Wednesday, September 5, 2012

You, Yes You, Are a Philosopher

I think for many people, the entry in their own mental dictionary for the term “philosophy” is something like this:

Philosophy (/fəˈläsəfē/):
1) a relatively useless undergraduate major populated by people who think they’re better than everyone else and whose personal hygiene leaves much to be desired, and who will most likely end up getting me a clean fork at a restaurant someday;
2) a relatively useless intellectual discipline where people use words to try to trick you into thinking whatever they want you to, or to split hairs and argue about things that don’t matter (see: sophistry).

I propose to you that your definition needs adjustment.

I propose that you, dear reader, are a philosopher and don’t realize it.

Have you ever used any of the following phrases:

--That’s not fair!
--How do you know?
--That doesn’t make sense.
--What is that?

Congratulations, you’re doing philosophy!

Each of these represents a different branch of philosophy.

“That’s not fair!” When we feel we’ve been treated unfairly, we’re assuming that we ought to be treated fairly, and that there is such a thing as fairness in the first place. It leads us to ask the question: what is fair? What do I owe other people? What do they owe me? What is justice? This is, in essence, the branch of philosophy known as ethics (from Greek ethos meaning “moral character”). We may not all use phrases like “categorical imperative” or “in medio virtus stat”, but every four-year old who’s had a toy taken from them, every person passed up for a promotion because the other guy golfs with the boss, in that moment becomes an ethicist.

“How do you know?” Every person wants to know the truth about things; not only that, they want to know how they can know the truth. How do we know things with any certainty? This is the branch of philosophy called epistemology (from the Greek episteme meaning “knowledge”). Any time you read the newspaper and try to sort out facts from opinions; any time you read anything from a statement of church doctrine to the results of a scientific study and wonder how we can know that; any time you do this, you’re engaged in epistemology—even if you aren’t using fancy phrases like “logical positivism” or “tabula rasa.”

“That doesn’t make sense.” Human beings are reasoning creatures. We recognize that our reason is governed by certain rules or truisms or axioms that are the very foundation of our ability to think. For example: a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. If someone told you that they were both alive and not alive at the same time, you’d rightly say to them, “That’s nonsense.” Or, to borrow an example from Monty Python: All fish live in water. The mackerel is a fish. Therefore, the mackerel lives in water. The first two statements lead to the conclusion in the third statement. They do not lead to the conclusion that trout live in trees, or that if you buy sushi it will not rain, or that your wife doesn’t love you anymore. These are some basic uses of logic (from the Greek logos meaning “reason”). We may not all use specific terms like “fallacy of composition,” “major premise,” or “enthymeme,” but EVERBODY uses logic itself, and when they don’t, it only leads to trouble.

“What is that?” To ask this question is to invite the response: “This is X.” To say, “This is X” is to say, “This thing is something which has the nature of X, which can be identified by X.” The answer to the question makes a huge difference. “Oh, it’s a copperhead snake!” vs. “Oh, it’s a huge pile of cash!” This is one of the most basic questions we can ask about anything: what is the nature of this thing, and what is it like? What is it really like, beyond the nature we see? This is metaphysics (from the Greek meta “after, beyond” and physis “nature”), quite possibly the deepest of the philosophical branches because it is the most basic. We may not all use categories like “substance” or “accident,” or make distinctions between a thing’s essence and its existence like the professionals do, but we engage in this sort of thinking every day.

Now, as the fake dictionary entry above pointed out, there are people who abuse the philosophical disciplines. They use them to make arguments to please their listeners, persuade others to do what they want, or to ingratiate themselves to those in power, and not to seek the truth. These people Socrates called Sophists, and he despised them. There are an awful lot of Sophists running around in the world today, and we need to be on our guard against them. We need the right tools to do so.

Philosophy was born out of people making statements like the ones above and thinking about them in greater depth. They wanted to know what was true in life and what wasn't, in the hopes that it might help them to lead a good life and be happy. Philosophy at its linguistic root is “the love of wisdom,” or “wisdom, sought lovingly.” It is the pursuit of truth in its various forms and functions. It is something we all do. And if we’re going to do it well, it helps to be taught about it. If we’re going to be taught about it, it helps to have a teacher. If we want a teacher, someone has to go to school for it. That’s what I’m doing here at DSPT: preparing to make my own infinitesimally small contribution toward helping the world to think clearly.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that was not only incredibly helpful but I think it demonstrates that you will be an amazing professor if that's what you choose. Even trying NOT to be biased.