We were children. I used to love the conversations we had exchanging thoughts and ideas, my brother and I.
We were on the terrace, talking. I shared some thought of wonderment with my brother. A what-if kind of thought. He said, “It’s all just mental masturbation.”
I interpreted his statement as, “It’s all pointless, undesirable indulgence. You should stay away from such meaningless wanderings.”
Mental wanderings, intellectual wonderments are inbuilt in me. As a child and young girl it just happened to me. It happened a lot. I didn’t do it. After school, while waiting for the public bus at the bus stop with a school friend, I would often share thoughts with her. She would say, “You say such amazing things, though a lot of it I don’t understand at all.” At night those thoughts would fill my head and I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I wished to wrap my mind in newspaper and throw it out of the window.
Masturbation has a connotation of being dirty and immoral. My brother’s statement in response to my wonderment remained in me. My interpretation of my brother’s disapproval remained in me.
Now, after years (I’m in my 50s now), I realise it’s not mental masturbation. These mental wanderings and intellectual wonderments that I was given to, are not undesirable, and surely not immoral. They are, what is called, “doing” philosophy.
How did I come to this realisation?
Recently I came across a novel written by a friend and professor of philosophy Meera Baindur. The book is called Sharvay, written under Meera’s pen name, Mansi. The book is a fictional tale about a female philosopher in erstwhile India. A book about a female philosopher — that piqued my interest and I started reading the book.
The protagonist Sharvay, while working as a child servant in the palace, is given to such wonderments. Here is a tiny excerpt —
Sharvay’s attention, however, was elsewhere. Her eyes were captivated by a spider building a web across the large carving of an elephant on one of the pillars of the room. She was thinking, ‘Can a spider trap an elephant in a spider web?’
That might seem like a meaningless, fanciful wonderment, the one about the spider’s web trapping an elephant, but I felt a resonance when I read it. I also felt a resonance with the protagonist’s hunger for knowledge, which was not easily accessible to her. Sharvay, apart from being a female, was a mixed-caste servant. This made it a big social no-no for her to acquire knowledge.
Thanks to AI, since I read Sharvay, Amazon Kindle recommended the book Following A Prayer by Sundar Sarukkai, who is also a philosophy professor.
Following A Prayer is also a fictional tale. It’s about three school-going girls actively “doing” philosophy, where, in their innocence they explore sound, silence, and whether language speaks the truth. The way it ends is also brilliant. I simply loved the book — to the extent that I’m actively living with it these days, i.e. working on translating it.
This book has given me the confidence that what used to happen to me since childhood is a perfectly valid and valuable thing. It’s something one can consciously and actively engage in doing. It has given me a sense of well-being.
Professor Sundar Sarukkai was the Founding-Director of the Manipal Centre for Philosophy & Humanities, Manipal University. He also founded Barefoot Philosophers, a platform to bring this “doing” philosophy to children and adults, specially since philosophy hardly finds place in formal education nowadays. I picked up this phrase, doing philosophy, from the Barefoot Philosophers website. They describe “doing philosophy” rather aptly. “Purposeful meandering” they call it, and invite people to engage in it.
What kind of thoughts qualify as philosophy?
I’m not really sure, since I haven’t formally studied philosophy. However, I’d say that the thought would have to be an abstract thought. That is important. The thought would not be about me the person — whether I’m good, bad, ugly, sad, loved, unloved, what I should do etc.
Even if one is considering oneself, it would be as a data point for observation of a process, knowing that what applies to oneself likely applies to many others. Hence that ‘me’ consideration becomes of value and a part of being fascinated at, and understanding, the universe, or some aspect of the universe.
For the purposes of this article, even this wonderment, ‘Can a spider trap an elephant in a spider web?’ can qualify as a philosophical thought.
Now why is this meandering, the consideration of an abstract thought / wonderment / question, purposeful?
There might be a tangible worldly purpose to this meandering. For example, in the book Following A Prayer, one of the girls, Deeksha, engages in this meandering related to sound and language because it is her purpose to make her sister speak. Someone might do it because they want to win a debate or earn a PhD.
However, even when there isn’t a tangible worldly purpose, meandering in the manner of doing philosophy is purposeful.
It’s like a dog that picks up a scent. It follows it. It doesn’t know whether it will find something meaningful, or whether it will find anything at all, but it has a hunch, and answers the call of that hunch.
So it is when an abstract thought occurs and we follow it. It seems like an interesting proposition or question and one follows it — down the path of logic.
Now that thought which seemed interesting to follow, might be (or seem to be) meaningless, like can a spider’s web cover an elephant, but it has the potential to uncover something totally new — for the person / people following that thought (doing philosophy), and for humanity at large.
There is an excellent video by an Australian mathematics teacher: Think Deeply About Simple Things, where he talks about this (in the context of mathematics). So you follow the thought, say for example, what if you do a square root of minus one? Someone may say, “You can’t do that! You can’t do a square root of a negative number!” But the explorer presses on, “But what if you could?” and goes behind that proposition, like a dog behind a scent, on the path of logic. We end up a totally new class of numbers, crucial to science, engineering, and humanity. Those numbers are called imaginary numbers, but going by the role they play in science, they are not imaginary at all!
Actively engaging in purposeful meandering is how zero was “discovered” too.
This is what makes this meandering purposeful. This is true research. It’s not easy to fund this kind of research. Because one doesn’t know what one will, or will not find, and it’s worth may not be immediately apparent.
However, there is always an immediate worth in purposeful meandering.
It gives joy. It’s fun. The act of doing philosophy is in itself satisfying, and if one comes upon a well-sitting conclusion it’s exhilarating.
As the book Following A Prayer relates the tale of these three school-going girls doing philosophy, it also relates their emotional state through the process. I really liked that. Here are a few tiny excerpts:
Kalpana clapped and moved to hug her sister, but Deeksha pushed her away and walked inside. “Now my head is going to burst. I am so confused.”
This was when Deeksha had kind-of reached a conclusion. Kalpana, who is kind-of a mentor to Deeksha, but also a seeker herself, is happy with what her sister did. However, Deeksha’s her head is bursting with having done so much of purposeful meandering 🙂.
Later Deeksha shares her conclusion with her friend Kumari, and when Kumari gets it —
Kumari felt a sudden burst of exhilaration. “True, true,” she cried. “If you don’t know the language, you cannot lie.”
She pulled Deeksha closer to her.
“See, there are so many street dogs. They do not lie. They do not know Kannada!” Joyously, both the girls started jumping up and down, giggling in tune with their jumps. An attendant working at the school came over and asked them to keep quiet.
Kumari, in a singsong voice, told her, ‘We can’t keep quiet. We are too happy.’ The woman stared back at them, wondering what could make little girls so happy.
Can children grasp abstract thoughts? Can they become so happy by doing philosophy the way the book describes? They can. Maybe not all children, just like everyone can’t cook, but many can. I know because I’ve done it all my life and I become happy like this. Prof. Sundar Sarukkai knows because he has actively worked on bringing this “doing” philosophy to children.
Philosophy is called दर्शन in Hindi. Because when you reach a logical conclusion, you simply know, you see.
I highly recommend this book Following A Prayer, if you like this process of following an abstract thought down a logical path, if the topics of sound, silence, language interest you. It’s fiction of a different kind.
And I hope I find a publisher to publish the Hindi translation I am working on.