Your Attention Please: Philosophy Isn’t a Four-Letter Word.

Urania, Muse of Philosophy and Astronomy

Urania, Muse of Philosophy and Astronomy

I’ll cut right to the chase with this one. I want to know exactly what it is about the word “philosophy” that makes people make weird faces and clear their throats. I want to know what sort of insecurities, fears, and misunderstandings lurk behind all the jokes about it being the quickest way into poverty, behind the cliched images of old bearded men in togas. It’s about time we started being honest about it.

Is it just because philosophy is so old? It’s true that philosophy has been in practice for thousands of years (probably longer, if you count the stuff that went on before humans learned to write). Any decent thinker will tell you that holding onto tradition for the sake of tradition is an example of terrible logic.  However, philosophy is one of those things that not only stands the test of time, but constantly evolves.  Philosophy from 2000 years ago is very different from philosophy 50 years ago.  In 2015, people do philosophy online, through social media.  Yes, there are even apps for that.  There are volumes of work being turned out that connect philosophy to popular culture. Besides that, there’s good stuff in the works of even the most ancient of thinkers.  Seriously, open up Pinterest and search for “Aristotle quotes.”  There will be a lot of pin-worthy tidbits that will have you going “Ahhh.”

Is it because philosophy forces us to do things like listen, be reasonable, and admit that we’re sometimes wrong? Yup, it demands that we do all of these things, at least it does when it’s done right. It hurts to be told that we’re not automatically entitled to our opinions, that we’re not allowed to fling ideas around without backing them up and explaining them. Taking responsibility for what we think and say is tough.  On the upside, though, philosophy demands that we be open to new ideas, new points of view, and it helps us avoid being taken advantage of by voices that might otherwise talk circles around us. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expecting grown ups to think like grown ups.  Hell, even little kids are capable of thinking this way. The “dangerous” ideas philosophy brings to the forefront…well, they probably need to be addressed. No time like the present, right?

Is it because it doesn’t give us one clear, undeniable answer to our questions? I personally like this about philosophy (I dwell in grey areas), but even if I were big on certainty, I’d still have to admit that there are some questions for which there aren’t clear, undeniable answers.  Who the heck knows why we fall in love or why we feel compelled to make art. I’m not exactly sure what the difference is between right and wrong.  At least with a philosophical toolbox that includes reason and logic, I can figure out which answers are better or worse.

Is it because philosophy isn’t job training, or because it’s too “academic”? I’m not sure anyone ever got paid to sit around and navel gaze. Historically, philosophers have made their living teaching, writing, being political leaders, and weaving their thoughts into a variety of career paths. Studying philosophy has never been a direct path to a specific profession. It’s a path to every profession.  Seriously. Name me any job and I’ll tell you how being philosophical will make you better at it.

Here’s the bottom line, folks: philosophy is a life skill, dare I say even a survival skill.  We live in strange times.  Maybe we always have.  Existing in the world means we have difficult things thrown at us.  We’re the (un)lucky recipients of mass quantities of information, a good chunk of it being utter crap. We’re faced with difficult decisions.  We have others existing in the world along with us, many of whom have their own interests at heart.  We grow older, we change, we get confused. We can learn to think, or we can get run over by all of this. Philosophy, if nothing else, is about learning to think. There’s no magic bullet when it comes to solving the world’s problems, but I’m pretty confident (and I’m not alone) that if people were more philosophical, at least some things would get better.

What’s more, thinking big thoughts is actually fun. When was the last time you gave yourself permission to play with ideas? Wouldn’t you like to revisit your five-year-old self and be allowed to ask a whole lot of “Why?” Do you really think philosophers would still be doing what they do, after all this time, if there weren’t a little bit of beauty and magic in the discovery of a new idea? Honestly, this stuff is cool.  I’ve never taught philosophy to anyone who didn’t have an “aha” moment once in a while.

I’m not asking anyone to go and get a degree in philosophy, nor am I insisting that everyone be issued a copy of Plato’s Republic and be tested on it.  I’m just a firm believer that philosophy belongs to everyone, and that if people agree to work it into their everyday mindset, there are ways to do it.  We can start teaching it to kids while their brains are still squishy and absorbent.  We can seek it out in books, movies, music and other media.  We can start using the great, beautiful behemoth called social media to foster meaningful conversations. If it makes people feel better, we can even stop calling it philosophy.  Re-brand it any way you like.  Call it “Cool Thinky Stuff” or “Mega Deep Thoughts.” If it means people might actually do it more, I’d be happy to call it Skippy or Lulu. Whatever.

Just no more dumb jokes about philosophers, okay?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *