Photo by Janeb13 (from Pixabay)
In a previous post called Writing Exercises: A Book that Changed My Life, I talked about how Sophie’s World started my love for Philosophy. Now, let me begin by saying that I am by no means an expert on the subject matter. In fact, when we were studying the subject in college, I was a rather mediocre student. As was the case with Math and Physics, my love affair with Philosophy was very one-sided. But it’s a love of mine that’s endured the years, and one that I’m keen on nurturing and strengthening—occasionally through short courses but mostly through reading and listening to lectures and podcasts.
Now, over the years, I’ve noticed that Philosophy has a bit of a reputation problem. As a conversation topic, unless you’re surrounded by other enthusiasts, it’s bound to be a pretty quick stopper. People may nod or hmm politely, but it’s not very likely that you’d get any follow-up questions. Some people may even find the very word itself to be a bit of an internal ugh or eyeroll trigger. According to some friends, it’s just because philosophy is one of those things that are hard to get into. Some people find the subject inaccessible, boring, or even useless. Others have confessed to just finding people who talk about it really smug and annoying. And yes, the word pretentious did come up frequently and forcefully.
And honestly, I get it. I really do. People like what they like and are entitled to their opinions. I also see how philosophy isn’t exactly the most relatable or accessible, outwardly practical or interesting subject out there. In fact, a lot of philosophical texts are loaded with highfalutin words and stubbornly abstract concepts. I also get that some philosophy fans do come across as pretentious, arrogant, argumentative, and snooty know-it-alls. And hey, maybe some of them really are all those things and more. But what I’m really more interested in and concerned with are the harsh generalizations about the subject and its students that I’ve heard about or seen, (mostly online).
I think a lot of these misconceptions and generalizations stem from a misunderstanding of what philosophy is and what it’s used for. But before we get into the definition of philosophy and an enumeration of its uses, (things I’ll tackle in a separate post), I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on some of the criticisms levied against philosophy and its students. Just my two cents, really.
- Not everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or intellectually arrogant. To say that everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or an intellectual snob is a pretty heavy generalization. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m sure there are some philosophy students who think they are smarter than the average joe or jane, but that’s not an always and everybody case. In fact, some of the most low-key, quiet, and humble people I’ve met happen to be philosophy professors or graduates. Pretentiousness and intellectual snobbery occur in every possible realm of study where conflicting opinions could arise—which is basically everywhere and regarding everything these days. I believe that being pretentious or having a superiority complex is more of a personality thing than a byproduct of studying or loving a specific subject.
- Philosophy is only as boring as every other subject you can think of. The word boring is incredibly subjective. What’s boring to one person is another person’s passion. Philosophy isn’t and doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea.
- Many philosophy books feel inaccessible with their highfalutin words and hard-to-understand concepts. But there’s a solution to that problem. I don’t know about other philosophy fans, but I find original texts (translated into English) hard to grasp at times. To make it easier to study a particular branch of philosophy, I usually take short online courses, read Introduction to Philosophy books, and listen to various lectures just to get a better grasp of what a particular philosopher is teaching. I also think that some texts are designed to be hard reads with circuitous verse or logic, (Plato, anyone?), because the writer wants you to really pause and digest what you’re reading. It’s healthy brain exercise.
- Yes, some philosophers and their students may seem bullheaded or argumentative at times, but the end goal isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to be proven right. A philosopher’s quest is always to get to the truth of a particular belief or statement. This is where the Socratic Method comes in. As you can tell from its name, the Socratic Method refers to the teaching technique used by Socrates. Unlike most of today’s instructors, Socrates didn’t teach via key points and definitions. Instead, he taught by asking a lot, and I mean a lot of questions. It was his way of seeking truth. Naturally, this method annoyed a lot of powerful people during Socrates’ time, which eventually and unfortunately earned the philosopher his death sentence. Philosophers are truth-seekers, and sometimes this means pitting their beliefs against the beliefs of others as a way to check the strength and verity of their assumptions. Sincere philosophers will welcome being proven wrong if it means bringing them closer to the truth.
- We are all philosophers, sort of. Okay, so maybe very few of us have published books or articles on philosophy, and even fewer have earned MAs and PHDs in the field. But if you closely examine the foundations of many of our beliefs and principles, a lot of them are rooted, (at least partially), in some ancient philosophical movement. For example, in his book How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci points out the similarities between an Epictetus quote (Stoicism) and The Serenity Prayer. The Epictetus quote partially reads, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” Now, consider the start of The Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” See the similarities? This belief that we ought to recognize and focus our efforts on the areas that we can control is also one that transcends religion. It’s a nugget of wisdom that secularists also try to practice.
- Philosophy has a lot of practical everyday uses. Though it may not be as obviously practical as studying medicine or law, or any other empirical subject out here, Philosophy is NOT a useless endeavor. In fact, here’s a bit of trivia: Philosophy is the mother of all sciences. Modern science, as we know it, along with the study of logic (mathematics) and even language arose partially from the efforts of the ancient philosophers. So, that alone shows the importance of the subject. But what about its everyday uses? Well, from experience, studying the different branches of philosophy has made me more openminded and emphatic. I find that the more I study philosophy, the less inclined I am to make snap judgments about things and people. The discipline has also improved my critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills by pushing me to think logically and outside the box. And lastly and most importantly, it has inspired me to always try to do good by others. All fine things in my book.