Getting to grips with the bigger questions

There can’t be too many figures of historical significance whose birthday is about to be celebrated with a curry, many hundreds of years after their death.

But such is the legacy of the philosopher Plato that a unique banquet is planned for his official birthday on Monday, May 21.

Curry and a pint isn’t all there is to it. This auspicious date has also been planned for the launch of West Cork’s first philosophical society, scheduled to take place at Skibbereen’s West Cork Hotel.

As is traditional, guests are encouraged to give a short discourse.

Love is the theme that organiser Anne Crossey has chosen for participants to reflect upon.

But what exactly is philosophy and why do we need it?

The word means the “love of wisdom”, and philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems that exercise the minds of human beings such as existence, knowledge, values, mind, and language.

It has a generally systematic approach, and relies on rational argument to establish its premises.

And as for why we need it, out of the many of definitions of this discipline that are on offer, I like this explanation offered by historian, philosopher, and humanist Will Durant: “Philosophy begins when one

learns to doubt — particularly to doubt one’s cherished beliefs, dogmas, and axioms.”

Philosophy also has its practical applications as, for instance, in the field of philosophical counselling as practised by the Dublin-based Micheal Lacey.

One of his clients, who was experiencing difficulties and doubts in his life, said: “The discovery that I shared these thoughts and feelings with some of the greatest thinkers of all time was a transformative experience for me”.

University College Cork’s famous philosophical society, fondly known as the Philosoph, was founded in 1850 and holds weekly debates, inviting high-profile guest speakers, organising debating competitions and workshops for students and schoolchildren.

In the 1960s, Sean MacBride, SC and Nobel Peace Prize winner, described the Philosoph as “the centre of independent thought in Ireland”.

I was curious to know just what had prompted Anne Crossey to start West Cork’s own “centre of independent thought” .

Q. What made you decide that this society would be successful locally?

A. When I was writing my thesis, I visited a friend in Goleen, and I was hooked. I moved to Baltimore with my two children not long afterwards. And I’ve come to realise that West Cork is full of natural philosophers — farmers, fishermen, and so-called ordinary residents, blow-ins — all ready for a chat and ready to discuss ideas.

Q. What is your background?

A. I’m originally from Hollywood, Co Down, and I went to boarding school in Scotland. My parents hoped I’d study law, but I came across the philosopher Descartes in university, and the quote, “How do we know we are not dreaming?” That really inspired me.

Q. Where did you study?

A. I have a degree in philosophy from Glasgow University and an M.Phil from Trinity specialising in psychoanalytical theory. And I’m still studying, this time for an MA from Exeter University specialising in the history of western esotericism.

Q.Didn’t you also practise acupuncture?

A. Yes I did, in Skibbereen, and it was very successful for a while. All kinds of people came to me, and I realised just how open-minded people in this area are.

I’ve always had a huge interest in Chinese philosophies, so this was a natural extension for me.

But then, people had to tighten their belts and I reluctantly closed the clinic. That has given me more time for writing, painting, thinking, and studying.

Q. What is it that you most enjoy about living here?

A. There really are so many things that I appreciate about this area — the feeling of safety in your own home, the freedom for my children, who are seven and nine, the quality of the schools, and, of course, a community that is so supportive.

Q. Do you think there’s a place for philosophy any more?

A. Definitely. In fact, I think it should be taught in schools. It’s critically important that we should think and discuss the big questions, especially now when we seem to have a love of pseudo wisdom — style in favour of substance. They teach philosophy in Italian schools, you know. An Italian friend said that when Italians leave school, they can’t do much, but they do know how to think!

Q.So how are plans for the inaugural meeting going?

A. Really well. We already have over 25 people who have booked, and what’s been really nice is that people who’ve left me a message all sound as if they are smiling.

The West Cork Hotel has given us a lovely room and the banquet — traditional at celebrations of Plato’s birthday — is very affordable.

And it seems that most people who have signed up are happy to give a short talk on our chosen topic, which is love, so it should be really interesting.

Q. Are you hoping that it will continue?

A. Oh yes. I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for some time, but I only took the plunge two weeks ago. I think we’ll have an AGM next, and define our strategies and plans. Philosophising can be a solitary experience, so I’m really looking forward to the event.

Q. I take it that choosing the 21st wasn’t accidental?

A. No. When I thought about it, I decided that dates really are important. They give an extra focus and meaning to an event.

And what better date could we chose for initiating West Cork’s first Philosophical Society than Plato’s birthday?

* For more information, you can contact Anne at 085 8516172.

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