• Fred Guerin

Why Philosophize?

“If we ought to philosophize we ought to philosophize, and if we ought not to philosophize we ought to philosophize; in either case, therefore, we ought to philosophize. For if philosophy exists we ought certainly to philosophize, because philosophy exists; and if it does not exist, even so we ought to examine why it does not exist, and in examining this we shall be philosophizing, because examination is what makes philosophy.” [Aristotle, Protrepticus]

Human beings appear to be compelled by the search for meaning. We try to understand what happens around us in a meaningful and purposive way. Why? Is it because, at bottom, our experience tells us that the cosmos is simply indifferent to human yearnings and suffering? Is this why we ‘philosophize’? Is philosophy, in some sense, an expression of faith or hope? But faith or hope in what?

Could it be faith or hope in the fact that our philosophical beliefs and convictions matter to us even in the face of radical uncertainty and an indifferent, amoral cosmos? Could philosophy be just a kind of obstinate refusal to allow apathy, radical uncertainty, ignorance, indifference, meaninglessness or nihilism to wholly define us? Can the wisdom of the sage, the spiritual mentor or the philosophy teacher help us here? Can the latter really guide us beyond the threshold that separates everyday opinions and individual perspectives from the domain of critical thought? Is there a difference between opinion and justified belief?

It seems often that conversation is not about listening and responding to what is said, but waiting until someone is finished talking so you can ‘have your say’. Can philosophy help us to get beyond this—can it help us understand better, or does it just multiply the questions we ask?

We are notoriously curious beings. Despite all we know and have learned about the world—what the sciences and art disclose to us, we still wonder about things: why there is something rather than nothing, whether there is a God, what is good, what is evil, what is just. Is that why philosophy continues to attract us?

The word philosophy derives from the Greek words ‘Philia’ (love) and ‘Sophia (Wisdom)’: ‘love of wisdom’. However, ‘love’ as ‘philia’ is more closely akin to what we might describe as ‘friendship’. Friendship is not a passive state of mind but rather an active sharing with others. We care about and want our friends to do well for their sake and not because they are somehow useful to us. In a similar way, as philosopher’s we are ‘friends of wisdom’ in the sense that we love philosophy for its own sake—not because it solves our personal problems, resolves the great mystery of existence or makes us powerful and rich. In fact, the study of philosophy can be quite disruptive and unsettling—it can take our comforting and consoling opinions and convictions and turn them on their head!

As an academic discipline or subject taught in a university setting, philosophy is typically oriented by four basic questions: 1. ‘What ‘exists’ or what is the nature of existing things’? (Metaphysics); 2. ‘What can we know about the world and ourselves’? (Epistemology); 2. ‘How ought we to act or live’? (Ethics); ‘What are the fundamental principles of thinking and reasoning’? (Logic)

Philosophy has also been described as ‘thinking about thinking’ and ‘critical thinking’. To think critically is not to disapprove of or condemn some idea or person. Rather, it is about developing a capacity to ‘stop and think’ by distancing ourselves from dogmatic suppositions, cliché’s, conventional ideas or categories, and the many half-truths and personal opinions that shape and define a great deal of what we see and hear.

Finally, in a rather less abstract more practical and intimate way, philosophy can be understood as way of ‘being’ or living thoughtfully in everything one does. This involves conversation and dialogue with others, taking up great works of literature and philosophy, listening attentively to what others say and constructing sound and valid arguments. But most crucially it requires that we reflect and consider, in an ongoing way, what it means to live a thoughtful and ‘good’ life with and among others.

To be a philosopher in this sense you do not need to earn a PhD. What is required is time, solitude, patience, humility and courage—and of course love of wisdom and a desire to be more than you presently are!

'Doing' philosophy is not simply learning a bunch of facts or being familiar with symbolic logic and argument. Mathematicians look for proofs, but they don’t much question mathematics itself; scientists construct elaborate experiments to test their theories but they almost never ask what a fact is; historians evaluate the veracity of their historical interpretations against written and oral testimony, but they do not typically ask what interpretation or history is. What distinguishes the role of criticism in philosophy is precisely that in philosophy there is nothing that may not be challenged—including philosophy itself.

Aside from these critical aspects of philosophy there are also what one might call ‘existential concerns’ that go to the heart of what sort of life we should live. This is a matter of evaluation and judgment. Learning how to critically evaluate our own ideas and those of others; learning how to judge well in this or that situation, elaborating a more coherent picture of things or just learning to tell a better more inclusive or comprehensive story about ‘who are where’, ‘where we have been’ and ‘where we are going’ are all ways of philosophizing.

Rhetoric, metaphor, parable, myth, story-telling are all access points to philosophical thinking. So too is literature of all kinds--including my own favourite, science fiction! These imagined access points allow us to situate ourselves in a world of different possibilities and relationships, to compare and contrast different worlds and perspectives. Narratives gives us a more inclusive picture of things. They situate us in a world, and often bring to light new possibilities that broaden our own beliefs, opinions and convictions.

Good philosophical stories learn from the past, situate us in the present and guide us into a different future. If you want to argue against a perspective, refute a theory or persuade someone of something you don’t merely cite facts or employ deductive and inductive argument—you tell them a better story—a story that not only hangs together in a reasonable way and honours the facts on the ground, but a story they in some sense already know or are familiar with because it rings true in their own experience.

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