Philosophy is important. Few argue with this claim, but perhaps even fewer acknowledge it and take action.
There is an aversion to the word “philosophy.” It’s pigeonholed as “the hard course in college” – the one you don’t want to take again. It’s reminiscent of both migraine inducing logic puzzles and vacant platitudes. The word is associated with smugness, jaded old professors, and the trade of charlatans. And to be fair, philosophy has earned it’s reputation. All these things are true.
When the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in the US, “philosopher” was changed to “sorcerer” in the title. There is some speculation about why the name was changed, but the market research is in: ‘Sorcerer” sounds exciting, ‘philosopher’ sounds boring, and nobody in America knows what a philosopher is.
Perhaps philosophy’s biggest strike is that you are seemingly asking questions that have no answers. Today we want definite, immediate answers. The idea that we’re living in an instant gratification economy is news to no one, though there have been some noteworthy musings on the subject lately – ReCode’s Instant Gratification Special Series and Paul Robert’s The Impulse Society to name a few.
Some eschew philosophy out of laziness, but even smart, thoughtful, hardworking individuals actively avoid it.
Why is this?
Philosophy inevitably challenges the what we think – and, our brains work hard to make us think we are doing the right thing, even in the face of sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The prospect of recalibrating our assumptions about our life is daunting.
There is a fear that in eating from the Tree of Knowledge we might end up forever changed. We could end up living in barrel like Diogenes, forced to reconcile unpleasant truths about our past like Pirsig, or flat out mad like Nietzsche. These are extreme and flawed examples, but there is nonetheless a creeping sense of danger that steers many away from serious self-investigation. Ignorance is bliss.
“Philosophy” is a very broad term.
There is a difference between theoretical/existential philosophy (ie. What does it mean to be human? or Is there a God and could he make a rock so big he couldn’t move it?) vs. practical life philosophy (ie. How should I deal with anger? or What does it mean to be successful in business“).
There is a place for the former, but everyone stands to benefit from the latter – regardless of worldview.
An intelligent person might say, “if philosophy can’t reveal absolute truths about existence, then how can it tell me how to live day to day. If philosophy can’t tell me if god exists, or if reality is an illusion, then how can I know whether I what I am doing is meaningful or appropriate? Wouldn’t those first, fundamental questions impact all others?”
The problem of universals is an old philosophical problem.
It remains a ‘problem’ because human cognition is limited. This is an absolute truth, meaning it is valid in all times and all places.
So then, with our limited cognition, how do we determine how to live?
This is what Seneca says on the matter:
“Someone may say: ‘What help can philosophy be to me if there is such a things as fate? What help can philosophy be if there is a deity controlling all? What help can it be if all is governed by chance? For it is impossible to change what is already determined or make preparations to meet what is undetermined; either in the first case, my planning is forestalled by a God who decrees how I am to act, or, in the second case, it is fortune that allows me no freedom to plan.’ Whichever of these alternatives, Lucilius, is true – even if all of them are true – we still need to practice philosophy. Whether we are caught up in the grasp of an inexorable law of fate, whether it is God of the universe who has ordered all things, or whether the affairs of men are tossed and buffeted haphazardly by chance, it is philosophy that has the duty of protecting us. She will encourage us to submit to God with cheerfulness and to fortune with defiance; she will show you how to follow God and bear what chance may send you.”
Even with a strong foundation in religion, questions or meditations about topics like the value of sleep, friendship, success in business, recreation, physical pain, reflecting on the past, etc. are often not flushed out in-depth. Spiritual leaders make instruction based on religion, but more often than not, there is room for interpretation.
These interpretations are the application of practical philosophy. It’s an exercise we can all benefit from and partake in no matter what our spirituality, language, societal norms, family upbringing, or education. Philosophy is not owned by the highbrow.
As with theoretical/existential philosophy, there are not necessarily firm answers to the questions in life philosophy. But, there is some advice that is timeless, transcending culture and religion. That’s the good stuff.
More importantly, philosophy should be viewed as an action, not a fixed set of beliefs. Studying smart dead people’s ideas – right or wrong – is an important step to building your own foundation for self-examination.
Philosophy helps us think rigorously about hard problems. Serious philosophy is valuable in itself and worth studying for its own sake, but more practically, it also prepares us for life.
Whether you want to ‘run the world’ (like Bill Clinton, Rudi Giuliani or Robert McNamara), have enough money to ‘buy the world’ (like Peter Thiel, George Soros or Carl Icahn), or just make people laugh (like Woody Allen, George Carlin, or Jimmy Kimmel), philosophy helps us know how to bear what chance many send us and meet fortune with defiance.
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