In the flurry of information, asking ‘why’ is not just about finding solutions but a way of reflecting on ourselves

The College of Global Liberal Arts (GLA) Assistant Professors Christopher Johnson (ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of sport) and Yuko Ishihara (Kyoto School philosophy, phenomenology) sat down in conversation to give their thoughts on philosophy, the GLA, and the skills required to survive in modern society amid progressive globalization and the shift to a data-oriented society.

*Writing as of the academic year 2019.

Photo of Professor Johnson and Ishihara

What is the focus of your research?

JOHNSON: My background is in ethics and political philosophy and the intersection of the two, but my current research focuses more specifically on how these and related issues arise in the philosophy of sport. To give a sense, one recent project looked at the issue of humiliation in sport and how athletes who have already ensured victory against opponents should continue to play respectfully.

Another looked at the role of technology in sport and whether considerations of justice should always trump other concerns, or whether we should actually want in sport occasional lapses of justice. I’ve also looked at what the epistemic and moral responsibilities of athletes are and what this means for the possible limits of free speech in sport. Sport is a rich field for exploring a lot of philosophical questions.

ISHIHARA: My research focuses on bringing Kyoto School philosophy in conversation with phenomenology. Kyoto School philosophy was founded by Nishida Kitarō in the beginning of the 20th century and phenomenology was founded by Edmund Husserl around the same time in Germany. Both Nishida and Husserl were interested in going back to our experience just as it presents itself to us. But what is the nature of such experience and how can we access it? Here we find the radicalness of Nishida’s position, which is based on his background in Zen Buddhism.

According to Nishida, our experience just as it presents itself is prior to the subject-object duality where there is neither subject (the experiencer) nor object (the experienced). This is an interesting idea, but it asks that we set aside a very powerful assumption (the subject-object duality) that pervades much of Western philosophy as well as our common understanding of experience. Not many phenomenologists are willing to give it up and my task is to challenge their positions.

JOHNSON: A common concern of philosophers is how unexamined assumptions give shape to our thoughts and often limit how we think about things. By studying ideas and philosophies across traditions students can deepen their understanding of how perspectives reflect culture and vice versa. I think the essence of a philosophical approach is to always keep asking ‘Why?’ and to challenge assumptions. What I hope is that our students come to realize that even the difference between East and West is something that has been contrived.

ISHIHARA: I agree with you completely. The older we get the less we question our assumptions. It is important to keep asking ‘Why?’ like we did when we were children and look at things critically.

What makes GLA unique?

ISHIHARA: To explore our roles as global citizens within global society, we must first understand our own culture, which serves as our backbone. By partnering with Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australia National University (ANU), GLA is able to offer an expanded curriculum that serves or facilitates this end: in addition to a typical liberal arts education that encourages wide reflection upon what it means to be a human being, we also focus more particularly on issues that pertain to the Asia Pacific region.

JOHNSON: Another point worth noting is the diversity of the faculty and their varied international and intercultural experience. This broad faculty background means GLA offers students a rich educational environment, which is complemented by the diversity of experiences and interests that our students bring to classroom discussions. Moreover, because GLA students study in both Japan and Australia, they enjoy an even richer experience and critical exposure.

What skills will students need to survive in modern society?

* How can students use critical thinking to adapt to a modern society that is overflowing with information?

ISHIHARA: There is certainly a concern about how students can adapt to a modern society that is overflowing with information. As we mentioned earlier, it is important to keep asking ‘Why?’ and develop the ability to look at things critically.

JOHNSON: Critical thinking is a skill that you can use when you have a massive amount of information but are having trouble shaping your thoughts and navigating the noise. It helps you to recognize what is important and not so important. At the same time, you cannot let yourself be bound by existing ways of thinking; you need to be open to new approaches to find credible answers and make better decisions.

ISHIHARA: I agree. It is extremely difficult to discern relevant information and this process can be tiring. But I don’t think it is a bad thing to feel perplexed when doing this. In fact, a lack of perplexity may suggest that you have failed to turn your attention to other options and possibilities, and this may have a limiting effect on your thinking. In the long view, confusion is something that can open up possibilities. This is why I would like to urge students to embrace confusion. At the same time, it may be that not all questions need answers, though it also likely takes some critical insight to know which these are.

JOHNSON: That is an interesting idea. I tell my students something similar. Feeling torn about an idea may in fact show deeper understanding than being confident about some singular answer. A singular answer may be simpler, but it may not be better or more insightful. Not being afraid of this sort of confusion – seeing it as constructive instead of a failure of understanding – is an attitude I hope GLA students can develop.

In this session: