All my life in philosophy, I’ve found myself defending the value of philosophy. Somehow it’s a problem I never had—just the opposite. It drew me before I knew what it was. But philosophy continues to be something that many people don’t know what is but presume it is not for them. It sounds intimidating, dangerous, heretical, impractical, inscrutable, irrelevant, abstract, too difficult. Besides, philosophy only offers a bunch of contradictory ideas; it never finally gives a single answer. So what’s the use? We should just steer around philosophy, giving it a wide berth, and get on with life.
Here are some of my thoughts about why you should take the plunge.
You are already in the pool, I: talking about philosophy is doing philosophy.
And by the way: unlike any other discipline in the world, when you think about philosophy and what it is, you are already doing philosophy. With every other discipline, to think about what it is, you have to stop doing it and do philosophy. To do every discipline well, you have to stop doing it and do philosophy.
So you are doing philosophy.
So you should do philosophy to do it well.
Granted, you can do something and not know you are doing it. (That, by the way, says something about knowing; that’s philosophy about knowledge--epistemology.) So just to be told you are doing it doesn’t really help you know what philosophy is. It’s still a reason to dive in and find out.
You are already in the pool, II: you are human
It really takes only one qualification to be philosophical. That qualification? To be born.
Born as a human, that is. To be human is to be philosophical. My old dog, Miles, never wondered, never asked, why? He never pondered the meaning of dogginess, the meaning of life, of existence. He never wondered about reality beyond smells, food, his ball, me, and places to “go.” You and I, by contrast, can’t get through a day without pondering who we are, and what the meaning of life is. To be human is to be such a question.
Humanness and philosophy each involve the other. You can’t have one without the other.
That suggests, too, that growing philosophically is growing more deeply as humans. And closing out such questions makes us shallow as humans, and as whole societies too.
To cultivate our own humanness needs no rationale. It matters. So philosophy matters, too.
You are already in the pool, III: the Big, Hairy Questions
Philosophy concerns itself with what I call, the BHQs—the Big, Hairy Questions. (“Hairy” is left over from my youthful, hippie-era days. It dates me. But it gets at the strangeness of these questions.
The BHQs are: What is really real? How do I know whatever I know? What is right and good and beautiful? And, What does it mean to be human?
Those questions anchor the big areas of philosophy: metaphysics (“after” or “above” physics) or ontology (study of being in general); epistemology (study of knowledge); ethics, axiology (study of value), aesthetics; philosophical (as opposed to cultural) anthropology.
The main way that they are hairy questions is that every single thing we do implies some response to them. They permeate everything.
They’re hard to pin down just because they are so close to us—the way that we cannot see our corneas yet cannot see except through them.
They are nevertheless highly influential. They aren’t abstract, and they aren’t “pat.” They are concrete and formative, for individuals and whole cultures and eras. They actually shape what we think it is to be rational and plausible; they shape what we actually see to be real; they shape what we value.
Philosophical questions are hairy because they do have this way of jumping out and strangling us in times of crisis. But times of crisis are the defining moments of our lives: birth, adolescence, relationship or betrayal, faith or its rejection, commitment or boredom, creative or scientific discovery, suffering, war, tragedy, death. On the other hand, it doesn’t take a crisis to wonder.
The BHQs matter--deeply. Cultivating philosophical awareness breeds a maturity in engaging them, and in living well.