KCL vs. UCL: Debating the Meaning of It All

The second official debate between King’s and UCL Philosophy Societies set the beginning of a thought-provoking discussion: should Philosophy’s main aim be Social Justice or Theory?. Emerging as a blazing debate, the event transformed to a passionate conversation about philosophy being more than “quoting other people” in academic essays.

Last Thursday evening, people queued on the stairs at UCL in order to get a cozy place from which to enjoy another debate between King’s students and our rivals. As Philosophy is usually considered a theoretical subject, that some may argue it is “a waste of time” – it was a challenge for our fellow students Astrid and Fergus to convince the audience that Philosophy’s aim should be social justice. Both teams very successfully presented their arguments, and showed amazing knowledge in the area. There was no definite winner.

The conclusion, supported by public vote, was that “the distinction between philosophy aim being theory or social justice is an unuseful dichotomy”. 

Round One: Stating Positions

Being the only girl, KCL’s student Astrid opened the debate, stating that Philosophy is directly linked to society, and most social areas are driven by politics. She argued that by incorporating philosophical knowledge in political issues, we might be able to make a huge step towards solving social injustice.

“Thoughts about theory being apolitical are exclusionary. When we have someone claiming theory is objective or apolitical, that view may be partial and influenced by the social position of the person that came up with the theory. There would be parts of the truth that are silenced”.

“Philosophy is inherently political and should aim for human good”. 

Next was UCL’s first debater, who stated that Philosophy should be used as a beginning point, and is “instrumental”. He pointed out that Philosophy is for everyone, and should not concentrate on one area, further adding that once it focuses on something, it becomes “another form of science”. He also mentioned the lack of usefulness of academic philosophy to non-philosophical students in particular.

“It is false to claim that the value of Philosophy primarily lies on usefulness to society. For instance, if we don’t study Biology, we still benefit from the work of Biologists. But I don’t think that Philosophy is clearly useful to non-philosophers as science is to non-scientists”.

Then KCL’s second speaker, Fergus, further developed their argument by making the point that by thinking of Philosophy only as theory, we limit its potential.

“Philosophy has a massive transformative position. The only reason why we are seeing Philosophy retreating from these fields is because we have established a specific idea of Philosophy that does restrict it”.

He spoke more about the social setting behind Philosophy, and its involvement in politics, and concluded by asking the opposition two very striking questions:

“If you think there is this kind of rending between the theoretical and the social, how do you think the two things interact?”

“Where do you think theory comes from if it doesn’t come from a political setting?”

Within the final five minutes of the first round, UCL’s second speaker made the point that Philosophy is an “abstract activity undertaken by individuals”.

“We can only undertake to change the world once we’ve understood the world in a certain way. This relies on a certain clarity of thought about the world, meaning that social justice can only be striven for once some clarity of the world has been attained. As such, social justice can really be undertaken once theory has been established”.

Round Two: Weak Points in Opponent’s Arguments 

King’s team was the first to strike back. The question our      peers raised was if Philosophy has potential, why should        it focus only on theory. They also returned back to the            two questions they had already raised.

Meanwhile, UCL’s team pointed out a couple of flows in        our team’s arguments: “the repeated phrasal idea that “if      Philosophy is a part of society, it is determined by society”, the idea that Philosophy is 100% political, and the concentration of the action of Philosophy rather than on Philosophy itself. Jokingly, they added that “Philosophy never comes with enough theory”.

Round Three: Clarifications

Although this was the time for clarifications and striking backs, both sides agreed that undermining the opponent’s arguments was of no value at all, and the debate ended up more like a peaceful, yet passionate, discussion. Questions about the meaning of Philosophy and the truth in the world were raised, and many friendly jokes were exchanged

Question Time

Then the audience was encouraged to ask questions. Most of them were pointed towards our team. Despite the lavish amount of questions, Astrid and Fergus provided in-depth answers to everything. In an interview after the end of the debate, Astrid confessed that this “waiting for questions” was done purposefully.

“On purpose we were a bit vague about our conception of social justice because we didn’t want it to be just one idea. I wasn’t surprised people were asking questions, but I think we made it clear that there cannot be social justice without social knowledge”.

The End

As the end approached, another interesting topic emerged: the idea that many subjects tend to be thought of as entirely academic without ever being brought outside of the classroom and without being questioned. Therefore, Astrid concluded that awareness of this issue should be raised, and “such conversations should not only be held in Student Philosophy Societies, but in seminars and lectures”.

“It’s necessary to have these conversations. It is not only the case with Philosophy, but in academia in general. It’s taken for granted. The old question of “what is the purpose” should be continuously asked because I think those outdated debates were done in the past by people with limited historical and social background”.

Throughout the whole debate, our team seemed very relaxed and confident without even having written speeches or at least some sticky notes, compared to the opponents, who had prepared a few pieces of paper. You want to know their secret? Here is what Astrid said:

“We normally have these and similar conversations daily or weekly. It was from the heart!”

Reporting by Virjinia Vassileva

Photography by Virjinia Vassileva

 

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