our journal could be an interesting window to share the Mediterranean cultures.
A : Thank you for taking the time to interview me. I wish you the best of luck with your project. Please let me know about your plans in Italy.
Prof. Geoff Bowe
is member of Cultures,
Civilizations and Ideas Course,
and member of Journal of Global Humanities,
at Bilkent University, Ankara
Interviewer : Massimo Vittorio
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