When Mark, the man behind Saigon’s philosophy school walked up the stage with his suit and introduced about philosophy terminology with all of us as a way to start the discussion, Yuzo whispered:
Oh, so, this is how it is conducted
– What do you mean?
– Uhm, we had similiar workshops in US
Guessing his impression from the semi-formal atmosphere of the room, I smiled. “It is too early to tell. Let’s wait until the end of the workshop“, Yuzo nodded and we decide to refrain from drawing any too early conclusion. Will this be a stiff lecturing session?
As a newbie in philosophy exploration, I can relate to how Yuzo feels. With burning desire to explore basic human questions but fear the stiff vibe of academic world, I am afraid that I would not be able to relate. I want to discuss about things in daily life using philosophy as tool, and if that requires going back 1000 years to dig what a German mind or a Chinese mind thought, I would go for it, but definitely not the other way around.
How democratic is democratic?
The session we had that day was about happiness, facilitated by Emmanuel from Scotland who was into philosophy before coming to Vietnam. Out of many philosophers, Emmanuel chose the two classic, Aristotle and Plato to share their views about happiness, then asking us to give our ideas about happiness to see if we agree or disagree with their opinions
In my dream, affected by a series I watched a few years ago, the fantasy of philosophy discussion is like this
In my fantasy, philosophy discussion will be led by a charming professor with an articulate manner, perfect posture and soft but convincing voice, listened by hundreds of stubborn and incredibly smart students filling up a beautiful hall.
In reality, our group is like this 😉
There are around 15 to 20 people attending each session (40% locals, 60% expats), divided into groups to exchange ideas so my fantasy remained a fantasy, but I loved it.
Small groups allowed us to express our opinions more clearly, but more importantly, we are not Harvard students. With various backgrounds, profession , level of philosophy knowledge, our only common referring point is current living place and the curiosity on basic questions. There is more tolerance, more empathy shared by skeptical but considerate minds.
“Are you happy” – A “NO” answer and the intimacy of strangers
The second question we were asked in the session was
“Do you consider yourself to be happy ? How do you rate your happiness in a 10 point scale? Why?”
Now imagine this scenario: You are in a park, suddenly a stranger with a serious face approaching you, asking if you are happy. You would laugh your head off and tell him to go away, Crazy head. (Because, even you have never asked that question yourself, let alone telling it to an intruding stranger). Maybe only Brandon of Human of New York has that ability (We are in Vietnam for Buddha’s sake)
But in the session, we were in an atmosphere to be intimate, even intrusive with strangers, asking and answering very personal and sometimes very uncomfortable questions. I remember a Vietnamese member told the rest that he is not happy, and he claimed that people who think too much tend to be unhappy. Our definitions of happiness vary, some think happiness is a positive state of mind, another thinks happiness is about sharing and receiving and one member claims agency, to him, is happiness. These perceptions must have stayed with us for quite a while and we pretty much don’t change our opinions about this topic after the workshop.
We didn’t come to agree with each other. We come to express our views, to know each other’s views and come back with more diverse perspective. We remained the same, and at the same time, we have changed a lot.