Why Philosophy? (From 2007 Grumpy Panther)

     Last year I started a discussion group for rank beginners in philosophy. Perhaps busy midsummer wasn’t the best time, but once a week a few of us get together and talk about the material we read in an introductory philosophy book. There’s nothing fancy about what we do. We sit around a bare table in the basement of the Inkwell Bookstore, munch on cookies, and try to understand what the author tried to get across, what the words of people who lived hundreds and thousands of years ago meant then and what they might mean now. We bounce our minds against the ancients and the not-so-ancients and against each other. It keeps the mind more alive than crosswords and Sudoku do.
     But there’s a deeper issue. Who does this sort of thing anymore? What’s the point? Isn’t it just for college kids, not for a bunch of middle-aged folk? Why study philosophy? Isn’t it just for intellectual airheads? It has no practical use in the real world, right? The people who do it are pretty much out of touch with reality, aren’t they?
     One answer that pretty much puts all those questions to rest is the fact that corporations hire philosophers to study the workings of the corporation. Philosophers know how to think critically, how to analyze things, how to look beneath the surface of events and systems and plans to find the truths lurking there.
     William F. Nietmann, Northern Arizona University Professor Emeritus of Philosophy wrote, “Most of our graduates find jobs in the world of business. Why? Usually, philosophy students can think analytically and write well. It is this training which prepares them well for of life’s eventualities. Some of our philosophy students may go to graduate school in business. The same high scores achieved by philosophy students entering the professions will be found in the standard examinations for admission into business college.”
Philosophers make money for the company. That’s why they’re hired.
     We are individuals though. Assuming we’re not looking to work as corporate philosophers, why should we study philosophy? The simplest answer is that we can learn how to think critically about our lives, about the world around us, how to analyze the world and choose how we want to live in it. What does all of that mean, in everyday terms?
     While Thales of Miletus may have kick-started philosophy 2500 years ago, we still need its tools and its driving force of intellectual curiosity to examine the world we live in today. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle living today would have a different knowledge set, but the processes they used would find ground just as fertile now as then.
     Consider how we relate to authority. The Pope of the Catholic Church, for example, is an archetypal, powerful authority figure. If you’re a Catholic you are expected to obey a Pope’s edict as if it were from God himself. Some people will do that. Others will ignore it. Others will grumble and honor it when it’s convenient for them. People are people. But if you study philosophy and learn its tools and accept their value as tools, you can examine what the Pope said, analyze his arguments, study his evidence for his claims, and then decide if you want to follow his edict or ignore it. You will have made a reasoned decision about how you want to live your life. You will have accepted responsibility for how you choose to live.
     Most of us don’t have to confront a Pope, but many of us read books about history or about current political affairs. The writer says something and you get mad, either in agreement or disagreement, it doesn’t matter. Do you ride the wave of your unreasoning emotion or do you decide to determine if what he says is true? How can you know that the argument he makes is legitimate? Do you even know that he’s making an argument beneath the verbiage that angered you? How do you dig it out and examine it for truth?
     What about confronting mass beliefs, the authority of numbers? In 1998 and 2000 the Southern Baptist Convention, a Baptist governing body numbering thousands, decided to adopt two statements strongly implying that women are lesser beings than men. Thousands of people decided that it is right to believe women to be less than men – to be treated well but not as equals and not as leaders. If you’re a Baptist, do you accept unquestioningly the authority of numbers? Or do you look at the arguments and the evidence and the motives? If six billion people say the world is flat and one person says it is a sphere and shows you the evidence, then who do you believe? How do you decide if you want to continue as a member of the Baptist organization if you decide that their ruling is wrong?
     Individually, we sometimes confront the law. For most of us, it’s a parking ticket. For some it’s a little more serious. Socrates, convicted unjustly, chose to accept the ruling of the Athenian jury that he should die. He had chances to evade that death, but he chose, on reasoned grounds, to accept the sentence because he believed that men must live by the law, even if it was at times unjust. We can, if we choose, face such choices today. What would America look like today if the blacks had not organized and engaged in civil disobedience during the Fifties and Sixties? They decided that certain laws were unjust and they chose to challenge them by breaking them. Who was right, Socrates or the blacks? Does anyone have a right to refuse an unjust law? Ever? Never? Conditionally or absolutely? How would you argue the matter? And what about that parking ticket. Was the meter working properly?
     What of leaders of government? Are we bound to follow them unquestioningly because we were born and live within certain historically arbitrary geographic and political borders? Or do we examine their arguments and evidence and decide to obey or not obey? To believe or not believe, and act accordingly? A current case in point is the Iraq war. The Bush administration claimed there were in Iraq nuclear and biological weapons imminently threatening us. The country, much of it, agreed. The press went along. The Senate and House went along. There was very little critical thinking, little questioning, little analysis. Knowledgeable voices saying the evidence wasn’t there or was false were stifled in the uncritical, unreasoning rush to war. The voices that said pre-emptive war was wrong on its face were buried in cries of treason. Today we know that our leaders lied about the weapons and other matters. Had our Senators and Representatives been truly honest men possessed of integrity and of the tools of critical thinking and analysis, tens of thousands of men, women, and children would not be dead or maimed. People and civilizations which refuse to do the work of thinking, to apply the tools of philosophy, seem to end up in the stewpots of history.
     Through the ages, leaders have deceived and misled their uncritical people into destruction and chaos. Our history as a species is drenched with our own blood. That’s a clue that philosophy en masse fails. Philosophy en masse becomes ideology, which is blind, unreasoning, and unthinking. Ideology is easy and comfortable, no matter how deadly or deranged. Philosophy is a personal thing and it is a prickly thing. It demands personal responsibility. It’s tools are universal, but the application of them is personal. We have the choice as individuals to study and use those tools and choose how we want to live in such times.
     But our wars are not always global. Suppose your kid comes home one night reeking of pot. What do you do? Rage at him? Ground him? Cut his privileges? How do you approach the problem? What tools can you apply that will lead to a useful outcome? And how do you know that smell is pot? If you can think critically and analytically you increase the chances of arriving at that positive outcome. No guarantees, of course. People are people.
     That there are no guarantees always applies. Outcomes are never guaranteed, but the work of thinking is important. Most people don’t use a logical, analytical reasoning process; they never learned the tools. It is not uncommon for us to look at the world and feel helpless and small and impotent. And when we do feel on top of things we usually can’t say why or how we got there. We look for somebody to tell us how to feel, what to think. We don’t reflect. We don’t examine. We don’t think. We want certainty. We want guarantees.
     Philosophy can’t give us certainty or guarantees. But it can help us find the best questions and it can provide the tools to examine our lives and our world. It may not always lead us to the comfortable or convenient conclusion, but it can lead us to reasoned choices about how we want to live, how we want to value our lives, and what values we want to live.


1 Comment

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One response to “Why Philosophy? (From 2007 Grumpy Panther)

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