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Home > Philosophy Society > History > 25th Anniversary Booklet (2007) > Why was the UCT Philosophy Society started?
25th Anniversary Booklet (2007)

Why was the UCT Philosophy Society started?

Zak van Straaten

I don’t think that philosophy ought to be elitist. Any educated intelligent person can ask philosophical questions and put forward philosophical conjectures. And anyone can try to falsify philosophical conjectures. The intelligent person doesn’t even need to have been “educated “ in academic philosophy. This is unlike the situation in rocket science where you need to have been educated in mathematics, physics, engineering, computer science and aeronautics for many years before you can put forward reasonable rocket science conjectures or manage to falsify unsound conjectures.

Why is philosophy different? 

Typically philosophers don’t arrive at philosophical conjectures from data and knowledge that comes out of experiments like biologists or rocket scientists do. Philosophers don’t work in laboratories or in the “field” like biologists. Philosophical conjectures are meant to give an insight into necessity, and the good ones are supposed to be generated a priori, - independently of experience. Philosophical conjectures are born in the brains of philosophers or intelligent educated persons sitting in armchairs or at writing tables. And some of the conjectures will die on location, in the armchair or at the desk or on the philosophy seminar room floor or in the philosophy society discussion.

Hume conjectured (what is known as “Hume’s fork”) that:

”Either our actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them, or they are the result of random events, in which case we are not responsible for them.”

It’s a deep conjecture, not easy to falsify. But every intelligent person; professional or amateur, wise or foolish, young or old can have a go at it. All you need (apart from a pen and a notebook) is an ability to think abstractly, to value the kind of discourse which philosophers typically engage in, and to have an idea about how you would go about falsifying it. 

Where can one find such a debate?

Why at the UCT Philosophy Society of course!

What practical good can come out of it? 

One of the oldest philosophical questions still relevant today is; “How should one order life so as to get out of it the greatest possible good?” Hebrew religious scholars before the 5th Century BC gave one kind of answer to it; the ancient Greek scholars such as Plato and Aristotle gave another kind of answer; and in our time there have been various answers at odds with both ancient Hebrew and Greek wisdom.

What is the best answer we can come up with? Which of the ancient conjectures can we falsify? Which should we keep or amend? Where can we do this? 

Why at the UCT Philosophy Society of course!

Zak van Straaten, founder of the UCT Philosophy Society, was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town from 1981 to 1991. He was Head of Department from 1981 to 1984 and Dean of the (then) Faculty of Humanities and the Social Sciences in 1985 and 1986. He was Chairman of the Philosophy Society from 1987 to c1990.