, , ,

(“I want to hear your bodying forth talk?” If you understood that joke you are both old and over-educated.)

So, I see another popular article suggesting that an education in philosophy is not the worst thing a person might do to themselves. I actually agree with the argument, but as presented by US NEWS in the above link, a few notes ought to be added from some one who went all the way down the rabbit hole.

Let us begin with the title of the article: “Learn Philosophy.” I understand what the author was aiming to say, but this title is in reality a bit misleading. If one were to “learn philosophy,” one would master the history of the subject, not the subject itself. Now, learning this particular history (as opposed, say, to learning the history of Japanese literature) is a perfectly reasonable goal. But it is not really the goal that the author is advocating in her article.

Rather the point the article is arguing for is not to “learn philosophy,” but to learn how to philosophize. (Or, if you prefer, to learn how to think philosophically.) It is rather harder than you might suppose, not because the tools are difficult to master (although some do require no small measure of work to achieve reasonable facility), nor because the texts are so obtuse (although many of them certainly are that). No the reason this is so difficult is because learning how to think at all – much less think philosophically, with its commitment to analytical rigor and synoptic completeness – is so antithetical to the political agendas of the ideologically driven segments of our society that it will never be widely accepted, much less encouraged.

This is something of a pity, obviously. It would be a pleasant change of pace to live in a country where policy was determined by intelligence and inquiry rather than dogma. Having said as much, I should also mention some working definitions that might clarify how all these things are related.

  • INTELLIGENCE: The broadly ranging multi-modal capacity for, and interest in, variegated forms of inquiry and experience.
  • PHILOSOPHY: The critical and incisive development of intelligence in its widest context.
  • TEACHING PHILOSOPHY: The creation, development and encouragement of the habit of intelligently engaging the world.

These definitions range in a rather different direction than we might habitually suppose, but I believe they give a more appropriate, if only thumbnail, sketch of the relevant concepts and their connections. The definition of “intelligence” here frames things as a matter of inquiry in a broad and inclusive sense, thus distinguishing it from mind tricks, idiot savants, and people who are simply clever at taking tests. The connections with both the doing and teaching of philosophy are then easily set out, again distinguishing them from mere pedantic sport and rote schooling. Finally, it ought go without saying – but sadly, given contemporary assumptions, it most emphatically must be said – that thinking philosophically is not just and only about logic and principles, it is also very much about evidence and facts. While the concrete aspects of the world can sometimes be a little distant in philosophical inquiry, it is always present. And in the case of applied ethics (to which the article above gave special emphasis) these concrete factors are immediately at hand.The article also discusses some vocational values of philosophy – and no, I do not mean help wanted ads for an in-house metaphysician in a Fortune 500 corporation. Rather, the article lists such skill sets as, “critical thinking, logic, and analytical writing,” which are highly “portable” tools in a fluid job market, and are among the principle instruments learned and employed in philosophy. And such analytical tools are not reserved for the upper reaches of Higher Education. Teaching philosophy to secondary and even primary school students is an eminently doable process. As noted in the article:

“To see 10th graders think this deeply just floors me,” says Valerie Gallina, grant specialist in Florida’s Pinellas County Character Partnership. “It shows our youth are thinking globally.”

But, alas, therein lies the rub. Not to name names, but it is not difficult to imagine both individuals and groups who would object in the strongest terms possible to having their children taught to think with “ analytical rigor and synoptic completeness,” or to develop, “critical and incisive intelligence in its widest context.” Such things do not encourage the dogmatic and unwavering acceptance of religious and political ideology. The type of persons and groups that conform to what Robert Altemeyer characterizes as “authoritarian” do not appreciate philosophical thinking anywhere in their presence.

I would note here, as an aside (and, note, this IS an aside) that thinking philosophically is not an automatic or even prevalent road to atheism. Many atheists are appallingly unphilosophical in their thinking, while many philosophers (and I mean real ones, not just and only academics – the two classes overlap, but do not exhaust one another) are deeply religious. Thinking philosophically tends to undermine the acceptance of orthodoxy, not the presence or absence of religious experience. At some point in the future I will throw out some thoughts on the “G” word, but not today.

Lastly, one of the interviewees in the above article excitedly declares that, “there are wrong answers but no right answers …” This is probably a bit too extreme, even in the context in which it was offered. Obviously there will be some situations in which there really are right answers – in arithmetic, for example, the answer to “what is 2 + 2?” remains just and only “4.” And even within the open-ended horizons (one can scarcely speak of sharply defined “boundaries”) of philosophy, while there may not be “right” answers, there will be better answers, even amongst those that are clearly not in the category of “wrong” answers. These will be the answers that are more effectively supported by good arguments; which is to say, that are supported by logic, principles, evidence and facts.

The reason such answers are not strictly “right” is because, unlike the above “4,” they are not final. Philosophical questions, existing as they do at the horizon of intelligence in its widest context, do not admit of final answers, only of provisional steps in the process of inquiry itself. Thus, insofar as the “answers” are better, it is because they lead us to ask better questions.