Philosophy has to be the longest running human study to have completely failed to date. Charged with finding the answers to a handful of important questions over two millennia ago. Those questions remain open and unresolved.
I am far from an expert in this field. Basically I just finished the equivalent of a year-long introduction course. These questions have always been of interest to me. Not generally because of a deep need to understand them myself, but to aid in understanding how others view the world. Immediately before I took this course, I took another in argumentation. That course covered to roots of argumentation and how it developed from philosophy. I was concerned with the emphasis in the course on how to frame arguments and structure arguments as opposed to those arguments being correct. Wanting to look more into what the standards of truth are was my direct impetus for taking the philosophy course.
What are the big questions I refer to? What is existence? What is Truth and Good? What is knowledge and how do we acquire it? I’d submit that none of these questions have been answered satisfactorily through philosophy to date. But… here’s my thesis. Our attempts to discover the answers to these questions have contributed as much or more to the world than any other study. It is shameful that this study is held in such low esteem in present culture. ( A thesis for another day might be that philosophy, theology, the arts and science should all be proceeding together in their examinations of these questions, but are currently seen to be in opposition and conflict.)
Why is philosophy not respected by the average person? I think there are a number of misconceptions.
First, that philosophy cannot provide us useful answers to the questions it poses. An echo of my opening statement. While I do not believe there is universal agreement on the answers, it cannot be said that philosophy has not provided answers and that those answers have not proved useful and critical. One of the truly interesting aspects of philosophy is that it spawns other fields of study. All questions start off as philosophy questions. Philosophy births and nurtures them and once they become mature enough sets them out on their own. Physics, politics, psychology and social sciences all started within the realms of philosophy. Regardless of whether it ever finds answers to the ultimate questions it asks, I am confident will continue to be the spawning ground for new disciplines.
A second apprehension is that philosophy can only be comprehended by the truly erudite. See what I did there? Used a big word. 🙂 It can certainly be argued that many philosopher’s were geniuses, that philosophy has commonly been the playground of scholarly types and that there are some really tricky technical details. But the same is true for math and science and we figure that we can start teaching those disciplines to kids before kindergarten.
The biggest problem is not that it is complicated, but that we’ve never been formally introduced to the basic precepts. Our general engagement with philosophy is picking it up by cultural osmosis out of the zeitgeist. (Sorry – I just like that sentence. It works against my point though. We only pick up philosophy through its application in the culture surrounding us.) Or take theology – we can start kids off with easy concepts like faith, hope and charity (by easy I mean accessible not lacking in complexity) and practical elements like prayer. You can move on to the nature of the incarnation and trinity for instance as you grow because you have that foundation.
A third objection would be against the practicality of philosophy. That the knowledge gained does not provide a benefit of itself. I’m not sure I have a counter-argument as the line of reasoning is too foreign to me. I guess I am a fan of knowledge for its own sake regardless of its practicality. But I also think that the knowledge of philosophy provides valuable insights into, I dunno, how people think? How a culture matures? What motivates a person beyond a need for security, shelter and food? I think that is immediately useful as i live with people in a culture.
Some might be disinclined to approach philosophy because it has set itself up as opposed to science and/or religion. 🙂 First off, that is not accurate. Although there is certainly such a trend in many of the philosopher’s associated with modernity or post-modernity, it certainly does not apply to the entirety or majority of philosophical thought. Secondly, as a study it might be most useful when used to contrast and challenge our own beliefs and mores.
Finally, I think there might be a preconception that philosophy has disappeared up its own butt in the 20th century. Logical Positivism, Existentialism, Structuralism and Deconstructionism might be what people think of when they encounter philosophy even if they do not know what these movements actually are. Philosophically speaking the last 100 or so is but a moment in philosophical thought. Some of these trends may have held prominence during that period, but it is impossible to see how they will carry with us into the future. And for each of these theories there are also those that held ideas which I consider more in line with reality as I perceive it. Furthermore, these movements themselves are instructive just through understanding what they say about our culture or what they were created to reflect about our culture.
I think philosophy also has some distinguishing features that are not apparent in other fields of study. The greatest of these is its agility and adaptability. You see, I believe that although philosophy has not necessarily discovered ultimate truths it has certainly been successful of expressing the attitudes of the ages in which it is used. It can, like art, provide a portrayal of what people living in the times it was developed believed and fought for. And as those cultures change, as new technology is discovered, as political ideologies come in and out of fashion the philosophy comes up with ideas that reflect those changes. And more, it also provides a framework that envelops and guides those changes.
Religion and its study can not quite do the same since a true study of the same can not just break with its own past. And science if based on an accumulation of knowledge and, although it may have leapfrogs and spurts and revolutions, cannot simply just try on a brand new method. I am not trying to disparage either science or religion. These characteristics are essential and provide a needed contrast to philosophy. But in philosophy you can have true radicalism and complete shifts. Most of these will likely be garbage, but sometimes they will indeed discover a new and worthwhile idea. That is very neat.
Another aspect that I think makes it attractive is that it provides an alternative to science. Um, this is a thought that will require some foundation. It seems to me that science if often treated with a sort of fundamentalist awe. A faith that if pursued long enough that all answers will be revealed. But science, properly pursued never produces facts, it produces hypotheses that have yet to be disproved. And while not vocalized this ultimate faith in science is also juxtaposed with a disbelief in its products. Statistics are all lies, special effects may be responsible for man’s walk on the moon. That dissatisfaction has spread to be general distrust of many aspects of modern life. Science is pretty nifty – I think the scientific method is awesome and is likely the best way we have discovered to accumulate data. But the skepticism necessary to advance science is at odds with folks need for truth. Additionally science has sometimes just tossed away concepts that it cannot pursue – like morality – and these concepts are crucial to our existence.
Philosophy is another lens through which to study the world that can coexist as a hand-maid to science. I think that is something that is powerful and commonly overlooked. (I’d also argue that religion can provide the same coexistence. There is nothing wrong with having multiple alternatives and some folks also seem to have a more knee-jerk reaction to or for religious knowledge.)
In summary, philosophy is perhaps the most successful field of study to ever be portrayed as a failure and to have not yet achieved its earliest stated goals. That is pretty awesome.
The next philosophical post will likely deal with my own response to some philosophical theories and thus what I myself hold True. Hopefully it will be shorter. I’m a pretty simple fellow after all.