227th Meeting – Tuesday, September 10th 2002

'Teaching Philosophy in a Thai University'

A talk by Mark Tamthai

Present: Hans Bänziger, Dominique Belloek, John Butt, Martha Butt, John Cadet, Hans DeCrop, David Engel, Louis Gabaude, Hans-Ulrich Gerber, Reinhard Hohler, Ken Kampe, Carool Kersten, Mike Long, Faith Maclennan, Richard Nelson-Jones, Susan Offner, Mark Randall, Prasit Roekphisut, Thomas Shulich, David Steane, Alexis Szejnoga, Winifred Tan, Bob Tucker, Brock Wilson, Sorani Wongbiasaj. An audience of 25.

Dr. Mark Tamthai is a member of the Department of Philosophy, Chulalongkorn University, where he has taught for 28 years in the fields of Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Science and Social Philosophy. He is the current President of the Philosophy and Religion Society of Thailand.

This is Mark’s summary of his talk:

This talk is, of course, not independent of my own understanding of what it is to do philosophy, and the role played by the study of the history of philosophy in this enterprise.  So I think I need to begin by stating what this understanding is. 

I see philosophy as the reflection on one’s surrounding situation and the attempt to answer the normative questions raised by such reflection.  As a search for wisdom, this activity has always had disruptive features and caused uneasiness in society.  It did so 2,600 years ago in northern India; more than 2,000 years ago in Greece; 500 years ago in Europe; and so it needs to do so now in Thailand.  This is a position which was shared by the Buddha, Plato, Descartes, Kant, all the way to a contemporary philosopher like John Rawls who is trying to tackle the problems faced by democratic pluralistic societies.

Given this understanding of what philosophy is, I see two kinds of problems which must be dealt with when teaching philosophy in a Thai university.

Problems in teaching the history of philosophy

The problem of vocabulary – this is the problem most people think of first, but is actually the problem that is the least difficult to deal with.  Comparing the Thai vocabulary for philosophy (as determined by the Royal Institute) with it’s English counterpart, we can find examples of English being more philosophy-friendly (e.g. the terms ‘dogmatism’ and ‘paradox’); examples of Thai being more philosophy-friendly (e.g. the terms ‘ostensive definition’ and ‘categorical imperative’); examples of both being equally friendly (e.g. the terms ‘normative’, ‘truth’ and ‘virtue’); and both being equally unfriendly (e.g. the terms ‘logical positivism’ and ‘solipsism’). 

I have never really found this matter of vocabulary to be a problem, just an inconvenience that can be dealt with.  Eventually we end up using a combination of languages.

The problem of historical context – here we run into a bit more of a problem.

There is often a tendency on the part of students to project the present Thai cultural context onto the contexts of the philosophers, or philosophical movements, being studied (e.g. seeing famous philosophers as almost god-like intellects, since there are books written about them, rather than real people trying to come to terms with real problems of their day)

There is also the problem of seeing history of philosophy as philosophers speaking to themselves without interest in other views, rather than as a continuing conversation with other philosophers.

(Both the above problems cause some concern, but they are not insurmountable)

Problems in teaching the practice of philosophy

I have found 3 main problems here:

Seeing the Buddha as an exemplar of philosophy and wisdom leads students to become discouraged when trying to engage this exemplar because they feel that it is impossible to even try to reach that level, and also difficult to argue with the Buddha.  My own suggestion has been to use Prince Siddharta as an exemplar, since he was a searcher – a minus 50 B.E. type person.

Self-imposed and socially-imposed restrictions on discussions concerning the Monarchy.  This is devastating to the practice of philosophy because part of this task is to ‘speak truth to power’, and one is not able to in Thailand in many cases.  Even when presenting a philosophical argument in support of the monarchy there is a general disapproval because it is in fact making allegiance to the monarchy a rational matter.

The Thai preferred mode of reasoning, argumentum ad vericundium: reasoning by appealing to the view of a person who is respected in order to get support for your view, even though that person might not have adequate knowledge in the particular field under discussion, is another kind of obstacle.  Though this is a fallacy with respect to both the Buddha’s teaching in the Kalamasutta as well as the canons of classical logic, it is still prevalent throughout society.  There is also the question of the importance or unimportance of using reason in one’s daily life. One of the most influential books in prescribing behavior in Thai society over the past 75 years is the book “Sombat khong pu dee” or “Characteristics of a cultured person”.   It lists 182 such characteristics (91 involving physical behavior, 49 verbal behavior, 42 mental behavior, e.g. ‘never question a teacher or a puyai-person of higher status’) but nowhere does it mention anything about using reason: in fact speaking softly is more important than speaking with reason.  This book was first printed more than 100 years ago with the number of copies exceeding 1 million so far.  It is the only book I remember from my elementary school years.

This last group of problems is more difficult to deal with than the 2 problems encountered in teaching the history of philosophy, and requires something close to a dismantling of the type of patronage system that exists in Thailand today if philosophy is going to be able to play its proper role here.

Following a thoughtful question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliançe Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Mark in more informal discussion over drinks and snacks.