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Let's hear it for Aristotle

Updated Wednesday 27th July 2011

Is there any reason to study the thoughts of a long-dead Greek? Geoff Andrews find inspiration in the work of Martha Nussbaum.

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Why study classic Greek philosophy? What interest can there possibly be in the works of ancient, dead philosophers? What relevance can they have for fast-moving global economies?

These may be strange questions to ask, given the massive contributions by Aristotle, Plato and others to Western thought, the history of political philosophy, ideas of justice and, indeed, on living a civilised life.

However, with recent government cuts to arts and social sciences funding in the UK, US and elsewhere and a wider shift towards more vocational courses, many fear that the great philosophers will be ignored by future generations.

This seemed to be one of the reasons why the philosopher AC Grayling set up the private New College of the Humanities, partly based on the liberal arts model, which will offer courses from October 2012.

Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, has said that he established the college to revive interest in the study of humanities. Yet the annual fees of £18,000 caused a furore; Terry Eagleton, writing in The Guardian described it as 'odious' and Grayling has since been heckled and a target for protesters at public meetings. Yet, this development seems one response to wider shifts in thinking about humanities (and social sciences) and their 'relevance' to the way we live.

The American social philosopher Martha Nussbaum has provided an important response to these crucial questions in her book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

She points out that historically the teaching of philosophy and other humanities subjects were regarded as crucial to the development of citizenship and democracy. More recently however, there has been a shift towards courses of a narrower focus; namely, those which offer 'profitable' and vocational skills thought necessary to address issues of economic growth.

For Nussbaum, who founded (with Amartya Sen and others) the Human Development and Capability Association in 2003, if this process continues then democracy and citizenship would be devalued.

Her solution is to draw on the rich tradition of humanities and philosophy to equip citizens with aptitudes for critical thinking and in order to cultivate their imagination. For Nussbaum, as for Aristotle, philosophy encompasses the whole of human behaviour and therefore is a vital area of study. Aristotle Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Tilemahos Efthimiadis under CC-BY-SA licence A statue of Aristotle

In The Politics Aristotle addressed what he saw as the 'controversial' question of the 'aims of education'. He wrote:

"It is clear that there should be laws laid down about education, and that education itself must be made a public concern. But we must not forget the question of what that education is to be, and how one ought to be educated. For in modern times [he was writing around 350 BC] there are opposing views about the tasks to be set. The problem has been complicated by the education we see actually given; and it is by no means certain whether training should be directed at things useful in life, or at those conducive to virtue, or at exceptional accomplishments."

Then, in a passage which would serve as a useful reminder to all education ministers, he argues that

"[students] must take part only in those useful occupations which will not turn the participant into a mechanic. We must reckon a task or skill or study as mechanical if it renders the body or intellect of free men unserviceable for the uses and activities of virtue."

The fact that in the 21st century we can turn to Aristotle in order to get a better understanding of the links between education and citizenship demonstrates the way even the oldest ideas 'live' and take on a new relevance in different circumstances, an approach that has been adopted in current Open University politics modules.

Political philosophy helps illuminate modern problems and provide ideas for their solution – including urgent economic ones - as well as enabling citizens to expand their own horizons; it seems we should be studying more, not less.

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