The South China Sunday Morning Post (Hong Kong), July 5, 1998,
The New Age Sage Rage
Want to know the meaning of life? Plato rather than Prozac is what you may
by Alex Lo
If Stephen Palmquist had his way, Hong Kong would be full of cafes where
philosophers and ordinary citizens met to discourse on the meaning of life.
Instead of Prozac and psychotherapy, troubled people would go to philosophers
for counselling and learn dialectic to resolve their problems rationally.
Ten years into his academic career and five books later, Mr Palmquist wants to
take philosophy back to the marketplace where it originally started, at least
in the West, more than 2,400 years ago in Athens.
"The biggest change in philosophy was with Socrates when a society tried to
extinguish it by putting the philosopher to death," he says. "But philosophy
is now generally recognised as an appropriate and necessary part of any
education at most universities around the world.
"This can be taken as a different kind of marginalisation. Society says, 'This
is where you philosophers can do your thing. Now try not to disturb the peace
by confusing other people with your strange talk'.
"Many philosophers around the world are now trying to take philosophy out of
the academy and return it to the marketplace--to make it relevant to
everyday life again."
What Mr Palmquist is talking about is a new movement known as Philosophical
Practice, which is all the rage in Europe and North America and may soon be
coming to Hong Kong, thanks to people like him. This is the unlikely dream of
a philosophy teacher at Baptist University.
Money-crazed Hong Kong seems like the last place for discussions about virtues,
ideals and the nature of good and evil. But stranger fads have started here in
the past decade.
If New Agers, and self-help and business gurus are earning big bucks by
claiming to take care of our spiritual well-being, then
philosophers--those lovers of wisdom--are perfectly entitled to take a
share of the pie.
"I have organised group discussions addressing philosophical issues with
people who are not academics or students, and I find the experience much
more rewarding than lecturing in university," Mr Palmquist says.
Started in Germany in 1981 by the philosopher Gerd Achenbach, the movement has
evolved into a major fad, spreading to the Netherlands, the United States,
Canada, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Scandinavia and South Africa.
The movement sends philosophers back to the so-called marketplace, which
usually means the corporate world.
Business schools and large companies are now paying them top dollar to ponder
on the nature of corruption, industrial pollution and the moral
implications of the excessive salaries of bosses.
Hospitals are hiring them to conceptualise ethical dilemmas in medical
practices. They are paid to worry about problems that frequently inspire story
writers for such US television series as *ER* and *Chicago Hope*. For
A parent can only donate one kidney but both of her children need such a
transplant to live. How do you decide which child should get the kidney?
Others are setting up counselling practices, like psychologists and
psychotherapists. The idea is that Plato, rather than Prozac, is the solution
to many of life's problems and moral dilemmas.
In the place of "the talking cure", you have a Socratic dialogue.
Instead of digging into your unconscious, philosophical counsellors appeal to
your intellect and invite you to work out your presuppositions that may be
mentally blocking your way to see your situation clearly.
You are encouraged to analyse your belief systems to see if they hinder or
enhance your understanding of yourself and the world.
Mr Palmquist gives an example. "This one is taken from a real case. A man was
abused and abandoned by his father as a child.
"Twenty years later, the father wants to reunite with his son. The son goes to
a philosophical counsellor and wants to find out what a son's duties are
and the possibility of forgiveness in his case.
"That's very different from going to a psychotherapist, who would probably
make you work out your unconscious guilt feelings."
According to Louis Marinoff, an associate philosophy professor at New York's
City College and a leader of the movement in the United States, many people
who go to philosophical counsellors are "refugees from psychotherapy".
In his Internet web page, he says many of them are tired of wallowing in their
emotions and want to confront their problems on a more rational basis.
In New York, the state assembly is presently considering a bill that would
certify such practitioners. If passed, clients could claim insurance the way
they would after going to a doctor or a psychiatrist.
Another feature of the new movement is the so-called philo cafes. This is
happening mainly in France where there are about 100 such cafes, according to
an estimate in *The New York Times*.
Inside these cafes, a philosopher holds court. Customers take part in
discussions about anything and everything under the sun, but they are required
to defend any position with reasonable arguments.
Mr Palmquist believes this could take off in Hong Kong too.
"I think there is a place for that in Hong Kong," he says. "It seems a
pleasant way to spend your time while having a cup of coffee."
So far there has been no taker offering a share of the night's profits at a
restaurant with him.
Not surprisingly, skeptics doubt whether Mr Palmquist's grand plan will ever
advance from its conceptual stage, even though, as he points out,
Philosophical Practice could take in not only the ancient Greek
philosophers but also their Chinese counterparts.
Pointing to Sun Tzu's *Art of War* (whose strategies can be applied in
business to defeat the opponent) among others, he says, "the idea of
philosophy as a way of life to be lived, rather than a body of doctrine to
be learned, fits more naturally into much of the Chinese tradition than it
does into some of the more abstract and theoretical parts of Western
However, Eva Man Kit-wah, a fellow associate professor of religion and
philosophy at Baptist University, is not convinced of Hong Kongers' appetite
for philosophy, let alone philo cafes.
"Hong Kong doesn't have the cultural atmosphere for that," she says. "A philo
cafe in Hong Kong would probably attract a lot of weirdos and lonely and
mentally unbalanced people. Look at City Forum in Victoria Park."
Ms Man, who is also the vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Philosophy Society,
thinks Hong Kong people are too prejudiced against philosophy to want to hire
its practitioners as consultants or counselors.
"Most people think philosophy is too abstract, useless and impractical," she
"Psychology, yes. It would help me sort out my problems, most people think,
but philosophy, forget it."
Still, Ms Man admits there is interest in philosophy in Hong Kong. The
existence of the Philosophy Society, which is now 12 years old, is proof
The society has more than 100 members and is expanding. Most are not academics
but people from all walks of life with a personal interest in philosophy.
One of its members is Robert Lee Shiu-keung. By day, he is a senior assistant
director of public prosecutions at the Department of Justice.
Every few weeks, he feels the urge to have a Socratic dialogue and goes to
attend a meeting for mental refreshment.
"I am not a philosopher. But ever since a professor in my university
recommended that I read Karl Popper, I have been hooked on philosophy," he
says. "I still read philosophy books, though I have a busy work schedule."
One of the goals of the society is to bring philosophy to a wider public,
according to its chair Man Si-wai, an associate professor of educational
administration and policy at the Chinese University.
"We want people who find philosophy interesting to take part. We don't just
want philosophers and academics," she says.
The aim, then, is not so different from the Philosophical Practice movement,
except the society is non-profit-making.
Every month, the society and the Urban Council organise a seminar at City Hall
in Central for members of the public to discuss a philosophical issue with
Subjects include feminism, sex education, politics and the individual, and the
changing roles and identities of different professionals in Hong Kong society.
Occasionally, more than 100 people attend a meeting, leaving only standing
room, so obviously ordinary people find the subjects interesting enough to
want to spend an hour or two of their time in discussion with strangers.
The venue is perhaps not as trendy, but the purpose is more or less the same
as a philo cafe.
"Everywhere I go, I always meet people who find philosophical questions
interesting," Mr Palmquist says.
"There is something about human nature that compels us to ask philosophical
"Classic metaphysical questions such as 'Why is there something instead of
nothing?', are really an articulation of a feeling many people have
experienced in their search for meaning."
Such questions are by their very nature unanswerable. But as Mr Palmquist's
hero, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant says, only humans ask such
questions and we affirm our humanity by asking them.
Unlike religion, ideology and New Age spirituality, philosophy does not give
answers but asks questions.
The danger, as Mr Palmquist readily admits, is that by taking philosophy back
to the marketplace, it becomes a kind of consultancy for a fee.
The ancient Greeks had a word for that: sophistry. Before the advent of
lawyers, a sophist was a teacher of wisdom who, for a fee, would teach
anyone the dialectical skills to make a dubious argument sound reasonable
and a weak position seem stronger.
The irony is that Socrates acted like a sophist in Athens in order to
discredit the sophists.
So Philosophical Practice may be the ultimate revenge of the sophists, who may
now be disguising themselves as philosophers.
But if New Age mumbo jumbo and wacky management training are now everywhere in
Hong Kong, you may as well count philosophy in too.
So get ready for the new philosophers. They may be marching into your office
and your home soon.
For more about Steve Palmquist please visit his home in cyberspace