“We are lacking individuals who genuinely recognize the liberty they have; to think about who they are, their place in this world, and to take action.”
Poet, Author, Activist, Philosophy Professor & Lecturer – University of Indonesia |
On her relationship with intuition, our need for critical thinking, and how teaching has changed her life.
There is an inherent truth within the melancholic sound of a “Ney”- a traditional flute made from a single giant reed found by the river banks of the Middle East. As a center piece in the music of the Sufis – an Islamic order centered around mysticism – its voice echoes that of a cry – a yearning – to both know and return to the reed bed from where it had been cut off from. It is, in essence, symbolic of ourselves – in that within the soul of each human being lies a yearning to know their true place in this world, and return to where they belong.
To understand – let alone achieve – the aforementioned in a commercially driven world is an enduringly difficult task; over a thousand years after the birth of Sufiism, the philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson famously acknowledged, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
This is a virtue that Saras Dewi – Professor and Lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Indonesia – is championing in both her work and life. Many in Bali will know her as the immensely gifted singer of Lembayung Bali, and others for her impressive feats in academia; authoring philosophy books such as Hak Azasi Manusia (Human Rights), and Cinta Bukan Cokelat (Love Is Not Chocolate), including an anthology of poems called Jiwa Putih (White Soul). Her recent publication, titled Ekofenomenology (Ecophenomenology), explores the imbalanced relationship between Nature, mankind, and technology from a philosophical perspective.
Manusia had the privilege of interviewing Saras at the 2018 Ubud Writers and Readers festival. Ever discerning and sharp, she explains her relationship with intuition, the sustaining impact teaching has had one her life, and stresses the need for philosophy at a crucial point in time. She also gives prudent advice on finding a better relationship to nature for those living in cities.
Saras, why would an understanding of Philosophy, however basic or thorough, be important for the world we live in today?
We tend to view philosophy as something distant from our everyday lives because we often attribute very complex theories to it. But scholars and researchers are faced with a task to prove otherwise. Philosophy is simply about the freedom to explore and express our minds, and to question life around us.
With the current events going on in the world right now, that kind of critical thinking and healthy criticism is desperately needed. We need critical individuals engaging in the world; an act itself that is very philosophical.
The basic ideas of liberty, freedom and a sense of compassion are all philosophical pursuits, and at its bare essence, philosophy is the act of thinking for yourself. The quote, “Sapere Aude” (Dare to Know), by Immanuel Kant comes to mind. Yet we are seeing a lot of the opposite these days.
“I believe that a deeper, more authentic self is shown when it is in harmony with nature and its cycles.”
External forces can heavily influence what individuals think about, and are seemingly able to dictate what they say! It’s all too common. We are lacking individuals who genuinely recognize the liberty they have; to think about who they are, their place in this world, and to take action.
In Bali, for instance, our culture and spirit are essentially bound to nature – our source. Yet I see an increasing amount of distractions that lead a lot of Balinese away from that source – towards a life that is, in my opinion, unrealistic. I believe that a deeper, more authentic self is shown when it is in harmony with nature and its cycles.
Yet how does one find that relationship with nature in an increasingly urbanized Indonesia? Especially those who are born and raised completely urban environments?
I have great hope that those who live in cities will have some access to this relationship through literature. And by literature, I don’t mean Instagram captions, and tweets reduced to 250 characters. I mean reading great works of writing that are centered around nature, and truth.
Living in Bali, we are surrounded by nature, and so it is more difficult to differentiate ourselves from it. But I also live in Jakarta, where we are forced into the rhythms of urban life. It shouldn’t be as bad as it is though, and we can do better with our cities… if we have the right intention.
What are some specific teachings that you’ve embraced in your life the most?
There are two great philosophers that have influenced me: Felix Gautarri and Gilles Deleuze – both are French post-structuralists. In a broader sense, they both explain how we shouldn’t bind ourselves to either Western or Eastern philosophies (they were students of Michel Foucault, who leaned more towards Eastern philosophy). I find that very interesting, and I think we have to view both as equals and find how they overlap in various ways.
“I felt awkward navigating through Balinese society.”
My life has always been around that dynamic. I was raised in a very traditional Balinese way, but my family was very vocal about politics. They enrolled me at a school that adopted western perspectives on free speech and thought.
So, I felt awkward navigating through Balinese society. My parents were both Muslim and Hindu, yet it was very hard for me to think about religion. I found it difficult in the beginning to comprehend why it was a big deal to have different values coexisting peacefully – yet now that Indonesia is becoming increasingly conservative and polarized, I can see why. Now is a crucial time to exercise some common sense.
“I don’t believe humans are entirely good or evil. We simply become better at being aware of ourselves.”
What is your relationship to Intuition?
To give you some context, I’m a huge fan of science. I love logical positivism, where the only trustworthy method for practical understanding is the scientific method. I certainly think Indonesia is definitely lacking that.
Yet, I understand why philosophers rebuke that claim because they are aware of the mysterious ways in which humans can intuitively know about the world. Therefore, on a wholesome level, I believe intuition forms a part of our reasoning, but incorporating direct experience and logic creates a more rounded human being.
Fundamentally, I don’t believe humans are entirely good or evil. We simply become better at being aware of ourselves, and intuition is one of the tools that we use by feeling that helps with our reasoning.
The fields of Neuroscience and Neurophilosophy are definitely working to better translate the phenomena of intuition – the success of which goes hand in hand with our advances in technology. Of course, there are “languages” that we haven’t scientifically made sense of, yet can begin doing so intuitively.
Describe what goes through your mind when you teach. What do you feel? And how has your relationship to your students changed you?
There was definitely was a sense of anger in the beginning; I was keen to reveal realities of our world without any sugar-coating. But this realism plays a strong part in why I am teaching. I feel obligated to do it especially at this particular point in time with Indonesian society.
As the years go by, I find that teaching also plays a part in my own learning about the young minds of Indonesia. I realize now, that that is what is most rewarding to me – to learn what is inside these young minds and then collaborate with them. This interaction is what keeps me going.
Of course, I also care about my own research and the things I am accomplishing with my colleagues within the scientific community. But apart from those duties, I’m still here and hopeful because of the experiences I’ve had with my students.
“There is huge gap in Indonesia between the academic communities and the realities of suffering and poverty that exist in life.”
I took some of my students to several political rallies, or, more rather, they asked me if we should go! They wanted to know the heart of politics and where it takes place. Being with this kind of spirit is what encourages me. It makes me who I am today, and that is what teaching means to me. It’s a very personal view of mine.
However, I always tell them that I can only go so far as teaching Philosophy in my class; the beautiful ideas of Liberty and Freedom look great on paper – but exercising it outside the classroom is a completely different thing. There is huge gap in Indonesia between the academic communities and the realities of suffering and poverty that exist in life. It’s a gap that I am trying to eliminate, and I know it’s a hard task, but the wave of young Indonesian thinkers that I am seeing now gives me confidence for the years ahead.