Saturday, May 6, 2017

The conservative who liked philosophy

It's a funny thing about philosophy majors - none of them knew they wanted to major in it when they were kids. The reason is actually quite simple: With a few possible exceptions somewhere, none of them even knew what philosophy was when they were growing up. Even after graduating, many are hard-pressed to give you a good definition; because philosophers themselves argue about it until they're blue in the face (and I exaggerate only slightly). As kids, their confusion about it must be even greater.

Elementary and secondary schools don't really teach philosophy, and so the critical first class usually doesn't come until college. Perhaps K-12 students aren't ready to take a class in it, or perhaps the school system just isn't able to teach it competently; but for whatever reason, virtually no one enters college knowing they want to study philosophy. Some have even been counseled against it by parents worried about their children "falling away from the faith" - which does really happen sometimes, but whose extent is (perhaps unintentionally) exaggerated by philosophy's critics, some of whom have been raised with a profound fear of opposing ideas. (An unfortunate thing, even when those opposing ideas are as bad as those spouted by mainstream philosophy professors - mainstream by philosophy's standards, at any rate.) I may be old-fashioned, but I think bad ideas should be confronted and not hidden from - retreat sends a bad message to the uncommitted middle.


I wasn't a philosophy major, but I considered being one at one point, without knowing hardly anything about what philosophy is. I'd heard mention of Socrates in high school history, and mention of certain political philosophers in both high school history and civics; but it wasn't enough to whet my appetite to learn more about philosophy later on. Ironically, my first consideration when deciding whether to take my first philosophy class was more practical - I'd heard from my dad (a rare fan of the subject) that a philosophy major was good for pre-law students, and I was thinking about going into law school at that time. Thus, I planned to take a philosophy class shortly after entering college, to see what this mysterious subject was all about. It just so happened that it changed my life in the process.

The intro to philosophy class was taught by a good Catholic man, who had no desire to attack faith in Christ. (He had plenty of desire to attack my particular religious persuasion; but no desire to destroy faith in God.) He was a liberal nutball; and looking back on it, he may be the most flaming liberal professor I've ever had (and I've had several) - a real wacko, even by the standards of the ivory tower. Nonetheless, he was a good professor, as he helped to expose me to the long and rich history of human philosophy.

The first day of class contained an interesting discussion of what philosophy is, and it seems that it means different things to different people. A good definition of philosophy might be best introduced by what this subject used to be; which is every subject in the curriculum, literally - it didn't split apart into separate disciplines (like biology, economics and psychology) until much later, as it was all considered "philosophy." (This is actually reflected in the full name of today's "Ph.D.", which is "Doctor of Philosophy" - Philosophiae Doctor, which is the Latin version.) As anyone who's ever gone to high school knows, there are plenty of separate disciplines to be found in any school - at least beyond the elementary level - and so philosophy today covers only those things that didn't branch off into separate disciplines - things like logic, ethics, and the theory of knowledge. These things are foundational to other disciplines, but are not typically studied at a general or abstract level outside of philosophy classes.

My own strongest interests were found in the area of political philosophy, which comes closer to the definition that most people have in mind when using the word "philosophy." ("Don't tax another man's beer, man - that's my philosophy!") I have done extensive reading on political philosophy since my first philosophy class, but the subject of philosophy is much broader than the massive lists of "shoulds" and "oughts" that we all have, which describe what we think human behavior (at least our own) ought to be. The subject of philosophy is also about logic and reliable evidence, which is foundational to disputes in everything from politics to science - a part of the reason why philosophy is considered such good preparation for law school. Lawyers need to know logic, and be able to express it verbally - something that philosophy gives you a surprising amount of practice with. (It's not the only discipline that teaches these things, of course - many others do as well - but the broad and generalized level that it teaches logic at is something not found in any other discipline - at least not in any that I know of.)

When I took a logic class at ASU, I discovered what a difficult and rigorous subject it can be. I am convinced that most people have at least some intuitive understanding of logic (at a basic level, at least); but the study of it at a formal level is actually quite intense, and I ended the class with a "B" in logic - lower than I'd wanted, but actually higher than the other three classes I took that semester. It wasn't my favorite class, but it was an eye-opening one, and I have often been glad that I took it. (Ironically, at the time, I considered it just an elective class that was helpful for law school; but when I transferred to the business school at NAU, it ended up fulfilling one of the business school's requirements - a critical thinking requirement, to be specific - making me glad that I took this class. (Critical thinking is valued in many fields outside of philosophy, including practical ones like business.)

After transferring to NAU, I took an ethics class which was taught by a specialist in political philosophy, which fulfilled the business school's ethics requirement. (I suppose that many business schools worry about their school's reputation for ethics among its graduates, and so they try to instill some morals in them through requirements like these, which may or may not actually fulfill their intended purpose.) Like many others in the ivory tower, the professor was a flaming liberal; although he showed more propensity to be logical than my Philosophy 101 professor, and was more realistic about the practical problems of politics - at least when they are defined as knowing what propositions are likely to actually be accepted, and which are not. Whatever the flaws in his own politics, he was an interesting teacher, and I learned much about both ethics and political philosophy from his class - especially how to argue against the kind of ideas he put forward, a benefit of philosophy classes sometimes ignored by fellow conservatives, which would be useful in winning the public debate with liberals, and restoring some common sense to the country.

In fairness to the Philosophy 101 professor I've knocked, though, he did say one important thing about communicating philosophy to the masses; which is that philosophy needs to be something that is actually read by people outside the small world of academic philosophy. This is not to say that it needs to be dumbed down, but that it needs to be more widely known than it is. Despite the streak of elitism running through some of his comments (including, perhaps, this one), I actually agree with him that there need to be more people learning philosophy than there are, and that it should not be something limited only to philosophy majors. (I was not a philosophy major, for example, but a business major - who graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration - and yet that hasn't stopped me from reading philosophy in my spare time.) Much of it is good stuff, and the educational system doesn't do it justice, as it has enough difficulty teaching teenagers to read without teaching them how to think at the same time.

This is not to say that I think everyone should read philosophy - I will be the first to say it's not for everyone, and that it's not the most practical discipline in terms of economic security. But at the very least, there should not be contempt for it on the massive scale that there is; and reading it should be something that is respected, considered admirable and worth doing (at least for the tiny group that actually enjoys it), and something that has made major contributions to the world we live in. We take for granted many of the things that philosophy has given us, for both good and bad and for everything in between; and we don't always see how some of these ideas are traceable to individual people in philosophy's long history. But every time we engage in logic (or think about right and wrong), we are doing real-life philosophy; and if we're going to spend so much time doing it, it would seem to our advantage to at least do it well, rather than badly. Philosophy may actually be able to help us with this, nutballs and wackos notwithstanding; and it will help us to get in touch with our forgotten heritage of great ideas, which we so need in the modern world.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Why I like political philosophy

Why I want to read philosophy in other languages

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