When I tell people I’m in school for philosophy, they usually respond with one of two extremes: admiration or ambivalence. Either they give me an impressed look, a shake of the head, and an awed comment like “I could never do that”; or they give me a pair of raised eyebrows, a polite nod, and a swift transition to another topic.
Many people, it seems, assume philosophers are impractical (“What are you planning on doing with that degree?”) or else ridiculously intelligent (“Kierkegaard is impossible to read!”).
Throughout my studies in philosophy, I’ve realized that—to an extent—these assumptions are true. There’s a danger in getting too caught up in the workings of the mind, and there’s a unique challenge in exploring abstract questions. However, this doesn’t mean philosophy is not helpful. Rather, the abstract reasoning involved in philosophy can help us live better lives.
Obviously not everyone can study philosophy as a degree, but we can, and should, all study it by reading on the topic and learning from the field’s finest. Here’s why.
1. Philosophy Provides Strong Role Models
When I first read Crito, the short work depicting Socrates only a few days before his execution, I was stunned. In only a few thousand words, Plato showcases Socrates’ tenacious intellect, forgiving demeanor, and remarkable calmness in the face of death. Even when offered a sly escape from his impending execution, Socrates declines, saying that such an act would undermine governmental power and thus harm his fellow citizens.
In the increasing moral corruption of contemporary society, we all need good role models. And, while we can certainly look to honorable men and women of the current era, the wisdom and examples of older generations are invaluable.
Throughout my study in philosophy, I have read from honorable and committed thinkers. Socrates comes most readily to mind. But other worthy examples include Thomas Aquinas, who wrote Summa Theologica, a remarkable treatise applying Aristotle’s philosophy to the teaching of the Church of Rome; Roger Scruton, who thought seriously about aesthetics amid a culture that seemed to ignore it; and Jonathan Edwards, who adamantly refused to divorce his thinking from his living.
Certainly, many men and women who have populated earlier generations of thought are worthy of being studied, honored, and remembered. Philosophy enables us to do so.
2. Philosophy Expands Our Ability for Complex Thought
Philosophy often provides a unique mental exercise. It requires us to closely follow an argument, understand the logical connections between ideas, and hold a number of propositions steadily in our minds. Doing each of these can grow our ability to think well. Metaphorically, at least, our brains are muscles: They get stronger as we exercise them.
And, of course, the ability to think well is useful in many areas of society: choosing whom to vote for, working through religious beliefs, or discerning the pros and cons of sending our kids to a public school. Even when philosophy doesn’t seem to offer immediate or practical fruits, studying it can encourage the skills necessary for other parts of life. Philosophy strengthens our minds, and it helps us to think critically.
3. Philosophy Gives Us Categories to View the World With
Some ideas require labels to be understood. For instance, a child may not know the difference between a plum and a nectarine if they’ve never heard it clearly explained. Often, not having a word for a thing or a set of words to distinguish between things of the same kind means not understanding the thing itself.
In philosophy, we encounter categories (like the words plum and nectarine) that help us recognize distinctions in our world. This is important because two things can appear similar yet prove dangerously different.
For example, imagine we have both a plum and a nectarine in our kitchen pantry. Imagine, too, that the plum is still ripe, but the nectarine is beginning to rot inside. Certainly, we’d want to ensure our children knew the difference before we told them to go grab a plum as a snack.
In the same way, philosophy can help us distinguish between ostensibly similar things, giving us categories with which to wisely and safely navigate our world. For example, Aristotle’s view of ethics has influenced my thinking on what kind of virtue I want to foster in my life.
We ought to reclaim this ancient and time-tested discipline, using it to educate our children, strengthen our morals, and deepen our intellectual lives.
Image credit: Flickr-Slices of Light, CC BY-NC-ND 2.01 comment