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Why don’t we like philosophy?

| Thursday, November 18, 2021

The University of Notre Dame, with its requirements for students to study philosophy and theology, is the exception rather than the rule for top universities. And yet, it is not uncommon to hear philosophy and theology derided as subjects unworthy of study: The argument is often that they are not useful and therefore are a waste of time. The irony of such an argument is that it entails a certain philosophical position about what is worth pursuing in life. However, I would argue that it is a mistake to think that one can find all the answers on their own. Indeed, at least some minimal understanding of philosophy is necessary to living a good life because one cannot know what a good life even is without understanding philosophy.

Philosophy means the “love of wisdom,” but as an activity it is the inquiry into the nature of the universe and human existence. I get the feeling that the perception most people have of philosophy is that it involves asking complicated questions about obscure topics. I think that this view is a symptom of how people encounter philosophy. Often, they will hear about specific thought experiments or a single philosopher’s theory, but will not have the background knowledge necessary to understand the context of what they are hearing. Philosophy has never been an activity performed in isolation; rather, it has always been a dialogue with the past. Philosophers are responding to the problems of their time period and the ideas of those that came before them. Because the average person does not possess very much knowledge of the history of philosophy — why would they? — being introduced to philosophical concepts and theories in isolation can make them appear overly complicated. Of course, learning about the history of philosophy is not an easy task itself, yet I believe only a general knowledge is needed to contextualize different thinkers.

One other reason for why people today might not have much of an interest in philosophy comes from 19th-century French aristocrat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville. During Tocqueville’s tour of the United States in the early 19th century, he noticed that “in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.” Tocqueville reasons that the relative social equality enjoyed in the United States weakens the bonds between generations and within social classes, such that individuals turn to their own reason rather than any philosophic tradition to make sense of the world. While I’m not sure if his reasons for thinking so are right or wrong, I believe that Tocqueville is essentially correct that people today primarily rely on their own reason to answer complicated questions about life. Now, I do think that it’s a good thing to try to make one’s own mind up rather than simply deferring to some authority, but I believe that we could all benefit from hearing what some of the greatest thinkers throughout history have had to say on the important questions of life.

The most important questions, like “Does my life have a purpose?”, “How should I treat others?” and “Is there a god?” are questions that one cannot avoid having an answer to. Not answering is still an answer. But having a good answer to these kinds of questions is very important, because it affects how one ought to live their life. If life has an objective purpose, then knowing and understanding that purpose has significant implications for how we ought to live our lives. To simply take these questions up in the solitude of our own mind would be to do ourselves a great disservice, when others have been thinking about these questions for thousands of years. Especially when some people have spent their whole lives thinking about these questions, it would be foolish to not at least hear what they have to say. Because it helps answer these important questions, the study of philosophy is exactly what many seem to think it isn’t: useful. Certainly, one cannot get a job just because they have a solid understanding of Aristotle’s proof of ethics, but one can live a better life by understanding Aristotle (as hard as he is to read). Just because philosophy cannot make you money does not mean that it doesn’t have value. You could spend your whole life making massive amounts of money, but it would all be meaningless if you one day woke up and realized that you wanted something else from life. Philosophy, even if it doesn’t always have clear answers, gives us the tools and arguments to evaluate our own lives to hopefully avoid such a realization.

In the study of philosophy, I believe that the best place to start is near the beginning. Philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Whitehead is able to make this characterization because Plato, writing in ancient Greece, was one of the first people to write on just about every general philosophical topic one can think of. He wrote about the soul, justice, love, the creation of the universe and more. But most importantly, in my opinion, he did not write dense treatises, but wrote dialogues between his former teacher, Socrates, and a variety of other Greek men. These dialogues did not always give satisfying answers, but they asked important questions. I know that not everyone has the time to undertake a study of the history of philosophy, but I think that everyone could benefit from reading even just a little bit of Plato.

David Henry is a sophomore majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies with a supplementary major in ACMS and a minor in philosophy, politics and economics. Originally from Minnesota, David lives in Baumer Hall on campus. He can be reached at [email protected] over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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