Philosophizing about philosophy

April 2017

(This essay is, among other things, a followup to something I posted to this website 16 years ago.)

We do not know who the first philosophers were. Thales of Miletus is commonly credited with being the first Western philosopher we know of; but, etymologically speaking, philosophy is the love of wisdom, and we may reasonably suppose that for as long as humans have existed, at least some of them have loved wisdom. Granted that there is no consensus about what wisdom itself is, exactly, there seems little reason to doubt that, whatever wisdom is, there have always been people who loved it. Humans are born with inquiring minds. Although many cultures have attempted to stifle the inquisitive impulses of their members, it seems unlikely that any has been entirely successful.

Philosophy has been in some general disrepute for the past couple of centuries. It is popularly thought to be either a waste of time or beyond Everyman's comprehension. This ought to surprise no one, least of all philosophers themselves. Philosophers have gone through a lot of ink discussing ideas that are of no obvious consequence to the average person’s typical concerns. Most people spend most of their lives doing things that seem to require none of the insights to be gained from any philosophy book. When people rail about the sorry state of public education in the United States, they rarely bemoan the schools’ failure to teach philosophy. Almost nobody is whining about how few high school graduates would know Aristotle from Archimedes. Nor is it helpful that professional philosophers cannot agree among themselves on what philosophy is. In browsing a few websites, one can find philosophy defined as a system of beliefs about reality, or the attempt to understand the world or to understand one's life and one's place in the universe. Other definitions include careful thought about topics such as the fundamental nature of the world, or grounds for human knowledge, or evaluation of human conduct, or critical examination of the grounds for fundamental beliefs, among numerous other suggestions.

Philosophers in caricature often spend a lot of time answering questions that it never occurs to anyone else to ask—such as the college student in the Bill Cosby routine who wondered "Why is there air?" But of course, those are not the only questions philosophers ask. Besides, when it comes to silliness, I don't think "Why is there air?" is any worse than "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

For over two and a half millennia at the very least, philosophers also have asked about differences between right and wrong. They have asked why, even if we think we know the difference, we should prefer one over the other. They have asked how governments ought to govern and whether the consent of the governed ought to make any difference. They have asked whether, if we notice that the sun has risen every day of our lives so far, that is reason enough for us to believe it will continue to rise every day for the rest of our lives. They have asked whether we really know anything, how we know something if we do know it, and what it means to say we know it. They have inquired about the nature of logic and asked how much it matters, or when it matters, whether we are logical. Some philosophers have offered answers to these questions, others have been content just to ask them, and no answer has been accepted by every philosopher.

If most people think philosophy is a waste of time, it might be because they were brought up believing that all such questions either have been answered already or have been shown to be effectively unanswerable. However, philosophy is not just about finding answers. Indeed, for many philosophers, the answers themselves are of no concern at all to philosophy as such. For these people, philosophy is about checking whatever answers are up for consideration. To many of the questions that concern us most, we are offered a multitude of answers from any number of sources. How should we decide which ones to accept? Philosophy is about trying to answer that question: not <i>what</i> should we decide, but <i>how</i> should we decide?

We have all arrived at some answer to that question, whether we’ve given it any thought or not, and to that extent, we have all done some philosophy. To know where people look for answers to their questions, and how they justify believing those answers, is to know something about their philosophy. I don’t mean that I will disagree with someone who denies having a philosophy. Whatever they have may well be different enough in degree to be different in kind from a system of ideas coherent enough and developed enough to be usefully called a philosophy. I do not wish to emulate the error of those who argue that everyone has a religion. But just as a person without religion may do religious things, so may a person with no philosophy do philosophical things.

Let us take another look at some of those definitions. Every person has a system of beliefs about reality. Everyone attempts to understand the world. Everyone tries to understand one's life and one's place in the universe. Everyone thinks occasionally about the fundamental nature of the world, or about the grounds for human knowledge, and the evaluation of human conduct. Not everyone thinks about them carefully, as philosophers are supposed to, but these things are among the definitive issues of philosophical thought, and they are of universal interest. Concerning these issues and many others, to practice philosophy seriously is to ask not just what we should believe about any of them but why we should believe it, and to consider the why at least as important as the what. For that reason, I have come to perceive philosophy as the study of thought, the attempt to figure out how we should do our thinking. To put it another way, it is the study of the proper exercise of our cognitive abilities.

That perception came to me only a little while ago, as I was transitioning from late middle age to old age. For most of my life, I was among those who regarded philosophy as a silly waste of time. Then, after getting my first Internet account, I began exploring cyberspace and found myself spending a lot of time defending my various opinions about life, the universe, and everything, and two things soon became obvious. One was that I’d been doing philosophy all my life without realizing it. The other was that I had a lot to learn about how to do it right. I had just begun some undirected self-study of the subject when chance favored me with an opportunity to return to college and get some formal instruction.

It was sometimes challenging. There was a minimum course load for me to qualify for certain financial assistance, but I also had to keep my full-time job. I already had one college degree, and another wasn’t going to come with any material benefits. By the end of almost every quarter, I was doubting the wisdom of persevering. On one of those occasions I told one of my professors about my feelings. She told me she had had them herself in graduate school, and she could have given me the boilerplate “It’ll be worth it, trust me” speech. Instead she suggested: “Try asking yourself what are the odds that if you do drop out, the day will come when you’ll wish you hadn’t.” I did, and it worked.

By the time I finished, I had high hopes of moving on to graduate school, but various circumstances conspired to make that unfeasible. Fortunately, what I had learned was enough, when combined with the lessons from having lived a checkered life, make me feel like a competent philosopher. I was under no illusions that I’d become an expert, but I was OK with mere competence. As best I could judge, I now knew how philosophy was supposed to be done, and I could do it that way. And it seemed to be the way I’d been doing it all along, for the most part. What I learned gave me no reason to significantly modify any idea that I’d come to regard as fundamental to my worldview, with the possible exception of my attitude toward other worldviews. I had already felt pretty tolerant when I began my studies, but it was a condescending sort of tolerance. I came to understand, in a deep way that I probably could not have otherwise achieved, how people no less intellectually competent than myself could reasonably disagree with me about nearly anything. There was something almost paradoxical about this. My own worldview was reinforced, if anything, when I learned how it could withstand the challenges brought against it by some of the best minds of the modern age. At the same time, it became clearer to me how and why those best minds could regard those challenges as so persuasive.

Throughout its history, much of philosophy has been about the quest for certainty, the attempt to identify and characterize certain beliefs about which we can say, “These cannot be untrue. We can believe them without possibility of error.” I came to believe that this quest was futile. This does not mean, as some would have us think, that we cannot know anything. If knowledge must be infallible, then yes, it’s true that we cannot know anything, at least not anything useful. But we can have knowledge without infallibility. We just need to be careful how we respond to those who disagree with us about what we know. More on that in future essays.

Site home.

Philosophy index.