So, maybe you’re still not convinced that studying philosophy is worth your time. Why, you might wonder, should I, in this world FULL of things battling for my attention from all sides – why should I take the time to worry about whether the mind is identical to the brain, what “beauty” really is or what “good” is, and where it all comes from – what effect do these questions really have on my daily life? Why should I waste my time worrying about the existential anxieties and neurotic preoccupations with language of so many dead people?
You’re not wrong to wonder this. And you’re right, in some ways, that philosophy may not get you any “further” in life, it might not advance your career or win you friends, but what it can do, without question, is teach you how to think – to REALLY think – about hard questions, and to think critically about them.
There are a lot of things in modern life, or “late capitalist society” as some philosophers would call it, that we’re asked to simply ignore, or take for granted. Obviously, there’s a lot that could be said about politics on this point, but even putting politics aside, there are innumerable things in life that we’re asked to accept as real, that are only real because we ascribe value to them. Money. Status. Hierarchy. Awards. Even – get this – your college degree, means nothing if not for the people who decide to agree that it’s meaningful. These things are presented to us as a game, and to opt out of the game, unless you’re very lucky and have a support structure in place that can catch you, is to be pushed to the margins of society and forgotten.
“Philosophy is a battle against the
bewitchment of our intelligence
by means of language.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
I know it’s dark, but it’s true. And if you don’t take the time to step out of the matrix for long enough to question the things you’re expected to accept as necessary parts of human life, you may find yourself fifty years down the line never having made a decision that was truly your own in all those years.
I don’t say this to scare you (okay, maybe a little) – but to point out that the true value of philosophy is that unlike the games I mentioned above, philosophy actually is an inescapable part of life. Just by living, you’re making philosophical assumptions and assertions. Unless you live under a rock, you’ll face philosophical dilemmas of all kinds, no matter what your walk of life – even the decision of what career path you’ll follow is a decision that will require you to make philosophical judgments about what is good and valuable to society, and what you, on a deep-down level, want out of life.
Are we really here just to make money, to survive, to procreate, and then die? Or are you willing to take a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” into the unknown to find out what else you might be capable of in art, music, or whatever your passion project happens to be? You get to decide what kind of person you want to be and what kind of impact you want to have on the world, and without the lens of philosophy to show us how to think critically about such choices, in many ways, you’re out at sea without a paddle, so to speak.
To think philosophically, then, is to think critically – and to think critically is much more difficult (and much less fashionable) than we often suppose. But philosophy isn’t just the cold, dead words of men in togas – it’s a conversation we all have in both our words and actions, all the time – a conversation about what it is to be a human and what we’re supposed to do about it. A conversation about how we relate to each other, what we owe one another, what the right way for an individual to behave is, what the right way for a government to treat its citizens is, and how the hell we’re supposed to know any of this stuff with any certainty whatsoever.
Philosophy, in other words, is your permission slip to decide for yourself what you want your life to be, and why.
It’s a way to borrow the thinking of thousands of years of brilliant minds, whether or not you agree with them, to find in them a path towards a philosophy of your own. Philosophy is how we stop existing according to the rules and guidelines of our peers and institutions, and get behind the steering wheel of our own lives.
“We must not make a pretense of doing philosophy, but really do it;
for what we need is not the semblance of health, but real health.”
Okay, Cassie. You’ve made your moving little speech. But where do I start? And what if I sound like a fool, trying to flounder my way through a conversation about metaphysics or epistemology or logical positivism?
I have good news and bad news: the bad news is, you’re going to sound like a fool. The good news is, that’s exactly what you should do.
If you want to do philosophy well the most important thing isn’t knowing all the terms or the history, being able to pronounce names correctly or having read all the “right” books – the important thing is just to enter the conversation with humility, and be ready to learn something new from every perspective you come across.
To love wisdom is to love the truth, and to be willing to seek the truth, even when it’s not the answer we set out to find. The willingness to change your mind will do you a hell of a lot more good in studying philosophy than any fancy textbook or degree ever could.
But what exactly is philosophy, and how is it done? Well, as I said, it’s a conversation – and boy has there ever been ink spilled in its name, already. But luckily for us, there’s always more that can be said, because we can apply philosophical reasoning to any topic under the sun.
This, above all, is what makes philosophy “useful” – apart from its inherent value, philosophy can help us turn a critical eye on things like bioethics, religious belief, social behaviors, and even the formation of cults, crime and punishment, sexuality, cultural practices, politics… nothing can rightly be said to be outside the bounds of philosophical thought, it’s all a matter of how it can be useful to you. But you can’t know that, of course, without knowing some of the basics of what philosophy actually is.